On behalf of our brothers and sisters from Integrated Mennonite Church in the Philippines, as well as churches across Southeast Asia which I represent as a YAB speaker, I’d like to greet you a hearty, “Good morning!”
It was also in July, 10 years ago, when I said good-bye to this country where I have lived for one year as an IVEP participant: nine months here in Pennsylvania and almost three months in Colorado. I consider this country as my second home as this is the only country where I have lived outside of my home country. So, I would like meet again and say hello to those of you who are from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, especially for those from Shalom Christian Academy where I worked as a volunteer in 2004. I’d also like to greet those who are from Marion Mennonite Church where I attended for a few months with my first host family.
By mid-May of 2015 I flew to Divide, Colorado, and worked at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp for almost three months before I finished my IVEP year. So, if you were one of those who had a summer job at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp in 2005, or were one of the campers that summer, we have probably crossed paths already and I’d like to say hello and meet you again during this conference.
My awe-inspiring, life-changing IVEP experience ameliorated my worldviews and perspectives on a lot of international issues such as cultural diversities and religious practices. It was during IVEP that I attended a lot of different churches including non-Mennonite churches of the Christian faith. It was in IVEP, as well as the Assembly Gathered of MWC in Paraguay in 2009 that I got to witness and experience how to worship God in spirit and in truth and yet in different styles highly influenced by one’s geo-cultural background: from European’s harmonious hymns to Asia’s upbeat music; from South Americans’ luau-like music party to Africa’s energetic dancing. Not one is wrong, they’re just different from each other. Blend them all together and God must be smiling from up above as God savours the sweet aroma of worship, rising to his throne, offered by his children all over the globe.
Thus, I wonder: does God weep when the very same children who cannot walk together in peace? What does God think when he sees us walking in conflict, struggling for reconciliation, and too often, choosing to part ways because it is the best option?
The text from the Word where I would like to base my response to the previous speech is found in Ephesians 4:1–7.
Too often, the church wallows at the idea of being a sheep, resting in green pastures with a gentle stream by the side. When other flocks get in the way, they often flee to the other side of the fence where the pasture looks “greener”. How about painting another picture of the church, as a battalion in the army of the living God as pictured in the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”?
It is sobering that in many Christians today do not behave like soldiers but act like children—brawling, debating, fighting, living in conflict in the church—and resorting to splitting as the only resolution to their problems. And instead of multiplying through church planting, they spread around through church “splanting” (a hybrid name for a church that has been planted because somebody split up with another church).
What happened to the body of Christ who stands united in one hope, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism that worships and serves that one God and Father of all? What happened to the eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? Allow me to discuss three points why church conflict happens. First, it happens when the body of Christ becomes self-conceited, mirroring the “selfie” culture and narcissistic trend of today’s fad; albeit, treating minor issues as major and the major issues as minor. The church experiences conflict when it loses grip of the very foundation on which it is built, or worse, out of pride, builds its own foundation. Last of all, church conflict happens when the soldiers of God lay down their full armour, giving up the fight.
#1: Selfie Culture
In Ephesians 6:10–18, the Apostle Paul admonished the churches in Ephesus to put on the whole armour of God in order to fight the wiles of the devil. Christian soldiers are called in the army of the living God to fight in a spiritual warfare. The problem is, the enemy disguises itself so beguilingly that many Christians do not recognize it to the point that the same Christian soldier ends up attacking not the enemy, but another comrade.
#2: Jesus, our Foundation
For the church to live in the bond of peace, it must not lose grip of the foundation in which it is built: “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Sometimes, the church thinks that including Jesus (the very foundation of our faith) in its structure will not be cool for the younger generation. Jesus will only cause disharmony with those who subscribe to other faiths, and a bold mention of his name will preempt church growth. Thus, the church puts Jesus at the backstage and warns him to stay in the shadows amid the flurry of activities and other religious rituals. Since the pivotal focus and sole reason as to why the church exists has been put aside, it is not surprising when individuals start having their own agenda which eventually leads to conflict.
Jesus is not after religion. All he ever wanted was a relationship with the church he died for. Unless the church goes back to the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his saving power, it will continue to live powerless in conflict and in pain. Remember that, “…the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved, it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, KJV).
#3: The Full Armour of God
Ephesians 6:11 says “put on” the whole armour of God. Sometimes the armour can be burdensome, prompting Christian soldiers to lay it aside to “rest”. But the battle is not against flesh and blood but against cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil. A true Christian soldier is always clad with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. They do not fight to cause conflict but fight against conflict to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Jesus gives peace, not like the peace the world gives. He has called for war, but not to the war the world creates. Jesus called us to battle against injustices, conflicts and doubts. The good news is that the battle has been won at the cross 2,000 years ago when Jesus died and rose again. He has defeated the enemy by conquering death and hell: resurrecting back to life for the church to live in victory. Can Jesus not much more so, win these battles of conflict for us?
