In the early 1800s, one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Alexander Campbell, claimed the words of Rupertus Meldenius as a slogan for the fledgling movement: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” At our best, Disciples hold to the value of unity in all things. As a people whose lives center around weekly communion, Disciples most immediately judge the community’s climate by the presence of members at the Holy Table.
Most 21st Century experiences of conflict in the church, unlike that of Campbell’s day, are not matters of doctrine or moral opinion, but evolve from disputed opinions around the exercise of authority (or perceived authority) and the management of church resources.
At our best, Disciples bring their issues to the table and work through them, holding closely their appreciation for “the other” and ongoing communion with him/her, even at the expense of a cherished opinion. Disputants may continue to live together within the community and even encourage and support one another for many years, without having resolved the disagreement, to the end that communion not be broken. At our worst, the insistence to have one’s own way will cause the kind of breach that prevents ongoing mutual participation in community life, and one or both of the parties simply leave the church.
Neither of the options may prove to be destructive to community life, as long as the values previously expressed are held high. The conflicts that cause disruption to the community are generally those that are never openly expressed, but “go underground,” often engaging others in political wrangling and parking-lot meetings. When conflicts are not brought to someone’s kitchen table, or to the congregation’s boardroom table, they often bring trouble to the Communion Table which can linger for years or cause the kind of division that leads to a broken church. Such breaches are rare, thankfully, and those who depart are often judged, in retrospect, as people who are “not of us,” i.e., persons who have never lived into the values of our movement.
One of the great leadership challenges for Disciples, who are often prone to thinking of themselves as congregationally “independent,” is to help teach these formative values of our faith, and to teach the diverse faithful the worth of healthy dialogue—which is requisite to a covenant relationship—as a preventive balm to hold the body together.