Infighting Is Destroying the Church

I suppose it’s a normal thing for brothers and sisters to get in arguments. When you spend so much time together, you’re bound to get on each others nerves. You’re bound to see things differently. You’re bound to step on each others toes once in a while. That’s healthy. It’s normal. It’s part of being a family. And yet every time you get in an argument, you’re forced to work through it. To compromise. To move one. To forgive. Because you’re family and you aren’t going anywhere.

But when brothers and sisters never stop fighting, when they start pushing each other out of the family and refuse to talk to, but only about, one another. When they start publicly defaming each other. When we leverage the lives of others in our family to force our sibling to do what we want. Then we have some major problems. That family needs some counseling, ASAP. Because you simply cannot function as a family unit when such division and detestation exists. It’s utterly poisonous. If it’s left to grow, the family is going to digress into nothing more than an episode of the Jerry Springer Show.

We all know this is true. And yet the family of western Christians today has moved into a similar position as the severely dysfunctional family. In fact, it seems like every week the Church airs to the world a new example of our Jerry Springer Show like dysfunction. Over the last month or so, the Church has slugged it out over issues of gay marriage, starving children, Hollywood films, generational divides, abusive pastors, and about 500 other issues. Some of the issues were petty, others profoundly important. Some, matters of life and death.

Our infighting as the people of Jesus is not only inconsistent with the character of the Rabbi we claim to follow, but it is the very thing that is causing thousands of people to walk away from the faith feeling deeply wounded and angered by the hopelessness that the people of Jesus have consistently displayed to the world.

Whenever an individual, denomination, or organization takes a view or action whether theologically, politically, or socially that we may not agree with, we seem to have the tendency to jump on our warships and launch a full scale attack. We feel some innate need to dismantle and destroy the other person or organization as if it were the most destructive of enemies. We justify ourselves by saying that we are defending truth or upholding justice, when in reality, we’re just acting out of some deep hurt and fear. Fear that the other person may be right. Fear that maybe we have been wrong. Fear that God is looking down from heaven and waiting for our own foot to slip and fall into false teaching or action that will bring our swift damnation. Fear that maybe we’re not in control and everything isn’t as clear as it once seemed.

Fear. It’s a powerful, destructive, and poisonous thing.

I am firmly convinced that all of our infighting is rooted in fear. The evangelical response to the World Vision controversy was rooted in fear. The responses surrounding Matthew Vines new book were rooted in fear. The forcing out of reformed pastor Tullian Tchvidjian from the Gospel Coalition Blog is rooted in fear. It is that fear that furthers the mindset that the one with whom we disagree is our mortal enemy. It is fear that pushes each of us further into our corner of the boxing ring and roots us deeper in our own narrow position. Fear closes our minds and our hearts. It creates in us hostility. And fear, if left to germinate, will eventually split the Church once again as it did in the 1500’s. It will cause our fights to become bloodier and more and more costly. And for many, it may bring an end to their journey of faith.

I cannot speak for all Christians, but I am convinced that many of us are afraid. And it is precisely that fear that continues to drive these controversies, that continues to fuel our anger and spirit of division. When we just have to “call out” the group that we disagree with, were acting in fear. No matter how legitimately wrong they may be, slander, public criticism, and defamation are never the healthy way to go. It never accomplishes the desired results. It only creates more hurt, more anger, more fear, and deepens our wounds. It creates bigger monsters. It demolishes any bridges that were being built and any hope for reconciliation.

The power of the Gospel of Jesus is that it utterly destroys fear. If death itself is defeated and the powers of evil in our world are overcome by God’s mercy, what is there left to fear? If the God who was revealed in Jesus is truly the Lord of all, then nothing should cause us to be afraid. Love is reigning. And love casts out all fear. Love stands in the face of injustice and sin and with patience and grace subverts and overcomes it. Love does not launch torpedoes at evil and destroy it. Love responds to injustice and evil with self-sacrifice and demonstration of a better way.

Instead of criticizing the other, Love simply demonstrates the better way with much patience and grace, and it is the power of that demonstration that will win over even our staunchest opposition. Love recognizes that people are not the problem. But fear. Darkness. Injustice. These are the forces with which we are in conflict. And the victory can only be won through bravery, grace, and incarnated truth. The way to change the “other” is through following the pattern of Jesus: breaking oneself, pouring oneself out for the redemption of the world. This is the only way to create lasting change. To heal the deepest wounds. To expel the most profound fear. It sounds too good to be true. I know. It sounds too ideal. It sounds contrary to everything that the world tells us. That’s why it’s called the straight and narrow way. That’s why there are few that find it. The broad way, the way of fear, criticism, and violence. That’s the way that the crowd goes on. And Jesus assures us that it leads to destruction. We will destroy ourselves if we continue down that road.

I am not sure there is a practical application I can offer. I write as much to myself as I do to anyone else. The only hope I think we have as the Church is to take time to stop and gaze deeply at the cross of Jesus once again. To see the way Jesus, Love incarnate, responds to injustice, abuse, pain, and fear. If we take time daily to contemplate that Divine mystery that defies all human wisdom and instinct and we allow it to transform our minds and hearts, especially in the way we regard those whom we most harshly disagree with, I think we may begin to discover once again the road that leads to life. To lasting change. To redemption.

It seems to me the only cure to our fighting and fear is Love. Our only hope of redemption is Love. The only way to change anyone or anything is through Love. Not tough love. Not angry love. Gracious, bold, and sacrificial Love. This is the way of Life. This is the way of Jesus our Lord.

