Dealing with Conflict in the Church
Conflicts exist even in a church. Or perhaps we should say that conflicts exist especially in a church. According to H. Newton Maloney, that’s a good thing. He writes,
“Many persons see differences as disruptive conflicts in the life of the church. They feel that the church should be one place where peace and harmony reign. They equate brotherly love with consensus. However, conflict is of the essence of the church.”
He goes on to explain, “Conflict has been the essence of the way in which the church has purified itself from within through the years. The church councils were full of differences designed to refine the faith and define heresy…. Throughout the centuries there have been those who have challenged the rest of the church to higher dedication. This has always resulted in conflict. Thus differences have helped the church express its faith to the world and purify itself from within. In this sense, the church is stronger for its differences because without them it might have peace and harmony but little vitality.” (from a paper entitled “Making the Most of Differences”)
The key issue is not whether conflicts happen in the church; the key issue is how we deal with the conflicts.
I tend to run. I am uncomfortable with conflict. I fear it and feel incompetent to handle it well. So I run and hope for nothing more than that it will just go away. But my approach has often led to greater problems.
Wisely and bravely, the apostle Paul takes a different approach. In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul addresses a conflict between two women who had reputations as leaders in the church in Philippi.
One of the women is named Euodia. Her name means, “to give a prosperous journey,” like the French phrase “Bon Voyage.” The other woman is named Syntyche. Her name means “the unexpected coinciding to two events,” like our word “Serendipity.” Paul stresses that both women had “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel,” which is what he also said about his good friend Timothy in Philippian 2:22. And he refers to them as his “fellow workers,” which is also what he wrote about Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25).
These are great women in the church at Philippi but they are involved in some kind of clash, and Paul is not going to run away from it when the unaddressed conflict could cause great damage and when resolved conflict could bring much good to the church and its witness to its neighbors.
Paul does something here that he doesn’t do in any of his other letters. He asks a “loyal yokefellow” in the church to “help these women.” The resolution of conflict between two people often requires the help of a trustworthy third party, so Paul reaches out for that help.
William Barclay states, “It is significant to see that when there was a quarrel in the Church at Philippi, Paul mobilized the whole resources of the Church to mend it. Paul thought no effort too great to maintain the peace of the Church. A quarrelling Church is not a Church at all, for a quarrelling Church is a Church from which Christ has been shut out, and to which He cannot gain access.”
An old Family Circus cartoon shows Billy saying his prayers one night: “We went to your house yesterday, but we couldn’t find you.” Paul doesn’t want that to be the experience of anyone who worships with the believers in Philippi, so he takes steps to resolve the conflict.
What will this “loyal yokefellow” need to do to resolve the conflict?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon no longer be listening to God.” One of the most important things we can do is to listen to each other. That’s the first step.
Paul offers one other bit of counsel here (in Philippians 4:2). He calls for the two women to have one mind “in the Lord.” He doesn’t require them to have the same opinion about the issue. Nor does he demand that one give in to the view of the other. But he calls for them to be of one mind in the things of the Lord that unite them. He calls to them to be united in God’s grace and in their trust in Christ. This is the real hope for Christians, not that we will all agree on every issue but that we will be united in Christ!
A Short Course in Human Relations
Many years ago Parade magazine presented what it called “A Short Course in Human Relations.” Here is what it consisted of:
The SIX Most Important Words:
“I admit I made a mistake.”
The FIVE most important words:
“You did a good job.”
The FOUR most important words:
“What is your opinion?”
The THREE most important words:
“If you please”
The TWO most important words:
The ONE most important word:
The LEAST important word:
Let’s examine this course a bit more closely.
It begins with a call to face up to one’s wrongs. One of the greatest obstacles to a healthy relationship is when a person becomes entrenched in defending or justifying himself or herself. Great injury occurs to a person’s heart when a wrong has been committed but never admitted to. In the July 1, 2002 issue of Psychology Today, Beverly Engel shares, “Apology changed my life. I believe it can change yours as well. Almost like magic, apology has the power to repair harm, mend relationships, soothe wounds and heal broken hearts…. An apology actually affects the bodily functions of the person receiving it—blood pressure decreases, heart rate slows and breathing becomes steadier.”
Next is a call to encouragement. When we compliment or affirm another person, it greatly lifts that person’s spirit. Mother Teresa claims, “There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.” Diane Gottsman stresses, “A compliment wields great possibility. It shows respect, admiration, approval, gratitude, trust, appreciation, and hope. One of the most generous things you can do in your life is to give someone else a true and meaningful compliment. I encourage you to start with the next person you encounter.”
The next couple of lessons have to do with respecting the personhood of others. These lessons invite us to take a genuine interest in others, seeking their opinion and their permission. Some of the deepest pain in life comes from being ignored, neglected, dismissed or abandoned. But every time we seek a person’s opinion or permission, we show that person how much he or she matters, we affirm their personhood, we uphold their value in our life.
