A number of years ago, while I was speaking at a conference, I asked my friend, who is a full-time worker at that church, how the ministry was going. With a sheepish grin, he responded, “The ministry was going great, it’s all the Christians I work with that make things difficult!”
I often think of my friend at that church and wonder how things could be hard when working with Christians all the time! I mean, weren’t they all God-fearing people that were living by the Bible, filled with the Holy Spirit, and living in love with each other? How could there possibly be any problems! But all too often, Christians have this mentality that those we gather within the local church are all joyful people that love each other all the time, and never have any problems. The widely held notion that the local assembly is conflict-free is very unrealistic. Conflict is a reality of organizational life. Churches are not exempt. They never were.
Many within the church look to an example as seen in Acts 2:44-47 where they see the newborn church in all its glory, and believe that any good church will always be like them and never have any problems…
“So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”
This passage is often cited as a description of the kind of loving fellowship that is expected to exist in our churches today, and in fact, such love and care should be our ultimate goal, and can regularly be found.
But unfortunately, as the saying goes, “All good things must come to an end.” And come to an end they did…even in the early church. While reading on in the New Testament, we discover the exhilaration of those early days of the church gave way to serious problems ranging from bold-faced lying (Acts 5), to serious conflict between two culturally distinct groups (Acts 6), to theological contentions (Galatians 2) and to interpersonal disagreements (Acts 15:36f, Philippians 4:2-3).
So then, how should the church of today deal with issues and conflict when they arise. Of first importance is realizing that conflict is inevitable. The question should not be “how do we avoid conflict?”, but rather, “how should we deal with conflict when it happens?” This is not so much a pessimistic attitude, but a realistic outlook that has positive aspirations.
Realize that we’re all part of the problem, and that we’re all part of the solution
Many years ago, in the British Times newspaper, the editor asked for comments on “What was wrong with the world.” Letters streamed in making mention of political shortcomings, evils caused by bad parenting, and the lack of proper funding for social awareness. One letter that was eventually printed in the Times, answered the question in a clear and straightforward manner. “What’s wrong with the world”… Dear Sir, I am, Yours faithfully… G. K. Chesterton.
Chesterton was aware of the fact that while it’s easy to point the finger of trouble at others, when it came down to it, the real problem was often the person in the mirror.
When the apostle Paul encouraged the believers in Philippi, he didn’t so much address the issues that were causing problems, as he addressed the people in the issue. “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord” (Philippians 4:1)
Often, conflict may start in dealing with an issue such as worship styles, or leadership decisions, but inevitably the conflict escalates and becomes more of a personal conflict rather than a conflict with the issue. Often, trying to decide what color the church carpet should be turned into “Why is John so pigheaded in demanding that color of carpet?! He really is a jerk!” Jesus sees the issues of conflict as a reality and commands that if you “remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother.” (Matthew 5:23-24).
He later goes on to instruct in Matthew 18:15 saying “If your brother sins against you, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” In both situations, it is your responsibility to go to your brother. Many relational problems in churches would be quickly resolved if we would follow the simple guideline to take the initiative in going to the other person to try to clear up the problem between us.
Always speak the truth… in love
Conflict has been with us and those we love since Adam and Eve and that whole issue about some fruit: Cain killed Abel, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, King David faced a rebellion led by his son, and before the Lord’s supper, the disciples argued about who would be greatest in the Kingdom. If conflict is going to happen, we need to develop a method of dealing with the issues when they come up.
When Paul encouraged the Ephesian believers in the exercising of their spiritual gifts, he reminded them to use their gifts for the building up of one another “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” (Ephesians 4:13) He realizes that there will be some hard times in striving for that unity, so Paul encourages the believers to “speak the truth in love, and grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ… which causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Eph. 4:11-16) We are all part of the body of Christ, and since “no man hates his own body”, we need to find ways to care for our brothers and sisters in the body. Truth may hurt, but it never needs to be hurtful.
Preserve the bonds of unity, and the goals of evangelism
When the apostle Peter wrote to the Christians in Asia Minor, he reminded them that their actions speak much louder than their words, “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles…that they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).
He goes on to encourage them and remind them to “always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). The reminder to the Christians was that their lives should cause curiosity among non-believers with the expectation of giving an account for the hope that is in us. Jesus gives the highest standard in reminding the disciples that “all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35).
The unity of the body of Christ is in direct correlation to our being known as disciples of Christ. That should encourage us to make the “bonds of peace” an important part of our church body. I’ve often talked with missionaries in hostile areas who speak of the unity of the Christians when focused on the presentation of the gospel. One dear brother told me that “we just don’t have time to fight in our churches… we’ve got to get the message of Christ out!” When the church is united on the goal of evangelism and building for His glory, our narrow vision often gets corrected in view of our higher calling.
We’ve all heard the little ditty: “To dwell above with saints we love, O that will be glory; But to dwell below with saints we know, that’s a different story!” It reminds me that conflict within the local church is inevitable, and to think otherwise is naive and even dangerous. But God often allows a local body to go through those times of difficulty much in the same way that we might experience growing pains during adolescent years. The Bible is very clear about the issues of conflict in the local church, but it is also very clear about the goals of unity through conflict: make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. (Philippians 2:1)
Giving God His glory. Proclaiming the truth of the gospel. United in the body of Christ… even when the honeymoon is over!
Ben Mathew is a professor of Counseling Psychology at Emmaus Bible College and serves as the Chair of the Counseling Department. After Ben graduated from Emmaus with a degree in Biblical Studies he went on to get an M.A. in Biblical Counseling from Dallas Theological Seminary and then a Ph.D. in General Psychology from Northcentral University.