Conflict can be healthy for a church

Biblical models for constructive conflict management.

David W. Hinds, Sr., D.Min., pastors the Caffin Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church in Orleans, Louisiana.

In a 1996 survey published in Christianity Today, the following were revealed as the reasons ministers leave ministry or are pressured to resign: 46 percent left the ministry due to a conflict in vision between themselves and their church; 38 per cent due to personality conflict with board members; 32 percent due to unrealistic expectations being placed on them; 24 percent due to lack of clear expectations; 22 percent due to personality conflict with non-board members, and 21 percent due to theological differences.1

Statistics like these remind us of one of the hazards of doing ministry. They also point out the potential destruction behind such conflict leading to hostility, usually without reconciliation. Fortunately, Christians dislike conflict. We expect our churches to be communities of reconciliation and wholeness.

At the same time, we need to discover the power of the negative. We feel that all conflict is unchristian, and that we can promote peace simply by avoiding it or never talking about it. But, regardless of our fears of conflict and our desire not to confront it, the truth is that conflict is here to stay.

Generally speaking it is difficult for us to cope with church conflict, particularly conflict between individual Christians and between groups within the congregation. Controversy seems to be the negation of much for which we stand. It seems to be a force which separates rather than one that has the potential of bringing people together.

We expect conflict to stay outside the church. We can accept tensions between the church and the world, but the existence of strife inside the church is very disturbing. For many conflict implies weakness and failure to live up to the expectation of the light given to us and our calling to share this light with the world.

The constructive side of conflict

I used to think of all church conflicts as being diabolically motivated by the adversary. Like fires set by a sinister arsonist they were started to destroy the church from within, and any member or pastor who engaged in any form of church conflict was an instrument of the devil and needed to be watched.

Experience, however, has taught me other wise. My study of conflict in the Bible has caused me to look at it in a more positive light. If approached from a spiritual context, conflicting issues can strengthen the church and unify the body.

When we understand the nature of conflict, it helps us to get a handle on it before we are overwhelmed. Conflict has to do with the recognition, communication, and resolution of difficulties. Conflict, when seen through the eyes of the Scriptures, need not ultimate ly lead toward upheaval and destruction, and can be directed toward constructive ends.

It is a process which in itself is neutral, moving from chaos to reconciliation. It becomes valuable or threatening only as peo ple experience its peculiar and redemptive way of joining the old established way to the new. Well-directed conflict can keep our churches vibrant and growing. James D. Berkley believes that "where there is absolute ly no dissatisfaction, no vision of anything better, and no pain, there is little chance of action. A church with a healthy amount of tension and conflict is a church alive."

New Testament models of conflict resolution

The New Testament gives us several models of conflict resolution that lead to reconcilia tion and healing, empowerment of the church and to the united proclamation of the gospel by those initially involved in the conflict.

Acts 15 relates a chapter in the lives of Paul and Barnabas who returned from an extensive missionary journey after carrying the gospel to  the Gentiles. Their success among the Gentiles was discounted by Jewish Christians who insisted that no one could be saved unless he was first circumcised. All the conversions claimed by Paul and Barnabas were being ignored. Significant dissension was created in the Antioch congregation.

This social and theological conflict definitely had the potential to split the young Christian church. However, a wise decision-maker took control of the situation and appointed Paul and Barnabas and some unidentified per sons to go to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders.

The apostles listened as both sides set forth their respective arguments. Then Peter arose to speak in support of the position now referred to as "the gentile inclusion." James pro posed that a letter be drafted by the apostles and elders which would, in essence, offer the Gentiles "the right hand of fellowship" on the condition "that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:20).

This amounted to a reasonable compromise which produced a win/win resolution of the conflict. The apostles and elders in Jerusalem, who were the acknowledged leaders of the church, chose to operate an open rather than closed membership; that is, they provided for input from Paul and Barnabas. The emotions of the conflict were abated. The narrow mentality of destructive conflict was avoided. Trust was generated. The result was resolution.

What brought this conflict to a healthy and unified conclusion was not simply a recommendation by the apostles that pleased the contenders. While we should not minimize the important part played by the apostles in Jerusalem or the prudence of the group's recommendation, still, the credit must go to the magnanimity of the church which along with Barnabas and Paul took the important steps necessary to lead to a peaceful resolution.

Conflict management principles in Acts 15

First, they made a genuine effort to seek further clarification as to their theological understanding of the issue that caused the conflict. By taking this step, they diffused the problem and limited its potential for escalation.

McSwain and Treadwell call this action "problem-solving analysis," the phase whereby "the group is moved to a decision." At this stage, we can consider all the gathered facts, feelings, and opinions about the conflict, then we consider options for solving the problem. By taking this action, the church in Jerusalem successfully avoided making a substantive conflict into an interpersonal conflict. They kept the priority of resolution in constant focus during the conflict. Its mission and purpose took precedence over personal feelings as to who was right or wrong.

Second, the local church, along with Paul and Barnabas, respected the highest authority of their body. Without respect for the higher authority, especially when in conflict, it is difficult to accept the recommendation coming from that authority and, much more to seek its help to bring the conflict to a healthy conclusion.

