During the years we lived nomadically, not only was a pandemic in full swing, but an election took place that caused the political landscape of the country to change dramatically. The ugly ripple effects of short-sighted legislation began to accumulate to the point that many families began to feel the places they once imagined raising their children had over time become unlivable. Families by the millions began to look for new places to live where they felt better about their children’s education, where employment did not feel at risk because of holding God-given moral standards, and where families could enjoy an outing without passing what need not ever be: tent cities that literally smell like an outhouse, filled with sometimes dangerous, often drug-addicted vagrants. On our travels we met many people who were exiting “the fertile plain”, as it were, to find more stable and supportive communities.
When we visited the Custer Road congregation a mysterious question was at play. Of all the people we knew who had exited the West Coast, why were a surprisingly high number of them worshiping in the same congregation in Plano, Texas? Mark counted over two-dozen. Who knows? All we knew is that we wanted to hug the necks of these people we’d loved for decades, and that we did, both before and after our Bible study there.
During our conversations, it was easy to see how much this group loved one another. The young mothers who had moved to the congregation say trying to get to the sign up quickly enough to take food to those who need it is almost competitive. There were ladies’ retreats that contributed to bonding the sisters together, group meetings, men's and ladies' monthly Bible studies, VBS, youth devotionals and this bright idea: Since they work on memorizing scripture together, they paired up little ones with senior members who would listen to them recite their memory verses and praise them for their efforts toward this worthy pursuit. What a brilliant way to build a bridge of love between generations. I was told by one young mom that the conversations after worship are so engaging that it’s hard to pull away, even when you planned to get the kids to bed early. I learned this firsthand when one elder’s wife stayed and talked to me extensively about her conversion story and all the ways the congregation has come up with the stay tight. By the time we parted ways, I felt like I could have spent two weeks with her and enjoyed every moment. One young sister said she really grew when a controversial topic came up and the elders took the time to not only answer her questions, but to sit and walk through the word of God with the few families who disagreed with a judgment call they had made, and in this way, for the most part, the conflict de-escalated and was resolved. This admirable quality surfaced again in the text we ended up studying during class from the sixth chapter of the Book of Acts. Here, within the Lord’s church, a complaint arises among Hellenistic Jews that their brethren who were native Hebrews were overlooking their Hellenistic widows during the daily serving of food. Church drama. Why does it feel at times that there’s not much worse? Perhaps it’s because of the unnecessary nature of church drama that makes it so unbearable and exhausting. Or maybe it’s the nagging feeling of knowing how God feels about discord. We sense that living in strife is not how it’s “supposed to be”.
The Bible class at Custer Road, on the evening of our visit, set out to learn all the practical things within this Biblical text they could about how this conflict was de-escalated:
“So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, [swift communication even over socially awkward situations: Indispensable!] “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. [Prioritizing the use of our talents and abilities to keep first things first: How wise!] Therefore, brethren, select from among you [Inclusive involvement in the solution: Important!] seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.[All service opportunities involving one on one contact with vulnerable populations should be filled with as highly qualified volunteers as possible!] But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” [The Twelve would also be very much working!]The statement found approval with the whole congregation; [A good idea is a good idea, and everyone here is humble enough to acknowledge the solution to be just that!]and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, [Good ideas are great, but only when coupled with God’s approval, so let’s remember to pray] they laid their hands on them.
[Note now what follows the swift de-escalation of church drama] The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” [peacemaking makes possible accomplishing The Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20 to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
The class also noted a few things that did not happen during this conflict in Acts 6. For example, rather than starting “The Hellestic Church of The Well Fed'', they found a solution that kept them united so they could accomplish more of what matters most. Also noteworthy is that they did not allow the problem to take everything over so that their mission to feed souls was not side-tracked in order to feed bodies. And finally, they didn’t found an unscriptural, unnecessary, expensive institution to handle it, but took care of their needs in a more personal, hands-on, efficient way. God established the church ultimately for His glory but also for the support and happiness of the children He loves. Christianity is most certainly a “one another” experience.
