Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Why Are There Conflicts in the Church of Christ?

Written by Rev. M.J. Oosting
The following is the translation of an article that appeared in the July 12, 2002 issue of ÒDe WekkerÓ, the official magazine of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (our sister churches). The author of this article is Rev. M.J. Oosting and the title is ÒWaarom zijn er conflicten in ChristusÕ kerk?Ó
Even in the Church!
The question raised in this article is one that many people are asking. Why do conflicts occur, of all places, in the church? The church is where love for God and the neighbour is preached; so how could conflicts arise in her midst?

In the first place this happens because the church is a community of people. Wherever people live together, differences of opinion will arise. The church is no exception. There too, different points of view will continue to exist. This will be so despite the fact that we have GodÕs Word as our guide. The Word of God gives us clear directions when it comes to the way of salvation. Only one Name has been given under heaven among men whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:26). But there are quite a few things for which no precise rules have been laid down in Scripture. When it comes to those things, the Lord has given us some latitude within the parameters of His Word. We call that Christian liberty.

GodÕs Word is very comprehensive or wide-ranging. Paul says in Ephesians 3:18 that it is in fellowship with all the saints that believers comprehend what is the breadth, length, depth and height of the love of Christ which passes knowledge. The implication is that no Christian is able to do this alone, by himself. The input of all other believers is needed. Each believer understands the will of God only in part--and a very small part at that.

Moreover, new developments are always taking place. Every generation is confronted with new things to be faced. And believers must address these issues and provide answers in line with Scripture. Not everyone will agree with the answers to these new developments. That is why differences of opinion will remain in the church. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But we do have to be careful not to absolutize our own point of view, as if it is the only legitimate one.

Differences of opinion will sometimes lead to conflict situations. Even that is not serious as long as we deal with such conflicts in a spiritual way. But that is exactly where the problem comes in. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians that: Òthere must also be heresies [divisions] among you that they which are approved may be made manifest among you" (11:19).He means that conflicts are unavoidable, not in a fatalistic sense, but as the result of sin. They should not occur, certainly not in the church. Reality is that they do happen. These conflicts serve as a kind of touchstone or test from the Lord to show how we handle them; whether we seek to resolve differences with a view to His glory or whether we simply want to have things go our way.

There can be all sorts of reasons why conflicts arise in the church. For instance, there are differences of opinion about material things. Should we purchase a new organ or not? Issues like that can usually be resolved without too much trouble. It becomes more difficult, however, when people come with arguments based on principle. What is a matter of principle for some, is for others a matter of Christian liberty. This is especially true of liturgical issues. Here one has to ask to what degree is the person motivated by principle? Are there perhaps other motives at work?

Years ago a minister from another denomination said to me: ÒYou have a lot of malcontents in your church, donÕt you?Ó I did not appreciate the comment very much, not because there are no people like that among us, but because I believe they are found in all churches. Be that as it may, we all have to deal with malcontents from time to time. Now the word ÒmalcontentsÓ is not used much anymore, but the people described by it are still very much with us. The reference is to people who are permanently dissatisfied. They suffer from some kind of chronic unhappiness. They are always critical about something. Whether it is with office bearers, the members of the congregation or the preaching--they can always find fault with something.

This dissatisfaction can be caused by a variety of things in the life of these people. It may have to do with problems of daily living. Maybe there are difficulties at work or in the family. Marriage relations could be under stress. Perhaps problems stemming from the past have never been resolved. I have the impression that quite often it has to do with an inferiority complex. People with low self-esteem tend to be critical of others. The more they can ÒpullÓ someone down by criticizing his ideas or viewpoints, the better opinion they will have of themselves. I believe that such unworthy motives play a much bigger role in church conflicts than we may think. These feelings of dissatisfaction may be present in a latent form for a long time and come to a sudden outburst under certain circumstances

The apostle James warns against this in chapter four of his epistle when he writes: ÒWhence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?Ó (vs.1). James signals here that many conflicts proceed from a wrong source: self-assertiveness and egotistical motives, an unforgiving spirit and sinful ambition. Such wrong motives engender strife. The apostle warns against this and urges us to find better ways to deal with problems.

The Remedy
What can we do to avoid these things? The poet of Psalm 25 asks the Lord that integrity and uprightness may preserve [literally ÒprotectÓ him] in verse 21. He pictures integrity and uprightness as two persons who accompany him on his journey through life. Today we would say integrity and uprightness are the two bodyguards who make sure no one will attack you. The implication is that believers are in danger of being attacked. The devil can attack us directly but also indirectly by setting believers up against each other. So there is a good reason for the psalmist to ask the Lord for those two bodyguards. Integrity means being sincere in all your dealings with the Lord and putting Him in the centre of your life. And uprightness has to do with the way you deal with other people. It means being honest and fair with your neighbour. If you have something against him, you talk things out with him rather than feeding the negative feelings you have towards him and letting things escalate by not saying anything. Being upright does not just mean being honest with your neighbour, but also with yourself. What is my deepest reason for being so upset with this brother? Why does this issue that comes up in church irritate me so much? Having integrity and uprightness as my bodyguards, there is less chance that a mere difference of opinion will escalate into a full-blown conflict. This is what being led by the Holy Spirit is all about. Living by the Spirit will produce fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith or faithfulness, meekness, temperance or self-control (Gal.5: 22,23).

When those fruits are noticeably present in the congregation there will still be conflicts but church members will do their utmost to avoid them. Then even when conflicts do arise they will be dealt with in a spiritual manner to the honour of our Lord and the well being of His church on earth.

The Bible calls us to be peace loving and forgiving. This means that wherever possible we are to try to prevent conflicts from arising or to nip them in the bud. The Lord Jesus says in the Beatitudes: ÒBlessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of GodÓ (Matt.5: 9). Despite such encouragements there will always be conflicts in the Church of Christ until the Last Day, even among people who sincerely love the Lord. Sin will do its destructive work as long we are in this world. But the comfort of GodÕs Word is that conflicts will not have the last word in the church. A good illustration of this is the controversy that arose between Paul and Barnabas. When these men were about to begin their second missionary journey they got into an argument as to whether they should take Mark along. Paul was against it because Mark had deserted him during the first missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to be conciliatory and give Mark a second chance. The conflict got so hot between them that they became bitter and went their separate ways. The conflict was not resolved. They went on a missionary trip, but not together. Paul leaves with Silas and Barnabas takes Mark in a different direction.

The point to remember, however, is that GodÕs work is not stagnated by this conflict. The mission work goes on. One can even speak of a doubling of the missionary activity, because now there are two teams that will spread the Gospel. Of course, this does not make the conflict a good thing. It grieves the Lord when brothers are embittered against each other. But it does show that the Lord does not stand powerless before conflicts, but on the contrary, He even causes them to work together for the good of the extension of His kingdom.

The second thing to notice is that it appears that the conflict is eventually resolved. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes very positively about Mark. He says, ÒTake Mark and bring him with you, for he is profitable to me for the ministryÓ(Tim. 4:11). True, this was many years later, but it does show that where people submit to the Lord and His Word a way will be found to come together again. Where there is a willingness to accept each other in love, conflicts can and will be overcome.

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