1 Thessalonians 5:12-27
A man went to his pastor concerned about the amount of church conflict prevalent among members of the congregation and the members lack of concern about getting to the bottom of it. The pastor agreed with him and said that he had devised a plan to change things. He proposed that during services the following Sunday, the pastor would have a brief pause to allow members to turn to those seated behind them and greet one another with a friendly hello. Following the service that same Sunday, the same man turned around to the woman behind him and said, “Good morning.” She looked at him in shocked indignation and snapped, “That doesn’t start until NEXT Sunday!”
Church conflict is not a pretty subject. I am happy to say (knock on wood) that I have never served a church which had a rampant conflict raging. (Unless you count the first church that I served as pastor – the English Baptist Church in English, Ky. Where just 4 months after becoming the pastor of my first church, I banned Santa. Santa had a custom of closing out the Christmas play on the last Sunday before Christmas by entering the sanctuary with bag full of gifts which were then promptly handed out to all present. But not under Pastor Mitch’s watch would Santa be the theme of the Christmas play. That was Jesus’ role. Santa could show up in the fellowship hall during refreshment time. My pastorate was almost derailed before it ever started. But seriously my churches have not known an open wound conflict. Unlike the Presbyterian church not too far from here whose pastor was the recipient of many late night threatening phone calls from some anonymous coward too cheap to show up during the light of day. Or like the other Presbyterian church whose pastor continues to have large chunks taken out of her paycheck as a way of disciplining her for this and that. And then recently there was the church in Texas where the man rammed his car into the side of the church, and began beating the pastor with an electric guitar and did so until the pastor died.
I’m not foolish enough to surmise that conflict has ever erupted to those levels here. There have been no church splits in which Party A blames Party B for this or that and leaves en mass to start another church. But all too easily that can happen. Persons have left this church as they have from all other churches mad, with hurt feelings never to return again. That was the admonition the apostle Paul warned the church at Thessalonica about. The first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians is also the first letter the apostle wrote. It was written to a struggling, yet vigorous church that was only a few months old. This is a revealing letter, showing the struggles that were present in the early church. They had severe problems, some of which are reflected in this letter. It was written about 50 A.D., and may well be the first part of our New Testament to be written.
From the account in Acts, we learn that Paul had only been there about three weeks when persecution began and he had to leave the city for his own safety. He went to Greece and from there he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how these Christians were doing. He was very disturbed about them; he felt that perhaps the persecution they were undergoing would drive them from their faith. His bottom line concerned the dangers of them not respecting/ following their leaders and their turning inward on each other in conflict.
This month (at least for the Sunday’s that I have been present) have focused on the proper care and feeding of the pastor. In other words what are the ingredients necessary for this and any church to be healthy. We looked at the fact that the pastor has a higher calling – from God, and thus no pastor is ever hired (such as in business). A pastor is likewise not an employee in the traditional sense. In the Presbyterian tradition, the call of a pastor is a 3 way process between the minister, the church and the Presbytery and all must be in agreement in order for the call to be valid. That’s why it takes a bit longer than some other faith traditions. Also last time we were together I recommended that we view the interim not as a no-count phase, but merely as another phase just as valid as the permanent phase with lessons to learn and the same ministry to be performed.
And today there are some common ingredients found in conflicted churches we would do well to recognize and avoid.
Paul writes “Have respect for your leaders. Love them. And one of the ways to do that is to live in peace with one another.” Isn’t it interesting that one of the ways to respect your leader is to diminish conflicts among yourselves. How? In conflicted churches, families, work environments, clubs and organizations as well as almost any gathering of people, conflict happens when you see some or all of these. Petty attitudes – sniping at each other, differences of opinion. Also me first stances. My program is most important. Likewise there are those “Look at me ultimatums.” Look at all that I do around here. Look at how much I work. Those kind of attitudes breed conflict, jealousy, contempt, and unrest. They are unhealthy and the breed unhealthy environments. Conflicted churches posess as well – a lot of blame – Look at what you did wrong. Why didn’t you do it my way? All those are toxic attitudes that invite conflict, arguments and disagreements. How do you get rid of those toxins? Do those who don’t like those toxic attitudes just leave, never to return? They do and they have. How do you correct the key ingredients inherent within conflicted churches, families, workplaces, and organizations? One key is this – That you can’t solve problems at the same level in which the problems were created. In other words, if petty attitudes, me-first stances, and blame games were the key ingredients that went into creating the conflicts, solving the problems won’t happen using any of those attitudes or tendencies. ON the contrary, look at some of the things Paul recommends in these verses.
