The Peacemaking Church, Curtis Heffelfinger, (Foreword by Ken Sande). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.
Summary: Outlines a pro-active approach to peacemaking in the church consisting of eight principles that enable us to do our very best to pursue the peace and unity that is ours in Christ.
Church conflicts can be truly painful and leave deep scars on those who get caught up in them, especially pastors. Curtis Heffelfinger is one of them, and writes out of his own experiences of conflict, and lessons learned in working with Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker, who contributes a foreword to this volume. After a near fatal church conflict, Heffelfinger developed a pro-active approach to peacemaking that is “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). He contends that “the best fight your congregation ever experiences is the one you never get into in the first place”. Critical to that is the “eager” in Ephesians 4:3. Over fifteen years, Heffelfinger developed a culture and practices that set a priority on eagerly doing one’s best to maintain Spirit-given unity.
In the next eight chapters, Heffelfingers lays out eight biblical keys to his proactive approach, organized into three parts. In Part One, he focuses on three priorities that preserve unity in Jesus’s church, drawing upon Ephesians 4:1-6. First, he focuses on how we see ourselves as peacemakers–walking worthily, as the Lord’s prisoners, as one called by the Lord. Second, he focuses on the virtues of Ephesians 4:2-3–humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and eagerness–that ought shape our approach to peacemaking. Third, he considers the “right doctrine” on which our thinking ought be based–all the “ones” of Ephesians 4:4-6.
Part Two focuses on three pitfalls to avoid that threaten unity. The first, is anger–murder in the mind. He speaks of the festering rage that can be so destructive in conflicts. Second, he bluntly points out the scriptures that prohibit Christians litigating conflicts in civil courts. I’m glad for the inclusion of this chapter, having observed denominational leaders in conflict with a church (in the peace church tradition, no less) ready to go to court, and being surprised when 1 Corinthians 6 was called to their attention. Third, he turns from going before judges to being judges in the church in the area of disputable matters. He writes:
“If you want to do the best you can to preserve unity in your church, you have to learn to think this way: Mine is not to change my brother’s mind; mine is to embrace my brother. We must do that whether he is strong or weak, eating or not, drinking or not, smoking or not, movie- and theater-going or not, and a host of other so-called gray areas, doubtful things, or principles of conscience the Scripture does not color in black-and-white. So the gist of welcoming as a gospel-shaped community is an ongoing determination to embrace others in spite of differences over morally neutral matters.” (p. 102)
Part Three focuses on two practices that foster unity. The first is intercepting relational disasters before they ever occur. He looks at the example of Abram in Genesis 13 as he deals with potential tensions with his nephew Lot, observing the pro-active, relationally centered, humble, and generous approach of Abram. Second, he focuses on the importance of honoring spiritual leaders, though imperfect, who work with excellence to serve. The complement to servant leadership is respectful followership.
The book concludes with a reflection on Psalm 133 and the images of the fragrant oil and the refreshing and life-giving dew that describe the goodness and pleasantness of dwelling in unity.
I’m not convinced that these practices will avoid all conflict but rather lay the groundwork for constructive differences that resolve into even more durable unity and deeper love. The work is one worth a read by every church leadership board, or even as part of preparation for church membership. It could be used well in an all-church seminar on peacemaking. Curtis Heffelfinger works from passage to passage, undergirding principles with biblical precepts, as well as personal examples that illustrate those principles. Heffelfinger models a vulnerability, a lack of self-protection that seems essential to peacemaking. This book is a good complement to Ken Sande’s work, which focuses on healing and restoring peace. Heffelfinger’s book is about preventive care for the church, preserving the healthy and delightful peace that is God’s gift to his people.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.