Today many churches will be remembering Nelson Mandela in their prayers. He was a remarkable man with an immense legacy. Inspired by a belief that all human beings are children of God, Nelson Mandela had an unceasing will for justice and human dignity. He fought many battles, in several different roles, in pursuit of this aim. The struggle for justice involved conflict and yet it is probably as a reconciler that Mandela will be most remembered – when he tried to build a united nation after the fall of the apartheid regime.
Today’s reading from Romans is part of a couple of chapters on conflict. How do Christians resolve disagreements? I’ve heard that the Quakers, will only accept a decision when everyone is happy with it. If that’s true, I’m intrigued as to how that works in practice – I suspect it can take a long time before anything happens!
Romans 15 verse 5 tells us we should live in harmony. Does this make disagreement impossible? I know one church which thought so. They were a chapel where the congregation chose their own pastor. Interviewees came and preached a sermon. The church met in secret and everyone voted on who they thought would be best. But there was tremendous pressure to get a unanimous vote. The feeling was that if everyone agreed, then it would really prove that the decision was God’s will! I don’t think life, even in the church, works like that.
We are all different, and have varying views and experiences. Sometimes those perspectives will clash, and conflict results. But conflict is not a dirty word. It needn’t be hostile or even a bad thing: a conflict of views can result in finding a new way through a problem. Being open about issues is healing. Conflict, well handled, is creative.
On the other hand, sin can make it worse: pride, a refusal to listen and underlying issues can all inflame a conflict so that it turns into an argument. Sometimes issues of justice mean that an issue must be addressed – to fail to do so would not be peaceful. It all depends on how we handle it – not burying disagreements, but genuinely listening.
Sometimes you have to recognise that agreement is impossible. If the issue is really important, then you may have to go separate ways. Verses 5 and 6 say that Christian unity is based around Jesus. ‘May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For instance, the Nicene creed is the result of a big argument in the fourth century. There was a huge discussion over the nature of Christ – how Jesus could be both God and man. Some bishops said one thing, others another. Eventually they drew up the Creed – and everyone who in conscience could sign it remained in the Catholic church, and those who couldn’t went off and did their own thing. On beliefs that are essential, the basics of the faith or principles of fairness and protection of the vulnerable, agreement may not be possible. As in apartheid South Africa, one hopes that the right will eventually triumph and those who were at war can be reconciled.
Sometimes diversity is a good thing. I find it striking that St Paul writes about living in harmony and with one voice glorifying God. In English harmony has a double meaning, it means a constructive kind of peace but also refers to music. The parts in a choral setting sound very different but they combine into one voice which, done well, often sounds better than singing in unison. Variety in styles, variety in personality, variety in minor things, such as the type of songs we sing, can help us to appreciate new angles on Christian truth. Paul was writing to a rainbow multi-racial church who welcomed both Jews and Gentiles – they saw that welcome to all could be part of their strength.
Perhaps an issue is debated and agreement is not possible. If the issue isn’t hugely important, why make life complicated? You can agree to differ. A husband and wife might agree to differ on politics – or all sorts of issues that don’t really effect how you live together. The Apostle Paul told his Roman congregation in Chapter 14 v5: ‘One man observes special religious days, another treats all days alike. Each should be convinced in his own mind’. In other words: Agree to differ.
That way you don’t have to argue over unimportant things, you keep respect and tolerance. But there are limits to this: it can also be a refusal to engage with someone: ‘I don’t care what you do, I’ll do it my own way.’ ‘I’d rather be untroubled in my own views than listen to what you have to say’. And when the issue needs people to work together, you have to find a way forward. You can’t just stay stalled.
You have to negotiate an agreement. One key principle is to sort it out face to face. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus says ‘if another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault’. In person. It’s so important to keep speaking. I’ve learnt that letters and e-mails often don’t help. It’s easy to write something that you would never say face to face. And even if you try your hardest to be sensitive, the written word is readily misunderstood, and you don’t have the chance to explain what you really meant. When it comes to potential conflict, letters and e-mails are written in haste, and repented of at leisure. Far better to go round, see the person and calmly talk it through.
When we do that, we should remember that the person we’ve fallen out with is human too. They are made in the image of God, they also have frailties, weaknesses and blind spots. There may be a good reason, or a horrible experience that makes them react the way they do. Try and treat them with love. And of course – they might actually be right!
In v.7. Paul writes: ‘Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you’. It’s so important, if there are ever disagreements in the church, that we remember Christians of all shades are members of the same family, we have a basic identity in Christ. Sometimes sadly people write off their opponents and doubt their commitment to the faith. I’m hugely encouraged by the recent steps on women Bishops because it really seems that the different wings in the CofE are willing to recognize one another as fellow Christians. They’re willing to produce a workable solution even if they don’t agree on the principle
Remembering the centrality of Christ will also help us seek God’s glory and not our own. Once a missionary society split in two. There were minor theological differences between the factions, but they were just Trojan horses for the real issue, that people were building their own empires, putting themselves first. Seeking God, loving one another and looking outwards are the powerful antidotes.
And then there is the secret ingredient. Active love for others. It’s no coincidence that Paul talks about unity before moving on to writing about sharing the gospel with the whole Gentile world. Unity is a great witness, especially when combined with active, sacrificial love that seeks the best for its fellow human. This is the love that is prepared to put aside its own desires for the sake of someone else.
Even if what we want is right and good, sometimes it is better to give it up than to wound someone by insisting on our rights. I’m dreading the possibility that my daughters will become teenage vegetarians. Could I give up roast dinners if the girls insist meat is murder? I’m not sure. Yet Paul says in v14 of the previous chapter: ‘it is not good to eat meat or drink wine or do anything if it makes your brother or sister stumble.
It doesn’t just apply to food. It could be alcohol, forms of religious services – recognizing that what we value as an aid to worship may not be the most helpful thing for others. Being sensitive might include the clothes we wear on holiday in a traditional country, saying words that someone might see as swearing. It doesn’t mean that a Christian should always give way: far from it, he or she should act in love for the best. But sometimes love may mean putting ourselves second. What we do should be done in a spirit of love and charity, trying to put others first, to seek their well-being, even at cost to ourselves.
In that way, conflict can be transformed for the Kingdom of God, that love and peace may reign. As Paul says: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope in the power of the Holy Spirit.’