The model of Acts 6

Another biblical model of conflict resolution is recorded in Acts 6. Greek Christians were complaining that their widows were neglected in the welfare distribution. They claimed that favoritism was shown to the Jewish widows.

Again, Peter played a major role in arbitrating the conflict. He set forth the divinely inspired idea of appointing laypersons to manage the welfare system, thereby freeing the apostles to devote full attention to the ministry. This proposal "pleased the whole multitude" (verse 5).

This was a principle-centered conflict with strong ethnic overtones. It was creatively resolved because Peter and the apostles were not defensive. They listened to the complaints and came up with an acceptable decision. As a result, the church was strengthened and focused more on its mission.

Regrettably not all conflicts in Scripture end with an outcome that kept all parties together. For instance, in Acts 15:36-41, Paul and Barnabas "sharply contended" over whether or not to include John Mark on their second missionary journey. Mark had deserted them during the first journey. Paul therefore considered him unfit for the task. Barnabas saw it differently. Neither of them would budge from his position. The result was a resolution of a different kind. Paul chose Silas as his partner, Barnabas took John Mark.

Although the apostles went their separate ways, the resolution proved beneficial to the church. Paul and Barnabas promoted the expansion of the gospel, and eventually the rift between them was healed. This means that some conflict settlements can end up with each party going their separate ways. This is not necessarily bad or unspiritual. Instead, it can be a blessing to the church by expanding the gospel and it can promote the well-being of those involved.

In the case of such a separation, however, we should always keep in mind that splitting a church through conflict has the potential of being devastating for the church and the parties involved. Such divergence should be carefully considered.

We should study whether or not separation will ultimately bring success to the work of the Lord and the degree of healing that will take place. For if the conflict escalates to the level where individuals become bitter, are severely injured, or are maligned, they will feel personally humiliated.

These negative emotional experiences can scar the minds of the affected individuals and foster a spirit of hostility and revenge. When this occurs it creates an environment in which people may lose respect for organizational authority and weaken their faith in the spiritual forces that keep the church together. When the dynamics of the conflict move in this direction the leaders must know how to map out the course of conflict resolution that leads to unity and respect for differences of opinions.

Dynamics behind resolution

To avoid the danger of escalating a conflict, Paul urges us to "let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Eph. 4:31, 32, RSV). If the church leaders and members would sustain this spiritual counsel, the church would be kept free of conflict.

Paul also adopted an exhortative role when he strongly urged the Corinthian congregation to seek unity and to avoid dissensions. "I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10, RSV).

While we understand that conflict is a time for plain talk, the talk must be plain without being punitive. Anytime we begin to assail another, we have moved from the plain to the punitive. To respect opponents is to avoid assaulting them verbally or physically. It is vital that each side keep in mind Paul's counsel and respect for others, to have healthy conflict resolution. This ideal can be very difficult to achieve at times, but as Christians, that goal should be the glue that holds the spiritual life of the church together during every conflict.

Consider Paul and Barnabas once more as models for healthy conflict resolution. Although they broke rank and went their separate ways, they did not lose sight of their purpose, their mission, and their love for the body of Christ. Instead of permitting their personal differences to keep them from working, they fervently pressed forward, enjoying even greater success in the work of God.

The clear message here is that when conflict resolution leads to separation and the recognition of a new group growing out of the existing group, it should not lead to independent ministry or to hostility. The work of God should no wise suffer because of conflict. On the contrary it should experience expansion and growth because we share a common cause that supercedes personal interest.

Conflict resolution that leads individuals away from the body of Christ, still maintaining a hostile spirit, flies in the face of what God expects of us in any conflict. The example of Paul and Barnabas reconciling is a model for each of us to adopt. The wounds between them were healed, and they maintained a healthy relationship throughout the remainder of their ministries. Paul's estimate of Mark also changed as Mark later demonstrated his usefulness for service. And again, the church prospered.

Conflict does not have to end in hostility with a fist-in-your-face confrontation. The Christian context does not allow for revenge, disrespect, and character assassination. Paul's counsel is pertinent: "Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a com plaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Col. 3:12-14, RSV).

If we remember the following three points, it will help us toward a healthy conflict resolution:

(1) Disagreement can lead individuals and organizations to change that ultimately produces genuine improvement (see Prov. 27:17).

(2) Disagreement can reveal a need for change. Mature leaders welcome disagreement because it forces them to evaluate their own beliefs and to make positive changes where needed (see Prov. 18:15).

(3) Disagreement can help people to become more tolerant of opposing views. Learning to accept differing points of view without developing hostile reactions is an important mark of a mature leader (see Prov. 21; 23).

The effective pastor learns the truth in the adage that there are times when it is good to "agree to disagree." In doing so, a pastor also learns to avoid developing a critical attitude even when others are critical and exhibiting hostility toward him or her.

1 John C. Racue, "Force Exits: A Too-Common Ministry. Church Buyers Guide," Christianity Today, March/April 1996, 72.


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David W. Hinds, Sr., D.Min., pastors the Caffin Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church in Orleans, Louisiana.

September 2002

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