Abba Agatho used to say: “If one is able to revive the dead, but is not willing to be reconciled to his neighbor – it is better to leave the dead in the grave.”
Paul said about the same thing as Abba Agatho in 1 Corinthians 13, but Christians generally domesticated Paul’s lines into something we’d find in a fortune cookie. So let’s stick with Agatho.
Hopefully, what he said will stick with us. Because the thing that kills churches most effectively is the unwillingness of Christians to reconcile. They run into a problem and cut people off. They go to great lengths to avoid people they resent or fear. They act like things are OK when people know they aren’t and so force others into pretense. Fear and pretense at the expense of love kill churches. We should stop agreeing to disagree, and start agreeing to agree. We should have our potentially church-killing conflicts, but use them to learn to reconcile.
It seems to me that Christians, in general, have regularly decided to follow the command of Jesus/Paul/Agatho by just avoiding conflict, altogether. As a result, we either explode from pent up frustration or implode from deception: we would never explode! I think many of us were relieved when the ethic of “tolerance” took over the moral vacuum left by our unreconciling churches so we could at least feel like we could be as “nice” as everyone else by avoiding conflict, or making it illegal!
I have been talking to several of our leaders lately (and we have 50-plus cell leaders, along with everyone else in our leader-intensive system, so it is easy to find one). Some of them are having a tough time with the thought that they might start a conflict — and leading can often seem like it is perpetually on the verge of starting a conflict. Even when a leader is merely saying, “I would like us to go in the way we have all decided we want to go,” it could seem like starting a fight. Just providing encouragement in the name of the whole, since that might appear to be at the expense of an individual, could feel so much like prospective conflict, that a new leader won’t do it. They are quite afraid (and possibly legitimately so) that someone will say, “Who died and made you the queen?’ or “So now you work for the man!” or “I’m just nor feeling that anymore,” or who knows what else?
What are we supposed to do when we feel conflict is coming? We feel these fears when we relate with parents, co-workers and neighbors, too, not just fellow-followers.
We need to live by faith.
The key work of faith is following the example of God in the person of Jesus, who does whatever it takes to be reconciled with a clueless, broken-down creation. Jesus did not explode all over people and coerce them and he did not dismiss them by pretending they weren’t in conflict with him. He called them to a new way to relate to God and others and then demonstrated just how one does that. He told the truth, acted in love and then kept acting.
Conflict is not merely about the conflict. It is about faith. Having good conflict may take converting someone so they have the wherewithal to have a decent relationship that includes coming to mutual agreement about living together in love. If you can raise the dead, it is not more powerfully Christian than being reconciled.
For those of us willing to follow Jesus as completely as reconciliation requires, we may need to start with our own faith. We should avoid starting with the lack of faith we note in others. It is rather easy to point out the deficits of others: “They not only can’t fight well, they can’t reconcile!” We need to watch ourselves watching others who do not reconcile and watch ourselves looking down on them for messing up our beautiful church. That’s not where Jesus started. Don’t judge; convert.
We can nurture agreement
Do you want the church to live? Nurture agreement among us so we will be ready to reconcile with God and others before we get into our inevitable fights. Have that conflict. Don’t wait to be offended by what someone does or does to you, or wait to be offended by how incompletely they are reconciling with others. Proactively work toward a culture of reconciliation. Get a positive agreement about forming an environment where reconciliation is the gold standard – an environment in which not being reconciled is not OK. That culture is something worth fighting about.
Someone told me the other day that they actually experienced, in their own church, the cliché church-split over the color of the carpet! Before that happens in our own backyard, let’s everyone note the horrible possibility it could happen here. Then let’s help everyone avoid perpetrating some, similar soul-numbing, church-killing behavior. It would be good for someone to quote us after we’re dead like they quoted Abba Agatho: “They used to say, ‘If one is able to revive the dead, but is not willing to be reconciled to her neighbor – it is better to leave the dead in the grave.’”
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