When relationships fall apart within the Church, it’s a tragedy. It compromises our witness to the transforming love of Jesus Christ. Very often, it paralyzes us with conflict that becomes personal instead of being focused on the vision, values and strategies for ministry that we can negotiate and resolve.
I see conflict in many parts of the Church—vestries, search committees, congregations, dioceses, provinces and among global Anglicans. As I reflect on how we can repair and reconcile broken relationships, may I offer a few thoughts from God’s word and my own experience in healing and restoring broken relationships?
- Everybody—everybody—needs to come in humility to the foot of the Cross.
I know very few breakdowns of relationships where one party is 100% at fault. You may only be 1% culpable by talking with only one person about the pain of the offense after the fact instead of following Jesus’ command in Matthew 18 to go to the offender first. No matter. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). It takes a good dose of humility to absorb this fact about our wrecked hearts and habits and hang ups. If we are going to allow Jesus to do his wonderful work of “breaking down the dividing walls of hostility,” “making us one new man out of the two,” “making peace” and “reconciling us to God” in Christ (Ephesians 3:20ff), is there any better place to stand in humility together than at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ where we have all fallen short?
- Face the part where you have contributed to the break down
As Anglicans in North America, many of us were rescued by African Anglicans who taught us the great Biblical heart of the East African revival. That heart is “walking in the light with each other,” from I John 1:7-9. It follows from the humility in step one that we should recognize our need for absolute honesty and transparency with each other: for it is only in such “walking in the light” that we have both true fellowship (koinonia) with each other and the blood of Jesus can cleanse us from our sins (I John 1:7). But here’s the corollary: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all righteousness.” (I John 1:8-9) What an incredible promise! To not only be forgiven by Jesus but purified, the slate wiped clean! But if you are in a relational breakdown or conflict right now, in what part have you contributed to the breakdown? And to whom do you need to confess your part, in addition to Jesus, to make things right?
- Repent—which means stop the behavior that breaks the relationship
It’s nice to talk about reconciliation and restoration of relationships. But we won’t get to that fertile ground until we have plowed our hearts through repentance. In Luke 3, when the tax collectors and the soldiers came to John the Baptist to repent and be baptized, the prophet was very specific about the behaviors they need to halt immediately. When the tax collectors asked him what they should do, he said “stop collecting any more money from the people than you are required to.” (Luke 3:13). When the soldiers asked him the same thing, John said “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:14). Identifying the specific behaviors that we are doing that continue to “break-down” the relationship follows from step 2. It’s a matter of really and truly facing what we are doing to contribute to the breakdown of the relationship. And as John the Baptist challenged them, repentance means that you stop doing these behaviors at once. The offenses must stop. Otherwise there can be no reconciliation, no restoration of the relationship and no rebuilding of trust.
- Forgive, as Christ has forgiven you
“Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32). Jesus forgave me not because I deserved it, neither because I had done enough penance to take me off probation. He forgave me because he loved me and died for me on the Cross. What that means to me is that I have no right to wait until an offender acts sufficiently to deserve my forgiveness, nor to wait until he or she has done sufficient penance for me to take them off probation. In fact, if I’m going to forgive as Christ forgave me, I need to remember one of his seven last words from the Cross— “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). I console myself with the thought that Jesus didn’t feel very good at that point of his crucifixion, that he was in fact in great pain, and that this came from his will as well as his heart. So, I need to forgive even when the offender expresses no understanding, no remorse. There’s a whole book to write on this subject of forgiveness, and more. But hanging on to unforgiveness and resentment, even bitterness is like drinking a cup of poison in the hopes that it will hurt the other person. All it does is poison you and me, further wrecking our hearts and wills, compromising the Gospel work and the high hopes Christ has for you and me.
These four steps are a good start to healing and restoring broken relationships, at every level of the Church. If we are going to bring our own houses in order, I pray you will take time and pay attention to these Biblical principles in restoring and reconciling broken relationships.
There is another principle too. It applies to the demanding work of restoring trust after a relational breakdown. Forgiveness may be a solo act—but restoring trust requires all parties to the breakdown. And though trust can be destroyed in a moment, it often takes longer to rebuild trust. But here is the Biblical principle, from the lips of Jesus himself:
“Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23)
In our conflicts, may we always go quickly to the foot of the cross, humbling ourselves, repenting and forgiving and calling upon the boundless grace and power of Jesus Christ that makes all things possible!