Reflections on Discipleship – Disagreeing Nicely

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

Last week I returned to one of the parishes in which I had worked in the past for the funeral of our organist. While I was vicar he was on the Church Council, and I think it would be true to say that we disagreed totally about pretty much everything. He was an old-school Anglican, based around the beauty of the choral tradition. An engineer by training, he had in the back window of his Austin 1100 a sticker which proclaimed ‘Foot, pint and pound are perfectly sound. Don’t go metric’, which honestly I thought was a bit too little too late.

On the other hand I was a keen young vicar in my first incumbency, determined to drag the church kicking and screaming from the Tudor era into the glorious riches of Spring Harvest and charismatic renewal. What I lacked in people skills I made up for with single-minded determination. No wonder we saw things differently!

Austin 1100

But the fact is, it never got nasty. Ever. We listened to one another, disagreed, sparred, but always, I believe with the utmost of respect. Fundamentally we liked each other, could see where we were coming from, and always treated one another with honesty and care. I can remember returning to the church a few years earlier, for a wedding, and being shown around the new digital organ which had finally replaced the somewhat asthmatic pipe instrument which had wheezed its way through the hymns during my time there. My friend was clearly very proud of this new machine, but I was aware of what it must have cost him to make the decision to go digital, rather than continuing to spend thousands on repairing the old ‘proper’ one. But I also knew that having made the decision he would have researched carefully and thoroughly, and made sure we got the best and most appropriate deal. My respect for him increased dramatically.

Having been the victim elsewhere of church disagreement which did turn thoroughly nasty, personal and vindictive, I thank God for my friend, his honour, honesty and respect. Part of mature discipleship, it seems to me, is about how we react when we do find ourselves in situations of conflict, when we step out of glorious times of worship together into the cut and thrust of meetings and decision-making, when we reach those loggerhead impasses. Niceness of itself is not, of course, the answer, as this can serve simply to bury conflict and invite some very large elephants into the room. But neither is making our quarrels personal vendettas.

The problem is, of course, that the behaviour of others affects our behaviour, and vice versa. It wasn’t difficult to like and respect my friend, because that was exactly how he treated me. But when I am attacked I turn nasty and am tempted to give as bad as I get. I can’t control the actions of others, but I do have a duty and calling to check my own behaviour, and to act with integrity and respect. A disciple of Jesus should do no less.

Image: By Mark Brown from Hampton, New Brunswick, Canada (1967 Austin 1100  Uploaded by oxyman) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s Church For? Church as Family

How many times have you heard (or indeed used) the term ‘The Church Family’?

I reckon that most churches have self-designated themselves as families at one time or another, and I can see why. It sounds like a great model of church – a happy family where we all love one another and are always nice to each other. A place where all can find a welcome, and where anyone can belong and be loved. Yet I want to suggest that this is one of the least helpful models of church. Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to find in the pages of scripture.

It is clear that God is pro-family: it isn’t good for people to be alone, and he sets the solitary in families (Ps 68:6). The term is used several times in the epistles (Gal 6:10, 1 Th 4:10, 1 Pet 2:17, 5:9 for example) but usually in the form of ‘God’s family’ or ‘the family of believers’. Never once is it used of a local church, but rather of all those, whether in a large region such as Macedonia, or in an even larger unspecified and therefore probably universal area. Christians who are adopted by God become members of his family, but that family is never seen as just a local congregation. The church universal may be a family, but the church local never is. It is fascinating that in 1 Tim 3 we’re told that a church leader should manage his own (human) family properly. If he can’t do that, how can he be expected to manage ‘God’s church’? Not ‘the church family’, as you might expect. The author deliberately shies away from using that phrase, which would have been a much more satisfying piece of writing.

File:Expecting family.jpg

So why isn’t a local church meant to be a family? First of all because, unlike the picture of pilgrimage we used last week a family is essentially a purposeless thing. Families ‘are’: they don’t of necessity ‘do’ or ‘go’. They’re held together by relationships, not by purpose, and therefore are bodies much more attractive to women than to task-orientated men (I generalise, but I can defend this generalisation). Secondly, there is no growth imperative in the term ‘family’. In fact most families reach the time where they take deliberate steps to ensure that they don’t grow any bigger! Sadly many churches do too. Thirdly, families in real life tend to be selective in whom they let in. ‘PLUs’ are welcome (People Like Us), but there can be all sorts of devices and signals which say to others ‘Keep out!’ And if they are allowed in, it can be because they are poor and needy, and looking for welcome and shelter, rather than because they are fired up and ready to go on a mission. There’s the appeal to the feminine side again. Church as ‘family’ can quickly become church as ‘hospital’, where only needy people are made really welcome, and even then only some needy people. And finally families can be deeply dysfunctional, but are very adept at hiding it because keeping up the front of loving relationships is all-important, much more important in fact than honesty and genuine dealing with conflict. Church families, like human ones, can be deeply destructive and hurtful. Trust me, I know: I’m an out-of-work vicar!

I reckon we’d all do much better to remove this non-biblical term from our vocabulary. I’m going to suggest a better one to replace it, but first I’ll talk about one more model which I reckon is unbiblical and unhelpful. Next week: Church as ‘Haven’.