It seems like church infighting is inevitable. Just last week I watched a very public argument take place between two sides who are very much Christian. Neither side was denying the faith of the other, but they (one side more so) went for the jugular. It was all over an issue that the world would only scratch its head at. It gave credence to the adage, ‘Christians are the only army who shoot their wounded.’
It may be that Christians have found themselves so much on the defensive in our culture that they cannot help themselves when a conflict erupts in the church. In my former diocese, outside clergy would take a church in my diocese, and would be so used to being in the minority (theologically speaking) and defensive, that they couldn’t help but be the same way in their new setting—even when they found themselves among friends and allies!
Even so, there is a right sort of conflict to engage in within the church. When one ‘teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Timothy 6:3), we are to ‘flee’ (6:11), but are also to ‘fight the good fight of the faith’ (6:12). I have been asking myself lately, ‘What does this look like?’
I read recently a wonderful letter John Newton [right] wrote to another Church of England cleric over the latter’s contemplating a public debate in print with another clergyman. Newton had wise words for this right-thinking, but possibly wrong-acting young priest.
Newton challenged him to think on whether his opponent was a Christian or not, but also on what the public might think. Surprisingly, the clergyman backed down in light of Newton’s letter.
If, Newton reasoned, the man was unconverted, then he could not see the situation for what it was. He had eyes, but could not see because he still carried the scales upon his eyes that fall away when called to faith in Jesus Christ. If this is so, the argument would be in vain and would only serve to frustrate. Further, it might prove a stumbling block to the unbelieving opponent.
If the cleric were a Christian, even then, the argument would only serve as a function of the Law, antagonize the man, and motivate him to ratchet up his ‘different doctrine.’ And so, even the stumbling Christian needs to be approached with compassion while holding up the truth of Jesus Christ.
What St. Paul and Newton are getting at is the idea of a new heart. A heart that is full of compassion, not anger and resentment, toward those who are spiritually blind. May even our church fights reflect the love of Jesus to this fallen and broken world.