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The Church at Table: Being Sisters and Brothers Even When We Disagree

The church is always local. It consists of real people gathered in real places. We agree with the Psalmist: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Ps 133:1) But people are messy. And when we gather as a church, there are bound to be times of disagreement. Church people, the Lord’s people, will disappoint, can be destructive, can be immature. That includes you and me.

There is a contentious spirit in the air. We see it in the news, on social media, in our politics:  there is little middle ground. It’s black and white, and everyone is taking sides. Pastoring a congregation in these times is tough. Congregations get embroiled in conversations about politics, sexuality, race, immigration, abortion, and more. This contentious mood seeps into concerns in our congregations: budgets, staffing, worship styles, programs.

Struggles toward unity aren’t something new. A quick glance through Paul’s letters in the New Testament shows that disagreements were a part of congregational life then as well. But Paul’s primary designation for followers of Jesus is “brothers and sisters,” a term used 271 times in the New Testament. Scot McKnight notes that “the idea of siblingship is the dominant self-
understanding and self-designation of the church.”
1 We are siblings—family. Not associates. Not neighbors. Not even merely friends. We are family.

We bring the best and the most challenging aspects of family into our life together in church. For better and for not as good, we are wonderfully stuck with each other. We have a bond that is so firm that we must live lives committed to each other even when there are disagreements. This connection is a reality because we are in Christ, which means Christ is present in our congregations. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily community of many years, Christian community is solely this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.2

In a local congregation, we will have differences of opinions, even disagreements. Siblings do. That is okay. But Christ is present in our midst, so we remain connected to each other, open-minded, humble, courageous.3 Christopher Smith notes: “Too many churches remain shallow and immature because they go to great lengths to avoid the tiniest semblance of disagreement.”4 However, our disagreements do not need to become conflict. “Rather, conflict is disagreement that has become insidious and is ripping a community apart. We find ourselves in conflict when we layer all sorts of sin and distrust on top of our disagreements,” says Smith.5

The Philippian church was experiencing dissension, a rift in the fellowship (Phil 4:1–3). Paul calls that congregation to unity in Christ by pointing to the humbling stance of Jesus,

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own
     advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant . . . 
(Philippians 2:6–7)

Followers of Jesus in every congregation are in the process of being formed into the image of Christ (Gal 4:19). Scot McKnight calls this Christoformity.6 We are called to become like Christ in every aspect of our lives, including our lives together in our congregation. This is a life conforming to Christ, striving for unity and peace as sisters and brothers in Christ.

The congregation I served entered into a lively and extended discussion about the role of women in ministry in our church. It was not an easy time for our church. The congregation, and its leaders, searched the Scriptures and our hearts as we finally brought the matter up for a vote. The congregation affirmed that women could serve in all ministries of the church based on their calling and giftedness, and we hired a female associate pastor. One of the most vocal dissenters to this decision was a much loved and respected lay person. When the vote was taken, even though he strongly disagreed, he said, “My church has decided. I respect that decision, and will continue to participate and serve here. This is my church.” That is a Christ-formed attitude submitting to the Lord and to the congregation.

In the midst of troubles from without, in the midst of difficulties and divisions that threaten us from within, how do we live out this “being formed into the image of Christ” type of life? I suggest that ongoing and thoughtful practice of meeting together at the Lord’s Table reminds us that a congregation is made up of sisters and brothers in Christ, and it creates a mood where, by the Spirit, we live into this reality. Bonhoeffer writes: “The Scriptures speak of three kinds of community at the table that Jesus keeps with his own: the daily breaking of bread together at meals, the breaking of bread together at the Lord’s Supper, and the final breaking of bread together in the reign of God. But in all three, the one thing that counts is that ‘their eyes were opened and they recognized him.’”7

Through this meal we affirm the presence of the crucified and risen Christ in our midst, and our commitment to live as sisters and brothers in our lives together. The Covenant Book of Worship (Evangelical Covenant) offers this Invitation to the Table:

Come to this sacred table, not because you must, but because you may; come to testify not that you are righteous, but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ and desire to be his true disciples; come not because you are strong, but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on the grace of God, but because in your frailty and sin you stand in constant need of God’s mercy and help; come, not to express an opinion, but to seek God’s presence and pray for the Spirit.8 

