This is an extraordinary time in the life of our district and denomination, with levels of division not seen perhaps since the early 1880s. A couple congregations already have left Atlantic Northeast District and things are not good in the denomination as a whole. This all got extremely personal for me when the congregation that nurtured me and that I have been part of for most of my nearly 56 years of life decisively moved toward separation this past summer, forcing me to choose between my local church family and my extended church family.
So it’s hard to know what to preach about at a time like this. Do you confront our divisions directly? I guess I could do that, but sometimes it feels to me like our divisions are all we ever talk about, and so far it doesn’t seem like more conversation about homosexuality has done much to bring us together.
Do you just admit that we are divided on that issue, ignore it, and preach about something else? You know, let’s focus on mission or evangelism or disaster relief or a compelling vision, all of which are good things to focus on and do have potential to bring us together. I could do that, but it’s hard to talk about brighter topics when the dark cloud of division is blocking out the sun, at least for me.
So using a decidedly unspiritual analogy, I decided I would play the cards I was dealt—namely a 50th district conference, a divided church, and the story of Job—and see if I could turn that into a winning hand. As I shuffled those three cards around in my mind, I was handed these three words: lament, repent, and reinvent.
Job’s story is pretty familiar. In the first two chapters we learn of this man from Uz. He was blameless and upright, feared God, and shunned evil. He was blessed with a large family, larger herds of animals, and great wealth. He was extremely conscientious and faithful to God, a respected pillar in the community. Job 1:3 summarizes, “He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.”
For reasons I don’t fully understand, one day in the course of a conversation with Satan, God pointed out what a wonderful guy Job was. Satan, in effect, taunted God by saying something like, “Well, of course Job is faithful. Who wouldn’t be faithful if they had been blessed the way you blessed Job.” Before the conversation was done, God had agreed to let Satan take away everything Job had, so long as he didn’t lay a finger on Job himself. And so Satan set to work destroying Job’s donkeys and sheep and camels and servants and finally all 10 of Job’s children.
A short time later God pointed out that Job indeed had remained faithful despite all his devastating loss. And Satan said in effect, “Well sure he stayed faithful through all that, but he’ll curse you to your face if his own health fails.” And again, inexplicably, God gave Satan permission to afflict Job, so long as he didn’t kill him.
Job soon was covered with excruciating sores from the top of his head to the bottoms of his feet. He sat in abject misery among the ashes, scraping his sores with a shard of pottery. His wife, the only family member he had left, told him to just curse God and die. Yet, Job replied to her, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” And the narrator of the story affirms, “In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.”
Back in my Sunday school days, we skipped right from there to the epilogue in chapter 42, where we learn that God restored everything to Job, blessing him with 10 more children and twice the wealth he had before. He lived a long life and died a happy man. So the lesson is that if we are faithful in the midst of adversity God will be faithful and bless us.
But to arrive at that neat and tidy conclusion, we have to skip over chapters 3-41, which aren’t quite as cut-and-dried. In the final verses of chapter 2, Job’s friends came to comfort and sympathize with him. When they saw Job’s misery they wept aloud, tore their robes, and sprinkled dust on their heads in mourning. For seven days and seven nights they sat on the ground with Job in silence, sharing in his suffering. And that was pretty much the last thing they got right.
After seven days, it was Job who broke the silence. He opened his mouth and cursed the day he was born, beginning a long period of lament and wrestling with why God had permitted his life to fall apart. By definition, a lament is passionate expression of grief or sorrow. The Bible contains a good bit of it. A third or more of the Psalms include laments. The prophets Jeremiah and Habakkuk expressed lament, and Jeremiah penned an entire book lamenting the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple. Jesus lamented in the garden. Job laments.
And in this divisive chapter of our church’s life I lament. I lament that the friends I have on either side of this great divide—people I consider brothers and sisters in Christ, people whose faith and convictions I admire for different reasons— can’t talk to each other, unless it is to defend their own views or question or disparage the views of the other. I lament that individuals, congregations, and organizations are judged on the basis of a single issue. And the issue is not what they believe about Jesus.
