When someone is involved with a church on a full time basis, you can almost always, somewhere along the line, count on having some kind of trouble. Anytime you get two or more people together you have the makings for trouble. This is true in a marriage, a business partnership and any number of other areas where people are together. Churches seem to intensify this problem though.
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God's people, out of all the people on the face of the earth, ought to get along better than anyone else. Sometimes, thought, we just cannot seem to make it happen. You may have a few years of peace, but by and by it comes to an end. Brethren fight one another like they were bitter enemies. Feelings get hurt, egos get bruised, hearts get stepped on, words are thrown at individuals that leave scars and deep wounds that will be remembered for a lifetime. Children are exposed to the warfare in such a direct way that as the years go by they are so prejudiced against the church that they don't even want to attend anywhere, at all, anytime. They get a first hand view of what "church troubles" are all about. They wonder about the sanity of grown men and women fighting like children over something that doesn't make good sense anyway. The community sees the church as a weak, sickly, institutional denomination, just like every other church in town. From their point of view there is no difference. "The Spirit of Jesus does not flow through that church or they would not fight so," they think.
Does this sound familiar to you? Have you ever been in a church that fought like cats and dogs from one week to the next? It makes it difficult to stand and sing, "Oh How I Love Jesus," doesn't it? Brethren, this kind of thing ought not happen! There is just no sense in grown people acting in such a foolishly sinful way. Yes, it is foolish and sinful.
When our children fight we are quick to discipline and let them know that behavior of that kind is unacceptable. As a responsible parent you know that you must punish such actions. If you allow it to go on the children will grow up fighting you and everyone else.
But, what do we do about fighting in the church? NOTHING mostly! We just sit back and wait for the smoke to clear, sweep it under the rug and pray for peace. It is absurd! Something must be done when fighting occurs, but the best thing to do is to stop it before it happens.
Let's try to make some observations about church conflict and try and determine its cause and its cure. If we can understand the anatomy of church conflict, we will better be able to control and hopefully avoid it.
CHURCH PROBLEMS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
As you study the New Testament churches you can see a wide range of problems connected. Most of them, however, dealt with either doctrine or immorality. For the most part, their problems that caused division were much different from ours. If you want a real challenge, pick up your New Testament and read the epistles to the churches and make notes of the various church problems and see for yourself. Most of the things they had problems with we are willing to just let slide. We ignore most of them. That ought to tell us something.
Let's just take a casual look at some of the churches and see first hand the problems they had and weigh ours against them. You will likely be surprised. As you look at these ask yourself, How many churches do I know of that have ever split over these matters. With the exception of one or two, you will probably be hard pressed to recall any.
Corinth. Corinth was a growing church at one point. As time progressed she seemed to just maintain. There were many reasons. She was a problem riddled church. Her outreach stopped because so much time and energy was spent trying to put out the brush fires of problems. Just list them out: (1) Preacheritus - I Corinthians chapters 1-4. They were divided over who was the best preacher. Paul spent three chapters explaining that those preachers were nothing more than instruments in God's hands to accomplish His purpose. They were not to be the objects of church division. (2) Immorality - I Corinthians chapter 5. They had a brewing case of incest within the church going unnoticed. They didn't even care. Paul said to expel the immoral brother. (3) Brothers taking brothers to court over land disputes - I Corinthians 6:1-11. Those brothers couldn't even get along enough to settle their own legal matters. Paul insisted that they set up a system of Christian arbitration. (4) Sexual promiscuity - I Corinthians 6:12-20. The brethren were involving themselves in all kinds of sexual sin. They had pacified their consciences to the point that they actually thought it was the proper thing to do. Paul reminded them that they were the temple of God and the temple must not be defiled. (5) Purity of marriage - I Corinthians chapter 7. These brothers were burning in their sexual passions outside the bonds of marriage. Paul taught that marriage was the place for such sexual release. (6) Conscience problems - I Corinthians 8:1-11:1. The weak brothers were being run over by the stronger in regard to their consciences. The weak felt it wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols while the stronger knew that God allowed the eating of such meat. (7) Women leaving their sphere of authority - I Corinthians 11:2-16. Women were praying and prophesying without showing respect for their men. (8) Inconsiderate brethren - I Corinthians 11:17-34. They were perverting the love feast by hoarding up and stuffing down their food before the poorer brethren could feast with them. (9) Division over spiritual gifts - I Corinthians chapters 12- 14. They spent their time arguing over who had the greatest gift. Their pride in their immaturity had the best of them. (10) Denial of the bodily resurrection - I Corinthians chapter 15. They denied the very hope and foundation of Christianity. (11) The sin of not forgiving - II Corinthians 2:5-11. They were not willing to let a repentant brother back into their fellowship. (12) Doubting Paul's apostleship - II Corinthians chapters 10-11. Many within the church would not accept Paul's God given authority as an apostle of Christ.
