Monday, September 26, 2011

When Christians Disagree

TITLE: When Christians Disagree
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 26 Sep 2011

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord.” (Philippians 4:2)

Love is not an option. It is a command. This means that it is to be obeyed, followed through, and lived out continually. Always. Love is possible because of God. Yet, there is a problem. It is hard. For some, it is impossible. How do we demonstrate love for one another when Christians disagree? This week, I like to touch on harmonious living in a fragile world where a broken relationship is just one careless word away.

A) Euodia and Syntyche

These two women, Euodia and Syntyche are not relating to each other. They have a tiff. They are not on talking terms. Their disagreement, if allowed to fester, is a threat to the unity of the Body of Christ. In fact, they disagree with each other so much that Paul needs to write something about it in his epistle! Who are these two women? Paul does not give details, for that is not his purpose. Whatever it is, it must have been threatening the harmony of the community at that time. Both are co-labourers with Paul in the gospel. They are influential members of the Church at Philippi. If the conflict is not resolved, it is very likely to split the Church.

People by nature tend to believe that they are right and others are wrong. Prideful people will swing to the extreme that they are the only ones with all the right answers, possessing the right arguments and justifications. Anyone who is not on their side is against them. Sometimes, the most well-intentioned individual can make erroneous judgment on others as well as their own selves. Sadly, I have seen individuals instead of keeping the peace, spread rumours of how ‘bad’ the other party is. According to John Ortberg, there is a temptation of wanting to ‘commiserate’ with a third party.

I want to go to someone else, and say, ‘Let me tell you what’s going on here. I just want to lay it out objectively and get some feedback from a neutral third party. Don’t you share my concerns about this person, who is my brother in Christ and a deeply disturbed psychopath?’” (John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, Zondervan, 2003, p137)

Isn’t that familiar? I remember people telling me that they disagree on a matter of ‘principle.’ They tell me that they would rather not fight for their personal rights, for the sake of ‘loving’ the other brother or sister. I wonder in such cases, who they are actually fighting for. Are they fighting for their own personal principles or some distant theory of rightness? Are they really loving their own positions more than loving their brother or sister they disagree with? Have they committed a sin against their brother or sister by spreading untruths about them unfairly? Regardless of who is right or wrong, it appears that such 'principled' people are more 'pride-cipled.'

Spoken disagreements foster the spread of rumours. Unspoken disagreements fester the increase in hatred. Pride is that dangerous condition that replicates self after self after self. Harmonious living begins with recognizing the pride in us.

B) Pride is Filling Ourselves with Ourselves

Like it or not, for Christians, whenever there is a hot dispute, we are greatly tempted to try and garner support for our position. We gather yes-people to our side. We campaign for a majority vote. Some will do more. They spread rumours unwittingly on the basis of fighting for truth. They do whatever they can to make replicas of people after their own thoughts. They want supporters to feel how they feel, think what they think, and behave like them. Prideful people will raise the stakes that if you are not for them, you are against them. There is something about pride going against reason. The moment a person is filled with pride, reason goes out the window. Prideful people are so full of themselves that they refuse to listen to reason. It reminds me of this story.

A learned professor goes to a monastery to learn lessons regarding spirituality from a Master Monk. After  the pleasantries, both men sat down to chat. The Professor is sharp, asking questions after questions. After a while, the Master offers tea to his visitor. Not wanting to appear rude, the professor agrees to a cup of tea. After placing the cups, the Monk proceeds to pour tea for his visitor. As the tea fills the cup, the Monk continues until the tea overflows from the cup to the saucer. Before the tea starts to overflow to the table, the professor cries out: “Stop! Stop! The tea is overflowing.”

The Monk continues pouring, and after a while speaks: “If a vessel is full, it cannot take any more liquid. Likewise, you are so full of yourself, your opinions, and your rightness, how then can I teach you new things?”

Harmonious living does not mean putting ourselves down. It means learning to see ourselves honestly, and others fairly. It requires one to be open.

C) Pride Refuses to Listen to Reason

Sometimes, we are like that Professor by thinking that we know all the right stuff. Our mouths may say we are humble, but our hearts are more prideful than we want to believe. We say we have other people’s interest above ours. Yet, we are often guilty of elevating ourselves above others. We are also guilty to trying to put down other people by spreading untruths about them.

