When We Butt Heads in the Pews


My central thesis in preaching and teaching on Matthew is that one of the author’s major concerns in writing the gospel was teaching his readers how the community of faith was supposed to live together.

Being part of the faith community is a non-negotiable for Jesus. As I have said in the pulpit recently, there are no Lone Ranger Christians. You can’t follow Jesus all by yourself; the path of discipleship wasn’t designed to be a solitary road.

Sometimes we wish we could walk it by ourselves, because it’s not always easy to be part of a community. We might discover we are called to follow Jesus alongside people whom we may not particularly like. Or we may protest we are too “different.” Or we might say, “I’m not comfortable around people like that.” We might not like the way another member of the community prays or sings; we may disagree with their politics, or find their wardrobe distasteful.

But that’s all beside the point in the faith community, or “church,” if you like. When God calls us to follow , there is always a group of disciples ready to accompany us on our journey of faith. And these disciples are just as flawed and imperfect as you and I are. We learn on the road together. That’s the beauty and the struggle of church.

Fortunately, the Gospel of Matthew also gives us some great advice on how to navigate the conflict which will ultimately confront any church. In the eighteenth chapter, Jesus gives us a three-step process and one guiding principle by which disciples are supposed to handle conflict.

The three-step process goes like this:

1) “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister.” (Matthew 18:15)

This step is the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard, and as a pastor, it is the primary way I advise all staff and laypeople to act towards each other: if someone has wronged you, then you are supposed to go to that person directly and speak to them about it. Not to a third party, nor to Facebook, nor to anyone else.

This is also the least-followed piece of advice I have ever given. It’s difficult to confront people with whom you are in conflict. I know that because it’s hard for me, too. However, it’s the best way to address conflict, and it prevents things from circulating on the rumor mill or gossip circuit. Most conflict in the church would immediately cease if this practice were followed as a general rule by everyone.

However, Jesus recognized that this tactic wouldn’t always work …

2) “But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.” (Matthew 18:16)

If the situation escalates, Jesus recommends that you take one or two friends with you to confront the person with whom you feud. The presence of others keeps everyone honest, and can de-escalate tension.

But if that doesn’t work …

3) “But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)

This step sounds extreme; in fact, it sounds as if it can be used as justification for kicking someone out of a church. But is that a bad thing?

Let me suggest some moderating thoughts about this passage:

First, I believe that this is an extreme step to be taken only when and if someone’s behavior is harming someone else. We can all think of situations in which a church member’s actions could be so destructive that we would have to take drastic measures to keep them from hurting people in the congregation.

However, this process ensures that there would be no arbitrary and punitive measure taken against anyone. If there is a problem, the offender is confronted privately first; if he or she doesn’t respond to mend the problem, only then is the matter widened to a larger group of people.

And third, scholars have argued that treating people like Gentiles and tax collectors isn’t as bad as it sounds. After all, we know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors — he ate and drank with them! He treated them as people worthy of his time and attention!

Finally, there is one overriding general principle that Jesus preaches about community life — forgiveness. Just after teaching this process of conflict resolution, Peter asked Jesus, “But what if the same person keeps sinning against me? How many times do I have to put up with it? How many times do I have to forgive — as many as seven times?”

We all know how Jesus answered: “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Forgiveness is the heart of church life. This is the only thing that will hold us together in the end. For we will offend each other, we will sin against each other, and we will say harmful things and do hurtful things. That's just the way humans do each other.

But as the redeemed disciples of Jesus, we have a remedy for reconciliation — the ability to say, “I forgive you.”

Let’s learn to say that a little more frequently.

We All Need New Reading Glasses


I don’t have a particularly good history concerning my eyesight.

I have always been terribly near-sighted. I started wearing glasses in third grade. It was a traumatic experience to walk into the classroom for the first time. I wouldn’t call it “bullying,” but I was called “four-eyes” more times than I cared to hear. It wasn’t helpful that my parents didn’t give me a style choice — I was stuck with black, horn-rimmed glasses all the way through high school graduation.

In college, I finally upgraded to contact lenses, which helped my dating life considerably.

When Lasik surgery came around, Leah jumped on the bandwagon, but I was hesitant. I simply didn’t like the idea of having my eyeballs sliced and diced. So I waited.

Then on a fateful trip to Vietnam in 2010, I found myself on a bus en route to the Mekong Delta. I closed my eyes momentarily and leaned against the window when we hit a huge pothole. My head slammed backward against the seat.

Later that night, I noticed that there appeared to be a growing black hole on the left side of my vision field. When I arrived back in Dallas a few days later, Leah drove me directly to an eye specialist who confirmed that my retina had been detached by the impact. I went immediately into surgery.

Though the reattachment was successful, I have never had perfect eyesight in the left eye since. I have lost quite a bit of my peripheral vision, and hard edges appear wavy, as if I have plastic wrap stretched over my eye.

And more recently, I’ve started to wear reading glasses on a regular basis, which I’m sure you have noticed.

So I understand that, in order to see things clearly, to view reality correctly, your eye must be clear and unhindered, free from distortion. Unfortunately, I will never be able to see things perfectly clearly — I will always see things through a retina that imperfectly stretches across my line of sight, and I increasingly see things through glasses, which are frequently smeared and dirty. At best, I am like the Apostle Paul, who said, “I see things now as through a glass darkly.”