The church is intended by God to be a place where we can not only express our love for Him in the ways He has asked us to express that love. It is also intended by God to be a place to have a spiritual family --- family to celebrate with you during all your triumphs and joys in life, and to be there to support you during your darkest times. Not much builds love and loyalty better than service and sacrifice. As we interact with one another, we discover our talents and are provided with opportunities to use those talents to enrich not only our own lives, but also the lives of others. We also learn in the church family how to get along with all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of personalities, and to, like Jesus, sacrifice our own desires for the good of imperfect people. In short: Within our church relationships we learn to get over ourselves. It is God’s plan that during the course of being in relationship with one another, we grow spiritually all the qualities and virtues that give us a much happier life now and ultimately prepare us to spend an eternity with our Heavenly Father.
Colossians 3:14 instructs us to “put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.” Peace in our relationships is a result of putting on love, and love has the power to bind us together to live in harmony". Love is the secret sauce to peace.
Right before God says in His word to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”, He names four virtues that prevent conflict when He says “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Ephesians 4:2-3 Imagine the unity and resulting fruit that would be born if every congregation practiced merely those four virtues! God has all the answers, and the answer is always one virtue or another.
Philippians 2:1-5 also mentions several components that make for peace including love, fellowship, affection, compassion, then identifies a couple sinful attitudes that rob our relationships of peace. “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus”
What techniques have unified congregations found useful in preventing and resolving conflict?
Praying for peace in a relationship: In Romans 15:5 Paul prays that the believers in Rome “...be of the same mind with one another.” Certainly asking God to help us have harmony with someone we have a harder time getting along with is something quite prayer-worthy, especially given that such a request is always very much the will of God.
Intentionally create moments that knit hearts together in love (Colossians 2:2). The best time for this is when times are good, so that when rough seas surface, you will have built something that can withstand the tempest. Sitting in different places each week will obviously provide an opportunity before class starts to more naturally converse with a wider span of your local church family who need you. After the closing "Amen", lift your eyes and scan the room to find those you don’t know so that you can engage those who need you most in meaningful conversation. Move person to person from those you know less to those you know more. Invite visitors first, then others as well out to lunch or to your place for what’s in your crockpot.
Those who work toward knitting hearts together in love realize, socially speaking, that when it comes to hospitality “the ball is always always in their court” --- that it’s forever one’s own turn to initiate social engagement, without expecting paybacks. They realize preplanning the habit of hospitality is key, so they might, for example, choose one day each week to spend a few hours with one of the elderly or anyone else that might need some company. Some take lunch or breakfast or cookies or perhaps offer to help with a project, like a moving day, etc. Projects like this create memories that naturally bond us.
The beginning of a New Year can be the perfect time to get out the church directory and dedicate either one night per week, or every other week, or every month to having brethren over to really get to know them on a family level. Hospitality isn’t stressful when we realize it is not a performance where we’re silently graded for our skills. We can relax and just be ourselves. What matters is our focus on the lives of others, the genuineness of the conversations we have with our guests.
At larger social gatherings, those who work toward knitting hearts together"work the room", by walking around after each conversation has had closure to see what others are talking about and what they can add to their conversations. If you feel a little left out -try this: You see a circle of brethren talking. Walk up and stand a few feet away, smile warmly, and they will almost certainly invite you into the conversation.
Sisters set on knitting hearts together plan ladies monthly gatherings at a coffee shop to study the scriptures together or write encouragement cards! Moving your ladies or men’s classes from the church building to a relatively quiet public location raises the chances of meeting someone from the community interested in joining you. I’ve known others who’ve started a walking group. Hikes and walks always bring with them plenty of "get to know you" conversations, as do group camping trips and retreats.
Giving up "a right can sometimes be a beautiful way to obtain the greater blessing of peace and encouragement. (Like when Paul was willing to give up eating meat so that he could remain an encouragement to those Christians with weaker consciences in Romans 14). Giving up a right is very counter-culture right now, but the culture needs our example that it’s such a more beautiful way to live than to knock people out of the way to grab everything we think is due us.
Overlooking an offense in some cases may be the way to peace, after all, Proverbs 19:11 says “it is his glory to overlook an offense”. The sins we should be most disgusted by are our own sins, rather than the sins of others, including the sins of previous generations or those outside our circles. God has forgiven us, so we owe it to Him to forgive one another. One writer reminds us along these lines that: “God’s mercy to us is the motivation for showing mercy to others. Forgiveness is made easier when we remember we will never be asked to forgive someone else more than God has already forgiven us. Whenever we are hurt by someone, we have a choice to make: Will we use our energy and emotions for retaliation or for resolution? We can’t do both.” R.Warren.
