They looked unattractive, rough, and ugly—nothing to write home about.
An employee of the industrial plant we were visiting scooped them up into a huge drum. Then he added sand, sawdust, and water, and closed the drum hermetically. He pressed a button, and the dance of the barrel began. It shook, it twisted, it turned and rotated. The noise was deafening yet intriguing. Dozens of barrels moved and shook in the plant, and as we looked on from a high vantage point nothing gave away the precious content of these drums. Yes, the rocks looked unattractive, rough, and ugly when they entered the drums, but as we saw another drum being opened after weeks of constant motion, the transformation was astounding. Covered by dust and mud, the most amazing semiprecious stones appeared. Tigereye, rose quartz, amethyst, agate, jasper, and dozens more, their rough edges gone, rounded and shiny, were carefully sorted according to size and quality. Pinks, dark blues, whites, reds, greens suddenly seemed to lighten the room.1
Tumbled Gemstones and the Church
Seeing the transformation of an ugly rock into a polished gemstone reminded me visually of the church. Not a building, not an organization, but a community of believers from all walks of life with different ethnic and racial backgrounds. There are rough edges on everyone, and they all find themselves tumbled together—in church.
Growing up in the Black Forest of Germany, which was blessed with large snowfalls, as a teenager I loved cross-country skiing and joined a club. Everyone in the club cherished cross-country skiing and was willing to train hard in order to run good races. Church, however, is not like a club. Rather—and Scripture uses this metaphor (Eph. 1:5, 17; 2:18, 19)—it is like a family. Just imagine cross-country skiers who do not like the trainer or some of their corunners. They could just quit the club and find another club more to their liking. In a family (as well as in church) we do not have this option. We are part of something bigger that is not built around our likes and dislikes.
Polishing the Rough Edges
Does your brother or your sister, sitting next to you in church, irritate you at times? Do you find yourself sighing when you see a certain name in the bulletin (“not him again!”)? Does the theological hobbyhorse of somebody in church cause you to take a deeeeep breath? I’m sure most of us have felt these emotions, even though we are glad to be part of God’s end-time church and feel committed to the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Conflict, minor and major irritations, however, seem to be part of families (and churches) all over the world. We are not naturally God-directed, but self-centered—and human.
The New Testament contains a number of stories that reflect conflict in the early church. In some cases these tensions may have been the result of conflicting personalities or the feeling of having been let down by somebody (see Acts 15:37-40; 13:13 regarding John Mark). At other times conflict resulted from theological differences. Acts 15 suggests that the first Jerusalem council included lots of (noisy and contrary) discussion and arguments.2 There is, however, one story that highlights a bit of the polishing process that is part of being church.
Remember Peter in Antioch and his confrontation with Paul? Scripture provides only a brief glimpse into this unhappy episode of conflict in Galatians 2:11-14. Its inclusion in the sacred record reminds us that nobody is infallible—not Peter, not Paul, not you or me. Ellen White’s comments on this story highlight a common thread in church conflicts, where leadership positions (at all levels) may lead to inflated egos and warped perspectives: “The history of this [Peter’s] departure from right principles stands as a solemn warning to men in positions of trust in the cause of God, that they may not fail in integrity, but firmly adhere to principle.”3
When Peter changes his practice of eating with Gentile believers because of the pressure of brothers from Jerusalem, Paul cannot keep quiet and “opposes” (see verse 11, NIV)4 Peter. The Greek term used here is strong: James 4:7 employs the same term exhorting Christians to “resist the devil.” How did Peter take it? Galatians does not tell the full story. Paul uses this opportunity to, again, exalt the gospel, the good news of salvation by grace. I imagine that Peter understood—and repented. He was ready to accept critique. He was part of the big “drum” called church containing “semiprecious stones” with hard and rough edges.
God’s Polishing Work
As I’ve pondered God’s work of polishing rough edges in my life (and in His church), I have gleaned a number of lessons from Scripture that may also be helpful to Adventists in the twenty-first century.
1. Humility is a key ingredient for the church “drum.” Jesus Himself invites us to learn from Him who is gentle and “lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29).5 Peter himself calls us to “be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility” (1 Peter 5:5). Humility is like a healing salve when sharp edges cause injury, and is an excellent way to communicate even direct criticism.
2. Recognition of error and repentance does not come easily, but needs to be part of our church life. When the criticism is brought forward in humility and according to scriptural principles, it is time to say, “I was wrong; please forgive me.” Tension between brothers and sisters may hurt at times, but should ultimately bring us closer together.
3. According to Jesus’ guidelines in Matthew 18:15-20, conflict and sin in church require a multistep solution approach. Approaching a brother directly will often give better results than a public showdown. There is, however, another principle that requires attention: public sin also requires public rebuke and resolution. Paul confronted Peter “before them all” (Gal. 2:14), as this concerned a theologically significant issue that pertained to the entire church.
4. In line with the drum illustration, it is important to remember that behind the rough edges, the hard corners, the often upsetting mannerisms, and the many other minor and major irritants lies something precious—a brother or sister, made in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Jesus, someone who far exceeds the beauty and value of a semiprecious stone. Fearless Paul, who seldom minced words when he saw the need for decisive action, reminds us of an important principle in Philippians 2:3: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.”
That’s good advice for the ever-moving and ever-grinding church “drum.”