Conflict in the church

It’s true: Christians fight. Sometimes (and this is embarrassing) they squabble over money or furniture or music or the flowers; other times (and perhaps this is more understandable) they argue over who is welcome at the communion table, what age is appropriate for baptism, or whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Often, they have simple personality clashes. The truth is, conflict has been part of church life since the earliest days, and what marks a church is not the absence of conflict, but how it is handled.

Is it ignored and swept under the carpet? Does fear of conflict dominate decision-making? Does conflict lead to bullying, demonisation or scapegoating? Or is it used as an opportunity to grow in faith, hope, intimacy and love? Over the last few weeks, the Shalom group has been looking at conflict through the lens of key Biblical texts. Together we nutted out some basic principles to follow when we find ourselves in conflict. What follows are the results of our brainstorming; we hope you find them useful.

First Principle: We must love as Jesus loves (John 13:34-35)
If we love like Jesus, then we will be patient, encouraging, engaging, honest, serving, direct, thought provoking, challenging, fun, practical, prayerful, self-sacrificial at times, yet showing healthy boundaries. Our love will be never-ending, never coercive, unconditional, forgiving, and tender. Anger towards those who abuse, bully or exploit is acceptable, but must not devour us.

The Goal: Do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 5:31)
In a situation of conflict, many idols, impulses or desires may be glorified: the self, the system, culture, an institution, doctrine, political correctness, purity, authority, the rules, the past, our own expectations, needs, desires, self-justification, ego etc. If we want to glorify God, we need to identify and let go of these other idols, impulses or desires. We must love like Jesus, show humility, stay grounded, listen carefully, aim for relationship, and prioritise what God wants rather than any particular position.

Is someone apparently doing something wrong? Do not judge (Matthew 7:1-5)
If someone seems to be doing something wrong, or if they’re really bugging us, we first take a look at ourselves. We wonder how things might look different if we look not with eyes of judgement, but eyes of grace. We wonder about projection. We wonder what is going on for the other person. We wonder whether anything actually needs to be said and, if so, whether we are the best person to say it. If we think something must be said, and we should be the one to say it, we test our motivations against the marks of repentance*. If the marks of false repentance resonate strongly, we scrutinise ourselves further before speaking or acting, or consult with a wise and above all discreet person. If we decide we must speak, we must be sure to love like Jesus as we do so.

Does someone have something against you? Reconcile! (Matthew 5:23-24)
Reconciliation feels like relief, freedom, deep peace. It doesn’t necessarily mean restoration of relationship, yet it is a bridge: it opens a pathway to further connection and communication. It is forward-moving, not stuck. It is about renewal, and finding a new and often deeper way to relate. It is beautiful! + Our relationship with people affects our relationship with God: we need to make right what we can. Often it is the very fact of taking communion with someone which propels us to reconcile, and Jesus took communion with Judas. So we do not let conflict prevent us from attending church or taking communion. Instead, we come to church and take communion, and let it push us towards reconciliation.

Has someone hurt you? Follow a clear process (Matthew 18:15-17)
If someone has hurt us, we don’t gossip or grumble about it. Instead, we speak directly with them – no triangulation! Having said that, it can be useful to speak with a wise and above all discreet person first to get their perspective. + If talking to the person privately is unsuccessful, we look for wise and discreet people to be our witnesses. We don’t choose supporters. Instead, we choose people who are unbiased: the sort of firm but gentle people who love us enough to call us on our own stuff; and who can provide a mutual check in for both parties and facilitate deep listening. + In Jesus’ day, ‘the assembly’ was the local gathering of disciples. These days, and in our culture, we tend to avoid such public airing of conflict. Some of us have had experiences where the church has been brought in, and conflict has been resolved; others have seen such a process shaming and excluding people. We are concerned that people be neither shamed nor scapegoated, and our congregation (and Western middle class culture) does not have the high level of interdependence and accountability which would enable such public airing. Therefore, we are not sure how bringing something before the church can be done well. We are more likely to call in an external mediator.

If something is serious enough to go to the gathering (or the leadership then the denomination or other mediating body), then it means someone is almost certainly acting in ways which affect the health of the church. In our context, this usually means a breach of the Congregational Commitment or the Code of Conduct. In such cases, the person is to be ‘as a Gentile and a tax collector’ to the church. Eugene Peterson translates this as ‘If [they] won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront [them] with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love’ (MSG). In other words, we continue to offer love, forgiveness, education and mentoring to such people. However, they do not set church culture. Further, if they reject serious efforts to recall them to the Congregational Commitment or Code of Conduct, if they reject the possibility of reconciliation, and if they continue to act in ways which damage the health of the church, they are required to leave until such time as they are willing to abide by the values and culture of the church as set out in these documents.

Has someone said, “I’m sorry”? Forgive (Luke 17:3-6)
We do not hold grudges. Instead, we look for the change of heart and forgive, forgive, forgive. This work of love and forgiveness is slow and continuing. We do not expect quick fixes. Instead, we expect to wrong and be wronged many times; we expect to be forgiven and forgive just as many times. (These comments are, of course, for ordinary situations of conflict within a congregation. In extraordinary situations, such as serious misconduct or abuse, we abide by the Safe Church Policy, which sets out legal and denominational requirements for reporting and investigation.

So that’s our first attempt at setting out some principles in situations of church conflict. Reading through them, what do you think? Where have you seen conflict done well in a church? What made it a good process? What would you add to these comments?


*The Marks of Repentance (mentioned above) can be found in the spiritual classic, God of Surprises by Gerard W. Hughes. Image credit: Chris Sabor on Unsplash.

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