At the Lord’s Table we remember the work of Jesus on the cross. This work tears down walls that divide us (Eph 2:14–16). At the Lord’s Table we are reminded that we are one body in Christ (1 Cor 11:33, 12:12–13). The Covenant Book of Worship (Evangelical Covenant) states, “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”9

As we share in the Lord’s Supper we are reminded of the Last Supper where Jesus washes the disciple’s feet (John 13:1–17). Jesus is our model in this humbling act. “Do you see what I was doing?” he asks his disciples. The Lord’s Supper reminds us that we are to submit to each other and confess our sins to each other. At the Table we seek reconciliation with each other, forgiveness, restoration. Where there have been misunderstandings, hurt, and harm, we make it right (Matt 5:23–24, 18:15–20). As with broken bones, we acknowledge the pain caused by fractures, work to align the fractured parts, then support the fracture while it heals.10 David Fitch writes:

The reality of his fullness is present wherever we gather because he comes in flesh and blood, the body and blood, broken and raised for all. Its resources are infinite because God is infinite. Its core is full and unending. This politic shapes us as a peaceful people, a people of invitation and generosity to the world, a people beyond enemies, a church beyond us vs. them.11

I’m not suggesting that this will be easy, but gathering together at the Lord’s Table holds the promise of fostering a new culture, over time, in a congregation where we see each other as sisters and brothers in Christ. Bonhoeffer writes:

The day of the Lord’s Supper is a joyous occasion for the Christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and one another, the community of faith receives the gift of Jesus Christ’s body and blood, therein receiving forgiveness, new life, and salvation. New community with God and one another is given to it. The community of the holy Lord’s Supper is above all the fulfillment of Christian community.12

The Lord’s Table shapes how we live our lives with each other in worship, in witness, and as a community. It transforms every aspect of our congregational life. These aspects include:

Small Groups: The Kitchen Table

Small groups are the kitchen table of our congregations. At this table we get to know each other, trust each other. Here, we eat together, read Scripture together, pray together, share and honor our stories, maybe share the Eucharist. This is the best and safest place for practicing how to live our lives together. Here, we risk more deeply sharing our lives, confessing our sins, becoming accountable to each other.13 At this table, we learn to listen. “Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them,” writes Bonhoeffer.14

This table extends out as smaller groups of people engage in the wider world. Being gracious in our speech and Christlike in our actions (Phil 2:15, 1 Pet 3:15, Col 4:5–6), neighbors are invited to share in meals and catch glimpses of the gospel. As Michael Green would say, we “gossip the gospel.”15 Working side by side, people get to know each other informally and serve in the community in the Lord’s name.

At this table, we also experiment with how to discuss and discern controversial matters. Together we are seeking what it means to follow Christ in all situations. It won’t always be easy. Mistakes will be made. The community will need to ask for forgiveness and for a reset. But we are sisters and brothers, and so we work through our difficulties. We always remember the Table. Christopher Smith writes, “A baby is not born with the capability to walk, let alone walk a tightrope. Similarly, we need to develop some skill, grace, trust, and maturity before we expect to walk the tightrope of highly charged questions without repeatedly tumbling and endangering the life of our body.”16

Pastoral Leadership: The Preaching Table

The preaching table is a significant part of a congregation’s life together. The Word is preached “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). The way the Word is proclaimed shapes a congregation. Pastors and others proclaim the Word from the pulpit and, in other venues, serve as priests and prophets: they comfort, encourage, guide, challenge, even disturb the congregation toward Christoformity. They do this not from a distance but as those among their people. Pope Francis reminds clergy that they are to have the smell of sheep.17 The Christ-formed life portrayed in the Lord’s Supper characterizes the life of ministry leaders.

