Embracing Conflict in the Church
Our church family is having a bit of a kerfuffle. Since this is a public forum, I won’t share the details. But it’s painful. It’s personal and it’s dangerous. No one likes it.
This is not the first time I’ve been in a church family that was having conflict. Come to think of it, I can’t recall a church that I’ve ever been a part of that didn’t have inner conflict. Conflict is part of the landscape of human relationships. And the church, while it is infused with Divine life, is still human. On this side of eternity, we remain broken – in need of God’s grace and work in our collective life together. It’s the same for any family.
There are many responses available to us when we enter into conflict. The first and, I must admit, easiest for me to immerse myself in is anger. It is an honest response, especially when one believes that injustice has been done or that the other party is somehow unrighteous. That has usually been my assessment of “the other side” when I’ve been deep in it. It is easy to be gripped by passionate anger in those circumstances.
Another response that is common to church conflict is disillusionment and departure. Christians have a reasonable expectation that brothers and sisters in Christ should act lovingly, honorably, and honestly towards each other. Sometimes we don’t – or it seems like we don’t. This is especially hard for the idealistic young.
I remember one church confilct that I was engaged in when I was in my thirties. I was disappointed in older folks who just didn’t seem to get so riled up about it. I remember like it was yesterday when one of the older pastors suggested that we younger ones consider adjusting our expectations. I didn’t receive it very well at the time. In the years since, however, that counsel has helped me cope with difficult circumstances as well as being sage advice that I’ve shared with others.
When tensions can’t be satisfactorily resolved and expectations can’t or won’t be adjusted, the other option is to depart. A lot of church folk do this even while still attending the church. They pull out from ministry involvement or stop giving. Others, of course, express their frustration with their feet and they take their baggage elsewhere. I’ve done that…in a professional sense with resignations in the past. I’ve had my reasons and some of them were quite justified. But in hindsight, I wonder if God wouldn’t have been pleased and my character better formed if I had stayed and worked through the issues. Of course, I can’t go back. But I wonder.
Neither of these options – unbridled anger, disillusionment, or departure – is good for you, me, or the church. Conflict in a family is a given. It just is. But in God’s economy, it can be redemptive.
We are imperfect. We are being transformed into the image of Christ. But we are not there yet. Our imperfections, our perspectives, and our personalities grate on each other. Sometimes sparks fly, but more often than not, we keep those tensions under control. Generally, that’s a good thing as we are all dependent on God’s grace to transform us. I think we want to be patient with each other – to extend the grace that was given to us. But sometimes underlying tensions coagulate together into relational patterns and systems that sabotage the health of our community.
Conflict reveals those unhealthy patterns and systems that tend to lie hidden in “normal” circumstances. Interpersonal conflict is like pain in the body; something is out of order.
I don’t like conflict. I hate the pain it inflicts on those I love. I’m afraid of the anger that lurks in my soul. I’m fearful of the danger that it poses to the congregation. But I’m hopeful. I believe conflict in human relations should be embraced for the revealing and redemptive potential that it carries.
Redemption emerging out of conflict is beautifully illustrated in the first seven verses of Acts 6. As is often the case, conflict arose in the early church out of a good development. When the Gospel was preached on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, not only were Jews from Jerusalem converted, but also many of those who had come from other countries to celebrate the Jewish festival. Both Hebrew and Greek-speaking Jews made up the first congregation in Jerusalem. Furthermore, the work of the Holy Spirit was so profound among them that many decided to sell all that they had and pool it together for the good of everyone in the church. Those who were poor and needy, including widows and orphans, were cared for within the church family. Such sharing was a wonderful development of Christian community!
But distribution of resources quickly became a problem. Greek-speaking members complained (“rumblings of discontent” – sounds pretty relevant to me) that their widows were not being served equally with those who spoke Hebrew. It could have been a bit of racial or cultural tension, but more reasonably, the problem likely emerged from the difference in spoken language. Whatever the reason, it was causing dissention and threatened the unity of the church.
The resolution to the conflict is best told by the scriptural narrative:
So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.”
Everyone liked this idea, and they chose the following: Stephen (a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit), Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch (an earlier convert to the Jewish faith). These seven were presented to the apostles, who prayed for them as they laid their hands on them.
So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too. (Acts 6: 2-7)
Several observations about the story can be made and applied to contemporary church conflicts.
1. Those who were charged with leadership took the initiative to address the problem. Good leaders understand that problems left unaddressed will only become worse. Responsible church leaders take action to resolve conflict.
2. The Apostles knew that their role of teaching and prayer was vital to the health of the church. The conflict in this story clarified and affirmed the role of the Apostles. They delegated tasks that would take them away from their responsibilities.
3. Not only did the Apostles delegate the task, but they also granted authority to do it. For that reason, they established standards for those who would administrate the program: “well respected and…full of the Spirit and wisdom.” They publically laid hands on them and prayed for them so that everyone knew they had the authority and blessing of the Apostles.
4. Everyone liked the idea. One hundred percent agreement is probably not likely in most American churches since we live in an individualistic culture. But some sort of consensus should be reached. The Apostles listened to and considered the voice of the people.
5. The people were very wise in choosing those who were most involved with the problem to solve it. While not obvious in our English translations, all of the seven who were selected to administer the program had Greek names. Greek Christians who were of “good reputation and full of the Spirit and wisdom” administered the program, insuring that those who were being slighted would be fairly served.
6. The church resolved the conflict and ministry thrived.
From those observations, we can draw several lessons.
1. Embrace conflict in the church. Don’t run from it. Address it.
2. When appropriate, take the conflict to the whole congregation. Be honest and explain the challenges that leadership is facing. One of the ongoing complaints in most modern churches is that leadership is isolated from the people. There are, of course, good reasons sometimes for that distance. But it is the responsibility of church leadership to always have a finger on the pulse of their people. God speaks through his people and church leaders should cultivate a discerning hear to hear that voice. God is not the author of confusion and when it is present, we should step back until the fog dissipates and direction is clear. Leadership must take the responsibility to provide clear channels of communication. This is especially important in churches like Baptists that have a heritage of congregational polity.
3. Church leaders must be of good reputation. Leadership in a church is primarily relational. Mutual trust is the currency of effective ministry in the church and it is the leader’s responsibility to make sure there is an ample supply. While it is true that leaders need to be able to trust the people, more often than not, people are looking for leadership and willingly follow a leader that has proven himself or herself trustworthy.
4. Church leaders must be full of the Spirit. People in the church expect their leaders to be at least as spiritually mature as they are. Even more, church leaders must cultivate discernment to hear the voice of the Spirit. God doesn’t leave us in the dark. Jesus said that his sheep know his voice.
5. Once the issue has been fully discussed, the people must participate in good faith in resolving the issue. The people in Acts 6 selected the seven.
6. Those who are closest to the issue should be empowered to address and resolve the conflict.
7. The health of the church and progress of the Kingdom is dependent on resolution of conflict in the church.
In our current conflict, I’m already beginning to see some of these things happening. The role of the church council is being better defined. This is something that has been sorely needed for some time. Relational leadership is emerging. Efforts towards clear and honest communication are being initiated. We are far from resolution in our struggle. The issues are confusing and difficult. But I am hopeful.
If there ever was a perfect church do you think they would let you join? No. I don’t think so. I know I would be excluded as well. Our church is a family. And families are imperfect. But families are where souls are formed and we are formed most often through the struggles we endure.
And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
I’m hopeful. I pray you are, too.