Dealing with conflict and disagreement are some of the hardest things that we do in life. I hate conflict and my default Conflict management style is avoidance. A bit like this Banksy painting, If I can sweep it under the mat I will. The only problem with that course of action is that eventually you will trip up over the large lump in the middle of the room. And important things can’t be dealt with in that way.
The Internet was supposed to be a place where information was shared and people could cooperate to solve conflict and difference. At the same time it has become infected with mystical beasts who used to wait under bridges in children’s fairy tales or threateningly lumber along in fantasy epics, but now lurk in virtual anonymity behind keyboards, to pounce and attack anyone they don’t agree with or like. These trolls don’t want to enter meaningful debate and search for truth rather they just type out vitriol and venom.
Even in the church we find it hard to deal with conflict… It is hard to deal with people who have differing views, on small matters like the colour of church carpet and worship styles and peoples likes and dislikes, let alone when it comes to matters of greater importance like doctrine and teaching, matters that really matter.
In one book on pastoral leadership I read there was a chapter that was labelled ‘learning to fight like Christians’ it maintained that there were rules of engagement for wars, that boxing has rules, and if it had been more recent it probably would have even pointed out that MMA (mixed Marshal Arts) which had been described as ‘organised prison violence’ has rules and so Christian’s also needed to know the rules when it came to fighting, or dealing with disagreement and conflict.
In the passage we are looking at today Paul turns to help Timothy in the task that he has been given of dealing with false teachers in the church at Ephesus. And that is helpful for us as it gives us some insights and practical advice for dealing with similar issues today and the wider issue of dealing with conflict and difference in the Church. In the section from the start of chapter three, Paul tells Timothy that the end times, that long section of history between Christ’s incarnation and his return, would be marked by such difficulties. You can see the truth of that prophecy in church history. For us today as we participate in God’s mission and grow into maturity and ministry we will face conflict and falsehood as well, so Paul’s teaching is as relevant to us as it was to Timothy.
Last year I was involved in a commission to another Church in Auckland. It was a church where the minister was in deep conflict with his elders. We were called by the Presbytery to sort it out. It was one of the most draining situations, physically, emotionally and spiritually, I’ve ever dealt with, as we listened to both sides and had to discern a way forwards. Timothy had found the same thing with dealing with the difficult pastoral situation in Ephesus, he was burned out. As we’ve seen over the past few weeks in the opening section of 2 Timothy Paul encourages Timothy to fan into flames the gift of God within you. He encourages Timothy to work on his Spiritual vitality. To remember the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life and whatChrist has done for him, and to put into place spiritual disciplines that will help him to continue in the ministry and mission God had called him to: To kiakaha or stand strong in Jesus Christ. Conflict and strife and struggle and opposition and wrestling with falsehood can sap us spiritually and Paul’s best advise is the importance of keeping that relationship with Christ healthy.
Now Paul turns to Timothy to give him the material he needs to work against the false teachers. He talks of content, strategy, motive and in the midst of that he gives Timothy hope.
He gives Timothy the content he is to use in the conflict against the false teachers…
Paul tells timothy to “Keep reminding God’s people of these things.” These things, refers back to what has gone before, and it may mean the teaching in the section of the letter before this which was as you may remember from last week contained in a song, and talked of the fact that if we die with Christ we will live with Christ and if we endure we will also reign with him, and that God is faithful. That dying to self and enduring may have needed to be reinforced to people because of the false teaching that we are told of in verse 18 who say that the resurrection has already happened, that it was a spiritual resurrection and we’ve all ready made it. But Paul is saying that instead of it being about having already made it, and enjoying heaven now, that the Christian life is about identifying with Christ’s death and sacrificial love, and enduring till he returns.
But it also applies to the rest of what Paul has been telling Timothy, which could be summed up as Solid teaching that leads to holy living, and faith that has its outworking in love. The gospel in its entirety, in saying the resurrection has already come in some way part of the problem at Corinth as well as Ephesus, and in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul takes some time to reaffirm the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, if the resurrection was simply a spiritual one, then there people can deny the physical resurrection of Jesus and Paul also points them forward to our own resurrection when Christ returns, it is bodily resurrection. Saying the resurrection has already happened and is a spiritual thing had impacted on how people lived primarily that what we do with our bodies does not matter. This had lead to two extremes in Corinth and there is evidence of it in Ephesus. One was an extreme aestheticism, where you’ll remember people had done away with marriage, there was no longer the need for romantic and sexual love, and also focused on food laws as well, our bodies don’t matter anymore. The other extreme was that we could do what we liked with our bodies and it lead to all sorts of practices that did not reflect the gospel teaching.
When dealing with false teaching and in the midst of differing understandings and doctrines it is important to be reminded again and again of the gospel. The central truth of Jesus Christ, who came and died and rose again. In the face of false teaching it is as we tell the truth of the good news that the fake news is exposed and loses its attraction and glow in the true light of Jesus Christ. When we differ on matters that are not of so great importance it draws us back to what is really important and central and enables us to see common ground and common good and the basis for love for each other in which we can work through those minor differences.