Church, stop dreaming of a perfect and ideal church. To all Christian soldiers out there, sound the battle cry of the church that Christ has redeemed: the church saved by grace through faith and not by works; the church, living not with its own agenda that promotes religion but rather, a relationship with the Saviour.
Let me end with a short story of a girl from the Philippines named Lenlen.
Lenlen’s parents met the first Mennonite missionaries in the 1970s. In fact, it was in a small Bible school where her parents first met and married later on.
The funny thing was that two groups of Mennonite missionaries with bifurcated beliefs and practices came at about the same time and planted separate churches. The first one [with the Bible school] was known as “liberal” because the women did not wear cape dresses and head covering and they sang contemporary songs. The other one, “conservative,” led a modest lifestyle very much the same as the way they lived in North America, and they sang hymns.
Lenlen’s parents as well as most of her maternal and paternal grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins decided to join the conservatives when she was two years-old. Growing up in this church, she thought it was the most perfect church and the only one that obeys exactly what the Bible says in it minutest detail: the conservative clothes, the head covering, the holy kiss, etc.
However, something terrible happened that changed her life and perceptions about this “perfect” church.
Her maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins left the church due to irreconcilable differences. It was a huge exodus—a bitter one at that! There were about9 children and most of them were married, have families of their own and were active members of the church!
This tipped Lenlen’s world upside down. She had eavesdropped secretly on how adults talk about other adults from the church and was bewildered as she wondered why they were so mad and upset at other church people, most especially the white missionaries! This was tragic because it affected their relationship with each other as a family.
A few more years rolled by, and it was her parents including the whole family of her paternal grandparents who decided to leave the conservative Mennonites. Her father, who was an ordained deacon of the church, led out the family. One of the major reasons was because in a few more years, Lenlen was about to go to college but the conservative Mennonites will not allow that! This time, her already upside-down world was totally crushed.
This decision to separate from the conservative Mennonite church brutally severed her relationships with her closest friends and one and only best friend. She wasn’t allowed to attend youth camps anymore, and that order came from the church leaders which made it even more painful. Their reason for this, which she could not understand, was because she might influence others to leave the church also. This rejection angered her because she did not understand what the matter was about and she could not comprehend why the same church leaders who said they wanted the whole family back would ostracize her by not allowing her to mingle and have fellowship with her friends.
What made it even more painful for Lenlen was because the only place her world revolved in was in that church—for even her school was in the “church”! In fact, she had no distinction between the church and the school at all! So when her family left the church, her world was not only crushed. It disappeared and she found herself floating in a bubble!
That bubble she floated in survived the new school and the home church she found herself transplanted in. She was weak, confused and withdrawn. It was the darkest, saddest, most heart-breaking period of her life. She regarded it as her “valley of the shadow of death”. She cried a lot, suppressed, silently and at the deepest part of the night when everyone else in the house was fast asleep.
With God’s grace, after several years, her family returned to the “liberal” Mennonites where her parents were members before. Slowly, she had moved on from her separation anxiety with her friends from the conservative Mennonites. She began to embrace and love the new church where her family transferred and made new church friends. But it took her six years to be finally happy in a church again.
Sadly, the case is not the same with some of her uncles and aunts and other friends she knows who have left the church. Today, some of her relatives are “churchless” people and have no desire to join a church again. What’s even sadder is: they have heard of Jesus but have no relationship with Him.
With this story, I’d like to appeal to the church leaders who are in the forefront of church conflict battles. You have big responsibilities and you cannot win these battles if 1) you will stick to your own agenda, 2) forget to focus your eyes on Jesus, and 3) if you will lay down the full armour of God because you are too tired. Remember that there are children and young people who are trapped in the midst of church conflict. Usually, they are the ones who grow up as church-haters. Is it any wonder, why we’re losing our young people in the church?
For those of you, especially the young people here, who are currently trapped in the midst of church conflict, I want you to know that God’s love is persistent, nurturing and pursuing. Abide in God’s love, surrender to God, and never lose sight of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Always remember the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus has already won the victory over our sins and issues. Our leaders are also human beings. They need our prayers and perhaps even our forgiveness.
Let us not dwell only in the death of Jesus, but let us also bask in the victory of his glorious resurrection. Let us keep our eyes on him, from whom we can find healing. He is the author and finisher of our faith. Fight a good fight of faith by being bold and valiant soldiers.
You see, my friends? I was a casualty of church conflict and separation, too. I was that girl. My nickname is Lenlen.
—Remilyn G. Mondez is assistant professor in English and a doctoral student in communication. She participated in Mennonite Central Committee’s IVEP experience in 2004 and was the Philippine delegate to MWC’s Global Youth Summit in Paraguay 2009.