A church I attended suffered the pangs of conflict, and unfortunately, this was nothing new in my experience. As my wife and I moved around the country for graduate studies and then different teaching positions, four of the six churches we attended suffered deeply from conflict during the handful of years we were there (the other two were riddled by conflict before and after our time there). Based on our limited experience, to attend and participate in the life of a congregation, to be a member of a church is to participate in conflict.
But how can this be? This is the church of Jesus Christ, the body of the risen Lord, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church. We are built on the foundation of the Prophets and Apostles, guided by the pastors called by our Lord, faithfully studying and receiving guidance from the preached word, baptized and partaking of the Lord’s supper—an outward manifestation of his one body broken for us that we might be one in him. How can conflict, bitter disagreement and strife be part of what is meant to be such a pure and holy thing?
One could look back through the history of the church (far before the Reformation, mind you) to find a history of division and conflict, but that is simply to add the burden of history to a question already made poignant by experience. Why is there so much conflict in the body of Christ?
To answer this question, we are forced to ask it of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the church is the body of the incarnate Son, indwelt by his Holy Spirit, by the will and to the glory of the Father. If there is conflict in this body, it is a problem that finds its solution only in the one whose body this is. What, then, is the role of conflict, as God understands it? Why does he allow conflict in his church, rather than simply expunging evil immediately as he once did so swiftly with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5)? Why this horrid patience as his sheep slaughter one another in acts of unholy sacrifice?
God’s Approach to Conflict
It is axiomatic to the Christian faith that God is one, and there is no conflict in him (Deut. 6). We cannot root the conflict of the church within the triune life of God as we can its unity, love, faithfulness, etc. (though some theologians and philosophers have sought to do so). The church should be one, holy and loving, as God is one, holy and loving, but we cannot explain the conflict we experience based on the conflict within the life of God, between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To understand the relationship between God and conflict we must look elsewhere—to his actions within the history of his interactions with his fallen creatures, and above all to the cross and resurrection.
Paul tells us that God became man in order to reconcile all things to himself (Col. 1:20). To put this differently, God became man in order to bring an end to conflict, and in doing so taught us to do conflict beautifully. God, we might say, hates conflict—strife and opposition are the outward evidence of sin and evil. Conflict is an abomination to him who in and of himself lives an eternal life of peace and happiness, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But how he hates conflict, and how he deals with it—from this we have a great deal to learn. For while conflict in and of itself is an abomination rejected by God, it is simultaneously God’s chosen means to love us, to bring us to unity in him. Just as God hates the cross, yet uses it as the tool of bringing reconciliation, God hates conflict while using it as a means of bringing about peace.
God did not cast away or destroy those who were in conflict him. His creatures were so dear to him, so treasured, that God rejected this possibility, refusing to bring about peace by means of annihilation. Total war, absolute victory, utter defeat of the opposition—the closest God comes to this is the flood of Noah (Gen. 6-9), after which God vowed never to pursue such a course of action again. Conflict remains within God’s creation because his creatures are so dear to him that he refuses to leave or crush those who oppose him.
This does not mean that God settles for mere tolerance—a flaccid and impotent agreement to disagree, a stalemate between entrenched camps with a treacherous and barren demilitarized zone between them. How then does God deal with his treasured creation in the midst of its conflict with him? By means of the cross. By means of stepping down, laying aside every vestige and token of greatness, by making our problems his own, embracing the pain, difficulty and consequences of the conflict. By means of suffering greatly, in attempt not only to deal with the problem, but to do so by preserving the dignity and beauty of the broken creatures with whom he longs for fellowship. Not by holding us accountable for every last farthing, not by condemning us, not by holding his own high and holy ground, inviting us to come up to him.
The cross is God’s chosen means of dealing with conflict, and he does so by embracing the conflict, suffering and pain, and making it his own. And he does so effectively, for in him and the power of the resurrection there is peace, unity and wholeness. God became man, we might say, to teach us how to enter conflict beautifully, after the pattern of the cross and in the power of the resurrection.
Why does conflict remain within his church? Because even now, God so loves his creatures that he will not force upon us a transformation from the outside, he will not wrench our sinfulness from us, making us new in a brutal and instantaneous act of recreation. He will make us new, but in relationship with us through the working of the Spirit in our lives, so that we, with, in and through him, can come to peace and harmony with him and each other. God loves us too much to make conflict impossible in this present life. God loves us so much that he allows for conflict, creates room for it, and guides us in it. Conflict, we might say, is the way of love in the presence of sin.
Our life in Christ is an eschatological reality which we at best taste, glimpse and witness here, as we move toward that reality we long for in our Spirit-empowered attempts to love our fellow members of the body of Christ. And may the Lord come soon, for such attempts cost us dear. And while he tarries, may he guide us in the way of love, the way of good and healthy conflict.
