Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

What Happened to Love?

A painful church split taught me a lot about how we could better handle conflict in the body of Christ.

As I write this, the congregation where I have served on the pastoral staff for almost 12 years is going through an ugly split. It is a deeply painful time. I never would have imagined myself being here at this place, at this time, to witness this unimaginable tragedy.

This situation has caused me to do some very serious thinking about myself, my ministry and the things a person can really count on. And it has caused me to think a lot about how we as believers can better handle conflict when it inevitably arises.

I have an 18-year-old son. He is a great guy and one of my favorite people. He is tall, strong and handsome. He has a terrific sense of humor, works hard, makes good grades, surrounds himself with great friends and most important of all, he loves the Lord.

Recently my son came home and announced that he was considering getting a tattoo. I tried not to overreact. We have always wanted our children to know they can never wander so far from the Lord that we will stop loving them. We have tried to assure them no subject is so sensitive that they cannot talk about it with either their mother or with me.

To react with the full force of the emotions I was feeling at that moment would have belied my invitation to candid, honest dialogue. Besides, I have found that in instances such as these, my son is most often simply testing the water.

To his credit, he indicated that he was gravitating toward a tattoo that would in some way reflect his faith--perhaps a cross or some other obvious emblem. This did not console me as much as I think he intended. After several minutes of listening, my wife and I had the opportunity to comment.

"What would you get?" she asked. "Where would you put it?"

As my son responded to her question, my mind traveled from one thought to another, looking for some appropriate place to entrench. I have never had a serious opposition to earrings. These at least have some biblically relevant precedence (see Deut. 15:12-17). I thought of the biblical injunction for the nation of Israel not to make cuts, or tattoos, on their flesh (see Lev. 19:28) and decided to point this out to my son.

However, the moment I had done so, I remembered the previous verse (vs. 27) that charged the men not to shave off their beards. Presumably, if I should choose to question my son's walk with the Lord based on whether or not he wears a tattoo, I would be biblically obligated to also challenge any clean-shaven brothers I know (I do, by the way, wear a full beard). So much for the inerrancy of personal opinion!

We believe strongly and sometimes wrongly. Truth is something that biblically centered believers feel strongly about. George Barna did some research awhile back that revealed some fascinating--and troubling--things about born-again believers and what they actually believe. Without attempting to reproduce the report, let me simply sum it up with these highlights.

A very large percentage of these self-identified, born-again Christians (something like 90 percent) believe they understand all of the basic teachings of Christianity. A similarly high percentage (approximately 85 percent) feel very intensely about the things they believe. And finally, an alarmingly high percentage of these Christians (a two-thirds majority) hold beliefs that are inconsistent with biblical teaching, such as "God helps those who help themselves."

To put these findings another way, most Christians feel they know what the Bible teaches and feel very passionately about what they believe--and they are biblically inaccurate in many of those beliefs. As Barna pointed out, their very assurance is the greatest obstacle to bringing them into correction.

In any conflict, there is always the attempt to demonstrate who is right and who is wrong. Historically, the vast majority of conflicts resulting in the church becoming fractured have been about nonessentials to salvation. At the center of these conflicts are personal opinions, concepts and preferences about every conceivable thing from the correct method of baptism to the color of the carpet. These things have always been a source of division in the body of Christ.

Now more than ever in history, with all the knowledge and scholarship available at the touch of a computer key, we seem more divided than ever at the point of our various concepts of truth. And all this comes at a time in the church when believers are being challenged as never before to evaluate what things must change and what things must never change.

Why do we continue to try to unite around conceptual truth when truth in so many areas of our faith seems to be elusive? If these things were so vital, why did the Lord leave so much room for questions in His Word?

Perhaps our attempt to gather a following around our particular flavor of belief should be challenged. Perhaps it is simply one more thinly veiled way that man attempts to be his own god, to remain in control. Perhaps there is something deeper and more significant going on here.

Only love can guarantee truth. Paul Billheimer takes a stab at these questions in his book Love Covers. He writes about what he calls the "idolatry of personal opinion." When I begin to value my personal opinion beyond my love for my brother, I am, in Billheimer's words, making an idol of my personal opinion.

The result of this overinflated estimation of my thinking is that my ego demands that you "bow down and worship" my opinion. If you properly regard my opinion as a thinker, you will properly recognize my worth as a person. This demand of my ego moves me dangerously close to self-worship, as it places self on the throne of my life and deifies my rational mind.

Truth does not enter into this equation. Even if my opinion were true, my lack of love for my brother would make that truth impotent. That is the primary danger with this valuation of things we hold to be true.

The apostle Paul points this out in 1 Corinthians 13:2. Even if I "understand all mysteries and all knowledge," without the presence of love, "I am nothing" (NKJV). In addition, Paul assures us later on in verse nine that "we know in part," that our ability to know is incomplete. Of course, we are not speaking here of the essentials of salvation. That is the part we do know.

Billheimer says the only guarantor of truth is love. Truth will not assure us of love, but love will lead us to truth and life.

Jesus said that if we love Him, we will obey Him, and that our very obedience will allow Him to disclose, or reveal, Himself to us. Jesus goes on to say that this love, evidenced in obedience, will allow Him to come to us in abiding life (see John 14:21, 23). So, love becomes the pathway to truth and life. Yet we still try to build our unity as believers around a body of conceptual truth.

When will they believe? This is in striking contrast to Jesus' strongest words about unity, which we read in John chapter 17:20-26. Jesus' statement is a clear indication that we've gotten it wrong.

In that high priestly prayer, Jesus prays that His church would be one, or perfected in unity, into a unit. At the close of the prayer, He asks for the Father's own love to be in us. This agape love, God's kind of love, is the source of any true spiritual unity in the body of Christ. When this becomes evident, Jesus says, the world will recognize Him as sent from the Father, and they will believe (see vvs. 21, 23).

In this day of relative truth, this day when truth changes with every wind of circumstance, the world is not hungry first and foremost for truth. It is hungry for love, and Jesus says that when the world sees that love in us, demonstrated by our oneness and our unity in love, then they will know and believe.

Recently someone insisted that I should believe the report of an individual whom we both know simply as an evidence of my love because "love trusts." I think he missed the point. Love may evidence itself in trust, but the primary thing that agape love does is love, even when the loved one may not be trustworthy. Agape love is never dependent on the one loved.

When I surrendered to the Lord at the age of 16, it was because of His love for me. I certainly did not deserve His love. Yet, still He loved me, and so I believed.

I did not understand much about the Word of God, about the nature of the Godhead or about the humanity and divinity of Jesus. I am so very glad that when I sought His face, He did not turn Himself away until I could better grasp these truths. I responded to His love, and He saved me.

Is there enough love? Now, as I try to understand what is right and what is wrong in the terrible tragedy of our church spit, I realize this is not the issue I thought it was.

This is not about how right or wrong any of us are. This is about whether or not there is enough love to repent for the lack of love that got us to this place, and whether there is enough love to ask for and to extend forgiveness, enough love to bless and not curse.

If we begin from the premise of "right," we will always give ourselves permission not to love. But if we begin with "love," then we can continue to love even when others would curse us and seek to do us harm, because love is always "right."

Learning this lesson will likely become the foundation to any of my future ministry. And the degree to which we get this right will likely be the degree to which truth and life can empower all future ministries and release God's purposes in this fractured congregation, in my life and in this entire city. There is so much at stake.

In the meantime, there are still questions of whether or not my son should get a tattoo. But there is no question of his father's love. *

"THE majority of conflicts resulting in the church becoming fractured have been about nonessentials to salvation."

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