There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance…Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.– John Lennon 

This article was originally posted on Red Letter Christians on April 12, 2014

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  • This is beautiful article. Oddly, I’ve always heard the narrow road mentioned only to describe our destinations in heaven/hell, not behaving like Jesus… but this, this rings true. And gives me hope, even though this is a tough road I seem to spend more time off than on. 😛
    Today’s been one of those days where my idealistic hopes shattered (again) and I kind of wanted to curl up in a ball and cry while yelling “screw you” at the clamoring church (probably a bad idea), so thank you for this beautiful reminder of the way of Jesus.

    • I’ve SO been there – I sit on the virtual floor with you and morn the brokenness of the Church (and work to forgive those who frustrate and hurt us).

      • Ah, and it’s hard work, isn’t it? Sigh. But I hold out hope it is good work. 🙂

  • Jim

    Often it’s not fear but basic disagreement, especially on theological issues. When a pastor proclaims that Genesis is an accurate historical document, what are we to do? When a pastor says that the exodus of Israelites from Egypt actually happened when for 100 years of exploration anthropologists have found no trace of large numbers of people migrating across the Sinai Peninsula, we must say “You’re wrong.” When there is no archeological evidence of a flood covering the whole world, and common sense will tell anyone that the story is untrue, we have to make a choice. Remain in that congregation or leave it, And if pastors in the entire Church make those and other erroneous, we are likely to leave the Church altogether. It’s not fear that makes us leave.

  • Alma Mercer

    I think the system has destroyed its self , with a multitude of lies and inconsistencies
    and as many other systems of long ago stories were fabricated and claimed as their own , and I think the evolution of man, education and science along with research has brought man to a new way of thinking . I also think that the church has created damage that it will never fully recover from , be-careful who you trust , if it does not sound right , it possibly is’nt ……

  • kso721

    A few things are rooted in this infighting. 1. Which sub-sect of the 40,000 different denominations can out-fundie the others by trying to utilize the most absurd and literal interpretations of cherry-picked texts, versus just simply being able to do inherent good without bigotry attached to it… 2. Science, 3. Globalization leading to interfaith conversations and various unrelated faiths having to reconcile with the observations of other faiths about the nature of various prophets and/or god(s).

  • OregonDavid

    Mr. Robertson, I think this is THE best article I’ve ever read on Patheos; hands down and a strong thank you for writing it. I’m always somewhat dumbfounded at how some men and women proclaiming to be of God can demean, belittle and mock another’s faith or denomination. I am so thankful for the freedom of religion in this and other countries. I think having a spectrum of faiths encourages evangelism, which finds the lost sheep to help make bad people, good people and good people, great people.

    I would say that in my own missionary efforts, it hasn’t brought so many people to the church I attend, but it has reactivated them into going back to the church they used to attend. This fact is shown in countries that have a state religion or where the vast, vast majority of the people belong to a single church denomination; you’ll find church/mosque/temple attendance rates pitifully low. However in countries where there’s a large marketplace of churches; you’ll see many more people actively engaged in their faith.

    Our Savior spoke of this issue the best when he gave the mite/beam in thine eye parable. When people see “Christians” bashing others, they immediately recognize it as wrong, leaving a bad taste in their mouth for all things religious. Keep up the good work…and God bless you for it!

  • Sophia Sadek

    You can tell that they are Christians by the way that they hate themselves and extend that hate to others. Jonathan Swift put it most poignantly in his satire of Christian infighting in the war over which end of the egg is the proper one for consumption. You are right that the solution is love, but that would mean having to abandon the Christian tradition.

  • raylampert

    For all my life, the most vocal and outspoken voices of Christianity are the voices of hate, bigotry, prejudice and ignorance. The people who claim that you have to accept the literal word of Genesis, that you have to believe as they do or go to hell, that suffering is God’s punishment for sin. What I don’t hear are the people who call out the hatemongers as wrong. Why is that? If there really were Christians interested in spreading a message of love and healing, why are they just sitting quietly on their thumbs and doing nothing, their silence implying agreement and complicity?

  • This becomes what it attacks. That is it calls other Christians evil. The other guy is bad. I am loving. I am like Jesus. Those other folks who disagree with me? They are the opposite of loving. They are like … well… you know.

    The trouble is that something has to define the faith. What is Christianity and what is not? The way it is done in Evangelicalism is by shouting down the guys who assert something that is out of bounds. It is almost impossible to do that charitably. You tried. It just can’t be done. It always comes off as I am right and you are wrong. Either I am holier than you or smarter than you or whatever.

    Simply never shouting anyone down fails as well. Then you end up with confusion. Everyone puts forward his own idea and you get a mass of contradictions. Even the idea not to shout down the other guy is contradicted.

    What is needed is someone who has the authority to define the faith. Someone who can speak and settle matters at least for those who respect their authority. Catholicism has the pope and the bishops. They can define the Catholic faith. Protestants simply don’t have anyone. They rebelled against the pope so they can’t create a new authority. Only God can create such an authority. Otherwise it is just one more human opinion.

    Did God create a legitimate authority in the offices of pope and bishop? If he didn’t then he gave us a completely unworkable system. Infighting is destroying the church. The way to keep brothers from fighting to much is to have a father deal with it. Did God leave us a dysfunctional family? All brothers and no father? If he did not then the only candidate for such a father is in Rome.