Then we come to gratitude. Brother David Steindl-Rast argues, “Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy—because we will always want to have something else or something more.” Johannes A. Gaertner adds, “To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.”
The last two lessons address the poison of selfishness and the joy of relationships with others. St. John of the Cross remarked, “The virtuous soul that is alone…is like the burning coal that is alone. It will grow colder rather than hotter.” A Jewish proverb adds, “Each life is like one letter of the alphabet. Alone it can seem utterly meaningless, but combined with others it can be part of something beautiful.”
Pursue Growth not Stagnation
Chuck Swindoll writes,
“I love babies…. I think it’s a delightful, enjoyable experience to watch babies grow up and to become little people…. But you and I know that there are some things about little babies that are not very attractive. We humor them because they’re babies.
“Here’s a list of things: They are dependent and demanding. They are unable to feed themselves. They are unable to stay out of messes. They love to be the center of attention. They are driven by impulses, such as hunger, pain, sleep. They’re irritated when they’re dirty, even though they made the mess, and you’ve gotta clean it up. They have no manners, no control. They have little attention span, no concern for others, no abilities or skills.
“Now these are natural things that are a part of babyhood. But when you see adults with those characteristics, something tragic has happened, something terribly unfunny. The Christian who is not interested in growing wants to be entertained. He wants a diet of milk when he cries for it. He wants his way. And he’s gonna get it, no matter how many he will have to disrupt to get it.
“You see, in order for a Christian to handle solid food, he has to have a growing, mature digestive system. He needs teeth. He needs to have an appetite that is cultivated over a period of time for deep things, for the solid things of God. Spiritual babies must grow up. Some of the most difficult people to live with in the church of Jesus Christ are those who have grown old in the Lord but haven’t grown up in Him.”
That’s the essence of the message Paul shares in the second half of Philippians 3: A Christian should grow in the faith not freeze in the faith. We should move forward with Christ rather than getting stuck in the same infantile level where we began.
In Philippians 3:12-14 Paul tells us, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Paul speaks of pressing on and of straining toward what is ahead. These phrases imply action on the part of the person who wants to grow spiritually. There is no implication here that we grow spiritually by sitting back and waiting for growth to happen to us.
If an apostle as great as Paul never reached a point where he could sit back and stop trying to grow spiritually, neither should we.
Christians need to recognize that spiritual growth does not happen in a vacuum or in a Lazy Boy chair. It happens in the crucible of daily life as we seek to live with Christ’s heart and values in everything that comes our way. It happens in the “spiritual training room” of the community around us while we practice Christ-like compassion, humbleness, and goodness in the situations we encounter. And it happens in the midst of Christian fellowship as we encourage one another in steps or growth while also picking each other up whenever we fall.
The aim of our life with Christ is growth not stagnation.
A World of Switched Price Tags
The story is told of some college students who broke into a department store one night and changed various price tags. They removed the $299.99 tag from a vacuum cleaner and put it on a bag of clothespins, while placing the $1.72 tag from the clothespins on the vacuum cleaner. They took the $8.97 price tag off a can opener and placed it on a flat screen TV, while putting the $429.99 tag from the TV on the can opener. They did the same with many other items. When the store opened the next morning, the managers did not catch the changes for several hours. By then several customers walked out with great deals while others raised complaints over exorbitant prices.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul shares a similar story from his own life. He had grown up believing that there was great value in his pedigree (“circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews”—Philippians 3:5), his achievements (“in regard to the law, a Pharisee”—Philippians 3:5), and his assumed superiority to others (“as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless”—Philippians 3:6). He grew up convinced that performance was of highest value.
In Freedom from the Performance Trap David Seamands remarks, “The performance-based Christian life comes from the malignant virus of sinful pride—a pride which encourages us to build our lives upon a deadly lie. This lie claims that everything depends on what we do and on how well we perform, on our efforts and our work. We will enjoy acceptance and love if we can win them, success and status if we can earn them” (p. 26).
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend point out that this performance trap is what Paul described as being “under the law” rather than “under grace.” They explain, “Paul contrasts the phrase ‘under the law’ with being ‘under grace.’ Instead of having a God who is for us and giving us what we need, the law is against us and says we have to earn, through our own performance, what we need…. To get anywhere, we have to make it all happen ourselves. Law means God is ticked off and says, ‘Do it yourself.’ Grace means God is for us and says, ‘I will help you do it.’ Grace reverses the law.
“When we are under the law—in our natural state—we feel that God is the enemy and that we get what we deserve. We naturally try to ‘earn’ life. We try to do whatever we think will get God to like us or whatever we think will solve our day-to-day problems. Thus, we are trying to ‘save ourselves.’ We try to get God to not be mad, and we try by our own efforts to grow and resolve our issues. Yet Paul says that this way of living is the exact opposite of living according to faith and grace” (How People Grow, p. 67).
