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As a Christian leader, we often have to deal with security issues, conflict and sometimes belligerence within the church. As a church does serious outreach and attempts to connect with cultures outside the church culture, there are more opportunities for conflict and more possibilities that violence might erupt in or against the church.
Our first impulse is to protect and defend the church community, and this impulse is good. We all want to do our best to protect God’s people and we all hate to see violence in a house of God. When these issues come to the forefront, however, we find that we are often unprepared to deal with conflict, belligerence or violence, not only because we have rarely had to deal with it, but because we have never really thought about such events happening within a church. However, churches need to think about these issues now, the more so as anti-Christian sentiment rises.
It is important for us to consider what we would do as leaders in our church if belligerence or violence occurs in our church, how we can best prevent such situations from occurring, how to de-escalate such situations and what is the best way to deal with these situations as followers of Jesus.
The Foundation of Dealing With Conflict
There are three passages that can offer a foundation for our dealing with conflict as leaders with those whom we have in our churches as guests. These ancient texts—two from Jesus, one from Paul—can help us know to deal with conflict as followers of Jesus, not in the everyday manner.
And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves. Luke 22:25-27
First of all, our leadership style is to be like Jesus’ not like the world around us. The world focuses on security or on how leadership can benefit themselves. Jesus says that imitating Him in leadership means that we always are looking to the benefit of those whom we are leading. A leader is not just to prevent anxiety in themselves or others, but to act for the good of those whom they lead, primarily. If Jesus is our servant, willing to accept any humiliation so that we can obtain all the benefits he has to give, even so are we, as church leaders, supposed to allow ourselves to be humiliated, even hurt for the sake of others, as long as it is for their benefit.
This is a difficult concept to accept for oneself, but it is the basis of Christian leadership. Not to do things for one’s own sake, but to sacrifice all for the sake of the other.
2. Benefiting Those Who Hurt Us
But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:27-36
Again, in general, dealing with those who harm us, we must act like God and His Son Jesus. An “enemy” is not one whom we declare to be enemies, but those who do us harm, for whatever reason. Jesus is saying that instead of giving harm back to those who harm us, we are to love. Love, simply stated, is acting for the benefit of those in need. So when someone harms us, we are to look at them as someone in need. Someone who is deficient in some way. Someone who could use our help. The question is, what is the best way that we can benefit a person who has done us harm?
Jesus then associates this one characteristic—benefiting those who do us harm—with God’s behavior that we should imitate. And He associates it with a basic characteristic of the Christian life. If all people love, then what greater command does Jesus give to those who follow Him? He commands us to love all those who are the most unlovely, to love without exception. So if someone threatens us, hits us or even shoots us, we are to consider their benefit, as well as the benefit of those whom we are protecting.
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21
Finally, Paul points out another issue that is associated with Jesus’ command to love all: that we are not to use the methods of the world against those who do us harm. It is perfectly natural to want to do harm or violence to those who do us harm or violence. As people of Jesus, those guided by the Spirit of God, we are to be led by peace and not harm. To “do evil” is to harm another, and that is not what we are to do. Instead of acting with violence, inflicting harm, we are to do good.
Overall, we can see a distinct philosophy of how we are to deal with the belligerent or violent in our congregations.
First of all, we need to protect our people, but we can exclude no one from that protection, even the one who is being violent.
Secondly, we are to find methods to protect all without causing harm to any.
Thirdly, in order to benefit others, we might have to make sacrifices ourselves, which is part of what we accept if we take on leadership in the church.
We all get that way sometimes, and there’s no real reason for it. We can gaze at our lives in many different ways. We could look at our successes, we could look at our failures, we could see how rewarding our relationships are or we could recognize that our relationships are really meaningless. We could see how our work has done something important, or note that no one really appreciates the work we’ve done.
The funny thing is how our mood so often colors our lives.
I wonder how God feels about His life, His work.
Does He wake up some mornings and say, “No one really cares about me. For all the praise I get, almost none of them really care about me outside of being in a group of worshipers. Few are grateful, and for those who are, they often thank me for things I didn’t do, and ignore the hard work I did put into their lives. Believers fight tooth and nail over doctrine I never taught and ignore the basic principles I want them to live by.”
I’ll bet most of the time, he avoids such depressing thoughts because they really aren’t helpful. Such thoughts make us depressed or angry, but I’ll bet God recognizes that it’s best to focus on the small good instead of the large, ignorant populations that disrespect Him though apathy or carelessness.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus likes to look at the small things that change reality. The things that seems so insignificant to sweeps of history, but are so full of God’s grace.