I lament that the spiritual ties of brothers and sisters forged over more than 300 years of common faith and heritage can be severed in what seems like the blink of an eye. As the Church of the Brethren, we can’t claim the level of faithfulness to God that Job was able to claim. But I can relate to Job’s feeling that our best days were in some earlier era. For some, the glory days were a time of sharper separation from the world and more clarity on theology and moral standards. For others it was the exciting era of establishing overseas missions—although I would note that era has not ended. We still do have some exciting missions and sister churches around the world. For some, it was the Brethren Service era after World War II when we sent boatloads of heifers accompanied by seagoing cowboys to people in need, founded Brethren Volunteer Service, and helped rebuild war-ravaged Europe—although I would note that we still have some pretty good service ministries.
But now our divisions and numerical decline seem to overshadow much of the good that remains in our church, and so, like Job, I lament.
My second word is repent. It probably isn’t fair to summarize the dialogue in chapters 3-37 in a couple of sentences, but it boils down to Job defending himself, saying that he was undeserving of all that had befallen him, while his friends argued that God is just and therefore, if all these terrible things happened to Job, he must have done something to deserve it. Job was accusing God of unjustly punishing him, while his friends were defending God, trotting out many orthodox views on who God was and what God was like. So who was right?
God said at the beginning of the story and at the end that Job was in the right. But in between, Job repented. So what did Job have to repent of?
After chapter after chapter of debate and lament and questioning God, God finally spoke, but didn’t really answer any of Job’s questions. Instead, he asked Job quite a few questions of his own, beginning with, “Where were you, Job, when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand.” God went on like this verse after verse, establishing that God is God and Job is not.
Finally, in Job 42:3 and 6, Job confesses: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. . . . Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
One of the things that is so interesting about our current liberal/conservative divide is that both sides believe the other side is “winning.” With all due respect, I think it’s pretty clear that we all are losing. I don’t know what to do about it, except maybe repent. But even here, it’s hard to agree on who needs to repent of what.
Those advocating for radical inclusion are pretty sure that more conservative voices need to repent of being judgmental, exclusive, and homophobic. They need to repent of elevating law above love, of failing to understand the Jesus who embraced outcasts, stood with the marginalized, and welcomed them to his table and into his kingdom. I agree with some of that.
Those advocating for the traditional Judeo-Christian view of sexuality and marriage, on the other hand, are pretty sure that those liberals need to repent of ignoring the plain truths of scripture, of distorting God’s intent for sexual expression which goes back to the creation story itself when God created man and woman for each other, of being purveyors of a cheap grace that extends welcome without repentance and that blesses that which God does not bless. I could probably agree with some of that too.
But can we agree on anything that most or all of us need to repent of? Doubtful, but let’s take a stab.
First, we could repent of letting the divisions and methods of our culture into the church. So much of what divides us within the church is what divides our culture as a whole. The toxicity of our politics has found its way into the church. We fight battles within the church just like the Democrats and Republicans do outside the church. Instead of reasoning together and seeking to discern God’s leading, we try to utterly defeat the opposition. We could repent of that.
We could repent of questioning our opponents’ commitment to Christ. If somebody has taken similar baptism vows to mine, then I should treat that person as a fellow Christian. From there we can debate what it means to follow Jesus and how scriptures should be interpreted, but we have to stop questioning the sincerity of each other’s faith based on views on specific issues. We could repent of that. The third thing to repent of comes directly from Job.
Both Job and his comforters thought they understood God. Job’s critics especially could easily find texts from the law and the prophets to back up their views of who God is and how God acts. Yet, God said they had it all wrong.
Although most everything that Job said about God and himself was correct, in the end God put Job in his place and Job admitted that he was in over his head and repented in dust and ashes. Maybe we too need to repent of speaking with such certainty of things we do not fully understand, things too wonderful for us to know.
My third word is reinvent. Whether many more congregations eventually leave or whether most of us decide to stay together as Brethren, we are going to have to find what unites us. Certainly a commitment to Jesus Christ has to be at the center of that. And with Christ at the center, the center might be where we need to be.
The Brethren were born as a balancing act between two theological strains—Radical Pietism and Anabaptism. While more recent scholarship has viewed these two movements as mutually reinforcing, there were tensions between individualism and community, inward and outward expressions of faith, and more. The Brethren sought to strike a balance between things that aren’t always easy to reconcile.
