Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
onflict in any community is exhausting. Conflict in the church is even worse, there is something soul-crushing about it; in addition to the stress and anxiety caused by the conflict itself, there is a profound sense that this is not how Christ meant for us to be. Over the years, in every church I’ve served in, I’ve met with people fleeing from other, conflict-filled, congregations as they seek a new church home, and in as many different words, they’ve expressed the same thought. Sometimes they say that they are looking for a community where they feel like they are going to church again. Other times they say that they just want to feel refreshed and recharged on Sunday mornings. And still other times, they express shame or disgust with their former communities, that they could be so consumed with fighting. Through it all, the underlying thought is the same: Christ did not found the church to have it become filled with fighting, disharmony, and conflict.
When we speak of church conflict, we think of it as the arguments over tight budgets, as discord with the clergy or staff, or as bullying by one or two individuals. When this sort of conflict happens, there is an immediacy and intensity to it. It feels all-consuming to those who are involved. But the truth is that this sort of community fighting is minor in comparison to the scale and scope of the major conflicts in the Church, conflicts that reverberate across centuries and leave lasting impacts on the Church of Christ.
For example, we are coming up on the 500th anniversary of one such conflict that began when a certain monk attacked a church door with a hammer and some radical ideas, thus beginning the Protestant Reformation. But Martin Luther’s controversy would not be the last conflict the church faced, nor was it the first. Five hundred years before Luther, in the year 1054, the Church was rocked by the schism the separated the Roman Catholic Church of the west with the Orthodox Churches of the east. This was the culmination of a conflict that had begun some five hundred years before that, in the late 6th century, when certain Latin-speaking churches took the liberty of inserting “and from the Son” into the Nicene Creed, which we will recite together in just a little bit. At the time, the eastern churches viewed this insertion as a violation of the agreements that had been forged by the church leaders in the late 4th century at the Second Council of Nicaea. Of course, the Nicene Creed itself was originally written as a final ruling on the doctrine of the faith and a direct rebuke of the Arian Controversy of the early 4th century. And only a few centuries before that, a certain Jew from a quiet corner of the empire caused a great deal of controversy and was hung upon a cross for his troubles.
My friends, as much as we wish it were not so, conflict has been a part of the church since the very beginning, and not just small squabbles between strong-willed individuals. Blood has been shed in the major fights and controversies of the church. For much of our history, theology was not an erudite pastime for philosophers and clergy with too much time on their hands. For much of our history, theology had life and death consequences.
But Jesus knew that this would happen. When he looked at his disciples, when he looked at the seeds of the church he was planting, he was not wearing rose colored glasses. In our reading this morning, Jesus offers this fledgling community some very practical instructions for dealing with fights and conflicts, which he knew would arise. But basic conflict resolution techniques are not all that Jesus offers. He continues with a cryptic promise, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
To bind and to loose, it is a phrase we heard Jesus say in our readings last week too. But what does it mean? While many scholars have written extensively on these words, what it boils down to is that Jesus gives to the disciples, the first community, the authority to set the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable. Like sewing a garment, when you bind up the stitching in one area and cut loose the stitching in another, you end up giving shape and definition to the whole. When all other attempts to resolve conflict fail, the church has the authority to define the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, of who remains within the fold of the community and who is cast out.
I tell you this because this is not some abstract authority, it is practiced even to this day. Just the other week, we were witness to a rather public attempt to wield this authority when a group of prominent evangelical leaders emerged from a fancy conference center and issued the so-called Nashville Statement. Funded by the Center for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, whose name alone should tell you all you need to know, the Nashville Statement confronted head-on the issues of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, transgender individuals, and even worked in a gentle nod towards traditional gender roles.
Faced with the reality of the Church’s shift from the center of society toward the fringe, from a place of prominence toward a place of irrelevancy in the eyes of many, and confronted by a society with rapidly evolving diversity and multiculturalism, the authors of the Nashville Statement tried to set a course to return the church to something familiar. They attempted to use the authority of binding and loosing to redefine the boundaries of the church so that they could return to a place and time more comfortable and less frightening.
The trouble is, with Jesus, nothing is ever straightforward. He gives the church the authority to bind and to loose, but it is a dangerous and subversive authority. “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” Jesus promises, “And If the offenders refuse to listen even to the church, if you are unable to settle your differences or agree on your teachings, let them be to you as the Gentiles and a tax collectors.”
The Gentiles and the tax collectors. They were despised and untrusted by the community of Jesus’ day. If ever there were a boundary in the community, the Gentiles and the tax collectors were clearly on the wrong side of it. They had been thoroughly cut loose and cast out of the fabric of society. And when we consider the whole of the Gospel narrative, when we consider the life and teachings of Jesus, with whom did he have the nasty and unwanted habit of socializing, teaching, and breaking bread?
Yes, Jesus gives us the authority to bind and to loose. And Jesus subverts that very power, because he is consistently, reliably, always-always-always to be found with those who are unwanted and unloved by the world, with those who are downtrodden and abused by society, and with those whom others have deemed unclean and unworthy. Yes, we have the authority to set the boundaries of community, and when we do, we will always find that we are alone, that Christ is not with us, for no boundary we set can contain Christ.
That is why, in the wake of the Nashville Statement, several of us in Connecticut, myself included, worked together to write a response, which we call the Connecticut Statement. In it we have created a counterpoint to the Nashville Statement, one that offers an expansive theology from the ground up, a theology big enough to include all people, regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. And we did it primarily because we know that Christ is always to be found with the downtrodden and the excluded, and if the church wishes to remain with Christ, then we must be in the places Christ is in, and with the people Christ is with.
Because one of the marks of our broken humanity is that when we are afraid, when we are challenged by things we do not yet understand, when what is familiar is threatened, our temptation is to bind our community together ever tighter, to set the boundaries ever closer, and to cut loose those who were already on the edge, and to cast out into the outer darkness those who are the least among us.
But Jesus’ subversive promise calls us to something different. In the face of the unknown, the challenging, and the frightening, Christ calls us to loosen the boundaries of the community and to bind ourselves to the very people whom Christ has bound himself. We are called to wrap our fates up with and bind ourselves to gays and lesbians, to transgender individuals, to people with different colors of skin, people of different ethnicities, worldview, and politics. We are called to bind ourselves to people who are radically different from us, people we don’t necessarily understand, people who may make us feel a little bit uncomfortable, and people who maybe cause us to question some of our assumptions about the world. We must bind ourselves to these people because in doing so, we are binding ourselves to Christ.
It will not be easy, for conflict and differences never are. It will stretch us and make us uncomfortable. And when we do, we will step forward and step out beyond the old boundaries of community, confident that we are with Christ and Christ is with us.
Preached by Adam Yates