Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Church Split Revisited: The Demonic?

A couple of conversations recently have me thinking about the GracePoint situation again. I’m thinking about the supernatural…of the evil sort.

The story behind how the GracePoint folks decided to leave the United Methodist Church reminds me of conflict I witnessed years ago between a missionary couple and the trustees of their mission organization. The missionaries and the board members were all deeply committed disciples of Jesus. They all prayerfully sought God’s guidance for resolution. They tried diligently to communicate with each other over a period of several months. The more they tried, the more entangled and confusing the conversations became and the more heartsick everyone felt. Finally, the missionary couple resigned, with resentment smoldering in their hearts over their sense that the board had misunderstood and misjudged them. The board felt exactly the same about the missionaries’ view of them.

I remember, at the time, saying to Joni, “I have never seen a situation in which Christian brothers and sisters tried harder to resolve conflict and yet grew further apart than this one.” It was mystifying to watch. And then the thought came: “Perhaps we are witnessing the activity of the demonic.”

More than 30 years ago I read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. I don’t have a copy to hand right now, so I risk a bad paraphrase (somebody correct me). In order to sabotage the new Christian’s faith Screwtape suggested a two-edged tactic to Wormwood: he could accomplish the aim either by getting the subject to see the Devil everywhere or by enticing him to think that the Devil doesn’t exist at all.

As I have learned more about the GracePoint situation, I’ve thought of that missionary conflict several times: sincere, sensitive Christians simply unable to gain clarity in conversation and to stay together. Such a result is truly tragic and, I think, an example of the manifestation of the demonic. No villains. Good people trying hard while watching things go south.

Now, I’m not trying to get anyone off the hook by attributing cause to the Devil. We are always responsible to God and to one another, whatever role Lucifer may or may not play. That caution in place, what might we Christ-followers gain during a church fight by taking pause and asking, “OK, what else might be going on here besides mere human misunderstanding? Is there an invisible, malevolent third party in the mix?”

There is no better tool to cause people to doubt the truth of the Gospel than an ugly church fight. We target and blame each other (actually, I’ve heard no blaming from either side re: GracePoint, but I have heard plenty of misunderstanding and heartache). Talking about instead of to people becomes a beachhead for speculation and suspicion. And this is precisely where the demonic does its best work.

I believe in the demonic. Sometimes, when we are squared off against each other, if we could remember the common enemy and check to see if perhaps its influence is being felt, we might make progress in the church conflict. (“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood…”) And perhaps we could learn to be better witnesses thereby.

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March 18, 2009 - Posted by | General, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. It must be an even bigger hit for Kansas UMs given the obvious “success” of GracePoint in growing and reaching people. The devil wins when we decide:
    – It’s better to play it safe
    – Let’s not get too excited about Jesus
    – Let’s settle for what we’ve always done

    Comment by Richard H | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  2. Yes, and when we permit feelings about turf intrude upon our sense of mission. Thanks for commenting, Richard.

    Comment by steverankin | March 19, 2009 | Reply


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