Pastors not only serve through the preaching table. They also model this servant life through other aspects of ministry: counseling, weddings, funerals, administration, and conversations.18 As pastors do their work in this way, a congregation can be newly shaped. Pastors, remembering the Table, are transformed as they carry out their tasks. As Eugene Peterson writes:

The congregation is the pastor’s place for developing vocational holiness. It goes without saying that it is the place of ministry: we preach the word and administer the sacraments, we give pastoral care and administer the community life, we teach and we give spiritual direction. But it is also the place in which we develop virtue, learn to love, advance in hope—become what we preach.19

Board and Congregational Meetings:
The Board Room Table

In remembering the Lord’s Table, the board room table is transformed. The Lord’s Table reminds us how we are to act at the board room table and congregational meetings. Imagine church board meetings and congregational meetings as opportunities for dwelling in the Word, listening to each other, praying, sharing our lives, expressing our concerns, and confessing our sins to each other as the mission of the church advances. The mood of business sessions does not need to be contentious, but joyful. We do the business, the mission of the church, with one heart and mind. Difficult decisions will have to be made. There will be disagreements. But approaching these matters in the spirit of the Table, where we are reminded that we are connected to the Lord and to each other as sisters and brothers, changes the way we do our work.

The practice of gathering together at the Table changes who we are as a congregation. In deeper ways, we become sisters and brothers in Christ. In the midst of our differences—even through our differences
—we are one in Christ, experiencing the peace of Christ, as we demonstrate the love of Christ. The Lord’s Table is the practice of the church that reminds us of the way of Jesus, the way of emptying and humility, of Christoformity. Nadia Bolz-Weber recalls how she would share at a gathering for those new to the congregation she pastored in Denver. She writes:

I wanted them to hear me: This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss. Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.20

The question is before us. Will we decide to stay, to listen, to embrace each other as sisters and brothers in Christ, even when it’s hard? The Lord’s Table is a practice that can change our hearts. This is the hope and the promise: we might actually become, by the Spirit, who the Lord calls us to be.

Written By

Kurt N. Fredrickson is associate dean for the Doctor of Ministry and Continuing Education and associate professor of pastoral ministry at Fuller. Prior to joining Fuller in 2003, he was on the pastoral staff at Simi Covenant Church in Simi Valley, California, for 24 years, serving as senior pastor for 18 of those years. He is coauthor, with Fuller’s Cameron Lee, of the book That Their Work Will Be a Joy: Understanding and Coping with the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Cascade, 2012). He is ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church.

The church is always local. It consists of real people gathered in real places. We agree with the Psalmist: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Ps 133:1) But people are messy. And when we gather as a church, there are bound to be times of disagreement. Church people, the Lord’s people, will disappoint, can be destructive, can be immature. That includes you and me.

There is a contentious spirit in the air. We see it in the news, on social media, in our politics:  there is little middle ground. It’s black and white, and everyone is taking sides. Pastoring a congregation in these times is tough. Congregations get embroiled in conversations about politics, sexuality, race, immigration, abortion, and more. This contentious mood seeps into concerns in our congregations: budgets, staffing, worship styles, programs.

Struggles toward unity aren’t something new. A quick glance through Paul’s letters in the New Testament shows that disagreements were a part of congregational life then as well. But Paul’s primary designation for followers of Jesus is “brothers and sisters,” a term used 271 times in the New Testament. Scot McKnight notes that “the idea of siblingship is the dominant self-
understanding and self-designation of the church.”
1 We are siblings—family. Not associates. Not neighbors. Not even merely friends. We are family.

We bring the best and the most challenging aspects of family into our life together in church. For better and for not as good, we are wonderfully stuck with each other. We have a bond that is so firm that we must live lives committed to each other even when there are disagreements. This connection is a reality because we are in Christ, which means Christ is present in our congregations. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily community of many years, Christian community is solely this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.2

In a local congregation, we will have differences of opinions, even disagreements. Siblings do. That is okay. But Christ is present in our midst, so we remain connected to each other, open-minded, humble, courageous.3 Christopher Smith notes: “Too many churches remain shallow and immature because they go to great lengths to avoid the tiniest semblance of disagreement.”4 However, our disagreements do not need to become conflict. “Rather, conflict is disagreement that has become insidious and is ripping a community apart. We find ourselves in conflict when we layer all sorts of sin and distrust on top of our disagreements,” says Smith.5

The Philippian church was experiencing dissension, a rift in the fellowship (Phil 4:1–3). Paul calls that congregation to unity in Christ by pointing to the humbling stance of Jesus,

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own
     advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant . . . 
(Philippians 2:6–7)

Followers of Jesus in every congregation are in the process of being formed into the image of Christ (Gal 4:19). Scot McKnight calls this Christoformity.6 We are called to become like Christ in every aspect of our lives, including our lives together in our congregation. This is a life conforming to Christ, striving for unity and peace as sisters and brothers in Christ.

