Redeeming Church Conflict

“Grannie’s tug of war.” Used with permission City of Toronto Archives

Although many people hold up the ancient church as the ideal church that we should try to get back to, the Bible clearly shows that the church in New Testament times was just as full of problems and controversies as the present-day church. Whether in Corinth or Galatia, they had to learn to deal with division and passionately held positions. I’ve just read a really great book: Redeeming Church Conflicts. If your church is experiencing a conflict, there is hope!

The book’s authors say that where the Bible gives us freedom to choose (which is what a lot church life involves – decorating, worship style, programs, ways and means of doing things and so on), this is where we have the opportunity to further develop a Christlike character – learning how to live with people who see things differently from us!

The focus of the book is Acts 15 in which we find the apostolic leadership team wrestling with one of the most divisive issues of all, the admission of gentiles into the church. Authors Tara Barthel and David Edling provide a thoroughly biblical approach to resolving conflict using a model developed from the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.

Barthel and Edling are both associated with Peacemaker Ministries, an organization that I highly respect. I’ve not had any personal dealings with them yet, but based on reputation and their approach to conflict resolution I don’t hesitate to recommend them. In fact, they are the organization that my contract with CCCC says we will use if a conflict arises between myself and CCCC.

Usefulness

I have no issues or concerns at all with the book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and everything they wrote makes absolute sense to me. I found myself repeatedly appreciating the biblical-theological approach they took. There is no adapting secular concepts here. Everything is based on scripture. However, some of the techniques could easily be used in a secular environment, so Christians who work in the marketplace could apply a number of the ideas to resolve workplace conflicts. And of course, the same model can be used in a non-local church ministry. In a Christian agency the relationship between people is different, since they are working together and paid by the ministry, but if you want to solve conflict the best way, by all parties coming to voluntary agreement, you wouldn’t want to rely on an employer-employee relationship, or a leader’s authority. So the process described in this book really can apply in any type of ministry.

In this review I’ll just highlight some of the key points that I thought were particularly noteworthy.

What does God want?

So often, when there are differing views, I want to dive right in with an analysis of the various positions to see which one is right. Barthel and Edling believe that strategy won’t lead to lasting peace. Their alternative approach is so obvious that I found myself saying again and again “But of course!”, and yet problem-solving is so ingrained within us as leaders that the better way doesn’t occur to us naturally. Or maybe it does to you, and it will to me when I get more spiritually mature!

The “Of course” is to ask what God wants to do in this conflict. A good thesis statement for the book would be the authors’ assertion that “Group conflicts between Christians are resolved when everyone’s desires and agendas align with God’s desires and agendas.” They write, “We are unaware of any church that has successfully resolved its church-wide conflicts without first going back to the basics of what the gospel message is, its implications for life and faith, and God’s statement of purpose and mission for his church…The purpose of discussion when seeking peace is to regain God’s perspective for the church.”

Their recommendation is that everyone focus their attention on the good, on what is pure and lovely. This is not just a pious sentiment, but a powerful technique to draw people together to a common cause. At every step of the way, the book presents very practical application suggestions. Focusing on God, and what everyone holds in common, puts some perspective to the issues that divide, and makes it more likely those issues can be successfully resolved.

Getting to the real issues

The most powerful technique they describe is one that I’ve used very successfully myself. To reconcile opposing positions you must get beneath the presenting issues to uncover the goals and values of the people involved. People think that when the presenting issues are resolved, conflict will go away, but the real issues that cause conflict in the first place are heart issues, and resolving presenting issues won’t affect a heart issue — it just creates a pause before the same heart issues erupt with another presenting issue. For a permanent solution, you must take the presenting issues and then start digging to get at the heart issues that lie beneath them. Heart issues are the reasons why one person prefers A and another prefers B. The root issue could be fear, desire or an ingrained idol. Presenting issues are the ‘what’ of the conflict, while heart issues will get you to the ‘why’ of the conflict.

When writing my dissertation (which was reworked into the book The Church At Work: A manual for excellent church-agency relations), I outlined the positions of several authors who seemed to be at loggerheads with each other (ie., they held apparently irreconcilable positions). On the extremes, Jerry White was all for independent Christian agencies (parachurches) while Orlando Costas was opposed to any ministry taking place outside the church (ie., outside of a denomination or local church). It doesn’t get more stark than that. Yet all the authors had given clues to their goals and values as they made their arguments, and by analyzing those I was able to come up with a model that satisfied all their criteria. Several of the living authors read my work and said they agreed that my model was acceptable to them. When I defended my thesis, the Reader said he really enjoyed how I knit all their goals and values together and reconciled them all. He said, “It felt as if I were sitting at the kitchen table listening to all these authors talk with each other!” Getting to goals and values is the way to reconcile apparently irreconcilable positions.

Barthel and Edling say that while many questions could be asked during conflict resolution, the best questions are the questions that “provoke heart engagement regarding core beliefs and motivations….The best question shuts the mouth of opponents graciously because it leads to changed thinking and believing. It also leads to meaningful solutions because it goes to the heart of the matter.”

So, don’t let the presenting issues distract you from the real issues. Get out the shovel and start digging!

Focus on what God is doing

No matter what the difficulty in the church, no matter how hopeless the situation seems to be, the authors remind us that God is still at work. Progress towards a resolution is made easier when everyone shifts their focus from the conflict to what God is doing and to your church’s mission.

But more particularly, in the midst of conflict God is still working on us. Your inclination is likely to focus on the opposition, but the authors suggest that we should instead be looking to see what God is doing in us:

When seeking to redeem church conflicts, the goal of any discussion is not merely to communicate in such a way that the other side understands our perspectives and convictions. This is important but it is not of first importance. To redeem your church’s conflict, the goal of any discussion you have ought to be the aha moment when you understand clearly what your heart motivations are and what God calls you to do and say in order to live according to his Word; then you conform your attitudes, words, and actions to God’s requirements. Yes, you may also have an opportunity to help others do the same, but regardless of their responses, you can grow in your sanctification.

Failure of leadership

From a leadership perspective, the authors find a significant factor in church conflict is a failure of leadership. How did the congregation ever get to the point where it could have such division within it? Could it be that we are not teaching our congregations what they need to hear? Perhaps we have succumbed to the secular idea that every person is his or her own master and that individual freedom trumps the community’s interests. As Christians, church members must subordinate what they want to what God wants. This is what the authors say must be taught by pastors: “God calls spiritual leaders to lead his people into the place where all interests of man are subservient to God’s interests (see Phil 2:1-4).”

Leaders tend to be unwilling to deal with conflict when it arises. In many of the cases the authors have been involved in, they say the issues should have been dealt with long before they blew up into a full-scale church-splitting conflict. They highlight the importance of membership vows and how they give church leadership the right to exercise church discipline over the members. While the particular vows of your church may be different, they mention one case in which members had agreed to guard the peace, purity and unity of the church. They were able to get a breakthrough in the crisis by reminding people of these vows, and then get them working on how to restore peace, purity and unity to the church. Pastors need to confront conflict as soon as it becomes evident. It is a lot easier to solve the problem at that point than after positions have hardened and things have been said that are later regretted.

I highly recommend this book to you.

“Book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller.”

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