During my selection process for training as a URC minister I was asked, at both Synod and Assembly level, why I had switched from my previous denomination. I think the assessors were interested that someone had chosen the URC. My reasons, of course, were many and varied but the strongest was about how we make decisions. I didn’t say we’re democratic – as that’s not quite our system – but did say I really appreciated the fact that our structure stops individuals making important decisions preferring, instead, that decisions are made by what is technically known as Councils of the Church. Now, church government is one of those subjects that turns people off in droves but it’s an important aspect of who we are – and how we’re distinguished from other denominations and flows from our readings today.
Often churches are named after their government. If a church describes itself as Presbyterian then we know that it’s government is vested in the Presbytery – a gathering of ministers and Elders. If a church is Episcopalian then it is wedded to authority being invested, in some way, in bishops – those who are ordained to have a ministry of episcope – or oversight. Churches which were, and are, named as Congregational held that the ultimate authority for decisions was the local Congregation.
The genius, it seems to me, of the URC was that it wedded a Presbyterian system of government with Congregational enthusiasm for Church Meetings.
It’s not that we don’t have bishops (though we don’t) it’s that the oversight ministry which, in Catholic and Anglican churches is exercised by a Bishop, is exercised by the Synod – and never by any one individual. Moderators moderate but can’t tell anyone to do anything in the way that, for example, a Catholic bishop can. A friend of mine who used to be a URC Synod Moderator would come back from meetings with a Catholic bishop in awe of their authority. Of course, decision making is easier when just one person must make the decision. Our system is slower, more complex but, we believe leads to better decisions.
So, what’s this little lecture on church government got to do with our readings?
In his letter to the Church in Rome Paul tells the fledgling believers to love their neighbours. He summaries the Jewish law into this and tells them to treat each other and, by extension, the wider society with love. This is a radical departure from the values of secular society which is about consumerism, fashion and getting on. Love is different. Love is hard. And, lest we forget, to love someone else is not the same as liking them. We can’t help who we like but who we like is nothing to do with the Gospel we are commanded to love them.
In the passage from St Matthew Jesus commands tough lough. It’s advice for the Church and, as our little play earlier suggested, many scholars think Matthew added it as advice for what to do when people misbehave in church – not that anyone would ever misbehave in a URC…
First, Jesus, tells us to sort it out directly with the person. This direct dealing is so obvious, so simple, but is often the last thing that we do. If I have a problem with someone the best person to talk about it with is, of course, that person. Yet often we will go and tell everyone else first before dealing with the issue. The person may be entirely oblivious to the upset they’ve caused. You may find that their perspective is different and you’ve misunderstood the issue. But Jesus’ advice is to sort it out directly.
Jesus then suggests if the person isn’t receptive then we go with one or two others who have witnessed the wrong doing and then, if that doesn’t work, Jesus says take it to the Church. That doesn’t mean we gossip it but take it to the Church authorities. In our system that might be the Deacons or the Church Meeting because that’s where authority rests.
Now clearly, Jesus foresaw how difficult we could be and built into his followers this simple way of solving problems. And of course, he tells us to forgive – but sometimes forgiveness needs justice before it can be given.
It’s a model the URC has tried to use. Jesus doesn’t say go to the pastor, or bishop and do what they say! Instead he assumes the church take responsibility.
This, of course, is hard. It’s hard to challenge someone, to be direct yet loving and to be willing to take someone else with us who has witnessed the difficult behaviour to challenge it. Yet direct dealing can transform churches which have had conflict for generations. A simple “we don’t do that here” when someone gossips can be very effective. A simple conversation checking out if there is a problem and a willingness to resolve it can build a community where we model a better way of dealing with conflict than our world – and as our world teeters on the edge of political division in Europe and the possibility of war in Korea the Church needs to show a better way of dealing with conflict – effectively, speedily and early on before things blow up.
Will you pray with me?
It’s your church, Jesus, it’s not ours.
But we struggle to know how your church should behave.
You struggled with the religious authorities.
You didn’t see eye to eye.
You knew the value of tradition
and you knew that tradition
continually needs to be challenged
and sometimes things have to change,
sometimes things have to go.
We are not good at change, Jesus.
It hurts too much.
We prefer the well known, the safe and solid world.
But when our traditions and rules hurt people,
reject people, turn people away from you,
when our traditions are no longer loving
help us to discern what changes need to be made.
Help us to make our decisions
in the light of your justice and love.
It is your Church, Jesus.
May we be honest loving members of it, today and every day. Amen.