Jason Byassee: Stopping a fight before it happens

Sometimes our saints do more than arbitrate disputes between us. They keep them from happening in the first place.

“This craftsmanship is beautiful,” I said. I wasn’t just making polite conversation to be nice to my host. The chairs and benches in Watts Street Baptist’s chapel are gorgeous -- functional, aesthetically pleasing and comfortable, all three.

My host said I didn’t know the half of it.

When Watts Street first moved to remodel the chapel, a member generously offered to provide the funding. The celebration, however, was short-lived, as the church soon began arguing over whether to have chairs or pews. The fighting grew so bitter that the funder withdrew his offer. They were back to square zero, all because neither faction would bend.

How like us mainline liberals: not only fighting over minutiae, but tripping over symbols of the contemporary (chairs) versus the tried and true (pews), as though they are mutually exclusive.

The church pressed forward some years later when another donor offered funding. This time an elder saint in the church took it upon himself to head off any future fighting. He offered to craft the seating himself. And what’d he do?

He made chairs and pews. Both. Sure enough, as my host pointed out, some of the seating is chairs, easily arranged in a circle, square, post-modern blob, or whatever configuration you please. The rest is pew-like benches that can be positioned in neat parallel rows just like Jesus and King James intended.

Here was a solution in which nobody had to lose. Even more, it was proposed and carried out by a layperson, drawing on his sweat, aesthetic sense, carpentry skills and diplomatic sense that a fight averted is better than a fight won. Would that this man could have been in the thick of the fighting (or even better, the pre-fighting or negotiating) when the old Southern Baptist Convention broke apart, prompting the departure of Watts Street and other more progressive churches.

Does the man at Watts Street and his crafting of both pews and chairs offer an analogy for our institutions? It’s hard to think of how a denomination, college, seminary, hospital or other institution might go and do likewise, finding ways where all can sit together in their own way. But then maybe I’m the wrong person to ask. Maybe the person to ask is the layperson whose leadership did more than arbitrate a dispute. It kept the dispute from happening in the first place.