Christians Divided!

We all have people we disagree with - even in church! How can we get along? As usual, Jesus has a few suggestions.

Full Text: 

Matthew 7:1-12

            Dr. Arden Mahlberg is a psychologist and active Lutheran in Madison .  He works with a number of clergy and sends out a regular e-mail newsletter, called, “Psyche & Spirit.”  Each newsletter deals with three or four issues regarding self-care or congregational life.

            The first article in the issue that came out on Tuesday in “Psyche & Spirit” was entitled, “Christians Divided on Care for the Poor.”  He said that this could be one of the many headlines in the local newspaper.  Madison is Ground Zero in the fight over budget cuts and, in the protests at the capitol, you can read religiously based messages.  On the one hand, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do also to me.”  On the other hand, “The poor will always be with you.”  So, Christians are divided on our obligation to the poor.

            Arden said that when he googled, “Christians United,” he found a long list of organizations either united in favor of something or united in opposition to something.  But when he googled, “Christians Divided,” he did not find any organizations at all.  He even doubts that if he organized a group called, “Christians Divided on Care for the Poor,” he would get any takers.

            But the fact is, I think, that there already is such a group.  It’s called, “The Church.”  We are divided about many things.  We are divided about issues of poverty and politics.  We are divided about issues of sexuality and abortion.  We are divided about issues of theology, of course, and, when that happens, we tend to divide literally into separate congregations if not separate denominations.  But the fact remains that even within individual congregations, while there are many things we united about, there are things we are divided about.

            There are times when a united witness from the church would be best.  But in these polarized times, perhaps the best witness the church can make is how we can disagree together.  Can we truly be a united organization called, “Christians Divided?”

            As usual, Jesus is very helpful on this topic.  He knew division was going to happen.  It was probably already happening with his disciples.  So, Jesus gave us teachings about how to deal with each other when we disagree.  One place where we have such teaching is in the first 12 verses of Matthew 7. 

            Mostly when we hear this verses – “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged…Do not throw your pearls before swine…Ask, and you will receive…Do to others as you would have them do to you” – they are applied to a variety of situations and circumstances.  We have tended to understand them completely apart from one another.

            But Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, says that these various statements are really on the same topic – “The Community of Prayerful Love.”

            The first six verses of this chapter have to do with how we are not to talk to each other.  First of all, do not condemn.  Do not treat one another with contempt.  Contempt always arises from anger and self-righteousness and has a way of distancing ourselves from those we are condemning.  And it rarely results in any change in the listener.

            The condemnation itself, Willard goes on, is a board in the eye.  Even before we say anything, our own anger or our own self-righteousness blinds us, not only to our own sin, but also to the proper way to approach others.  Set aside your anger, Jesus is saying, and approach one another without contempt or condemnation.

            “Do not judge so that you may not be judged.”

            Secondly, don’t tell people what they are unable to hear.  Usually, the teaching, “Do not throw your pearls before swine,” is read as, “If you’re not enlightened enough to receive my wisdom, then that’s your problem.”  In fact, Willard says, Jesus is telling us just the opposite.  “If you don’t understand what I’m saying, then it’s my problem.”  That certainly applies to Sunday morning.  If you can’t make head or tail out of my sermons, then that’s my problem, not yours.  I have to figure out a way to speak differently or not speak at all.

            It’s not only sermons where this might happen.  There are many well-intentioned people, myself included, who offer advice to people when it is not helpful at all because it cannot be heard.  When SyIvia is telling me about something – a situation or a problem – and I give her advice or even simply start to brainstorm, she is not ready to hear it.  She may just want me to listen.  And I have a friend with daughters about the same age as my sons.  He told me once, “I have learned not to answer questions that aren’t asked.”  Is this bit of wisdom what they need to hear or is it only what I need to say?

            Again, the effect of such offering such “pearls” is to distance our selves from others.  And, like condemnation, it is an attempt to manage other people, to control other people, rather than to encounter them in an open way.

            “Do not cast your pearls before swine.’

            So – if we can’t judge and we can’t advise, what are we supposed to do?  How do we talk to one another?  How do we talk to people with whom we disagree?

            We ask.  We seek.  We knock.

            We come without demand.  We come without a desire to manage the situation or control the person.  We come with our own need, yes, but we also come in openness and vulnerability.

            Dallas Willard writes, “When I ask someone to do or to be or to give something, I stand with that person in the domain of constraint without force or necessitation.  We are together.  A request by its very nature unites.  A demand, by contrast, immediately separates.  It is this particular ‘atmosphere’ of togetherness that characterizes the kingdom and is, indeed, what human beings were created to thrive in.”  (The DivineConspiracy, p. 233)

            This is how we are to relate to one another.  This is how we are to relate to God.  We should not deal with God in any way other than the way we deal with other people, Willard says.  And we should not deal with other people in any other way than we deal with God. 

Ask.  Seek.  Knock.

It is not only at the capitol that things can get polarized.  It is not only in the church that things can get polarized.  It is at home that things can get polarized.

Marriage researcher John M. Gottman says that one of the ways he can tell that relationships are in trouble are when he sees what he calls, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.  And of these, he says, Contempt is the most harmful.  Contempt “is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust.”  (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, p. 29)  When contempt enters the arena, it is no longer about the issue.  It is no longer about restoring the relationship.  It is no longer about winning the argument.  It is about wanting to devalue, to demean, to hurt the other person.  And when that happens, nobody wins.

The antidote to contempt, according to Gottman, is admiration.  Think about what you value in your partner.  Think about what you appreciate in your partner.  Remind yourself of those things.  More importantly, express your appreciation to your partner.

I appreciate it when you bring me coffee in the morning.  I appreciate it when you come home on time after work.  I appreciate it that I feel loved and cared for in this relationship. 

This is in line with a marriage counseling exercise I learned in seminary.  Name three things that you appreciate about your partner.  Name three things that you need from your partner.

I need you to be more patient with the mess that I make.  I need you to tell me about your day.  I need you to leave me alone when I first get home so I can decompress.

Ask.  Seek.  Knock.  Jesus says.  Without judgment and without lecture.  Treat others as you would have them treat you.

Whether it is your partner or your teenager; whether it is your co-worker or your neighbor; whether it is another person or God, ask, seek and knock.  And, no matter who it is or what you are asking for, base your asking always on your confidence in God, because God, more than anyone else in the universe, knows how to give good gifts.