The congregation I served entered into a lively and extended discussion about the role of women in ministry in our church. It was not an easy time for our church. The congregation, and its leaders, searched the Scriptures and our hearts as we finally brought the matter up for a vote. The congregation affirmed that women could serve in all ministries of the church based on their calling and giftedness, and we hired a female associate pastor. One of the most vocal dissenters to this decision was a much loved and respected lay person. When the vote was taken, even though he strongly disagreed, he said, “My church has decided. I respect that decision, and will continue to participate and serve here. This is my church.” That is a Christ-formed attitude submitting to the Lord and to the congregation.

In the midst of troubles from without, in the midst of difficulties and divisions that threaten us from within, how do we live out this “being formed into the image of Christ” type of life? I suggest that ongoing and thoughtful practice of meeting together at the Lord’s Table reminds us that a congregation is made up of sisters and brothers in Christ, and it creates a mood where, by the Spirit, we live into this reality. Bonhoeffer writes: “The Scriptures speak of three kinds of community at the table that Jesus keeps with his own: the daily breaking of bread together at meals, the breaking of bread together at the Lord’s Supper, and the final breaking of bread together in the reign of God. But in all three, the one thing that counts is that ‘their eyes were opened and they recognized him.’”7

Through this meal we affirm the presence of the crucified and risen Christ in our midst, and our commitment to live as sisters and brothers in our lives together. The Covenant Book of Worship (Evangelical Covenant) offers this Invitation to the Table:

Come to this sacred table, not because you must, but because you may; come to testify not that you are righteous, but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ and desire to be his true disciples; come not because you are strong, but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on the grace of God, but because in your frailty and sin you stand in constant need of God’s mercy and help; come, not to express an opinion, but to seek God’s presence and pray for the Spirit.8 

At the Lord’s Table we remember the work of Jesus on the cross. This work tears down walls that divide us (Eph 2:14–16). At the Lord’s Table we are reminded that we are one body in Christ (1 Cor 11:33, 12:12–13). The Covenant Book of Worship (Evangelical Covenant) states, “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”9

As we share in the Lord’s Supper we are reminded of the Last Supper where Jesus washes the disciple’s feet (John 13:1–17). Jesus is our model in this humbling act. “Do you see what I was doing?” he asks his disciples. The Lord’s Supper reminds us that we are to submit to each other and confess our sins to each other. At the Table we seek reconciliation with each other, forgiveness, restoration. Where there have been misunderstandings, hurt, and harm, we make it right (Matt 5:23–24, 18:15–20). As with broken bones, we acknowledge the pain caused by fractures, work to align the fractured parts, then support the fracture while it heals.10 David Fitch writes:

The reality of his fullness is present wherever we gather because he comes in flesh and blood, the body and blood, broken and raised for all. Its resources are infinite because God is infinite. Its core is full and unending. This politic shapes us as a peaceful people, a people of invitation and generosity to the world, a people beyond enemies, a church beyond us vs. them.11

I’m not suggesting that this will be easy, but gathering together at the Lord’s Table holds the promise of fostering a new culture, over time, in a congregation where we see each other as sisters and brothers in Christ. Bonhoeffer writes:

The day of the Lord’s Supper is a joyous occasion for the Christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and one another, the community of faith receives the gift of Jesus Christ’s body and blood, therein receiving forgiveness, new life, and salvation. New community with God and one another is given to it. The community of the holy Lord’s Supper is above all the fulfillment of Christian community.12

The Lord’s Table shapes how we live our lives with each other in worship, in witness, and as a community. It transforms every aspect of our congregational life. These aspects include:

Small Groups: The Kitchen Table

Small groups are the kitchen table of our congregations. At this table we get to know each other, trust each other. Here, we eat together, read Scripture together, pray together, share and honor our stories, maybe share the Eucharist. This is the best and safest place for practicing how to live our lives together. Here, we risk more deeply sharing our lives, confessing our sins, becoming accountable to each other.13 At this table, we learn to listen. “Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them,” writes Bonhoeffer.14

This table extends out as smaller groups of people engage in the wider world. Being gracious in our speech and Christlike in our actions (Phil 2:15, 1 Pet 3:15, Col 4:5–6), neighbors are invited to share in meals and catch glimpses of the gospel. As Michael Green would say, we “gossip the gospel.”15 Working side by side, people get to know each other informally and serve in the community in the Lord’s name.

