We’re thoroughly entrenched in our sermon series on the letter of James. In a few weeks I get to preach from James 4 on the subject of conflict in the church. In the coming weeks I may be writing on nothing but church conflict as a way of focusing my thoughts for James 4. I once referenced this text in a sermon from I Corinthians and ever since, James 4 and the subject of church conflict has returned to my mind at least once a week.
Many times I find myself shocked and exasperated when facing conflict in the church. Conflict in the local church is brutal and personal for everyone involved in it. Every one. Every time. In the preferred vernacular of a great friend of mine, “It sucks.“
But, why am I shocked? Why am I surprised when imperfect, flawed people, who continue to wrestle with the sinfulness in them, bounce off one another and create conflict, tension and hurt? Why am I surprised when I look at my own heart and my own tendency to:
1. Posture, “I have a degree! I took 4 semesters of Greek!“
2. Make excuses, “I only said that because you…“
3. Create enemies and discredit others, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, therefore you’re a fool.“
4. Reject reason and refuse to listen, “The bible may say that, but here’s what I think…“
5. Play the victim, “That makes me feel [insert something whiny and self-centered]. I can’t believe you don’t care about my feelings!“
There are many more. I intend to post on them too, but, you get the point, I’m sure. I know what I’m like in the midst of conflict. I know what I feel, what I’m thinking and most frightening of all, what I’m capable of, so why am I surprised when there is conflict in the church? Perhaps, we make conflict worse when we assume that everything in the local church should just be calm, tranquil and serene. I think this assumption is fatal to entering conflict in a healthy way.
“Conflict is normal and God uses it to expose our hearts, confront our sin, call us to repentance, expel false believers and therefore strengthen and unify the church.”
Consider Paul’s words in I Corinthians 11:18 and 19,
“18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
It’s striking isn’t it? “There must be factions among you.” What is Paul talking about here? Is he saying that there must be factions, divisions and splits in the body of Christ? Of course not. In chapter 1 verse 10 of the same letter Paul says,
“10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
So what IS Paul talking about?
The answer is in the last half of v. 19,
“In order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
There’s some debate at this point on whether Paul is saying that conflict is used by God to weed out non-believers or whether it is used to call believers (on both sides of the argument) to account for their sin and repent. My take? Why not both? Both would actually serve Paul’s desire to see the body of Christ “united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
Certainly, running head long into conflict or looking for fights is a sinful thing to do. However, avoiding conflict as if we should all just “get along” in a 60’s hippie sense isn’t biblical either. We are sinners who need each other to hold ourselves accountable to God’s word. Going into conflict with our sites set on solving a problem, or winning an argument will do no good for anyone (not even the “winner” of the argument). We must enter conflict with our sights set on the spiritual growth of all parties, because all parties are sinners, saved by grace, in need of growth.
“7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”