That is also true about the way I read the Bible. I recognize that I do not read Scripture from a completely objective and value-free point of view. Nobody does. All of us come to the Bible and read it with our own wavy retinas, scratched glasses, and imperfect understandings.

This is not an excuse NOT to read it. No, even read poorly, the Bible is still an instrument God uses to touch hearts and move souls.

But this is the only way we can read the Bible. It’s impossible to read it any way except from the perspective of who you are, in the light of your own experience. There is no way to read anything at all without projecting something into the text. This is what we do when we read novels and poems and newspapers, and it's true when we read Scripture, too. It’s the way all people read.

However, this reality should make it clear that we ought to read the Bible from different perspectives as often as possible, to pick up reading glasses from other viewpoints. We should not rely only on our own understanding when it comes to Scripture but should try a variety of contexts, languages, and cultures.

For example, I’m a straight white male who studied the Bible in a Western, male-dominated institution. I ought to recognize that I have some blind spots when it comes to Scripture. What is it like to read the Bible as a woman, as a gay man, as a black woman, as a pygmy in the African rain forest? What do Palestinian Christians hear when they read about the Promised Land? What do Chinese Christians hear when they read Revelation?

As we begin the study of the Gospel of Matthew on Sunday, Sept. 9 in Sunday School, I am starting a twin class on Matthew on Wednesday nights called “Reading Matthew Through New Eyes.” Each week, I will lead the class in reading a passage from Matthew with the help of feminists, Latin American peasants, gay men, county inmates, and others. You’ll be surprised at how your eyes will be opened to new insights and revelations from Scripture.

However, that’s also the goal of the other Wednesday night classes. Mike Smith will be leading a study that uses visual imagery and symbolism to address theological and Biblical issues. Alison Garza is leading a class on Job: A Story of Unlikely Joy, by Lisa Harper, a female Bible teacher. The point is to try on some different perspectives on the Bible and on our faith.

Try putting on some different glasses to read Scripture this fall — what you see might change you!

Lessons From the World's Worst Missionary

Jonah 2.jpg

    As I pointed out in the sermon on Sunday, the figure of Jonah is a caricature. He is a terrible prophet and a petulant little man. I consider him the worst missionary ever!
    That’s why he is such a helpful character to ponder as we consider how to do mission right. Starting next Wednesday night at 6:30 pm, I’ll be leading a class on missions, and attempt to lay out a full theology, strategy, and spirituality for the church as we improve the way we help and serve others.
    But first let’s see what we can learn from Jonah about how not to do missions:

  1. Jonah went alone. Missions is never a solo venture; it’s not meant for Lone Rangers. The first and most glaring problem with Jonah’s travels to Nineveh is that he didn’t take anybody with him. Therefore, there was nobody to support and encourage him, nobody to hold him accountable, nobody to talk common sense to him. When we attempt to do missions all by ourselves, no matter how noble or worthy, we are doomed to fail.
  2. Jonah didn’t learn the language. Did you notice that Jonah makes absolutely no preparation for his mission trip? He didn’t attempt to learn the language, the local culture, or anything else at all about the context to which he was traveling. I have a picture in my mind of Jonah walking through the middle of the city proclaiming, “In forty days, you will be overthrown!” in Hebrew, as people looked on with amusement since they couldn’t understand a word he was saying. The fact that the people and the king ended up being converted by this very brief sermon in a foreign language is a satirical jab at Jonah’s disinterest in actually communicating to the Ninevehites.
  3. Jonah didn’t befriend any Ninevehites. Again, the whole point of the story is that Jonah hated Nineveh. He didn’t want them to experience God’s shalom. That is most obvious by his absolute disregard of the people themselves. He didn’t take any steps to get to know them, understand them, or create friendships.
  4. Jonah viewed himself as superior to the Ninevehites. Obviously, Jonah thought his religion and culture better than Nineveh’s, and he saw himself as going to impose his worldview on that city. This is a subtle and malicious error that Christian missionaries have perpetuated throughout the centuries. Many of the 19th-century, so-called missionaries to Africa, for example, were nothing but Western colonizers, setting the stage for economic exploitation. But we make the same mistake when we view ourselves as superior to those whom we serve.
  5. Jonah was in a hurry. Note that he didn’t care to stick around the city very long. He did the absolute bare minimum of God’s command; he stuck to the letter of the law. Then he left and climbed the mountain to watch the destruction. He wanted immediate results to his missionary activity, and so often, the same is true of our own efforts. The truth about missions is that the most enduring, long-lasting, and best work is done over a long period of time. Short-term mission work is usually just that — short-term, and can be very damaging.

    Imagine how the Book of Jonah would have read if Jonah were a model character, an exemplary prophet. It would have been pretty boring! No big fish, no bean plant, no pouting prophet.
    Instead, we would read of a man who assembled a team of men and women who cared deeply about Nineveh’s history and culture, learned their language, listened to the people in the city, sipped coffee with them in their cafes, received hospitality from them, and lived with them for a long time. Perhaps eventually this team would get around to making suggestions, offering a hand, or building something. But this would only happen after a long period of listening, reflection, prayer, and study.
    Like I said, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting as the whale story. But it would make a lasting difference toward establishing God’s kingdom.