Galatia. Jewish legalism - Galatians chapters 1-5. Many of the Jewish brothers continued to try to impose the law of Moses on the saints of God. Paul taught them to learn to live by the Spirit and not by the letter of the law.
Ephesus. Ephesus carried the sin of a disjointed body. Paul taught them how to be united in Jesus. The brethren were pulling hard against one another. In this situation, the church can never grow.
Philippi. The Philippian church had two basic problems. (1) Jewish legalism, and (2) Pride. Because of their pride they were unable to grow. Paul gave them three example of humility and spoke hard against Jewish legalism.
Colosse. There were three major problems connected with the church in Colosse. (1) Jewish legalism - Colossians 2:11-23. (2) Gnosticism - Colossians 2:1-10. This was generally a doctrine that denied the Deity of Jesus. They would not and could not believe that God actually became flesh. Their doctrine was mostly based on mental ascent. (3) Christian living - Colossians chapters 3-4. It is difficult to live as a Christian. Paul gave much practical information to help the struggling brothers along in living for Jesus.
Thessalonica. Again, Jewish legalism. Everywhere you turn this was an ever present problem.
The general epistles of I Timothy, II Timothy and Titus as well as Hebrews had many problem areas. (1) Jewish legalism. (2) Women out of the sphere of their authority - I Timothy chapter 2. (3) God's structure for the church was not being honored as it should be - I Timothy chapter 3.
James, I Peter and II Peter. These books answer the problem of Christian living. More specifically, the problem of practical Christian living. They addressed needs of the brethren in areas that the church was having trouble.
I, II, III John. These books dealt with the damnable doctrine of Gnosticism. It was an ever spreading fungus among the churches that was upsetting the very hope and structure of the Christian faith.
Now when you weigh all of these, what do we have to fuss and fight about? Any one of these churches and their leaders would have gladly traded problems with us. The New Testament church was riddled with problems, any one of which is more serious than most of the things we fight and growl about. This is not to say that we today do not have some serious doctrinal problems. But, for the most part, our contentions are not over doctrine. They are mostly over opinion. When you have 200 members, you have at least 400 opinions.
CHURCH PROBLEMS TODAY
As previously stated, most of our problems today stem from opinions of men. More often than not these opinions get confused with doctrine. Here is where things become serious. A brother or group of brothers begin to "stand up for the truth" while all the time defending an opinion. Wise words of some of the great pioneers of the restoration movement are quoted, "Speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent". Do you hear what that statement says? It says, "Keep your cotton picking opinions to yourself? We already have enough religious division!" What do you think? It is time to realize that "most" church conflicts are no more than "opinion wars" that must not be allowed to divide the church. Mostly they are over matters that mean little to nothing but take on new meaning when stimulated by "personality conflicts".
One of our great conflict areas is that of order. Order in the assembly is something that must be considered. Paul said, "Let all things be done decently and in order." In this statement he was dealing with order in regard to how many people participated in the speaking at one time. He was not dealing with whether to have the Lord's Supper before or after the sermon. The subject was never discussed. We are instructed to have the Lord's Supper, not "when" during the assembly we are to have it. Our singing, how we sing (whether fast or slow), how many songs we sing or when we sing them in the assembly was not discussed. The Bible does not tell us how to do all of these things. It just tells us to do them. God leaves the how up to our experiences and our culture.
Buildings are one of the great areas for church conflict. We argue over the decision to build or not to build, to remodel or not to remodel. What type of building should we have? Should we have a kitchen? Should there be carpet on the floor? If so, what color should it be? Do we need a larger parking lot? Should it be paved, gravel or dirt? If we decide to do all of these things, who will we get to do it? Will we all pitch in and do the work ourselves or will we get someone else to do it for us? Any one of these questions, when mixed with a group of people that have a hard time getting along, have the makings for a high powered explosive church conflict.
Preachers are a good source of church conflict. Most church conflicts are preacher bred, preacher fed and preacher led. That is if you already have one. But suppose that you do not have one. That can be just as much a problem. Now you have to decide the answers to some questions that are going to cross over the opinions of the group. Do you want a "hell fire and brimstone" preacher? What about an "issue oriented" preacher? Maybe you want one who preaches "exegetically?" or "topically?" What kind of personality do you want him to have? So you want one with a big name or one who just fits in everywhere? These are only a few of the questions that will come up. If you have 200 members you will probably get 200, if not 400, opinions about the matter.
