The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is considered by many to be the holiest place on earth since it is said to be built over the site where Jesus was crucified and buried. However, perhaps its most remarkable artifact is one that some have termed “a miracle of religious folly.” The object in question is a wooden ladder that sits on a second story ledge above the main entrance (see inset) where it has resided since at least 1757. No one knows exactly how the ladder got there, but why it remains there for century after century is no mystery: moving it would precipitate a “turf fight” among the six Christian factions who each jealously defend their jurisdictions over the various parts of the building. This is not idle speculation: in 2008 Israeli police had to break up a full-out brawl between processions of Armenian and Greek monks who met in front of the tomb structure, and in 2002 a festering territorial dispute between Coptic and Ethiopian monks over a small section of the church’s roof sent eleven to the hospital! So bitter is the feuding that for over 800 hundred years a local Muslim family has been retained to unlock and lock the church’s entry each day, since the Christians can’t agree on how to share that honor!
The sorry spectacle of Christians squabbling and even becoming physically violent over such piddling matters (and in the name of Jesus no less!) is a matter of great amusement to some, but should fill any thoughtful believer with sorrow. But before we point accusing fingers at the fighting monks, perhaps we should take a hard look at ourselves!
It’s been remarked that “the best advertisement against Christianity is the behavior of Christians.” Whoever said that may have been thinking about church politics – not the theological disputes between different denominations (which are generally conducted with a degree of civility) but the nasty internal disputes that can boil over within congregations (though actual fisticuffs are fortunately extremely rare).
In Philippians 4:2-3 Paul urges the church of Philippi to resolve the bad feelings between two of its members. We have no information regarding what that was about, but it’s a pretty good bet that it probably started out as something relatively minor: a casual comment, a perceived insult; a disagreement about procedures – perhaps somebody had hurt feelings because their opinion wasn’t listened to. Things like that tend to escalate.
“Fighting for Jesus” can be an admirable thing when it is truly a matter of defending the Gospel. But the disputes that alienate members and even tear apart congregations are usually more like the squabbles that energize the fighting monks of the Holy Sepulchre – stuff that boils down to who has the ‘right’ to make decisions or change the status quo. The sad reality is that you probably have less chance of precipitating conflict by voicing ‘heresy’ than you do by changing the way the fellowship coffee is brewed!
Now the Church is obviously not the only organization afflicted by discord. But we are held to a higher standard by our founder and head, the Lord Jesus Christ, who taught us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and forgive others as He has forgiven us. However, we are also under greater attack than other human enterprises: it serves the purposes of Satan to destroy the unity of the Body of Christ, and he misses no opportunity to sow the seeds of conflict.
So, despite our best intentions, it’s quite unrealistic to think that the church on earth will ever be free of offenses given and taken – we’re a bunch of admitted sinners after all! And the big problem with sinners is that we are each self-absorbed and find it unnatural to put the purposes and example of our Lord above our own feelings, opinions, and self-interests. Yet that is exactly what we are called to do!
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who … made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant …” (Philippians 2:5-7, NIV)