In any community, church or group of people there are always a number of different ideas of how we should go about being people together.
To have some low level conflict of ideas and values is a normal part of human life, it is unavoidable. It is no surprise that when differences are expressed, people can easily be offended and one can easily offend. Hurts happen. It is part of what it means to be people. The idea that there is such a thing as a conflict-free congregation is inconsistent with both reality and the Bible.
In fact, some conflicts are part of the natural and necessary journey of being able to cooperate and work together. Research shows that groups function better when individuals are under a degree of stress, where conflict gives the opportunity for learning and growth and the development of skills, awareness, trust and hope. Healthy conflict helps create environments that are energizing, creative and natural.
Jesus was no stranger to conflict.
Sadly, however, although it is both necessary and ever-present in our churches, conflict also has the potential to be unhealthy, draining and unproductive. It can quickly escalate to alarming levels with significant destructive potential.
Jesus was no stranger to conflict. With his disciples he was constructive and character-building enabling them to grow to become the leaders they needed to be after he had left them. However, with the authorities, both religious and political, the conflict led to Jesus being crucified as a common criminal.
Conflict in the church today
In recent times, researchers into churches have noticed they are particularly vulnerable to intense and difficult behaviours and the devastating conflict that accompanies them. Peter Steinke, author of Healthy Congregations, A Systems Approach suggests that “Church conflict is a growth industry” and goes on to say that “not only are the number of incidences rising, but also the number of people who are stubborn, deceptive and mean.” I don’t know if what he says it true or not, but it does remind me that we live in a changing and complex world, and across the Western world the church faces significant challenges. Perhaps the stress this brings explains in part why we can become can become anxious and act in quite un-Christlike was to each other.
Jesus was very clear that the care and love of his disciples for each other is to be the key feature of their life together (John 13:34-35). Not only that, it is to be the key fruit that others are to look for. American theologian Francis Schaeffer suggested that Jesus is saying the world has the right to decide whether we are true disciples of Jesus on the basis of the love we show to other Christians. Jesus is talking about a real, observable unity, a practicing oneness, despite our differences.
Sadly, the church hasn’t always been a good witness in this area. We have allowed conflict to move from being healthy to becoming unhealthy and sometimes downright destructive. No wonder Paul pleads with those in the church at Corinth, where there was obvious conflict, to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought (1 Corinthians 1:10).
As you and your church face the challenges of living in our post-Christian, post-modern and secular world, as you discuss and have conflict with each other as to how best to respond to these stresses and pressures, let’s remember to encourage each other to love each other in the light of Jesus’ command.
To do so is to remember that our conflicts are taking place before a watching world and they will know if the church operates as the disciples of Jesus by how we “love one another” (John 13:35).
Stephen L Baxter