In the reportage of the battle for the American presidency, the airwaves of late have been full of epithets, unproven charges and vulgarity. The charges and emotional responses to them hang in the air unresolved long after they are spoken, and the battles rage on.
Society of course has legal procedures for dealing with such things. But to paraphrase Miss Manners, etiquette exists to resolve such matters outside of court and we seem as a western society to be neglecting etiquette these days. As well, western culture has centuries of jurisprudence to draw on.
But in times of high emotion we can easily descend to incivility and injustice toward others. In the church, as in society, we can depend upon etiquette and unenforced virtue to render apology and make restitution, or the church’s legal apparatus can be utilized. If we do neither, wounds go unhealed and our Lord is displeased.
In conversation with an ordained minister of one of America’s largest denominations recently I learned that he has such a passion for fair play and integrity in his church that he is spending much time in his retirement years as counsel to ministers who he believes are not getting just treatment under his denomination’s laws.
It seems to me that when in society the injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself” is so often disregarded, it is a good time for the church to shine with obedience to both grace and fair play. We have such a longstanding and rich source of procedures for promoting neighbor love, and a collection of examples in the Christian Scriptures from which to take our bearings.
For example, early on in the development of the early church, the Apostles heard complaints of alleged wrongs committed by Hebrew Jews against Grecian Jews regarding the unfair distribution of aid among the Greek-speaking widows (Acts 6:1–5). The Apostles didn’t say, “stop complaining” or in any other way disregard the complaint. They called the whole Jerusalem church together and asked them to put forward seven men of sterling Christian character to be sure the Greek widows were not neglected. That done, they then appointed seven disciples (who had Greek names) for this purpose.
And thanks to this wise and fair action of leaders, the work of evangelism went on with effect. The church grew, the account says. A contingent of Jewish priests even came to faith and joined the ranks of the church.
It was not as though the Apostles were plowing new ground. They had a source book — the Old Testament, richly endowed with teaching about justice. Consider for example, King David’s abject repentance when brought face to face with his sin by the prophet Nathan, prompting his psalm of repentance, “Create in me a new heart, O Lord.” Or the Lord’s charge through eighth century prophet, Zechariah: “Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgments in your courts” (Zechariah 8:16).
Or the custom of having elders who gathered at the city gate settle disputes that were brought to them. The Christian cause has always had a place for individual repentance in response to the “court of personal conscience” and also for committees, and even courts to reconcile differences between brothers and sisters, and to redress objective wrongs.
This is an excellent time in secular history for the church to examine its commitment to fair and righteous dealings, both in the community of believers itself and in the broader community where the people of God are to shine as lights in the darkness. But leaders must have the heart of a King David, and the courage of a prophet Nathan as they pursue righteousness for themselves and those they lead.
Photo credit: Bernd Baltz (via flickr.com)