In his first letter to Corinth Paul’s barely started before he gets right in their face. . . “My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.” (1 Cor. 1:11). In the local body of Christ at Corinth, the body parts are bruising one another.
Sound familiar? While local churches often provide a place of comfort and support, they can also be hotbeds of hostility. As a pastor for over thirty years I’ve seen everything from hugs to hatred happening in the shadow of the cross. Under the seeming calm of Sunday morning civility, tension often crackles. It was no different in New Testament times. We hear Paul, in Philippians 4:2, pleading with two women, Euodia and Syntche, to “agree with each other in the Lord”. In Galatians 5:15 Paul exhorts them to quit “biting and devouring each other”.
This can be disillusioning. Who would have expected it? We’ve been born again, made new in Christ, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t church life be a holy carnival filled with joy and affection and cooperation? Often it is all that, praise God! But sometimes. . . it isn’t. That’s reality. And always has been since New Testament times.
Why does fighting exist in the local church?
1. Fighting exists in the local church because we’re all still sinners
Becoming a believer does not remove our sinful nature, it only breaks its stranglehold. Now we have the Holy Spirit living in us (Rom. 8:9). He gives us a new nature (Eph. 4:24), but the old nature still lives in us with its sinful desires and attitudes and we must choose to put it off and put on the new nature (Eph. 4:22-24). This is not easy or quickly done. So, in the church, our sinful tendencies still pop up. While this is not good, it’s to be expected on occasion, since we’re all people in transition.
2. Fighting exists in the local church because we’re not clones
God calls us to unity (Phil. 2:2), but not uniformity. We’re unique individuals with different experiences, desires and perspectives. Used properly, this can benefit the church. There is wisdom in many counselors (Prov. 15:22). Together, we make better decisions and exercise stronger ministry. Nevertheless, different perspectives often generate conflicting points of view and this, if handled poorly, can lead to fighting. Which leads to the next observation.
3. Fighting exists in the local church because we don’t always know constructive ways to handle differences
In my experience, a lot of churches aren’t very good at working out differences. We tend to paper them over in the name of peace, or to allow a few dominant personalities to run the show, or to just leave. What brings a false short-term peace, however, can create long-term resentment or distance. Constructive resolution takes patience, humility, courage and good communication skills. It can be messy. Often it requires training. Typically, churches are not well-developed in these areas.
4. Fighting exists in local churches because we sometimes cater to the bullies
One of the seven things the Lord hates is “a man who stirs up dissension among brothers” (Prov. 6:19). Now, stirring up dissension, in itself, is not always bad. Jesus Himself did it. But what this proverb speaks of is a divisive person; someone who has a sinful knack for getting people at one another’s throats; someone who’s always picking a fight. Almost every church has a few of these. They tend to be more aggressive than most of the people and, because of that, they often dominate, even when they’re in the minority. Unfortunately, the godlier people usually allow this, looking the other way, not wanting the hassle; not wanting to be their next target.
5. Fighting exists in local churches because of courageous, righteous people
When Paul came to Antioch, he took on Peter, a top church leader because Peter was being a hypocrite and he did it in front of everyone (Gal. 2:11ff). Jesus himself tells us to confront an unrepentant brother, privately at first, and, finally in front of the church for discipline (Matt. 18:15ff). If the church is to remain pure, sometimes we must confront each other. This generates conflict, which sometimes brings repentance, and, at other times, just results in fighting. Avoiding conflict over serious sin, for the sake of peace, however, is shameful (1 Cor. 5:1, 2).
So how can we handle conflict well in the local church?
1. We handle conflict well when we’re Spirit-filled
When the Holy Spirit is controlling us (Eph. 5:18), our responses to conflict are much better. We respond with patience, love, and wisdom rather than irritability, selfishness and foolishness. This makes a huge difference, although, it doesn’t automatically resolve conflicts if others respond sinfully or just have a different perspective.
2. We handle conflict well when we expect it and take it in stride
There will be conflicts in every church from time to time, for all the reasons stated above. If we expect them, we’re not as likely to be caught off-guard or disillusioned. Paul’s churches had them. Jesus’ disciples had them. In fact, where there’s never any apparent conflict, there are usually other problems, like lack of shared ownership, or apathy.
3. We handle conflict well when we learn good conflict resolution skills
Whole books are written on this subject. The way we handle our conflicts makes all the difference. Learn to listen well, to ask good questions, to speak kindly. Seek for win/win solutions. Be flexible. Practice these skills by bringing smaller conflicts out in the open and learning to resolve them. This not only eliminates unhelpful tensions and resentments, it also prepares us for “the big one”, the more difficult and painful conflict that occasionally arises.
4. We handle conflict well when we learn to accept and allow for some differences
Again, unity does not equal uniformity. If significant sin or heresy is involved, that’s one thing. We can’t ignore that. But many of our differences are not of this nature. They’re just part of the natural diversity of being unique individuals with varying perspectives and personalities. This is part of the richness of a local body, if we can accept it that way.
5. We handle conflict well by really loving each other
In 1 Peter 4:8, Peter says: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” We handle conflicts so much better when we are deeply committed to, and care strongly about each other. A lack of love, conversely, exacerbates even small conflicts into bigger ones.
6. We handle conflict well by forgiving
As the song in the movie “Frozen” says, in a different context, “Let it go, let it go. . .” When we forgive, old wounds heal and relationships can be restored. Without forgiveness, old resentments fester and sabotage attempts to resolve future issues.
I leave you with an entreaty. When conflict arises, if at all possible, stick with your church and try to work through it. This will allow you to become a spiritual adult and help the church to grow up as well. Don’t fear conflict; face it in the power of the Spirit. The Body of Christ is worth the hassle.