One of the big surprises when I started in ministry was the amount of conflict we faced. Right from the get-go in our first church plant, there was intense conflict. Tragically that conflict was never resolved and some people left the church.
Not long after that there was another conflict and more people left the church. I was discouraged and mystified at how this could be happening.
Over the years I’ve learned a lot from bad and good conflict experiences.
So here’s some ideas to help you handle church conflicts with confidence:
01. Remember that conflict is normal.
Conflict has existed since the beginning of church ministry. You’ll remember from scripture that early on John Mark left the church planting team led by Barnabas and Paul. His departure brought conflict between Paul and Barnabas and soon afterwards the first “church split.” See Acts 15:36-41.
Later Paul and Peter were in conflict: “But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly in the wrong. The other Jewish believers also started acting like cowards along with Peter; and even Barnabas was swept along by their cowardly action.” (Galatians 2:11, 13 GNB)
Sometimes opposition comes from those you least expect. Even Barnabas fell into the trap of legalistic behavior and “Barney the Encourager” became a “discourager” when he opposed Paul.
Note that I didn’t say conflict is necessarily good: I said it is normal. In fact, conflict can be good and handled well if we act in a godly manner and learn from each other.
What is conflict? In its core, conflict is just a clash of opinion. It is either good or bad, godly or ungodly, depending on how we handle it.
02. Stand for Truth even when it results in severe conflict.
Most people don’t like conflict and try to avoid it. It seems often the only time we are willing to endure conflict is if our “rights” are being violated. (See James 4:1-3.) But we also need to be willing to stand up for “truth” and fight for it when necessary.
Always stand for the truth and refuse to compromise, even though conflict may result. Paul had to take on James, Peter, John and even Barnabas (see Galatians 2 above). He did so for the truth of the Gospel being available to all without observing the law.
Recently Carolyn and I talked with a couple who were in a church whose entire church denomination was rejecting biblical teaching. The church had a choice: deny biblical teaching, or follow biblical teaching and separate from the denomination. They chose the right thing and left the denomination. Many churches have been forced to do this and it is a very difficult thing to do.
But the result was wonderful. That church had been declining under liberalism to the point that they had just 12 people attending worship services; a fraction of the participation they had in the past.
But as they did the right thing, God “miraculously” brought them a new pastor through a “chance” connection. It was a former pastor who was working nearby as a farmhand.
He accepted their request to lead the church and it began to grow and thrive. When he left 30 years later his son-in-law became pastor and the church continued to thrive!
“This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.” (Titus 1:13 ESV)
“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2 ESV)
03. Disagree without being disagreeable.
This is a truism, but it is very important: we must do our best to disagree without being abusive and harsh.
One of our favorite family verses to help keep peace as our boys were growing up was; “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” (Ephesians 4:29 NLT)
Another verse reminds us that “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1 ESV)
The way to “win” a conflict is not to “sin” in a conflict. Sin happens when we:
Use “foul or abusive language”
Raise our voices in anger
Use words to demean instead of encourage
Attack persons rather than attacking the issue
Put winning or getting our own way above finding the best solution
04. Endure for the sake of Christ.
Remember that our end goal is not to please people, no matter who they are, but always to please our Lord.
Some people are never going to “like” us, no matter what we do. In fact, the more godly and biblical we behave, the more some will dislike us! They’re simply impossible to please. Remember that the Perfect One (Jesus) was ridiculed and tortured to death.
In Galatians 1:10 Paul wrote this powerful challenge: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (ESV)
True Christ-followers live only to please Christ. They endure any conflict, ridicule, criticism, rejection, ostracism, and even persecution when clear issues of faithfulness and integrity are at stake.
Don’t be a coward. Instead, stand for truth and endure church conflict for the sake of Christ and in a Christ-like way.