Be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace… [Then], speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.
Ephesians 4

America is a tense place right now.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock – and by rock, I mean, like, a mountain of granite – you know that our nation’s on edge. Our politics are frayed and cantankerous. Questions about social responsibilities have pit us against each other. Our editorial pages and Facebook feeds are littered with interrobangs and red-faced emojis.

The questions are hard, the anxiety is real. And Christians aren’t above the noise.

Rest easy: This is not another article that tries to backdoor you toward supporting a specific piece of legislation. It’s not about signing any particular petition or to rallying to a certain cause. This piece looks to scripture to consider how we should think and behave in times of disagreement and contrast. How do followers of Jesus navigate social tension, especially when it bursts through the doors of the Fellowship Hall?

Three thoughts. First: Tension dwells under the steeple. We may as well just come out and say it. Churches aren’t immune to the stressors and tensions that the world faces. Believers know that someday the lion will lie down with the lamb – and the donkey and the elephant will share a stall – but we sure aren’t there yet. 

Tension dwells under the steeple. And gang – it always has. 

Have you ever seen people shake their heads and say “If only we could be more like the New Testament church, everything would be fine!”? Those people aren’t reading the New Testament. Because once you do read it, you notice tension everywhere. There’s tension in Rome, there is tension in Galatia, there is tension in Philippi. There is tension in Jerusalem, there is tension in Colossae. There’s friction all over the place.*

Many New Testament scholars hold that the book of Ephesians depicts the New Testament Church at its most tranquil state. But chapter 4 suggests that, even in this relatively irenic moment, there was plenty of tension at play. Verses 1-2 call on the believers there to be more humble, gentle, peaceful, and patient. There was a need to bear with each other and to speak truthfully-lovingly to each other.

That last line is important. Because many instances of Christian tension turn on questions of “Truth vs. Love” (or “Law vs. Grace” or “Morals vs. Relationships”). But “Truth” and “Love” aren’t enemies. These two “rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 13:6). Ephesians 4:15 directs followers of Jesus to speak truth in love. Our talk is to be lovingly-truthful and truthfully-loving.

People like Paul and James didn’t ignore tension, but neither did they immediately pick a side and cease debate. In many instances, they sought to harness the energy of uncertainty and change that precipitated congregational tension. Truth and love are like twin keys turning together to unlock new hopes and possibilities within the community of faith.

In fact, many tensions that live under the steeple revolve around more than one worthwhile or godly desire. I just started making a list the other day of some of the tensions that appear in our church. Here are a few “tensions among positives” that I encounter on a regular basis:

  • Being Creative/Being Consistent
  • Generosity/Stewardship
  • Contentedness/Holy Hunger
  • Careful Deliberation/Immediate Action
  • Self-Discipline/Peanut Butter M&M’s

In every case, these pairs generate a sort of creative dynamism. It doesn’t come easily, and the contrasts need to be navigated carefully. Wisdom is required to speak truthfully/lovingly and to see the well-intentioned aims that generate church tensions. But good leadership enters the fray.

That connects with the second point: Tension is not a refrigerator light.

In other words, it doesn’t turn off when you shut the door. It doesn’t go away if you opt not to look at it. Things don’t tend to blow over. They don’t tend to just go away with time.

Anecdotally, we know that churches that fail aren’t generally those churches that experience tension and then make bad decisions negotiating it. Churches that fail are generally those churches that experience tension and artificially suppress it and those who recognize important moments of discord and do nothing about it at all.

Successful leaders resist the temptation to diminish tension when tension is necessary.

They also learn how to rethink tension. We tend to reckon anxiety between believers as a collision of competing and incompatible desires. Either Person A gets her way or person B wins the argument. But what if we considered that there was a third perspective in the room? Not a “neutral” perspective, but a person whose welfare, whose condition, whose faith, even – was impacted positively or negatively based on whether or not persons A and B come to a just and fair and positive conclusion.

I’ve always loved the old story about a desert bedouin who passed away, leaving his seventeen camels to his three sons. When the sons read their father’s will, they discovered that to the first son, he left ½ of his camels, to his second son, he left 1/3 of his camels, and to his third son, he left 1/9 of the camels.

