My first church fight scared the pants off me. I was only five and unprepared for a bunch of adult Southern Baptists screaming at each other, stomping up and down the aisles, leaving the sanctuary and slamming the door, and then stomping back in.
I was with my parents, but they were praying for peace. That didn’t seem like adequate security to me, so I crawled under the pew and hid.
Southern Baptists, you might know, are very democratic. When serious decisions must be made, they call a meeting, give every member a say – and vote. It’s usually a civil process, but once in a while, things get out of hand.
The issue then was whether the church should build a gym for pre-high schoolers and put on programming not just for the church’s kids but also for the neighboring kids. And the problem for the angry adults was that one particular church in the village had a lot of kids, and they were Roman Catholics. Those adults thought Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran kids would be fine in our gym. But not Roman Catholics.
Most of the adults thought Roman Catholics were Christians too, and their kids should be welcome in the proposed gym. But the angry adults thought Roman Catholics were the devil’s spawn.
I just thought the angry adults were scary. My parents wanted me to come out from under the pew, but I refused until the vote was taken and the issue was settled. The church would build the gym and invite all neighborhood kids. Then I crawled out and dusted off my knees.
It was my first serious lesson in human nature. The lesson has grown and become far more complex over the years, but the core message is that it pays to be polite to people you disagree with. It doesn’t make you a wimp, just civil. That sounds easy, but we all know how hard it can be.
So when I asked Dylan Bailey to check in with the Memorial Methodist Church and see how they were holding up during the huge controversy that has caused 6,000 United Methodist congregations to leave, I was struck by something the pastor told him. He said he didn’t want his church to become a “one-issue church,” a church based on either opposition or support for how a particular group of people would be welcome or not in the church. He said the church’s core mission is bigger than that, and Memorial’s governing body had decided not to put the issue to a vote. They chose the hard path, I thought, but the right one.
One of our commenters disagreed. What a bunch of wimps, he said. Make a decision!
The history of Christianity is rife with people who not only agreed with that sentiment but went to war and killed each other over one decision or another. Did you know that Martin Luther, the great church reformer, acquired some power late in life and had some people who disagreed with him executed? It happened.
We’re beyond that now, most contemporary Americans would say. But we still have our human nature, don’t we? Listen to a wise pastor and his wise church.