Have you been following the Colleen Rooney – Rebekah Vardy “Wagatha Christie” case? No, me either. Well, a bit. But not really. I mean, what is going on is interesting – not so much in its details – so much as what is prompting it. I think the case is aptly summed up here this way: ‘[It] isn’t about betrayal, as the lawyers have argued. It’s about a world of wealth, privilege and boredom, fuelled by jealousy and paranoia and seen through the poisonous filter of social media.’ Or, as it put it even more succinctly, ‘two women spend[ing] millions of pounds and hours of their lives slugging it out over something that doesn’t matter.’
I am minded to think that many problems in the church have a similar sort of shape. In fact, the more comfortable your church, the more likely you are to face interminable conflicts over the most minor of matters that can barely even be considered adiaphora. I was once reminded – by a believer working with the church in a closed country – that the things British Christians tend to get inordinately worked up about and insist are matters of conscience that will lead them out of this particular local church are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor.
You might think this was coming from the perspective of someone suffering persecution and its theologically clarifying effects. But that wasn’t their point at all. They were saying that the problems with which their churches were beset meant they knew which hills really were worth dying on and which were not whereas many Western Evangelicals leave over things that don’t even register in their churches because of the real issues that must be dealt with.
Of course, nobody ever thinks that when they’re holding the church meeting to ransom over whatever vital gospel issue they have perceived in the particular colour of the carpet being chosen or the utterly vital matter of whether communion emblems are distributed by deacons or people come up to the front to take it themselves. These things look ridiculous only to those for whom they don’t matter. It’s easy to mock when it is adiaphora (an indifferent thing) to you. They are taking up valuable time and gospel resources fighting this pointless crusade, we think to ourselves. Of course, when we do the same thing, we are sure it is on a definitively vital gospel issues or secondary, but seriously important, matters for the life of the local church.
In the Wagatha Christie debacle, the linked article insisted it was down to too much time and money on the hands of those who are now mortally offended with each other. In the church, it very often seems that we work out Moynihan’s Law. Democratic Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, argued “The amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there. The greater the number of complaints being aired, the better protected are human rights in that country.” As Andrew Wilson summed it up, the better things get the worse they seem.
In the church, this is so often the case. The more comfortable we get, the worse things in the church seem to be to many of us. The tighter our doctrinal allegiance, the more closely bound we are by our statements of faith and practice, very often, the more egregious matters of adiaphora seem to be. As our church looks healthier in doctrine and praxis, very often it begins to look worse to many inside it as every minor quibble and difference of opinion – no matter how peripheral – come floating to the surface with disturbing regularity.
Might it be, when all is said and done, many churches spend hours of their lives slugging it out over something that doesn’t matter?