St Paul once famously described his experience of ministry as ‘conflicts without and fears within’ (2 Corinthians 7:5). And those conflicts were both inside the church and also in the world.
Why are churches, new and old, conflict-prone? Why is your church conflict-prone?
Is it because God calls difficult and damaged people into fellowship with him?
Yes, praise him, he does! We cannot put a sign outside our churches saying ‘We only welcome balanced, together, and hassle-free people to this church’. God welcomes mixed-up people, including ourselves. No wonder churches experience conflict.
God welcomes mixed-up people, including ourselves. No wonder churches experience conflict.
Is it because God calls a great variety of people into fellowship with him?
Yes, poor and rich, married and single, uneducated and educated, people from every background and race and language, people from many jobs, with many different life-experiences—young, old, middle-age, and many different sub-cultures and many different interests. And people still enquiring about Christianity, new converts, people who don’t know the Bible, those who know it well, mature Christians, people wandering from the faith, people with hidden sins, and people of great wisdom and faith. What a mixture! All we have in common is Christ! No wonder we grow impatient and intolerant: no wonder conflicts erupt among us. For we also have sin in common.
Is it because our culture and sub-cultures are rapidly changing?
Yes, young people push for change; middle-aged people try to keep up, and older people feel left behind. So the dominant group in the church will push for the Christian culture which formed them, and others will feel marginalised.
Is it because there are so many different musical sub-cultures in Western society?
Yes, for while music is designed to draw us together to praise God and encourage each other, we so easily feel marginalised and silenced by music that we don’t like.
Is it because consumer-culture has invaded our churches?
Yes, we know what we like, and if we are not satisfied, we easily go somewhere else. This tendency increases the pressure on churches and ministers to try to keep everyone happy, which is impossible when people are so easily seduced by selfishness.
Is it because of different interpretations of the Bible and different theologies?
The biggest differences are between those who accept the authority, power and sufficiency of the Bible and those who do not. Yet, even if people agree in the authority, power, and sufficiency of the Bible, they may have different interpretations of it (concerning, for example, who should be baptised). Even secondary issues are of practical importance in the life of a church. No wonder there is conflict!
Is it because churches are liable to power-plays?
Yes, sometimes ministers like to control the church; sometimes families like to control the church; sometimes the founding generation like to control the church; sometimes the elders like to control everyone; sometimes the congregation want to control the minister and the elders. Sometimes church have no system of governance and decision-making in place, and sometimes they have bad systems of governance and decision-making in place.
Is it because people come from different church backgrounds, and expect their new church to be like their old church.
Is it because people who feel they are losing influence and power at work in their community or nation try to make up by trying to control their church?
Is it because people can get over-excited about small issues, like the colour of the new carpet?
Is it because people in ministry sometimes find it difficult to work together?
Is it because we are dealing with the most important issues in the world:
- the will and plan of God;
- the truth about God, the universe and everything;
- how to honour and serve God, how to care for people;
- how do effective evangelism?
Yes, these are all vital issues, and so they raise the emotional temperature and possibility of conflict.
Is it the case that churches are more conflict-prone than other Christian ministries?
Yes, because other Christian ministries can select people from similar backgrounds (students, people who are ill, people from just one background, etc), and often a particular focus of ministry (evangelism, practical care, Bible translation, etc), and often with focused training programs allied to their ministry focus. Their common aim makes unity easier. Of course, other Christian ministries can also experience conflict!
Does God have any remedies for conflict in churches?
Yes, he does, but some of them are nasty-tasting medicines! What are they?
- ‘Contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). Other issues are of secondary importance to the truth of the gospel, apostolic faith, Biblical Christianity. For the church is meant to be ‘the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15). We must not move to a different gospel, another Jesus.
- ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Ephesians 5:21). This is so counter-cultural, it is almost impossible to imagine. It is the exact opposite of individualistic consumerism. It does not mean that our opinions or preferences are of no significance, but it does mean that we must give more weight to the opinions and preferences of others, in matters which are not right or wrong. That is love in action.
- ‘Why do you judge your brother or sister? … we will all stand before God’s judgement seat’ (Romans 14:10). We need to allow others some freedom in matters of behaviour on which there is no clear teaching in Scripture. We must all stand before God on the day of judgement: God is the judge, and we are not: and the day of judgement is not now, but in the future.
- ‘Bear with one another and forgive one another’ (Colossians 3:13). Forbearance is when we put up with other people despite their annoying differences to us, and the ways they get on our nerves or unwittingly offend us. Forgiveness is for when they do actually sin against us. God calls us both to forbear and to forgive.
- ‘Love each other deeply, for love covers a multitude of sins’ (1 Peter 4:8). Love does not count the sins of others, it covers them. It does not tell others about them, it covers them. It does not record and remember them, it covers them.
- ‘Whoever would be great among you must be your servant’ (Mark 10:43). Jesus Christ dignified service as he dignified suffering, and dignified forgiveness. As followers of Christ, we should follow in his steps, and seek to serve our brothers and sisters.
- ‘Be of the same mind in the Lord’ (Philippians 4:2). When personal disputes arise, we should follow Paul’s instruction. Personal feuds are a luxury we cannot afford.
- ‘If someone is caught in a sin … you should restore that person gently… but watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted’ (Galatians 6:1). Gentle restoration, not harsh exclusion: and don’t let your correction of another blind you to your own temptation or sin.
- ‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace’ (Colossians 3:15). We don’t just want peace in our churches, we want the peace of Christ. And to break up the peace in a church is to break up the peace of Christ. ‘If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him: for God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple’ (1 Corinthians 3:17).
- ‘All things to all people’ (1 Corinthians 9:22). Paul’s evangelistic motto is an example to us all to discipline ourselves to set aside our own preferences to serve others, and win others for Christ.
May the peace of Christ reign in our churches!
Victorian readers are invited to join our next TGCA Victoria meeting and hear Tim Dyer from Johnmark Extension discuss how to handle conflict in ministry
Wednesday 13 November 2019 at 9:00am – 1.00pm,
CrossCulture Church of Christ, 333 Swanston Street, Melbourne, Victoria 3000