The sisters whose brother had died.
The boy who returns to his father.
The servant who obeys his master.
The woman with non-stop bleeding.
The embezzler who impresses his boss.
The woman who lost a coin.
The man who finds treasure in a field.
The woman whose son died.
Small people. In the scheme of world events, pretty unimportant. But these are the small things God wants us to notice. Not the everyday negativity, not the horrors of the world. But the small graces that make all the differences.
“As a shopkeeper in Saumur, France, Joan Delanou was a notorious miser. She hoarded every cent she earned, angrily drove beggars from her door and caused scandal by keeping shop open on Sundays and feast days. Into this self-enclosed life, however, the influence of grace effected an extraordinary conversion.
It began when Joan provided lodging to a strange old woman, a widow names Frances Souchet, who spent her time traveling the countryside and visiting holy shrines. Her shabby appearance and her habit of muttering to herself led many to believe that she was a bit mad. Souchet told Joan that she was sent from God. Nevertheless, she paid for her room, and that was enough reason for Joan to tolerate her company.
As time passed the presence of the old woman worked a strange influence on her landlord. Joan no longer found pleasure in counting her savings. She ceased to keep her shop open on Sunday, and instead she began to accompany her lodger to weekly Mass. Meanwhile Madame Souchet continued her strange pronouncements: “He says this…” “He says that…” It gradually dawned on Joan that this woman was a messenger from God sent to bear a warning and a challenge: “I was hungry and you did not feed me; thirsty and you did not give me drink; I was a stranger and you offered me no shelter….” At once she decided to amend her life.
She began by taking in a homeless family with six children. Others gradually found their way to her door. Her home became known as Providence House. Madame Souchet remained a welcome guest, continuing to provide her spiritual counsel. When Joan worried about how to support her groaning household, the old woman offered assurance: “The king of France won’t give you his purse; but the King of Kings will always keep his open for you.”
-Robert Ellsberg, All Saints
It was the time of the Feast of the Exodus and Jesus knew that his time on earth was short, and he was soon to go to the Father. Yet, he loved his disciples on the earth, and he never stopped loving them, even to the end. At the time of the Feast, the Great Liar already convinced Judas Iscariot to hand Jesus over to the authorities. Jesus knew that the Father had granted him authority over all things, and that his purpose was to come from God and to return to Him.
Given all this, Jesus got up from the meal, set aside his dress coat and put on an apron. Jesus asked all of the disciples if they wanted anything as a refreshment, filling their wine cups. Then Jesus took a basin, filled it with water and washed all the disciple’s feet, wiping them dry with his apron.
As he came to Simon the Rock, Simon asked, “Do you think you’re going to wash my feet?” Jesus responded, “You don’t get it now, but you will understand later.” Simon the Rock said, “No. You will NOT wash my feet. It’s too humiliating. I won’t let you.” Jesus calmly said, “If you do not allow me to wash your feet then walk out and don’t come back. If you want to be of my nation, then you must allow this.” Simon said, “Well, then wash all of me—my hands are pretty filthy and I haven’t washed my hair for a while…” Jesus interrupted him, “You are already completely clean, because your commitment to me cleanses you. If you’ve taken a bath, you just need your feet washed, not your whole body. Yet your whole is not clean.” When Jesus said this last bit, he was referring to the Betrayer, who was still there in the room with them.
After all their feet had been washed, Jesus took off the apron, put on his dress coat, and stood in front of them. “Do you understand what I have done? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master’, which is good, because that’s who I am. So if you see your Master being hospitable to you, then you must do so to each other. I gave you this example, so that you would act in this way. You are not greater than I—I am the one who sent you. It is good if you know what I teach you, but it is better if you do it—if you do what I do. Mind you, I am not talking to all of you. I have chosen you, but one of you was chosen to fulfill the Scripture, ‘He who receives my hospitality has slapped me in the face.’ I tell you this ahead of time so you will understand when it happens. Listen carefully—whoever welcomes into his home one of my workers actually receives me. And whoever receives me welcomes God who sent me to earth.
In many Mennonite traditions, it is common to take Jesus’ command to wash each other’s feet as a sacrament. Thus, in many churches in the celebration of the week of Passion, they have a ceremony in which the church member’s feet are washed by each other. What happens is really quite surprising. We are often shocked at our reserve, at our measure of politeness.