At this table, we also experiment with how to discuss and discern controversial matters. Together we are seeking what it means to follow Christ in all situations. It won’t always be easy. Mistakes will be made. The community will need to ask for forgiveness and for a reset. But we are sisters and brothers, and so we work through our difficulties. We always remember the Table. Christopher Smith writes, “A baby is not born with the capability to walk, let alone walk a tightrope. Similarly, we need to develop some skill, grace, trust, and maturity before we expect to walk the tightrope of highly charged questions without repeatedly tumbling and endangering the life of our body.”16

Pastoral Leadership: The Preaching Table

The preaching table is a significant part of a congregation’s life together. The Word is preached “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). The way the Word is proclaimed shapes a congregation. Pastors and others proclaim the Word from the pulpit and, in other venues, serve as priests and prophets: they comfort, encourage, guide, challenge, even disturb the congregation toward Christoformity. They do this not from a distance but as those among their people. Pope Francis reminds clergy that they are to have the smell of sheep.17 The Christ-formed life portrayed in the Lord’s Supper characterizes the life of ministry leaders.

Pastors not only serve through the preaching table. They also model this servant life through other aspects of ministry: counseling, weddings, funerals, administration, and conversations.18 As pastors do their work in this way, a congregation can be newly shaped. Pastors, remembering the Table, are transformed as they carry out their tasks. As Eugene Peterson writes:

The congregation is the pastor’s place for developing vocational holiness. It goes without saying that it is the place of ministry: we preach the word and administer the sacraments, we give pastoral care and administer the community life, we teach and we give spiritual direction. But it is also the place in which we develop virtue, learn to love, advance in hope—become what we preach.19

Board and Congregational Meetings:
The Board Room Table

In remembering the Lord’s Table, the board room table is transformed. The Lord’s Table reminds us how we are to act at the board room table and congregational meetings. Imagine church board meetings and congregational meetings as opportunities for dwelling in the Word, listening to each other, praying, sharing our lives, expressing our concerns, and confessing our sins to each other as the mission of the church advances. The mood of business sessions does not need to be contentious, but joyful. We do the business, the mission of the church, with one heart and mind. Difficult decisions will have to be made. There will be disagreements. But approaching these matters in the spirit of the Table, where we are reminded that we are connected to the Lord and to each other as sisters and brothers, changes the way we do our work.

The practice of gathering together at the Table changes who we are as a congregation. In deeper ways, we become sisters and brothers in Christ. In the midst of our differences—even through our differences
—we are one in Christ, experiencing the peace of Christ, as we demonstrate the love of Christ. The Lord’s Table is the practice of the church that reminds us of the way of Jesus, the way of emptying and humility, of Christoformity. Nadia Bolz-Weber recalls how she would share at a gathering for those new to the congregation she pastored in Denver. She writes:

I wanted them to hear me: This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss. Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.20

The question is before us. Will we decide to stay, to listen, to embrace each other as sisters and brothers in Christ, even when it’s hard? The Lord’s Table is a practice that can change our hearts. This is the hope and the promise: we might actually become, by the Spirit, who the Lord calls us to be.

Kurt Fredrickson

Kurt N. Fredrickson is associate dean for the Doctor of Ministry and Continuing Education and associate professor of pastoral ministry at Fuller. Prior to joining Fuller in 2003, he was on the pastoral staff at Simi Covenant Church in Simi Valley, California, for 24 years, serving as senior pastor for 18 of those years. He is coauthor, with Fuller’s Cameron Lee, of the book That Their Work Will Be a Joy: Understanding and Coping with the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Cascade, 2012). He is ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church.

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Alexia Salvatierra, assistant professor of integral mission and global transformation, writes about how Christian identity and mission provide common ground for Christians on different sides of the political divide