Church fights are so prevalent these days that people have written books about them. Leslie Flynn wrote a book entitled Great Church Fights. In this book, he tells the story of a father who was in his study reading, and he heard a commotion outside the window. It was his daughter who was playing with her friends. It got louder and it got louder and more heated and more argumentative, until finally he could restrain himself no longer. He pushed the window open and said, “Stop it. Honey, what’s wrong?” And after the reprimand she responded quickly, “But, Daddy, we were just playing church.” What causes fights in the church? At root, the issue is pride, especially since we think we know all there is to know about the other people in the church. Especially in small communities such as ours, there is very little in the way of privacy. Everyone seems to know what is going on in everyone else’s lives. That has many good results. When someone is in the hospital, or suffering in some way, other people come alongside them and comfort and help them. However, it can have down sides as well, since things that should not be spoken about are broadcast with a million watt foghorn all over the community. It helps us in these kinds of situations to know what the church is, and what we can infer from that and what we cannot infer from that.
Jesus tells us a story about the church. The church is a mixed company. There are good fish in the net, but there are also bad fish in the net. The church is mixed, and we need to know this. Let’s look at some of the details.
Firstly, let’s look at the net itself. The net being talked about here is a gigantic square net. They would put weights on the bottom of the net, so that it would scrape the bottom of the lake, and they would put corks on the top end of the net, so that the top would float. Then they would tie one end of the net to the shore somehow, and then the other end of the net they would carry all the way around in a semi-circle. Some of these nets, by the way, were over 700 feet long. Obviously, anything and everything that was in the path of the net would get caught up in this net, whether it was good or not. That net is like the church proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All sorts of people get caught up in the church. Some of the fish that get caught are good fish, but some of them are bad fish, and some are not even fish at all. Let’s take a closer look at these fish.
According to the Old Testament, the only fish that were fit for human consumption were fish that had both fins and scales. So, for instance, shrimp were not allowed, nor crabs. Of the nearly 30 varieties of fish that could be caught in the Sea of Galilee, only about one quarter of them were ceremonially clean. That is what defined whether a fish was a good fish or a bad fish. So, the fishermen would gather up this net at the end of their fishing expedition, and start sorting the good fish from the bad.
Now, notice something very carefully here. The fishermen are not us, and they are not the church. The church is the net. The angels on judgment day are what the fishermen mean in the parable. In other words, we are not the ones who get to do the sorting, by and large. There is one exception, which we will get to in a minute. But for now, notice that it is not our place as Christians to judge whether someone else is a good fish or a bad fish. We are not qualified to do that, because we cannot read people’s hearts. I have heard even in our two churches many many people judge other people, who are members in good standing, to be unbelievers, and therefore justify their own lack of forgiveness or lack of love “because they just aren’t Christians.” To put it rather bluntly, “Who died and left you God?” The church is the only body in this life who gets to decide who is “in” and who is “out.” That is the one exception.
The church has the keys to the kingdom, and if gross sin is evident in the life of a member of the church, then the steps of Matthew 18 are to be put into play. First, the offended party goes to the offender and seeks reconciliation. If reconciliation does not happen, then the offended party seeks out a second person to act as a witness, and goes to the offender again, to seek reconciliation. If that does not work, then the offended party takes it to the church. If the church steps in and the offender still does not repent, then the church has the authority to excommunicate the offender. But do you see that the individual does not have that kind of power to decide who is in and who is out? The only thing we have to go on is whether or not a person is a member of a good church. If that person is a member of a good church, then there is absolutely no reason to treat them as a nonbeliever. Folks, I can think of nothing more crucial than this to the life of the body and getting along well with one another. It is sad that Matthew 18 is usually ignored, as well. No one goes to the offender. Rather, we go to our friends and gossip about the motives of the offender, which gossip is almost always wrong. Worse yet, we’ll let those problems just sink into our souls for months and years without ever dealing with them. This is not life in the net as Jesus portrays it here. Life in the net is a mess in some ways. The good fish and the bad fish are all jumbled up together. That leads us to two errors. One is to try to separate the church right now. That is what people who are quick to judge do. Eventually, they wind up all on their own, which a church of their very own, with a membership of one, and of course, if they have even a modicum of self-awareness, they will start to doubt even that membership of one. But the equal and opposite problem is that when we know about sin, we do nothing about it. We can use this parable even as an excuse to avoid the hard work of reconciliation and dealing with sin problems. Matthew 18 is also in the Bible.
There are two encouraging things, besides all the hard things just mentioned, that we can glean from this text. The first thing is that God has the power to change completely a bad fish into a good fish. There are many people who come into a church and are not saved. But then, after a while, they notice that they are not, and become convicted of sin, and recognize their need of Jesus. This happens all the time. So, we do need to be patient with people. Maybe so and so isn’t a Christian. That doesn’t mean we give up on them. The proper response is not to broadcast their shortcomings to the world, but to pray for them. We can always pray that other people’s walk with the Lord becomes closer. That is a safe prayer for anyone, for it does not pre-judge whether they are Christians or not. So, maybe some of you listening tonight are not good fish, but bad fish. In that case, make sure that you repent of your sin, and come to the one who can give you fins and scales, making you clean, making you different from the world.
The second encouraging thing is that, while we look at the church now and see all her shortcomings, and see all her warts and blemishes; we can see that there are bad fish in her, and pieces of rotting wood, and all sorts of other things that don’t belong; still, we can know that it will not always be this way with the church. I am constantly amazed at people’s main excuse for not coming to church: “it’s just a bunch of hypocrites.” That is probably the number one excuse I hear for someone not coming to church. As if Jesus didn’t tell us this centuries before! Of course the church has a lot of hypocrites in it! Jesus told us in this parable that that would be the case! That is no reason not to come. The church is mixed right now, but it will not be mixed in the coming age. Then, we will all see just how beautiful the church really is. We will see all the good fish, the purified fish, all in one place, and we will see all the bad fish, and all the non-fish in another place.
So, we need to be concerned to treat other people charitably. It does not matter what that person has done to you. If they are members of the church of Christ, then you are to treat them as members of the church. Do not do private excommunications. At the same time, examine your own hearts to see what kind of fish you are. The story is told of a young pastor who went to a small-town church. He was totally idealistic, and wanted to turn the church around. But no matter what he did, week after week, no change came. So finally, he had had enough. He decided to announce in the local paper that the church had died, and that there was going to be a funeral service at the church building, and that all who wanted to attend could do so. The church was packed. There was standing room only in that church. What was really shocking, however, was that the pastor had a casket up front. Everyone wondered who was in the casket, since it was a funeral for the church. At the end of the sermon, the pastor announced that he was going to have a viewing of the casket, and that anyone who wanted could come and see the casket. Everyone got up to go to the front to see. The pastor opened the casket, and moved aside the flowers so that everyone could look in and see…the mirror. So, don’t just play at church. Don’t judge other people to be in or out, when you don’t know people’s motivations for anything. Instead, treat one another kindly, and look to your own heart that you be a good fish by the grace of God and for the glory of God.