My last post talked about the role of division in our lives, how tension and conflict serve to remind us that we are not perfect, not always right, and not God. This is an important scriptural lesson that, unfortunately, churches have almost universally failed to grasp.
Churches tend to judge themselves by two metrics: how many people worship on a Sunday morning and how much money they take in. Some churches step beyond that, talking about mission towards their neighbors.
Division is viewed as the enemy of all these goals. Division drives people away, along with their donations. Conflict impedes cooperative ministry. Churches have been in the business of quelling division. “Make no waves” has become the mantra of the supposedly-successful church.
Is that a proper definition for “success” though?
One of the assertions I made in the last post was that without conflict, nothing changes. This is great for the people in power, but what about the people not being served—some of them even being harmed—by the status quo? Setting “no division” as the goal equates to silencing the voices of all the people our ministries miss or damage. It sets up the church as the Voice of God and everyone else as powerless. This is the opposite of scripture. Doing it in God’s name only makes it more ironic.
“Make no waves” assumes that the church exists primarily for itself and that it’s already perfect as-is. Neither of these things are true. A church isn’t supposed to prioritize its own existence over and against the lives of its neighbors. Nor can church communities claim perfection any more than the individuals within them can. Doing so is the same as saying they no longer need salvation or transformation through Jesus Christ. Why does the church even meet, then?
I, personally, have witnessed a disturbing trend towards dampening down and covering up division in the church over the last decade. Some things are “OK” to talk about: safe things that everyone will agree on, or at least consider not important enough to make a fuss over. Other issues we ignore, because we know in the back of our minds that we risk division if we bring them up.
It's time to ask whether the church is fulfilling its mission simply by existing. If we assume our own existence as the center of all things and the gifts we give to the world as by-products, we have already failed.
We stamp out the division because we fear it threatens our continued existence, Doing so, we silence the voice of others, thus becoming less relevant to the world around us and God’s transformative work in it. If we continue down this path, we will dwindle and die, just as we feared we would if we let division happen.
Trying to preserve the self doesn’t actually save the self; it leads to the same death, while rendering life meaningless in the meantime.
If the church is to matter, let alone endure, it has to give up its obsession with “no waves, no division” and the need for control that comes with it. The church needs to live for something besides itself, bestowing blessings on people outside itself. That means crediting the value of other voices, which means allowing them to have power, which means embracing change and division.
The church will not be able to decide whether embracing division instead of running from it leads to life or death. It is not ours to order times and outcomes. We do know that failing to do so will inevitably lead to death, and life without meaning in the meantime. Given the choice, it’s better to die having lived for something beyond the self than die having lived for nothing but a meaningless, powerless version of the self.
Death is not inevitable, though! Living beyond the self, there’s still a chance for life in that Other for which you live. It won’t be the same life you’re comfortable with, but it might be an even better one.
May the church, and all its people, learn to live in that new life, experiencing and enduring the division necessary to shake us out of the old one that just wasn’t working, even for us.