Have you ever had that “I just opened a can of worms” feeling? You’re in the middle of a conversation and that question that’s been bouncing around in your head just bursts out onto center stage without warning, either from your mouth or someone else’s. You weren’t ready, they probably aren’t ready, but there it is. So here we go.
This has happened to me several times in the last months, and when the same topics keep coming up over and over, it generally gives me pause. Could it be that the questions that keep coming up among my friends might actually be important ones to discuss?
Yeah, they are.
Here’s some that keep surfacing in my circles:
– How do I handle conflict in a relationship?
– Should I say something if a friend is choosing an unwise path in life?
– When should I speak into someone’s life, and when should I keep my mouth shut?
– How do I love someone who thinks differently than me?
In an age when truth is relative and disagreeing means parting ways, we as the church need to learn how to have these conversations.
Last month on the podcast I talked with my friend Wendy Jacobsen about this very task. I asked her about several tough scenarios many encounter in friendship, and we discussed how to communicate well through those. We rejected the easy path of giving up, and we said no to passive aggression, lying, and gossiping. We talked about what a better way might look like.
But as we talked, I quickly realized that I was opening a can of worms here. There was so much I needed to ask her about, and so much I had to learn. I felt the need to talk more about these questions that I think we all may be wondering about, and maybe even stressing over.
So that’s what we’re doing for the coming weeks. I’ve got some questions that feel important to my life and maybe to yours. They’re the kind of questions that the church has been asking since the beginning: how do we live together in community and honor each other with how we communicate? We’ll be looking to Jesus’ example and how the early church was working out these same issues in their real-life context. And I’m going to seek practical application at every turn because, if your life is anything like mine, you might need to know how to have this conversation, like, tomorrow.
As we set out on this series, though, we need to start with a very important guardrail that is essential understanding if we’re going to learn how to deal with these tough communication scenarios in a way that is loving to our people and honors God. This guardrail is learning the difference between the church and my tribe.
Besides Jesus’ own example, the perfect place in Scripture to go to find practical application of Biblical principles for how to do life with other Christians is the New Testament letters. That’s what they’re all about. They’re not theology textbooks. They’re practical teaching from trusted leaders and dialogue between believers working out what it looks like to follow Jesus in one’s current cultural and historical context.
But the catch is that we don’t live in the same place on earth, period in history, or cultural setting as first century believers. That doesn’t mean we can’t gain wisdom from the Letters; we absolutely can. But it means we need to approach these texts with an understanding that, not only have we translated the actual language from Greek to English, we also need to be able to translate the cultural and historical contexts to get the best application of this wisdom for our lives today. This doesn’t mean the wisdom changes, it just means what it looks like to apply it to our twenty-first-century lives might.
And one thing that becomes clear as we consider this application is this: The first-century “church” does not look the same as today’s “Big-C” Church. When we read the New Testament letters we frequently see the authors address the church, believers, or “brothers and sisters,” so it would be easy to conclude that how they tell the first-century church to handle certain moments is the same they might tell the church of today. In some cases it might be, but at others we need to be careful with this.
This line of thought might lead us to believe that, when Paul says to “carry each other’s burdens,” that means we must take on the prayer requests and sin struggles of every person in both our church and the global church. Uh, no. (Galatians 6:2)
This might lead us to believe that we are to police any believers we know, making sure that “nobody pays back wrong for wrong,” and calling them out when they do. Yikes. (1 Thessalonians 5: 15)
Or this might lead us to believe that we are “to judge those inside” the church, so afraid to let sinners in the doors of the church that we forget about the logs in our own eyes. Definitely not. (1 Cor. 5:12, Matt. 7:5)
But here’s the difference: the “church” Paul wrote to looked a lot different than the “church” reading it today.
Because of the faithful work of that church, the church today is vastly larger. When Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, he wasn’t writing to some Roman megachurch. He wrote to several separate house churches, each with a small number of believers.
And this is what we must account for when reading the New Testament letters, specifically when we come across instructions for believers and the church on how to communicate with each other. The authors were basically writing to a small group, what we might call your tribe.
We cannot possibly carry the burdens of the entire church, but we absolutely are called to carry the burdens of our circle of close friends. Policing the actions of everyone we have ever seen enter the church doors isn’t likely what Paul had in mind when he instructed a house church in Thessalonica to make sure nobody pays back wrong for wrong. And although Paul does say, “Are we not to judge those inside the church?”, there is a whole lot of context to unpack there before we unabashedly cast judgment on any Christian we’re friends with on social media.
So, as we learn from Jesus’ example and the New Testament letters how we can communicate well with our sisters in Christ, here’s the question we must ask ourself at every turn: Do I have the right to speak into her life?
Because if you haven’t studied the Bible together, hung out in her back yard lately, had dinner around her table, or prayed for the hurts she’s shared with you recently, the answer is quite possibly no.
This is how the “fellowship of believers” is described in Acts 2:42. This is a picture of the “church,” and unless you can fit your entire church body into your living room (which some might be able to!), you need to adjust your definition of who we’re called to hold accountable and whose life you have permission to speak into.
Your tribe is not the same thing as the church, and this is okay. It means the church is big, and that is incredible in many ways. But if you don’t understand the difference between any Christian anywhere and your trusted circle, you’re going to weaponize the New Testament letters in a way they were never meant to be used.
So friends, as we tackle these tough communication questions over the next weeks, here’s the people I want you to have in mind for who you might have these hard conversations with:
– Who do you meet with weekly (or so) to hang out?
– Who do you trust with your prayer requests, and who do you genuinely pray for regularly?
– Who do you invite to your kids’ birthday parties and your Thanksgiving dinners?
– Who do you call when you have a real question you’re wrestling with?
– Who do you dig into Scripture with?
And when we talk about how to handle it when a friend disagrees with you on a theological issue, or a social issue, or on how to handle her love life, and she’s NOT one of the people from those above categories, I hope you will seriously consider keeping things between you and God.
We cannot be people who weaponize our Bibles by spouting off quotes in the Facebook comments section or sliding into someone’s DMs. I do not believe that honors God or the hearts of the New Testament authors.
But if your sister is believing some whack theology, or is really needing to have a conversation about sexuality, or is taking an unwise road with her boyfriend, and you want to know how to have that conversation without really blowing it, I hope you’ll stick around.
Because these are the conversations I need to know how to have. And I’m going to some of the best sources I know: the Bible and wise Christian counsel from people I trust. If you care to read along and listen in, I really hope this series helps give you the tools you’ve been needing. I know I need to learn how to use my words to speak life, and maybe you do too. Welcome, friend; let’s figure this out together.
Love ya, friend.
Your Sister, Kimber
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