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!