The Bible has good guidelines for conflict resolution. The oft-referred passage is in Matthew 18. The gospel writer begins chapter 18 by asking: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He then brings a child, and tells hearers that anyone who does not humble himself like a little child will not enter the kingdom of heaven. He then lists the consequences of stumbling a little child. He tells of the dangers and the remedies (Matt 18:8-9). He describes how the least is equally important to God (Matt 18:12-13). Then comes the famous 3-step conflict resolution passage in Matt 18:15-17.

D) 3-Step Conflict Resolution

Simply put, the first step is to speak with the offending person one on one. If it fails, escalate to the next step by bringing two or more witnesses to talk to that person. If it still fails, then bring it to the church. Here we see that amid the different steps of resolution, there is one common attribute. The offending person ‘refuses’ to listen every time.

Matt 18:16: “But if he does not listen to you. . . ”
Matt 18:17a: “If he refuses to listen to them . . . . “
Matt 18:17b: “. . . If he refuses to listen even to the church….”
Note the repeated behaviour of a refusal to listen or to reason. When it comes to the point that the offending person is no longer able to ‘reason,’ the grounds for excommunication are established. One of the marks of evil is the lack of listenability. In Exodus 7:14, Pharaoh’s heart is so bent on going against the LORD, that he ‘refuses’ to let Israel go. The prophet often talks of a stubborn and rebellious heart that simply ‘refuses’ to listen to God (Ezekiel 3:27).

For Euodia and Synthyche, the test is whether they too are willing to ‘listen’ to Paul’s reasoning. Are they going to refuse? Harmonious living requires one to be willing to listen, to acknowledge that one may not be as right as one thinks, and that others may not be as wrong as one assumes.

Harmonious living requires triple-listening: To others, to self, and to God.

E) Harmonious Living - LOVES

Paul goes straight to the core of the solution: ‘live in harmony in the Lord.’ Notice how he urges reconciliation ‘in the Lord.’ Too often, we tend to miss out on our commonness especially when we dispute about our differences. We are less willing than we say. We are less forgiving than we thought. Instead of speaking the truth in love, we often offer up a tooth for a tooth. We insist that we are absolutely right to the extent that others are dead wrong. Admit it. We are all creatures of pride. We see Matt 18:17-18 always as something OTHER people need more than us. We see our calling as making our views heard and that repentance is a calling that OTHERS need more than us.

Is this harmonious living? No. Harmonious living is reflected in Paul’s exhortation to BOTH Euodia and Synthyche to work together. Note how Paul uses the word ‘urge’ twice. The King James Version reads:

I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.” (Philippians 4:2, KJV)
Can’t Paul save ink by using the word ‘beseech’ once? The Greek word is “parakalo” which can be translated as to exhort, to urge, or to comfort. Paul is making a special effort to appeal to BOTH ladies. It reminds me that BOTH parties have to make an active effort to reconcile. Both have to reference themselves to be of the same mind ‘in the Lord.’ Both must not rest until things are patched up, renewed, and united in the Lord. Harmonious living means to look forward together in the same direction, to the same Lord, with the same attitude of love.

In summary, what should Christians do when they disagree? Let me consolidate the actions under LOVES.

Love: We need to remember that God Loves All of us. It is because God loves them, and gives his Son up for us, that we need to learn to give ourselves up for each other.

Open: Whether we are ‘Euodias’ or ‘Synthyches,’ we are to live in harmony by being open. We may have differences, opinions, or perspectives, but we have One Lord. Our faith hangs together not on the basis of agreement, but of faith in God.

Volunteer: If there is a disagreement, follow the Matthew 18 principle. Volunteer by taking initiative at reconciliation. Disciples living in harmony are disciples living with a listening ear. They will listen to alternative views, apart from their own. They will recognize authority. They will have kingdom of God as their focus.

Engage: Harmonious people will engage constructively. They will not spread rumours of other people. Neither will they fill themselves so much with self-pride that they become blind to others.

Spirit: Lest we forget, God’s Spirit always lead us toward unity. God’s Spirit does not split up the body of Christ. The purpose behind Paul’s exhortation to BOTH Euodia and Synthyche is unity in the Spirit.

Whenever you disagree, remember LOVES. Remember to live in harmony. Remember to love just as you are loved in Christ Jesus.

“Loved people… love people
Hurt people… hurt people
Loved people Must love Hurt people.”

Thought: Even if you disagree, you can at least try to understand the other person’s point of view.


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