[This post is a rewrite of a previously-published article.]
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face…” ~Paul, Gal. 2:11
“…for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” ~Paul, 1 Cor. 11:19
““Where two or more are gathered together, there will be conflict.” ~unknown
Contrary to the first few days of the Church, where everyone was “in one accord,” it seems that wherever people make decisions there will eventually be conflict. As the above verses show, the early church—even the apostles—experienced conflict. But, this is not necessarily a bad thing; conflict can be very productive. A part of maturity is learning to deal with conflict, whether it be of the good (productive) or bad (unproductive or even destructive) variety.
Unfortunately, most people and organizations are never taught adequate skills for dealing with conflict. As a result, conflict which is potentially positive turns into the destructive variety far too often.
The high cost of bad conflict
In a 2000 Faith Communities Today survey of over 14,000 churches, 75% of them reported having some level of conflict in the five years prior, with 25% reporting what they considered to be serious conflict. A follow up study found that over two-thirds of churches experiencing conflict reported a loss of members as a result, and about 25% suffered the loss of a leader as a direct result of the conflict.
I think most people would agree, that’s bad conflict. And, I am guessing that most respondents to the survey didn’t take into consideration the many small, daily conflicts that can be just as destructive to those involved.
While productive conflict has resulted in the preservation and spread of the gospel, as well as in the development of many of our great creeds and theological statements, the “dark side” of conflict is often damaging to both the church and the individuals involved.
However, it often seems the real damage results not from the issue in conflict (which many times could be resolved quite easily), but by how the conflict is handled. As with any adversity, conflict can either make us better or bitter; how we approach conflict may be the factor that determines whether a church is strengthened or shattered.
Conflict doesn’t go away – People do
One of the worst things a pastor or leader can do when he or she recognizes there is discord is to ignore that it exists. Conflict doesn’t just go away—people do. People usually don’t leave churches because they see something they like better; they leave because they are unhappy where they are. And, if those who leave are in close relationship with others in the church, they often aren’t the only ones who leave. Certainly there are people who simply can’t be pleased, and they will come and go. However, discord of any nature can be poison to a church; while we can never agree with everybody, we can at least make sure people are understood, and understand us.
The next worst thing a pastor or leader can do is to take an authoritarian approach, either by “pulling rank” and issuing his verdict on the issue, or by enacting a “don’t talk” rule (labeling any discussion of the issue as “gossip”). Besides being unbiblical, it won’t work for everyone and these attempts to silence the opposition will only add fuel to the fire. Again, unresolved conflict will not simply go away; however, people will go away, and possibly lead others to follow. The only way to deal with discord or conflict in a church is to address it, as Paul said, so “those who are approved may be recognized among you.”
There are obviously other counterproductive ways of dealing with conflict, and they are not by any means unique to churches. See “Ten conflict resolution mistakes to avoid.”)
Conflict is not sin
It is important for churches to recognize that conflict is not put in the same category as sin; many churches err by attempting to be biblical in following the process outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. Matthew 18 specifically deals with someone who “sins against you,” not someone who simply disagrees with you. Calling on Matthew 18 automatically presumes that one side of a dispute is in sin. That being said, a process that facilitates communication and has reconciliation as its goal is essential.
If two people cannot resolve an issue by themselves, it is wise to suggest the use of a third party to act as a mediator or facilitator. The results of a poll conducted by Christianity Today indicated that of congregations which found themselves in conflict, the vast majority felt they had waited too long to seek outside assistance. Many churches simply don’t recognize the seriousness of the conflict until it erupts. The use of a mediator to work through issues differs significantly from the Matthew 18 approach, which is focused on convincing someone they have sinned and encouraging them to repent. A mediator remains neutral, taking the side of neither party. In both cases, of course, reconciliation is the ultimate goal.
It is essential that a mediator be completely impartial (and remain so), as well as present the appearance of neutrality, which often becomes difficult in church settings, especially if the mediator has some kind of official denominational ties. That doesn’t mean the mediator isn’t to have any opinions; rather, the mediator shouldn’t have a stake in either side of the issue.
A mediator should not come in any position of authority – not even a hint of it. A mediator’s job is not to “fix” the problem or decide who is right or wrong; a mediator is a servant, whose job is to facilitate communication, resolution and reconciliation. There are church consultants/mediators who will issue their “findings,” acting more as an arbitrator or judge. This may resolve the issue, but it likely won’t result in reconciliation. Rather, the “losing” side will likely leave, or just “smolder” within the congregation, poisoning those around them.
The goal is reconciliation
I can’t emphasize enough the principle that reconciliation—restoring understanding between people in disagreement—should be the goal in resolving any dispute between Christians. As Paul wrote in II Cor. 5:16-19:
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
I know countless people for whom reconciliation has never happened. I find it difficult to understand how churches can continue where there are unresolved issues, especially when the wounded are left behind as some sort of “spiritual roadkill.” The reality is, many of these people end up leaving the church, and give up church involvement altogether. And, 38% of the pastors involved in a conflict eventually leave the church.
Making Conflict Positive
Church conflict is a fact of life, whether resulting from sin or simply from differing viewpoints. While conflict has the enormous potential to cause damage if ignored or handled improperly, often conflict can be converted into a positive force, resulting in new ideas, new directions, and improved relationships.