This situation is far more prevalent than we often times like to acknowledge. One could say that the multitude and diversity of churches in America is, in a big part, the result of people getting angry about something in one congregation, leaving, and joining elsewhere—if not starting a new church to accommodate their thoughts and feelings (and beliefs). For us here in Nebraska, we are quite familiar with this conflicted context. In many small towns, there are a couple of, if not more, congregations present as the result of an historical trend of familial movement from one church to another—back and forth, every decade or so. As Lutherans, we’ve witnessed in just the last twenty years the formation of new breakaway denominations—formed out of the angst and anger of leadership decisions. A person doesn’t have to dig too deep into a congregation’s archival records to come across a number of names of people who no longer worship in that particular place, because of one disagreement or another. Unfortunately, this trend of angry absence from church is one that will never change, so long as we live in a world broken by sin.
I have to admit, it deeply pained me—to the point that I prayerfully reflected on whether I should continue serving as a pastor or not—the first time it came to my attention that someone had stopped attending worship because of anger towards me regarding something I had said. Seeking advice and encouragement from colleagues, I was informed that though it was the first, so long as I am a pastor it wouldn’t be the last time someone would make such a divisive decision because of something I had said or done. Again, unfortunately, it comes with the territory of the church. Regularly, I go over that situation in my mind—grieving the fact that right or wrong, my fault or not, someone chose to remove themselves from the life of the congregation because of me. And while it may make the person who is angry with me feel good in the moment to hear that I hurt from their decision, what they may not realize or overlook is that the choice they are making hurts many others as well. An angry absence has consequences well beyond what any one of us can see or define. Those who don’t know the full details are hurt, those who are perhaps too young to formulate what it means to them are hurt, those who are afraid to speak their pain are hurt, and countless others hurt as well.
Jesus tells his disciples: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one” (Matthew 18:15). Yet, if the problem is not resolved that easily, Jesus says they should take one or two people along with them to serve as witnesses in the attempt to reconcile the matter. If this still does not work, the church as a whole should be involved (a step many of us would rather skip or avoid out of embarrassment). This, however, may still not work. Finally, where many would conclude with passivity, Jesus gives as the “last resort”: forgiveness. Just to make sure he’s aware of the limit, Peter asks: “how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (18:21b). To his surprise, Jesus demonstrates the limitlessness of what he is calling his disciples to practice: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times [or, seventy times seven]” (18:22). When confronting one’s sinfulness, or simply one’s disagreement, if nothing else works Jesus does not open the back door for those who are hurt to walk away in angry absence; but seeks forgiveness as the final means through which to accomplish reconciliation. Forgiveness is not satisfied with silent suffering, nor does it accept angry absence. Though there are some who will not even participate in forgiveness for the sake of unity in Christ, we who are resurrected in Christ—made new and forgiven of all our sins—are called to not stop short of sharing the very same forgiveness for which we know God’s love for us in Jesus. Forgiveness does not let absence be the final word, but seeks to bring all people together to be the body of Christ.
If you, or someone you know, is or has been hurt in this church, don’t let angry absence be the decision made. Seek out the person(s) who has hurt you. Speak your pain and share your disagreement—working toward reconciliation. We, as a church, are not the same—not as God intends for us—whenever any one person separates from the rest out of anger or hurt. Even if I, your pastor, am that person who has contributed toward your pain or anger—tell me. That may sound strange to hear—but I don’t want to be a wedge for anyone in this place. No one should leave this place in angry absence. Walking away from a congregation in disagreement, pain, and suffering has consequences on the whole church. Whenever a person easily removes themselves from the life of a congregation as a result of anger, it demonstrates a congregation’s lack in embodying the fullness of God’s forgiveness given and called for in Jesus Christ. When sin, disagreement, and anger seek to divide us, let the forgiveness and love of God in the Risen Christ be that which binds us together. May the church—which is formed out of forgiveness—be a place of continual practicing in forgiveness, for all people.