Many of all—perhaps all of us, at first—take on the reaction of Peter—“You won’t wash MY feet.” We like to think that it is because our feet are dirty, filthy, undeserving to be touched. But I think, if we explore our feelings more carefully, we find that there are one of two real reasons for our hesitance. First of all, we find the touch of our bare feet to be intimate—too intimate. We are allowing someone who is fundamentally a stranger touch us in a sensitive and personal place. The second reason is because we are exposing a hidden part of ourselves to people. We are allowing people to see that which should not be seen. Opening ourselves up to the air what had been safely hidden. What we are really feeling is the shame of nakedness.
Now the fact of the matter is that when Jesus got up, wrapped a cloth around himself and washed the disciples feet, he was not proclaiming a new sacrament. We no longer do the daily practice of foot washing and so we do not understand the context in which it was placed, as the disciples did. Foot washing was done for the guest, as they came to stay at one’s house. Even as today, when we have a guest, we might offer them something to drink, even so the host of the ancient world offered to have the guest’s feet washed. It was the first part of a whole ritual of hospitality that included drink and food and possibly spending the night.
But although there was much ritual surrounding it, hospitality fulfilled a real need. To offer a drink in the ancient world was no empty ritual like we have, for usually we offer a drink to those who are not thirsty. Rather, the ritual of hospitality is given to one who has traveled, by foot, a long distance. Perhaps only as short as a mile, but often it is a long journey of a day or two, during which water is scarce and food more so. To travel was to endanger oneself, for bandits roamed the countryside and there was little security, and therefore little sleep. To offer hospitality, then, is to offer drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry and a safe place to sleep to those who are exhausted. Foot washing is the first part of this, for it cleans the dirt off the road, and makes one more comfortable, not just personally, but also taking away the anxiety of the traveler that he might be dirtying one’s home.
Thus, when Jesus was commanding his disciples to wash each other’s feet, he was telling them to practice the whole of the hospitality ritual to each other, not just a part of it. It was Jesus’ plan that many of his disciples would be travelers—itinerant evangelists—who would need to have many stations throughout the world, in need of hospitality. Thus, he is commanding his disciples, not to wash feet, but to meet the needs of the disciples. It is the introduction of the command he gives a number of times in a number of ways in the following chapters: “Love one another”, “Greater love has no man than this than to lay down his life for his friends.” A part of this love, John insists (especially in his letter—I John 3:17) is to offer hospitality. Food, drink, a place to stay and possibly clothing to those in need. It is a command to be a social network for disciples of all shapes, colors and creeds.
This is a command that Jesus gave many other times. “If anyone is to give even a cup of cold water to even the least of these because he is my disciple he shall not lose his reward.” “If anyone offers hospitality to you, they offer it to me.” “In as much as you have done so to the least of my brothers, you have done it to me.” To be hospitable to believers isn’t a nice idea, it is a foundational moral command of the church.
Another thing to notice is that Jesus washed the feet himself. This is a unique feature, and the one that Peter most noticed. When a host offered to wash a guest’s feet, he did not do this act himself. Rather, he had a servant do the washing. Thus, there is no discomfort as to having one’s feet washed by a peer, or (God forbid) one greater than one. Rather, it is done by a negligible one—a person beneath one’s notice.
However, Jesus, in this scenario, placed himself in the servant’s role. Yet the disciples could not pretend that Jesus was beneath notice, to be ignored. Peter finally couldn’t accept the contradiction between how Jesus was acting and who he was, and so he spoke up. But it was imperative for Jesus to be the servant. In this way, the disciples could also take on that role. It is not enough to say that a Christian could take on any role, no matter how lowly, no matter how marginal it made one.
Rather, Jesus command is for all of us to do the menial tasks, the servant place. It is a part of our participation in the Christian community. This is why Jesus said that leaders must act like servants—they must do the menial tasks, the tasks that made them lowly. (Luke 22; Mark 8). They must lower themselves to be the servants, even as Jesus did. Not a single Christian leader, or Christian member or Christian teen or Christian pew-warmer can escape from Jesus command of service. We must be the lowly to the lowly. We must offer help to those in need, where they are, where we find them. And we must make ourselves as less important than they.
One last thing that Jesus emphasized. When Peter complained to Jesus that he would not receive the foot washing—that he would not participate in the demeaning of Jesus—Jesus responded with a stern rebuke. He said that if Peter wanted to be a part of Him, a part of His community, then not only did he have to serve, but he had to be served.