Implications for the Church
What are the implications of God’s chosen way of dealing with conflict? First, we, like our God, must treasure our brothers and sisters in Christ so greatly, so uncompromisingly, that we are able to see all the hurt (intentional or otherwise), all the evil, all the sin, only within the context of the joy God has in precisely those people. The context, the framework for dealing with conflict, is the ravishing, jealous and unabashed joy, love and desire God has for precisely these people who causing so much pain, and, if we are honest, these people against whom we so long to retaliate, giving them at least a dose, a hideous sacrament, of the pain they have given us.
Second, we, like our God, must embrace conflict as means to achieving true and abiding peace and unity. God does not walk away from us. He does not destroy us. He does not leave us as we are. He confronts us. He faces the sin in us that he hates so much. But he does so with and for us in a way that makes the pain his own, that through his resurrection we might be made whole in him. Conflict, in other words, ought to have the pattern of Christ’s passion—both death and resurrection.
As to the death, we must embrace suffering, knowing full well how much we dread it (“Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me!” (Matt. 26:39)). We must die to ourselves, eagerly exposing, repenting and cutting off the sin and error in our own lives. We must embrace being treated without dignity, without respect, without honor, without regard to any rights or privileges we may possess. For this is the way of the cross. With the Litany of Humility, we pray:
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
But this is no mere wallowing in suffering, perpetuating abusive relationships equally harmful to perpetrator and victim, for this is a powerful and effective suffering for the sake of unity, done in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, in whom we live and move and have our being as those who are risen with Christ. We suffer because in doing so we are seeking to get to the heart of the matter. We fight because we long for peace. We embrace conflict as the bridge by which we come to a place of joy and unity.
For we know that until the Lord comes there is and will be sin. There is and will be conflict. And we are faced with a choice. We can pretend this is the not the case. We can leave at every sign of sin and error. We can live in fear of any token of evil, creating a host of perverse and life-stunting defenses against such things, hypocritically distorting and callousing our hearts and those of others in the process. Or, we can thank God for the grace of conflict, embracing it as a means of addressing the sin we know is present in our own lives and those others. The church knows and believes that sin and evil are real and present, and it dare not shun conflict, for conflict is nothing but the sign of evil rearing its head, reluctantly coming to the surface that it might be dealt with in the power of grace and charity.
The church dare not tout itself as a body in which there is no sin and no conflict. To do so is to lay the axe to its root. Rather, the church can and should be the place where conflict is done well, where conflict is the blessed (though painful) means of becoming the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church we are called to be. We are to be a people who embrace conflict, so committed to each other that we refuse to do anything less than stay, fight, and love, that in the process we might be drawn further and further into the life of God, where ultimately there will be no more sin, death, or conflict.
A Rejoinder: A Time to Leave?
The question naturally arises: “fair enough, but isn’t there a time to leave, a time to sever the ties? After all, Paul seems open to casting people out of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 5:5)!” Is there a time we should not stay and love, a time to walk away from conflict?
Here also the cross of Christ can and should shape our approach. There is indeed a place for distance and separation, for Jesus experienced the abandonment of the Father as he bore our sin in his suffering (Matt. 27:46). Separation, schism, divorce: aside from the final judgment and the second death, every form of separation is a means to unity, rather than a final answer to it. God divorces his people, only to remarry them. Paul urges the handing over of a man to Satan, only that his soul might be saved. There is a time for separation, distance and silence. But in this life, as we await the coming of our Lord, these are understood best as a part of, a movement toward, the unwavering commitment and movement toward reconciliation, just as Holy Saturday is nothing but the hiatus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Apart from the good news of Easter and the hope of the resurrection, this is no place silence, rejection and separation.
With that said, however, we must likewise affirm that inasmuch as we participate in Christ’s atoning and reconciling work, inasmuch as we work for unity and peace, we do so not as individuals, but as the body of Christ, and therefore as a people. Christ calls us to fight against sin and oppression while seeking restoration and reconciliation with those same oppressors, but to do so as his church, with the full resources of the body, the community. To seek to do so on our own would be dangerous and foolish, but more importantly, it would violate the very heart of God’s reconciling purpose: to be one with a people! The conflict we enter for the sake of love and reconciliation, we must do as the corporate body, the body of Christ, and only as such and within this context do we have a role to play as individual servants of Christ.
A Concluding Prayer
It is fitting to conclude in prayer, for it is only through the work of the God whose church we are, that unity will be reached, and conflict will be a means of grace. I commend as an example, the Anglican Collect for the Unity of the Church:
Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed
for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one:
Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and
obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit,
that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your
Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in
the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.