Church Conflict

The poor way we handle conflict within the Church is hurting us and damaging our witness.When we fail to treat each other with love, we are more like a horrible warning than a beautiful example.In my pastoral and mediation roles I see a lot of conflict in churches and I see the terrible pain and destruction it brings for all involved. Here is my own confession: a number of years ago, I ran away from an opportunity to face an uncomfortable conversation with fellow Christians where I believed they had done something wrong that I found hurtful.When we are hurt by the actions of someone in our church, our strategies tend to be:
  • erupt in the moment and have an angry row – an uncontrolled explosion
  • avoid them/avoid the subject – try to be ‘nice’?
  • talk to other members about them – particularly those who agree with us
  • leave that church (for another one, or none)
Funnily enough, Jesus expects there to be conflict in the church and he has told us how we should approach it.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Matthew 18 v15 (NRSV)
That is in stark contrast to our present pattern.Jesus is asking us to talk honestly, privately and with the intention of restoration.There are a few reasons why that might be hard for us to do:
  • Fear: we are afraid to face an unpleasant/painful conversation; after all, they have already hurt us once
  • Hopelessness: we cannot imagine this going well and leading to positive change or restoration – we worry that this direct strategy will only make things worse
  • Inadequacy: we have not seen this modelled by others, so we are not sure how to go about it, we doubt our own ability to manage the encounter, and we have not experienced being on the receiving end of this kind of respectful, restoring challenge
  • Ego: we don’t want restoration – we feel hurt and angry, maybe we want to punish them, make them sorry and we feel justified in our own stance (we withhold our mercy and forgiveness)
How would it be if we accepted the challenge of this biblical instruction when facing conflict with each other?We would begin to experience something quite new in our church relationships.We don’t have to do this perfectly. We could take the risk of trying it and helping each other to find our way together. It takes courage for me to go to someone and say, ‘here is how your actions have been painful for me, and this is the change I am seeking for the future’ – yet, this is the only route whereby we have a chance of reaching a healthy place together in our relationship.Such a risk says that I value our relationship and I believe that you are a person who can hear my concern and reflect seriously on your own actions.And I am also open to discovering something unexpected in that conversation – perhaps uncovering a misunderstanding or gaining a new insight into myself. If church members followed this instruction we would offer a very different witness on how to deal with hard issues lovingly.God knows we will find this hard but He makes a promise to us at the end of this passage:
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”Matthew 18 v20 (NRSV)
Laurie Randall. Laurie Randall is an independent practitioner in pastoral supervision, mediation, facilitation, and training.She is involved in Pastoral Support for clergy and their partners in Connor Diocese.Laurie also works for Mediation Northern Ireland.
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2 Responses to Church Conflict

  1. Puran Agrawal says:

    Laurie Randall deserves thanks of the Christians all over the world for highlighting a matter which is endemic in almost evry church and which has proved to be very resistant to satisfactory and long-term resolution. She is right to remind us that conflict within Chrch is genrally very poorly handled, let alone resolved. This naturally hurts not only the church members involved in the conflict but also the entire chucrh membership and, more importantly, damages the Church’s witness to the world.
    As I agree wholeheartedly with both her analysis and her prescriptions based on the teachings of Jesus, I just want to voice some resrvations abouit her methoology. She bases her prescriptions on Mathew 18 v 15. She leaves me wondering, however, why stop at v 15? Why not make use of the whole passage (18: vs 15-17) which reads as follows: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, then take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

    If one stops at v 15, then one gives the impression that once we have pointed the fault to him, our brother is more likely than not listen to us, and if not, then there is nothing more we can do. But verses 15-17 offer a more realistic picture, of the need to involve other members of the conggregation, and if need be, the whole church, and that even then the end result may be a failure.

    When making use of the scripture, there is a great temptation on the part of all of us to stop at the place, even half-way through a verse, which provides the strongest support for the case one is trying to make. I provide two examples from my own experience. Some time ago, I was involved in a discussion with a friend who wanted to convince me that if we are really converted by the power of the Holy Spirit, and pray to God sincerely and wholeheartedly, then we can achieve a perfect and sinless life on this side of the Second Coming. Near the end of our discussion this friend quoted 1John 1: 5-7. When I asked him to read on versus 8-10, which read: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourself and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives, he read the verses silently and was completely nonplussed and speechless!

    Not too long ago I heard a sermon on not being judgemental. The preacher gave example after example to illustrate the harm and damage which being judgemental causes not only to the person being judged but also the person who is passing the judgment and ended by quoting Romans 14:1-10. A careful reading of Romans 14, however, makes clear that Paul is here concerned with trivial judgements about what we eat or what we wear or what day one observes sabbath rather than being judgmental per se. If Paul were teaching us to be non-judgmental in all situations, then his teachings in Romans 1:18, 1 Corinthians 6:15.18, and Galatians 6:1-5, to quote just some of the passages, would be very difficult to understand.

    Let me end, however, with agreeing with her conclusions such as if we followed Jesus’ teachings, “(w)e would begin to experience something quite new in our church relationships” and “we would offer a very different witness on how to deal with hard issues lovingly.” Thanks Laurie for your reflections on a very important and ubiquitous but much neglected topic.

    Puran Agrawal

  2. Laura Coulter says:

    Thanks for this very helpful article. Sadly I am finding that in Nepal the Christian church finds this issue just as difficult as we do in Ireland. Another reason why conflicts are badly handled is because we think that Christians are too “nice” to have conflict, that we all should love each other and so the ability to recognize and deal with difficult issues is not used. Or we believe that prayer alone will resolve conflict. as you say, it takes guts to approach the source of our conflicts, but this is exactly what we’re called to do!

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