Not Engaging when someone is looking for a fight is commendable. Instead of engaging, consider smiling confidently and saying something in your own words along the lines of “I couldn’t disagree more, but I’m unwilling to quarrel. If you want to hear my reasons later when emotions have had time to settle, I will reconsider sharing my thoughts with you.”
Compromising on things that are morally neutral: When a person gets exactly what they want too often, it’s not fair for the other people in their life, and it’s also not good for them either. Taking another's needs and desires into consideration and creatively meeting somewhere in the middle is often a lovely way to make peace. Remember the example in Acts 15 when Paul and Barnabas had such a sharp disagreement over whether Mark would continue traveling with them? They talked it out, but still couldn’t come to an agreement. The creative resolution that made for peace was that Paul simply took Silas instead of Mark to go save souls, while Barnabas and Mark teamed up to do the same at another location. What a great example that when we do not see eye to eye over something morally neutral, we can opt to peacefully part ways and still both do the right thing. Let’s use our creativity to find the best win-win compromise we can.
Not Gossipping: When ugly gossipy accusations start flying around, let's not be so quick to believe what is said. And when you are the one being gossipped about --- it’s important to calmly clarify, “that’s not true”, and even better, to prove such by our actions. Let’s live above the negativity and be virtuous enough that no one would believe the lies. In the meantime, God knows the truth and that’s all that really matters.
Not acting on negative feelings, but instead simply noticing our feelings and deciding more consciously and objectively whether or not we should or should not act on them is at the heart of James 1:19 when it says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
Giving people the benefit of the doubt: God says “love hopes all things” in 1 Corinthians 13, so “innocent until proven guilty” seems the best policy when we are not sure why someone has said something weird or kind of offensive or seems to be doing something out of character. The loving thing to do is to check in on them and ask if they are okay, and give them the benefit of the doubt until that conversation can happen.
Speaking up with a gentle tone and body language to an “offender” about what we know to be right, instead of brewing over something that is said or done that we know to be offensive to God, or something important that seems to be ongoing that is really concerning us, can make peace in our relationships if done humbly and with tact. After all, we’d certainly want to know if we were doing something fixable that was causing unnecessary distress to someone we love. That being said, the truth is that even if we make use of opportunities to build warm family relationships within the church, and do everything we can to skillfully prevent and resolve conflict, we still cannot control the choices of other people bent on causing division, and need not internalize blame for such even if blame is unjustly hurled our way.
Deciding not to be bothered by things that don’t matter that much: When someone in God’s family is annoying us, let’s ask ourselves, “Does this really matter in the grand scheme of things?” If not, let it go. Fix your eyes on Jesus instead of what annoys you. “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24)
Enjoying the fact that people are different from me: Remember in 1 Corinthians 12:18-21 when Christians were being rubbed the wrong way by the people who were different from them and were getting competitive about the spiritual gifts God had given them? In that chapter we are encouraged instead to acknowledge and embrace God’s wisdom in His making us different so we can get more kingdom work done. Accomplishing God’s glory takes every type of talent and every type of person including: The researcher types, the creative idea types, the logistics types, the problem solvers, and so on. So instead of being rubbed the wrong way by people so very different from us, let’s instead thank heaven for the people who are willing and able to do what we cannot do in the church and even outside the church.
Remember life is short: Let’s ask ourselves: What would I say or do differently if I’d just been told I have only a very short amount of time left. Because, the truth is, you and I are quite mortal and have only a relatively short amount of life on earth yet to live, so we’d do best to love and make peace with one another accordingly. In this way we can reach the end of life with fewer regrets.
Let’s pray to our Heavenly Father, through the powerful Name of Jesus Christ, that within the church, weary souls would find peaceful, sheltering, refreshing family-like relationships in one another.
Since we want, more than anything else, to accomplish what can only be accomplished in His kingdom, for His glory, if there are no divisions among us, let’s pray earnestly for the unity that Christ prayed for before His death. May God create in us hearts and minds skilled at making more peace in this dark world, and may He come quickly. Amen.
Custer Road church of Christ
2100 W Spring Creek Pkwy
Plano, TX 75023