Since the first eight Brethren were baptized in the Eder River in 1708, dozens of denominations and smaller splinter groups have split from the Schwarzenau Brethren. We are members of the only group that always decided to stay and try to reconcile the tensions. We have been the epitome of a middling group, seeking to strike a balance as various forces have tugged us in one direction or another.
During our greatest period of division, in the early 1880s, as the Brethren wrestled with whether to maintain a sharp separation from the world or to pursue more aggressive mission and evangelism, the denomination suffered a three-way split. The Old German Baptist Brethren chose separation from the world and thus separation from the main body. Two years later the impatient Progressives, who desired to be less plain and more aggressive in employing new evangelistic methods like Sunday school and revival meetings, pulled out to become the Brethren Church. Those who remained in the Church of the Brethren decided to live with that tension of being in, but not of, the world.
Many of the plainer churches in eastern Pennsylvania would have sympathized with the concerns of the Old Orders in 1881, but chose to stay with the main body. Many of the congregations in the greater Philadelphia area would have sympathized with the Progressives’ desire to more actively engage the world in 1883, but most stayed with the main body. Historically, in Atlantic Northeast, we have been inclined to hang in there, in the middle, seeking to work out differences and strike a balance.
In the 1920s and 1930s and beyond, when Protestantism was divided by a rift between conservative Fundamentalists and liberal Modernists, Brethren lost some members in either direction. But as the main body, we said we aren’t exactly either of those. We are Anabaptists, who understand the Old Testament in light of the New, and the New Testament in light of the example and teachings of Jesus Christ. We find Jesus somewhere in the middle between theological fundamentalism and liberalism.
While much of Christendom today is divided into some who believe the mission of the church is evangelism and individual salvation and others who believe that the mission of the church has more to do with peace and justice, we have tried to hold evangelism and social action in tension, believing that both are part of Christ’s gospel. We find Jesus somewhere in the middle, showing us how we can have peace with God and be peacemakers among people.
I am reminded of the beginning of John’s Gospel, in 1:14, where it says that Jesus, the Word, came from the Father, became flesh, and dwelt among us, “full of grace and truth.” It seems like we in the church are engaged in a battle between grace and truth. Oh, it isn’t quite that neat. Those who are advocating for greater inclusion, who I would put in the grace category, also believe they are standing for the truth. And those I would say are more truth oriented, also believe in God’s grace. But it still feels like a tug-of-war.
Maybe our calling is to continue to struggle with the tension between grace and truth and pull those who threaten to skew our balance too far one way or the other back toward the center. We may find Jesus somewhere in the middle. One of the characteristics of biblical lament is that it almost always ends on a hopeful note. Read the psalms of lament and you will see that laments move from sorrow to hope. “Though things are bad now and I can’t see your hand at work, Lord, yet will I trust you.” Often somewhere in the middle between lament and reinvent is repent.
Such was the case with Job. After he lamented and repented, God restored him. Now it wasn’t the same. Having 10 new children doesn’t replace the 10 that were lost. But after Job’s devastating loss, the Lord still had good things in store for his servant.
I don’t know where you are as you view the Church of the Brethren today. I’m still lamenting. I recognize I am in need of repenting. But when we get through all of this, maybe God still has plans for us, if we are willing to do some reinventing. That reinventing might actually look more like reclaiming.
In this day when our culture is polarized, when our politics are polarized, and when our church is polarized, maybe the most radical and faithful place to be isn’t at one of the poles, but in the middle. Maybe our witness for this time is to show the world how people who see some things quite differently can be reconciled to God and to each other and work together for the common good. Just maybe as we continue to seek Jesus we will find him somewhere in the middle, and he will still be full of grace and truth.
Don Fitzkee is pastor of worship at Lancaster (Pa.) Church of the Brethren, former chair of the Mission and Ministry Board of the Church of the Brethren, and author of Moving Toward the Mainstream, a history of churches in Atlantic Northeast District. Previously he served on the nonsalaried ministry team at the Chiques congregation in Manheim, Pa. This article is condensed from a sermon delivered at the 50th Atlantic Northeast district conference in October.