This was a problem, of course, since 17 cannot be divided into one half, one third, or one ninth. So the brothers squabbled for days after the funeral about what to do.

Finally, at wit’s end, they walked to the tent of the village elder and asked him what to do. The elder listened to their problem and said – Well, I don’t know what to do either, but if it helps, you can have my camel also.

With that camel in the herd, the brothers were able to execute their father’s will. The older brother took half of the 18 camels, which was nine, the second son took one third of the camels, which was six, and the third son took one ninth of the camels, which was 2. After they all were satisfied that they had received their fair share, they looked around and discovered that there was one camel left. They returned it to the village elder, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Isn’t that a great story? What it points to is the power that bringing in another participant or perspective can have.

In moments of tension in church, in business, in family, we often have to ask: What do other other people – people not at the table, but very much in play in this system – desire?

Entering into those discussions in times of tension requires a new frame of mind. Engaging tension in a Biblical way means proceeding with the sort of humility and gentleness that’s described in Ephesians 4.

Now, you might be hearing this and thinking – Well, that may have worked in Bible Times, Tim, but the author of that text doesn’t have any idea about the situation that I’m facing. It’s different nowadays. Culture’s different. Humility doesn’t work anymore.

Except that it isn’t that different. People in the first century, in “Bible Times” – were as naturally disinclined toward humility as we are today.  In his commentary on Ephesians, New Testament scholar Andrew Lincoln writes: Humility/Gentleness was an attitude that was regarded primarily negatively in the Greco-Roman world and was associated with contemptible servility.

In other words, the Ephesians weren’t reading chapter 4 and thinking – Oh, sure…That will work fine. We’ll just be humble and gentle and then our tensions will be all ironed out. No! they were reading this and thinking the same thing you might be…I need to win! Or at least – let’s sweep this thing under the rug so I maintain my dignity!

But for believers, it’s not about winning or saving face. Christian community is about grace, gladness, and the glory of Jesus. Jesus is that third party who wants the best for everyone.

Finally: Tension catalyzes spiritual growth. This is, I think, what verse 15 is talking about. It says that when tensions arise, the endgame – or at least the opportunity – is to grow up in maturity into Christ. I think many of us in church leadership are in such a rush to mute and muffle tension that we miss the growth potential that exists in moments of stress and conflict.

See, the opposite of tension isn’t necessarily peace and quiet and cucumber facials. Sometimes the opposite of tension is apathy. Stalled out spirituality. It happens when we just get really satisfied with ourselves. With where we’re at. And we become resistant to something new. We start to brush off God’s attempts to stretch us, to engage us.

Is there enough tension in your spiritual life to keep you growing? The physics, the dynamics, are the same as in any other kind of growth. If you want your biceps to grow bigger, you need to seek out weights and challenge your arms. If you want to grow mentally, you start doing puzzles and brain games. And if you want to grow more spiritually vital, you engage and enter the healthy tensions that are always around you. Checkup time:

  • When is the last time you asked someone of a different political viewpoint about their relationship with God?
  • When is the last time that you asked for forgiveness when you probably could have gotten away with “moving on”?
  • When is the last time that you witnessed to someone you suspected would resist your overtures?
  • When is the last time you asked God to bless someone who disagrees with you?
  • When is the last time you took the initiative to write an encouragement note to someone who cut you down?

If the thought of living any of these out makes your palms sweaty, then you’re doing it right. Something big is being asked of you. You are about to be stretched. You’re about to engage the tension. And as Ephesians says, you’re about to know a little bit better what it means to grow up into maturity in Christ.


*Aside: As a pastor, I know this matter personally. Sometimes, in my circles of ministerial friends, I hear whispers about Reverend So-and-so who’s having “quite a bit of tension in his church” as if this is a great indictment of that pastor’s leadership capacity. But think about the First Century churches I just listed. You know who they were pastored by? They were pastored by the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter. James had conflict in his church. John had conflict in his churches. For crying out loud, the church that Jesus pastored had tension – and it only had twelve members!

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