Paul gives Timothy the strategy for dealing with conflict…
Paul tells Timothy not to get involved in the squabbling about words and godless chatter of the false teachers. Rather says Paul Timothy was to be like a reliable workman who built a straight path, divided correctly the word of truth. The way Timothy handled the truth was as important as the truth itself. The false teacher wove these wonderful whirls of words, threads of thought that wound round each other and seemed to go no where. Kind of like the comments section on an internet news feed, where people nit pick about what is said or simply see it as a chance to respond with what they think, not search for the truth or solve the issue, and of course it is often hijacked by those lurking trolls. But the metaphor Paul uses talks of Timothy making a straight way in the truth, focusing on it but showing its reality by how it is lived out.
Paul says the false teachers seem to seek out the vulnerable and persuade them in secret, but Timothy is to be open and to teach in public. So all can hear and decide what is right. Paul tells timothy to flee youthful ambitions, here you get the idea of things like wanting to be right and win, and rather to pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace. In the later verses of chapter 2 Paul talks of teaching with kindness, and with gentleness. That we show Christian love in how we deal with error and conflict. We still care for those who we disagree with. Gentleness is not weak or wishy washy but rather says that we focus on the common good and the truth and are not waylaid or distracted from it by personal insult and slight.
In the book on pastoral leadership I mentioned before, the author suggests real practical ways of doing that. Like leaving a gap after someone has spoken to think of what they have said, rather than taking the fct they have stopped as a chance to say what we think. Taking the time to reflect back to the other person their position, so they know we have heard and understand before we respond. In his book Soulsalsa Leonard Sweet adds such things as not critiquing someone’s position before we find something to celebrate about them.
That leads on to Paul telling Timothy the Motive for dealing with the false teachers.
That is to see people come to know the truth in Jesus Christ. To repent and change. It’s not about writing people off or destroying their position and them rather its about them responding again to the love of Christ in the gospel. That God will grant them repentance leading to knowledge of the truth. The content is the gospel, the way we approach conflict reflects Christ so they will again meet with Jesus Christ.
I use the Bible in One Year programme for my devotions and the day I sat down to write this message the New Testament reading was the second half of Acts 8 and the whole of Acts 9.. It starts with the death of Stephen the churches first martyr, and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who we know as Paul. Saul looked after the coats of the people who stoned Stephen to death, he agreed with the killing and he went on to persecute the church. On his way to Damascus to arrest Christians there he encounters Jesus Christ. In Damascus he is blind, and God sends Ananias to go and pray for him to receive his sight, Ananias is scared as he has heard of Saul’s hatred of followers of Jesus, But he goes and ministers kindness to Paul and he receives his sight and starts preaching that Jesus is the messiah. Paul knows that God can change people’s hearts, he knows that the person who is wrong about Jesus can met Christ and have their lives transformed. H knows God’s desire for all to come to know Jesus Christ. That has always got to be the motive that we bring to a conflict and wrestling with false hood that the other person may encounter Christ, and if we are in the wrong that we would encounter Christ and know the truth. It is the right attitude to come with, when we have differences Jesus show me your truth, it is the right attitude we should have for those we disagree with, may they encounter Christ and know the truth.
In the middle of all that Paul gives Timothy hope. In typical Jewish thought Paul’s teaching is in two halves. Verse 14-18 and 22-26 the focus is on how Timothy is to deal with the false teachers, but in the two paragraphs is the important thing that give him hope in the midst of the task.
Paul uses the image of God’s household, full of different vessels used for different purposes. The house is built on a solid foundation. Building in the ancient world had a corner stone that the whole place was built of, and often on that stone would be an inscription that denoted whose building it was. We know from 1 peter and also from 1 Corinthians that that solid foundation that corner stone is Jesus Christ, or Christ and Christ crucified. The inscriptions on this stone are that “the Lord knows who are his.” And “that those who confess the name of the Lord will turn from wickedness”. That the vessels in the house depending on what they are made of will be used to everyday mundane things, and other of precious metals will be used in public for special events, important things.
The hope is that in God’s household founded on Christ and Christ crucified, God knows who are his… he is not fooled, and those who truly confess Jesus will turn and live a life that reflects him, they will always follow the truth. There will always be a mix of people in the household of God, just like Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds. It is only when the harvest comes that they will be separated. The hope in the midst of Conflict and wrestling with what is right and wrong belief is that in the end it is God who knows those who are his. It’s not up to us to judge, yes we need to be good workers and build by staying faithful to the gospel and do the things that please God to the best of our ability. But in the end during conflict and as we work through different teachings and understandings the hope is that God knows his own, and if we face conflict holding on to the gospel and treat others with a Christ like love desiring that we all come to Christ, not simply that we win, God knows who are his, and is able to build his Church on his truth.