Max Lucado insightfully notes, “Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” Church history bears out that conflicts and differences of opinion among believers have been a part of God’s work from its earliest beginnings.
A striking example of conflict in the Bible is the confrontation between Paul and Peter described in Galatians. “Later, when Peter came to Antioch, I [Paul] had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line” (Gal. 2:11, Message).*
Here we see two prominent church leaders experiencing strong differences that were interpersonal as well as theological. Paul further intimates the tension when he writes: “On the contrary, they [Jewish Christian leaders] recognized that I [Paul] had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles” (Gal. 2:7, 8).
Conflict in the Church
The prejudices and apparent doctrinal conflicts between Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and Peter’s ministry to the Jews were explosive and potentially divisive. And this was an issue loaded with all the components that could result in an all-out clash. A diverse mix of cultural (ethnic), doctrinal (e.g., circumcision), and leadership (the contrast of Peter’s and Paul’s leadership style) elements simmered. In this setting the potential for divisive conflict was ever-present.
Reaction to conflict is an acid test for the church, its leaders, and its members. It is critical for at least three reasons: First, conflict can be mishandled and subsequently worsen. Second, relationships can be compromised. Third, the ripple effect of a mishandled conflict can be devastating as members and the wider public look on.
In his book New Life for Your Church Doyle Young tells about two deacons in a small Baptist church in Mayfield County, Kentucky, in the late 1800s. One Sunday one of the deacons put up a small wooden peg in the back wall so that the minister could hang up his hat. When the other deacon discovered the peg, he was outraged that he had not been consulted. Before long the church took sides and eventually split over whether or not to have the peg. The point: if conflict isn’t handled well, it can rapidly deteriorate and go in directions never imagined.
The best literature on conflict resolution posits that there are three primary strategies for dealing with conflict: flight, avoiding conflict and hoping that it will go away; fight, using authority, rights, or force to attempt to prevail over others; or unite, talking with people to develop solutions that will satisfy mutual interests or some result they can all live with.
Paul advocated an effective approach to conflict resolution. Of course, the process may have multiple ramifications according to the complexity of the issue. Paul elegantly states, “Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Here is a means to arrive at unity via communication, sharing truth as it is understood, and keeping focused on Christ throughout the process.
Ellen White further elucidates the possibility of conflict resolution with what can be called the “five-minute principle.” She wrote: “Conversation has been protracted for hours between the parties concerned, and not only has their time been wasted, but the servants of God are held to listen to them, when the hearts of both parties are unsubdued by grace. If pride and selfishness were laid aside, five minutes would remove most difficulties” (Early Writings, p. 119).
Yes, conflict happens. But we determine what happens next.
* Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
Delbert W. Baker is a general vice president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This article was published January 26, 2012.