By Mark A. Taylor
As much as we might like to avoid the subject of conflict at church, the fact is we can’t. In fact, if your church is not experiencing conflict now, it’s safe to say it probably has. Or it will. Our best strategy is not to pretend conflict doesn’t exist or to assume all conflict is wrong. Instead, we’ll do well to anticipate conflict and find godly ways to handle it.
The first step may be to embrace the potential of conflict. It’s OK to disagree with each other. Too many Christians harbor the notion that unity can happen only when everyone agrees. But ministers of thriving churches readily tell incidents of being saved from error or embarrassment by elders who wouldn’t let them have their way. Every leader knows the progress borne of objections from subordinates who had the courage (and the freedom!) to speak up.
Fearing or freezing conflict sets the stage for many unhealthy dynamics. If we’re afraid to admit we’re angry, if we talk behind a person’s back about why we think he’s wrong but won’t tell him face-to-face, we’re allowing conflict to damage relationships and undermine our ministries.
Most of us have heard sermons or taught lessons about Paul and Barnabas’s disagreement over the usefulness of Mark for ministry (Acts 15:36-41; 2 Timothy 4:11). Details about this incident are scant, but it’s clear this conflict did not damage the church’s reputation or hinder the spread of the gospel.
When Paul came to the subject of anger, he did not say, “Don’t get angry.” Instead he said, “In your anger, do not sin” and “Do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26, 27). Posts this month are full of practical suggestions for obeying those commands.
In his most helpful article about conflict (“Preparing for Conflict and Sustaining Peace,” CHRISTIAN STANDARD, September 10, 2006), Royce Money pointed out how conflict in the church gives us a chance to fulfill our mission:
By allowing church people to deal with conflict—and allowing the world to see that struggle—God brings us our greatest opportunity to spread the gospel. For if we, as Christian brothers and sisters, can differ over a multitude of things and still sit down together at the holy common table God spreads before us, we will vividly model the true message of the gospel. God’s unswerving desire to be reconciled with us through the gift of his Son can best be communicated when the world sees us, in all our diversity and struggles, joined in love.