While on the road to Damascus, God revealed to Paul that he had been fooled by switched price tags. What was of true value was not performance but grace. What truly mattered was not what Paul accomplished but his relationship with the living and loving God.
Thus Paul shares with the Philippians, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:7-9)
The challenge for a Christian is to recognize how the world has switched the price tags. The challenge is to stop valuing the things the world values, such as pedigree, accomplishments, and assumed superiority (or inferiority) to others on the basis of such things as position, power, looks, wealth or status. The challenge is to begin valuing more highly relationship with God and the things God values. Micah 6:8 summarizes it well: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Be the person who cuts holes in the darkness
One evening, when he was 12 years of age, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s governess walked into his room and saw him staring out the window, watching a man light the streetlamps along the road. When the governess asked what young Stevenson was doing, he replied, “I am watching a man cut holes in the darkness.”
An entertainer named Harry Lauder once shared a similar story in a speech at the Indianapolis Commercial Club: “Some years ago I was sitting at dusk at the window of a house in Scotland, so situated that it commanded the view of an entire street of the city. Suddenly there came out from the alleyway near the house a man with a lighted torch on the end of a stick. Going to a lamppost nearby he thrust the torch to the nozzle of the gas-jet which immediately burst into light. He then went to the next post, about the middle of the square where the flame from the little torch awakened another blaze of light. I sat there watching that lamplighter as he pursued his task, and long after his form became indistinguishable, I could trace his movements by the lamps he lighted and the long trail of light that he left behind him.”
Then he added, “Your business and mine, my friends, is to so live that after our personalities have become lost in the shadows, we shall leave behind us a trail of light that will guide the steps of those who otherwise may walk in darkness.”
Philippians 2:14-15 makes a similar appeal to us: “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe.”
Many people look out and see a world of darkness. They see life darkened by despair, discontent, strife, conflict, corruption, malice, cruelty and hatred. They long to spot evidence that someone is poking holes in the darkness. They long for indications that someone is leaving a trail of light for us.
That’s what God is calling us to be and to do.
In the midst of a world darkened by despair, discontent, strife, conflict, corruption, malice, cruelty and hatred, God calls us to be people who poke holes in the darkness by such simple and significant things as not complaining or arguing, and by living with integrity and goodness.
Madeleine L’Engle put it this way: “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
When Christians live with others without complaining or arguing, and with integrity and goodness, we poke holes in the darkness; we show a light so lovely that others will want to know the source of it.
The Necessity of Christian Fellowship
God designed Christian fellowship—Christians caring for one another in a committed body of believers—as the place where incredible things would happen. It’s the context in which we can build each other up, comfort one another, encourage one another, inspire one another, forgive one another, help one another, and strengthen one another.
Neil Strait comments, “Love is the ingredient that makes every relationship in life, whatever it is, a little better. Love has a capacity to mend the broken, heal the hurting, and inspire the despairing. Love that reaches beyond the misunderstandings and the failures is a love that unites and encourages. Such a love is one of our world’s greatest needs.”
God intends for Christian fellowship to be the place where such love happens so that people’s lives are changed by receiving and giving such love.
In Philippians 2:1-2, Paul describes the effect of such loving Christian fellowship on the believers in Philippi: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”
Because of their fellowship with one another, they have experienced encouragement, comfort, fellowship, tenderness, and compassion—the kinds of things each of us need to live a healthy and meaningful life.
Paul Tournier points out, “There are two things we cannot do alone, one is to be married and the other is to be a Christian.”
God designed us in such a way that Christians need fellowship with fellow believers.
Chuck Swindoll adds, “Nobody is a whole chain. Each one is a link. But take away one link, and the chain is broken…. Nobody is a whole orchestra. Each one is a musician. But take away one musician and the symphony is incomplete…. Cars are composed of numerous parts. Each one is connected to and dependent upon the other. Even if a tiny screw comes loose and falls out of the carburetor, it can bring the whole vehicle to a stop. You guessed it: We need each other. You need someone and someone needs you. Isolated islands we’re not. To make this thing called life work, we have to lean and support, and relate and respond, and give and take, and confess and forgive, and reach out and embrace, and release and rely.”
How can we learn to love one another in such a way that Christian fellowship accomplishes in people’s lives what God has designed it to accomplish?
Actually, that love comes into our lives through Christ coming into our lives, and it grows in us as we seek for His character to be formed more fully in us.
That’s why Paul goes on to say (in Philippians 2:5-8), “Have this attitude which is yours in Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped (something to cling to), but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.”
We grow in our capacity to love one another as the Spirit and character of Christ grow in us.