Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Church's Unsung Heroes: Contention

This blog series is intended to speak to certain aspects of God's Church that are often suppressed, avoided, ignored, or rejected. The interesting thing about these topics is that they have a couple of twists: they're actually good things and doing away with them causes harm. I hope we all can take an honest look at the subjects presented and learn more about ourselves along with Christ's design for His people. 

Though "contention" was not on my original list for this series, I feel like it is only natural that I speak to it after the post about disagreement. Pardon the digression.

Church is supposed to be a safe place, right?

After all, Jesus was a man of peace and solitude, mercy and love. 

But what about that time Jesus said He did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10:34)? What about the time Jesus flipped the money changers' table or called the Pharisees blind, dead hypocrites (Matt 23)? Did Jesus really mean what He said when He required that His followers hate their families and themselves in order to be His disciples (Lk 14:26)? 

Ok, maybe church shouldn't always be so safe.

In the book of Acts, Paul told his partner in ministry, Barnabas, that they should go back to some of the churches they've either planted or visited to check in and see how everyone is doing. The two had been on quite a long journey, proclaiming the gospel in every city. Probably keeping in mind the biblical principle that there is strength in numbers (Ecc 4:12), Barnabas said that they should take John Mark with them. 

Paul completely disagreed.

Mark had abandoned them on an earlier journey in Pamphylia, about 300 miles west of Antioch (and two chapters earlier, see 13:13) where they were staying. The Bible says "there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other," (15:39).

The Church had not existed for very long-- only a few years, in fact-- and already we have our first "church split."  Paul and Barnabas must have been Baptists...just kidding!

Ok, it's not exactly the same thing, but bear with me.

Barnabas, being an encourager who is more apt to give men the benefit of the doubt, called out to John Mark once again to give him a second chance. He could see the value of this man in God's spreading of His kingdom.

Paul, a strong-willed visionary, didn't want to be abandoned again by the guy who recently stiffed him in Pamphylia. To him, John Mark's company would be a burden that would only slow down the early Church's growth. 

So they separated from each other.

This may seem akin to my previous post about disagreement. After all, the contention that arose between Paul and Barnabas was birthed from disagreement. But contention is more than just merely not seeing eye to eye. 

Disagreement is the shell and contention is the substance. Disagreement is the form and contention is the feeling. Contention is strife, opposition, rivalry, and competition.

You may not think of Paul and Barnabas as being rivals or competitors, but they were, at least in this brief scene. Does that mean that they were on different teams? Of course not! Guys on the same team compete all the time. Does it mean that they were contending against each other for prideful, selfish, sinful reasons? Well we just don't know.

There are two ways that we can contend with our brothers and sisters: profitably or pridefully. 

Profitable contention consists of one or both parties who genuinely love the Lord and the other person while seeking God's glory and the best for His Church. These people are in step with the Spirit, not seeking their own gain, but desiring a purpose in line with the Word. 

This is the kind of contention we see from Christ. 

When Jesus told the crowds in Luke 14 that if someone comes to Him and does not forsake their own family they cannot be His disciple, that came off a little harsh. I doubt that everyone said "OK, that sounds great!" In fact, this is one of the reasons why "Jesus is a jerk" according to one blogger. 

Why did Jesus tell the people this? 

Well, one idea is that perhaps the people who would eventually nail Jesus to the cross were relatives of those in the crowd (or they were present in the crowd). Another thought is that the people who sought the attention of the crowds most often were their own family members. Jesus was putting these two options before them: follow Him or those who oppose Him; choose the Christ or Christ-haters; walk toward Him or wander away from Him. 

And then Jesus tells them that they also have to hate themselves. We all, as believers, still have a tendency to turn our backs on Christ. Our flesh, the body of death, still pulls us away from godliness and toward sin. Jesus calls us to put our own interests behind and serve Him only.

This is profitable contention on the part of Christ. It's Jesus vs. the world and I think we all know which party is seeking God's glory. The Messiah contended with people's priorities and He did so to point people in the right direction. He made this statement to show that He has to be first on their lists, and so doing, He put Himself in opposition to the demands of their lives.

Prideful contention consists of one or both parties who are self-seeking. Perhaps they think their ideas are the best or maybe they just get a rush out of winning an argument-- either way, their own desires take precedence over God's. 

This is the kind of contention we see from people who disregard humility. Unfortunately these people are not just outside of the church, but in the church as well. 

The Pharisees were great at contending pridefully. In Matthew 22, they try to stump Jesus in a question about taxes. The story is prefaced by verse 15:

"Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle [Jesus] in His words."

It's so easy for us to be this way in the world of social media. Nearly everything controversial that happens in the world makes its way to Facebook. Then, once it is at center stage, many people feel free to make their opinions known. After that, people who disagree with them click on the comment box and throw their two cents in. Minutes, hours, and sometimes days later, the thread of flying daggers continues and the argument has gone so deep that a glance at the comments wouldn't even tell somebody what the original topic was about.

People love to be right! And that is prideful contention. It is self-honoring, self-satisfying, self-uplifting opposition. 

So now back to Paul and Barnabas.

It's hard to say if one, both, or neither of them were profitable or prideful in their contention. Of course I'd like to think that they both had the Lord's will in mind. 

However, regardless of their motives, God used it for good; thus, He made the contention profitable. 

I like what the Geneva Bible says:

"God uses the faults of his servants to the profit and building of the Church."

Though I don't think this disagreement was necessarily the cause of a fault, the result is so true. Gill's Exposition of the Bible speaks to this as well:

"...though it is not easy to say which was to blame most in this contention; perhaps there were faults on both sides, for the best men are not without their failings; yet this affair was overruled by the providence of God, for the spread of his Gospel, and the enlargement of his interest; for when these two great and good men parted from one another, they went to different places, preaching the word of God."

This is why contention is a hero in the Church.

Two Spirit-filled parties who deeply long to see the power of the gospel can disagree and oppose one another. This can be done gracefully, in love, and with truth. As two sides contend, both seeking the highest good for the Lord while keeping a humble and gracious spirit, great things will happen! 

Competition breeds quality and success. I truly believe that. And God will bless a man who competes for the good of the gospel. 

Thank you for reading!

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