*Respect your leaders – Love them. Work toward peace minus the toxic attitudes and behaviors that begin with “me first”, “You did it wrong”, “If you were more like me, you would be doing it right!” Instead of those attitudes, try instead – Never stop praying. Give thanks no matter what happens. May I suggest what one church did. They created Refrigerator Prayer Lists. They kept up with who needed prayer. They put their pastor at the top. They sent cards to say, “I’m praying for you.” Prayer is the opposite of the toxic attitudes and behaviors that lie at the base of all conflict. I implore you – Are you angry at someone – pray like you’ve never prayed before. Are you frustrated, afraid, confused, tired, burned-out, Pray. Don’t know how to pray. Tell God that you are frustrated, angry, afraid, confused, and so on, bow your head when you say it and Walla – you are praying. Develop a deeper dependence on prayer as a key ingredient in your life and in this church. Paul continues, “Whatever happens, keep thanking God.” Try it for a month. Sign up a prayer partner and try it for 3 months. Secretly become the prayer deacon for your new pastor and pray for him/her every day. Make it your business to pray for the challenges he/she faces that no one knows about. Pray harder when he/she is discouraged and so lonely he/she can’t see straight. On Sunday pray that your pastor will hear what God wants in the sermon and that he/she will have the courage to say it. Pray for the pastor’s family. In other words, cut at the root of conflict through developing a deeper dependency on prayer than anything you’ve ever tried/experienced before. Feeling conflicted – pray. Feeling left out and that they aren’t appreciating you enough = pray. Feeling discouraged, lonely, battle-fatigued, pray! It is absolutely the first and best way to solve a conflict problem at a completely different level. Next the 2nd ingredient that is an antidote to conflict comes in the next verse, “Don’t turn away God’s Spirit.” In another translation “Don’t put out the Holy Spirit’s fire.” Do you know what that means? It means that you are guided, directed and controlled by a power and a Spirit greater than yourself – the Spirit of God that lives within you and is allowed free reign to fill you. Under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you won’t have room for conflict. You won’t have time to be conflicted. In v. 23, we hear, “God is the one who gives peace.” Peace isn’t the absence of conflict – peace is the answer within conflict. How do we know. When conflict rages around us, it isn’t something we’re at the root of, instead we pray to end it. God’s Spirit at work within us gives us a calm peace that we aren’t in control and frankly we don’t need to be.
Conflict happens. We live in a world full of it. Because it is a sinful world with sinful people, we will never be free of conflict. But it doesn’t have to rule us and it doesn’t have to ruin our churches, and our jobs and our relationships. It starts with prayer and ends with the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us. Finally this morning conflict that lives within us already happens here – in our hearts and here – in our minds because of our past. It happens here – in this place and will happen again when a new pastor is called unless you are willing to give up the conflict you’ve been holding onto. Some of you can give the lowdown on all the conflicts you’ve had with former members and pastors. Time, date, what was said, what was implied. And for some of you, you may believe you will never get over that. You may have pledged to never trust another pastor because of what that pastor did. Listen by doing that, you are in part dooming the next pastor to failure by keeping past conflict alive. By not letting it die, you doom all future relationships with the person God calls here. Will you give it up? Will you let it go? Likewise on the other hand some of you dearly loved this pastor or that pastor. No one will ever hold a candle to Rev. ________. He was so special. And because of that pedestal, you doom the next pastor to failure by holding him/her to a standard they can never reach. Let the old pastor go so that the new pastor can indeed be the new pastor. Give up the past so the future can happen. In Psalm 132 it describes a special place/people. The scripture contains a conversation between David and God. David wants to build the Lord a sanctuary. He indicates that he will not sleep until he is able to do that. He recognizes the sanctuary as sacred, holy. And so should we. Not the literal building that we have here, but the sanctuary of God’s presence. As the people of God, this community of faith must be viewed as the Presence of God and cared for accordingly. God’s answer to David’s desire to build the Lord a sanctuary? I will send you leaders from your family until the end of time. This place-this house is worth the view that God is here. It is worth treating as a holy place. Your leader(s) are sent by God as a representative of God’s Presence. Treat them accordingly. Give up the past. Give up conflict. Give up the old factions and failures onto which you have held. Give up those dear and trusted leaders who were so stellar, so special that no one since has been able to hold a candle to. This is God’s place and you are God’s people. Thanks be to God!