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Monday, October 22, 2007

Conflict in Churches

How do you feel about conflict? I mean, do you run from it? Do you try to avoid it at all costs? What do you believe about conflict? Do you always think it's the devil trying to stir things up? Do you suspect there are evil motives underlying conflict? Most of us, if we're honest, have some pretty strong feelings and beliefs about conflict. Those feelings and believes tend to shape how we respond to conflict. I'd like to challenge that today --- by sharing some of my own beliefs about conflict. Before I do that, I'll also confess that what I believe about conflict.

I've always thought that God is not the author of conflict. I assumed that if there was conflict, there must be sin. So whenever I found myself in disagreement with someone ... conflict ... I would look for the sin. I'd reason that it might be my sin, it could be your sin, it could be the sin of someone else, or "all of the above." But I went in with the basic assumption that there could be no conflict amongst Christians unless there were sin. The problem with that logic is that I've seen conflict arise even amidst the most godly people I know. Biblically, we see that in relationships of some of the most godly men there --- who were united for the cause of Christ --- and still encountered conflict among themselves.

The Bible has much to say about conflict. As I look at it, I see that God uses conflict to His advantage. I've seen in the Bible and experienced in my own walk something that I have come to think of as a "Holy discontent." It occurs when no sin can be found, but people are just operating in two different venues that cannot co-exist. And when they move apart, lo and behold, God opens doors that make everyone happy. Conflict resolved? Or conflict used for God's purposes?

I won't purport to have all the answers about conflict. It's a mystery to me why we have to deal with conflict in Christian community. But there are days when I feel like I am a conflict magnet. It seems that wherever I go, I see conflict. Sometimes I get caught up in it myself. It's always ugly. Never pleasant. Why do we have to live this way? I don't know that answer. If I did, I'd probably be a rich man. And you can tell from the beliefs I've share already that I've tried to find the answer to that million dollar question!

Conflict is not always worth the effort. In Numbers 20:21, we see that because Edom refused to let the Israelites pass through their land, Moses led the Israelites on a detour around Edom. Moses and his people went out of their way to avoid a conflict. Ironically, Moses and his people were in the middle of doing what God had called them to do. They encountered conflict, concluded it wasn't worth the fight it would require to prevail --- and found another way to answer God's call. Interesting.

One solution to conflict is to focus on common goals that are higher than our differences. In 2 Samuel 3:1 we see that a long war ensued between David's people and Saul's loyalists. Ironically, it was a war fought pretty much over nothing. There hadn't really been a feud. But one day, literally, some men were sitting down and decided to fight each other. They all died that day. The conflict escalated into a full-blown war. It lasted a very long time. It was a war that had little reason to even be a war. It would seem that conflict can do that --- escalate without reason or logic. Had the warring parties focused on their common ground, the war need never have occurred.

Often we find conflict in circumstances that we believe are sinister. "Someone is doing me wrong!" Is this really what's true? Because it seems a higher truth is that Jesus controls all of the storms we face in life. In Matthew 8:24-27, we see that Jesus calmed the storm His disciples were being troubled by. Everyone wondered who this man was, that even the wind would obey Him. The point is that there is no conflict before me, no storm confronting me, which Jesus could not stop if He so chooses. The fact that He chooses not to seems to have some relevancy!

Another interesting thing about the Bible is that it tells Christians (i.e., those of us in Christian communities --- called churches) how to resolve conflict. Matthew 18:15-17 tells us, "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." Wow! Those are some strong words! So let me get this straight, God. If I end up in conflict with someone else, or someone in the church has offended me, I should go to that person and tell them about the offense. If they do not repent, I should take two or three witnesses. That seems simple enough. (I think we call that intervention!) But if intervention doesn't work, then we should escalate the affair to the church --- and both abide by the authority of the church officials. Mmmm! I wonder how many Christians resolve conflict this way today.

Now conflict used to really rattle me. I would get all excited and frustrated. I'd get angry and bitter, worked up and really become rather sinful in my own right. All someone needed to do was offend or wrong me --- and I'd be off and running in my own offenses. Then I realized we can find peace in conflict. John 14:27-29 tells us of the time when Jesus Christ was in the midst of the greatest conflict His ministry had ever known. Yet He said, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you ..." It would seem that in the midst of this great conflict, Jesus had peace --- that He wanted us to have too. He knew Christians would be dragged into this nasty conflict. And He wanted us to take His peace with us into it! Whatever conflict I have to face today, I can take Jesus' peace into it with me!

So if I'm taking Jesus' peace with me into the conflicts I encounter, it would seem then that conflict need not affect spiritual unity. God knew we would have conflict --- that our differences would spark against each other. And He told us to go and be united as one anyway! Acts 4:32, illustrates that differences can be helpful in spiritual unity. All of the believers were of one heart and one mind ... How does that work? Didn't they have differences? Conflict? Of course they did! But they chose to set those aside and be united. They chose to forgive each other, show grace to each other, have patience with each other. Their spiritual unity was not derailed by conflict that is inevitable. Neither should mine!

So here's the kicker for many of us. Doing what God says means that conflict will sometimes be inevitable for Christians. Acts 5:29 tells us to obey God over human authority. So if those in authority don't know, don't understand --- or don't care what God has told us, we are very likely going to get crosswise with them. I have to seek God's will, and proceed accordingly. I can't dance around the issue to avoid conflict. I can't try to please everyone. I can't try to keep everyone happy and content. I have to do what God requires. And conflict very well may be forthcoming when I do.

Finally, let's go back to where I started ... looking for the root cause of the conflict. Remember when I said that I usually assume that sin is at the heart of all conflict? Well I've learned that selfish desires are often the cause of conflict. Jesus' half brother, James, wrote about this notion of conflict amongst believers. He said in James 3:16 that "wherever there is jealousy or selfish ambition, you will find chaos and evil of every kind." That's right, selfish may well be the sin that is at the core of the conflict. It could be my selfishness. It could be yours. It could be someone else's. Or it could be "all of the above." And where does jealousy and selfish ambition reside? Usually with sinful people who are in desperate need of a Savior. Oh dear! Today's church is filled with those kind of people! James 4:1-3 explains it this way, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? ... you ask with wrong motives.

Well, this is not good news folks. It does seem that conflict is inevitable, even amongst the most godly of Christ-followers. So it would seem that we should start by admitting that nasty little truth. Then I think we should learn to deal with it appropriately. Knowing God's nature and character, it would also seem that we should remember some things about conflict that are most relevant to our response.

You see, the Holy Spirit will give us strength, patience and wisdom in the midst of conflict. When I am offended or criticized unfairly, the Holy Spirit can heal my hurt and help me not to lash out in retaliation. The Holy Spirit also gives me the wisdom to see the truth of the situation --- the root cause of the conflict. And even if the other party is entirely wrong, I can forgive them and abruptly end the conflict. The Holy Spirit gives me the power (and the choice) to do that too!

So let's start looking at conflict in our churches and between Christ-following Christians in a whole new way. It's inevitable. But it would seem that we can honor God even in our conflict.

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