Legalism is one of the most recurring church problems. Now this is only a problem to us when it goes beyond our "traditional legalism." Legalism is when we depend on our own works for salvation. When someone has methods of evangelism or discipleship that differ from ours, then to us it is legalism. When other congregations have a personality that is different from ours, they are legalistic. In our issue minded brotherhood this means WAR!
Did you know that doctrinal issues is the area of the least church conflict? Yes, we call many of these other areas "doctrinal" but for the most part they are only opinions, remember. How many churches can you really recall that split over a matter of real doctrine? Not many! The most issue oriented doctrines of the day are marriage - divorce and remarriage. We still fight over the instrument and anti-ism. Brethren, we have so many doctrinally maladjusted churches that it is pathetic but we very seldom hear of one splitting because of it. Mostly, we split over opinion matters.
THE ANATOMY OF A CHURCH CONFLICT
A church conflict usually begins with a personality conflict. More often than not, the conflict involves the preacher. He has been made to be seen as "Mr. Wonderful" up until the time he meddled in my business. But, once he did that, he becomes "Mr. Doomed." Now keep in mind that this could just as easily be an elder or any other member of the congregation, but it is most often the preacher. From this point on, everything that is said or done is under the scope of many careful eyes. Little things, flaws or peculiarities are noticed for the first time and then blown into a full grown character flaw.
After this comes the taking of sides. The offended party will talk it up, down and all around until the whole congregation knows what is going on. Once informed, the political maneuvers begin. It is time to get some power on our side. A "regular" member can't do much. It takes someone with some kind of control to get the job done. In churches where there are no elders this goal can be reached much more quickly. Within the "business meetings" private conflicts have been going on for years. All of those times I wish I had said something now takes new life. Here is a chance to "make my mark." And so, men are stirred up against one another. More politicking gives way to more power to do something. Satan is the head chairman. He has quickly and relatively quietly incited a riot among the believers. As the power forces gather, one side for and the other against, then becomes the time to enlist the armies. The two power groups, especially the wrong side, begin to fill their armies. People invite one another over for dinner or coffee and donuts like never before. While hiding behind the deceptive curtain of "fellowship", the ungodliness of this satanic conflict is growing. Soon, brethren begin sitting together in the assemblies. One army sits on one side and the other army on the other side. Both groups become more vocal. (Usually the one with the weakest defenses.) People speak up that usually don't say anything at all. Lines are drawn on fellowship and then comes the SPLIT. The group that started the fight will usually leave, regroup, count the casualties, pray for God's strength and guidance and then start a new congregation that is destined to split again.
Power struggles! That's what it boils down to. Gigantic, complex power struggles. Over what? What is the purpose? What ever happened to letting Jesus have the power in a church?
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO PREVENT CHURCH CONFLICTS?
The ever important question now arises. What can I do? How can we avoid or prevent these church conflicts? There is no easy way. Anytime you have to deal with people you are dealing with dynamite. There are some Biblically sound guidelines to follow however.
First, we must develop "God led" leaders. God's design is to have elders in every church according to I Timothy chapter three and Titus chapter one. Elders must take a stand against such conflict in the church but the stand must include some preventive measures. They must let the flock know what is to be expected of them and what will happen to them should they decide to initiate a conflict. These men must have the spirit of the Lord in matters dealing with conflict. I dare say that churches with strong, God led elders will not have to deal with many church conflicts. They will not let it happen.
Secondly, the church must learn to love each other. Loving and serving go hand in hand. You cannot love someone and not serve them. Paul taught the healing nature of love in First Corinthians 13. The church at Corinth just did not know how to love each other. First John 3 teaches that we must be willing to love our brothers and sisters enough to trade even our own lives for theirs. Churches that love one another do not split. You cannot serve and divide at the same time.
Thirdly, to prevent church conflict a church must practice consistent discipline. This discipline must be practiced in the process of the conflict, not after the fact. The problems must be "nipped in the bud." First Corinthians 5:1-13 says, "Do not eat" several times. Do not have that sweet kind of fellowship with those listed within that text. Second Timothy 2:14 says to "warn them." Several other places in the New Testament speak of discipline. Titus 1:10-16 and II Thessalonians 3:6-15.
If we understand that we are going to have conflicts and understand how and why they happen, then we should be able to head many of them off before they happen. Once they begin, we must take action to put them to rest.
The body of Christ is too precious to allow conflicts to destroy it. What we do as individuals and how we handle ourselves will make all the difference that is needed.