Live with Your Church Members in an Understanding Way
In the first years of marriage, my wife and I had a recurring conversation. We’d each come home after a long day’s work. She’d ask me how my day was, and I’d say “Great.” Being a thoughtful young husband, I’d ask her how her day was, and she’d launch into a detailed narrative. I would happily listen and when the narrative paused, offer my suggestions and solutions to the problems she’d described. Sometimes her response was appreciative, often it was slightly irritated, but usually she was frustrated to the point of tears because I “wasn’t listening.”
It took a while, but I finally learned that she wasn’t sharing her day with me so that I could solve her problems or offer advice. She was more than capable of dealing with the office politics and technicalities of her job. She was rehearsing the day with me so that I could understand what she’d experienced and be with her in the feelings those experiences had provoked. Having been apart all day, she was inviting me back into her life. In quickly offering solutions and advice, I was effectively ignoring her and focusing on her job. No wonder she was frustrated with me!
Surely this is part of what Peter meant in his instructions to husbands: “Husbands, in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker partner, showing them honor as coheirs of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered” (1 Pet.3:7).
One of the ways husbands love their wives is by sympathetically understanding them, entering into their experience as women and wives and honoring them by according that experience the dignity and weight it deserves. Your wife’s life is not a problem to be solved but an experience to be shared.
NOT ABOUT MARRIAGE . . .
That insight had a profound impact on my marriage. But this isn’t an article about marriage. The principle Peter employs has a wider application. Who among us doesn’t want to be understood? Who doesn’t feel loved when someone simply takes the time to listen and appreciate our joys or sorrows? And there are so many contexts where we put this principle to work, often intuitively:
- We don’t explain to the grieving that their loved one’s death was all part of God’s eternal plan. We sit with them in their grief and save the theology lesson for later.
- We don’t lecture the family whose house burned down on the importance of smoke detectors. We take them in for the night and shelter them in their shock.
- We don’t lecture the teenager who missed the varsity cut that she should have practiced harder. We share her sorrow and remind her how much we love her and believe in her.
- We don’t congratulate the bride and groom with reflections on how hard marriage is. We celebrate and rejoice with them.
- We don’t berate our child for being afraid to jump in the pool even with their “floaties” on. We stand below them with outstretched arms, assuring them we’ll catch them.
- We don’t respond to a black friend’s fear over police shootings with statistics about the larger number of white people shot every year. We listen, ask questions, try to understand, and bear the burden with them.
Does that last example seem as obvious as the others? That’s what this article is about.
Is God sovereign over death? Are smoke detectors important? Does practice pay off? Is marriage hard? Do flotation devices work? Are more white people shot by police than black people? Yes. But is that really the point in any of those situations? No. The point is how the person feels in that moment, and what it means to love them by understanding those feelings and meeting them there. Sometimes that means listening, sometimes encouraging or reassuring, sometimes participating with them, but almost never does it mean explaining how the feelings are wrong. At that moment, the feeling is the most important fact you need to know if your goal is love. And your goal should be love.
Why is a principle that’s so obvious and intuitive in most of life so difficult to apply when it comes to our political life? Why is it so hard to see and love the person in our local church who’s fear, or grief, or anger seems to be contradicted by our political persuasions? Why would we think that grief over a loved one’s death or a child’s fear of the pool should be met with tender compassion while a brother’s grief over racism or a sister’s fear of police brutality should be answered with political arguments or statistical explanations? Why are the facts of those feelings so easily dismissed? Could it be that politics and policy controls our identity in those moments more than the gospel? Could it be that our politics has reduced the brother or sister to a problem to be solved rather than a person to be loved?
WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?
Because the local church is the body of Christ, Paul reminded the Corinthian church that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). In a similar context, he reminded the Roman church, “Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters. . . . Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:10,16). No doubt the churches in Corinth and Rome were as diverse ethnically, socially, and politically as any of our churches today. No doubt they disagreed with each other over how to understand and respond to the pressing political and social issues of their day. No doubt the privileges and oppressions of the Roman empire fell unequally on their various members. But Paul reminds them, and continues to remind us, that our compassion, love, and understanding toward one another isn’t based on our common political persuasions or social experience but on our communion with each other in Jesus Christ.
Living with our fellow church members in an understanding way as we move toward a divisive election this November doesn’t mean giving up our political persuasions or abandoning our policy proposals. Loving one another doesn’t mean that we never talk about current events. Understanding one another doesn’t mean that we’re not allowed to disagree. Sympathizing with someone’s feelings doesn’t mean endorsing their political views. It certainly does not mean giving someone permission to re-interpret Scripture or place themselves beyond the critique of Scripture because of their experience. Scripture interprets our experience and feelings, not the other way around. It does mean paying loving attention to the person whose politics you disagree with but whose communion you share. It means treating their feelings with tenderness and respect because those feelings are usually the first and most important facts you will encounter, and their feelings are not up for debate. Instead, those feelings are an invitation and opportunity to understand and enter into the experience of a fellow member of the body of Christ and to bear their burden with them whether or not you agree with the cause of that burden or its solution.
It took a while for me to learn the lesson of living with my wife in an understanding way. Thirty years later I’m still learning to listen first, understand deeply, and only then offer my counsel or perspective. But along the way I’ve learned that listening earns a hearing because it demonstrates my commitment to her rather than to myself and my solutions. It also changes the counsel and perspective I offer, because it’s been affected by what I’ve heard.
Should it be any different in the church?
Pastors, wading into the conflict surrounding elections, social unrest, immigration policy, and police reform might seem like something to be avoided at all costs. You might feel ill-equipped, out of your lane, and perhaps encumbered by your own political convictions. But if you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time speaking into marriages, teaching husbands how to love their wives and wives how to honor their husbands. You’ve spent years honing the skill of helping men and women listen to each other, understand each other, and love each other despite their differences and disagreements in the context of the family. Take heart. You have everything you need to do the same for the spiritual family you’ve been called to shepherd. Teach them to live with one another in an understanding way. Listening well and loving deeply won’t resolve every political disagreement in your church. It will do something better. It will reveal that your people are Christians, because of the way they love one another (John 13:35).