Often we think of ourselves as undeserving of help. But, more often than not, we think of ourselves as too independent to help. We have been raised in a society in which independence is most significant. If we are in need, we ought not to ask, we ought not to receive, for it is a wrong for us to put other’s out, to make them help us.
Jesus thinks of service in a different way. When we are in need, we are providing an opportunity for others in the church to be like Jesus. We are providing an opportunity for service, for community to build, for us to be dependent on each other. And frankly, it is this last that our society loathes, that we all secretly hate. We cringe at the thought of being dependent on others, to rely on others for help. But the fact is, that is exactly what Jesus is creating with this example, with this physical parable. Jesus is creating a community of mutual dependence. We are to lean on each other, and give to each other. We should be dependable in our dependence on each other. We help each other’s needs and we give to each other’s needs. We love and are loved. We give and receive. And so we are the people Jesus commanded us to be.
While Linda was on the street, she was always called “Mom,” especially by the young street kids. She was a grandmother who adores little ones, but don’t get in her way. She’ll tell you what she thinks of you without hesitation, and she’ll keep all the young ones in line. The police thought that she was a bad influence on the street folks, but church leaders disagreed. They invited her and others to organizational meetings. And while she was still living on the street, she was invited to steer a central program for the homeless in Gresham: the day shelter program.
This program proved successful and now day shelters are open six days a week in four different church facilities in Gresham, which is a significant stepping stone for the homeless to get the help they need both for daily survival and for getting off the street. Eventually Linda got off the street herself, but she continues to host day shelters five days a week.
No matter how much we love the poor or identify with the poor, we will never understand what it means to be chronically poor unless we have lived it over the long term, with no other options. We can imagine what it would be like, but there is always a divide, a mental disconnect. We will always say to ourselves about a certain group of the poor, “Why don’t they just…” Some of us will be too harsh, others of us will be too easy. In the end, only those who lived under conditions of chronic poverty can understand what it means.
This doesn’t mean that the other classes aren’t necessary to meet the needs of the poor. The poor need the literacy and organization skills of the middle class. The poor need the wealth and support of the upper class. But the middle class and the upper class cannot meet the needs of the poor alone.
When God determined His perfect plan to save the world, the Savior of all mankind had to be human himself. He couldn’t just reach out from above and save humanity, but rather he had to become human. And not just any kind of human, but a human born into oppression, choosing poverty and a stressful ministry instead of an easy life. Paul says, “He made himself poor so that we may be made rich.”* In God’s infinite wisdom, He knew that it was not enough for us to become rich—He needed to be among the poor.
Even so, we cannot help the poor, but we must put the poor in such a place so that the poor might help themselves. Some of us, like Jesus, will become poor so as a community of the poor we can help each other. But some poor, like the Gerasene demoniac, like Ruth, like Jephthah, like all the children of Israel in Egypt will be chosen to be God’s testimony to the world because they are poor.* And it is our responsibility to support them and to indicate God’s choice.
Ways to empower the poor to support each other:
When a person comes up to me and asks me if I need any help, often my first internal response is, “I can do it better and faster by myself.” But I remember then that serving others is a basic need for all of us to live out. So then I find something for them to do, even if it is small, even if I could have done it better. In our ministries, if someone is willing to serve, we should try to find a place for them to serve (no matter how incapable they are, or inconvenient it is).
Give the poor leadership in the ministries for them
It should be the goal of every ministry to not only be for the poor, but to be of the poor. In the ministries that are established, find people who can support and lead the ministries and ask them if they would be willing to help run it. This is not only for their sakes, but for the benefit of the ministry as a whole. If you can find the leaders of the poor to help run your ministry, then you will find it is more of a community, and less of an “us and them” outreach.
Create councils of the poor to determine their own needs and solutions
Once a year, we invite our local homeless to speak to their own needs within the region. The only speakers are the homeless (or former homeless) in the region, and they give the organizations who want to serve the homeless a mandate of what the organizations should have as goals. That is one of many ways groups of the poor can speak to how ministries work and help the poor. Every group that helps the poor—whether a security group or an outreach group—should have at least a representative of the poor helping to guide the decisions. Unless the poor are involved, we don’t know how to help them properly
Put poor people on your church council
On your general church council, not just your benevolence/ministry group, have a church member be on your board at all time. A board will make decisions based on who they know within the church. If the church board does not have the poor represented, then they will unknowingly exclude the poor with their decisions. If a poor person is there to help make decisions, then all the social classes of the church can assist with the decision making process.
*I Corinthians 8:9
**Mark 5:18-19, Judges 11