Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biblical/Theologically-Based Philosophy of Church Conflict Management

Conflict has always been around among human beings since the fall episode narrated in Genesis chapter 3. From that point on, one can almost find conflict stories in every book of the Bible. Wherever two or three people gather in the name of Jesus, there is not only Jesus’ presence among them, but also conflict. Thus, it seems almost impossible for humans to live completely conflict free, especially in the church.
In the book Managing Church Conflict, Halverstadt points his readers to the sources of church conflict. Halverstadt mentions the fact that church people are sinners and that spiritual commitment is central to the psychological identity of those who follow religion. The combination of these two human characteristics can be very dangerous whenever there is disagreement concerning beliefs and/or commitments.[1] People get infuriated when they perceive their worldview being questioned or disbelieved. Unfortunately, there are several more situations in church life other the theological ones that ignite conflict. Steinke lists thirteen triggers of anxiety and consequently (in most cases) conflict in churches. The list appears as follows:
Sex, Sexuality
Pastor’s Leadership Style
Lay Leadership Style
Growth, Survival
Staff Conflict
Harm Done to a Child, Death of a Child
Old and New
Contemporary and Traditional Worship
Gap between the Ideal and the Real
Building, Construction, Space, and Territory[2]

The list above is only a demonstration of how much Christians can fight over almost everything in church’s life. Thus, knowing how easily and how often conflict happens in the church, the questions one must ask are, how does the leader, can be prepared to deal with situations when conflict erupts in his/her congregation? What are the tools or apparatuses that the leader must have or use in order to deal with conflict and do not lose his job and/or health when the conflict is over? In an attempt to address these questions, I will propose in this paper a philosophy of church conflict management that is biblically based and that is in its core very pragmatic.

When one thinks about church division, one is quick to assume that it is always related to arguments, parties, attitudes, harsh behavior or even fights among church people. Even though one may find the above characteristics in a divisive setting in the church, it is important to mention that not all church divisions involve them. Division in the church is more than just people threatening people. Church division in general terms happens anytime that people terrorize church unity as a whole (including the gospel). For this to happen, it is not necessary for people to engage in an external fight. Sometimes the church is extremely divided; however, its members are coexisting in tolerance. It can be very subtle and yet dangerous. It can exist behind people’s mask of piety. As an example, let us use Paul’s instructions to the brothers and sisters of Corinth who were living completely divided but without full awareness.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 1, starting in verse 10, one finds the apostle Paul changing subjects in order to address a conflict in the church of Corinth. The new topic that Paul is so willing to talk about is the quarrels among the church people. The way Paul addresses the conflict may seem a little unrealistic to modern readers of the Bible. The apostle addresses the problem from an outside point of view. He has not been at the church, nor has he seen the problem, nor talked to the parties involved. All that he knows come from what was reported to him by Chloe’s people.

However, before we become too critical of Paul’s conduct in this particular situation, it is important to understand the nature of the quarrel Paul was dealing with. Paul was dealing with division within the church. Later on in this letter, Paul uses the illustration of the body to refer to the unity of the members. Thus, for him, a divided body is not a perfect body but a handicapped one. And a handicapped body is not a body at all when it refers to the body of Christ. Paul knew that the root of the division in this context was:
1. People’s sinfulness
2. People’s past as cultic worshipers
With this in mind, Paul did not need more information in order to appeal to the consciousness of the Corinthian people. The heart of the division was idolatry. The church was being divided into groups of “admirers” of Paul, Apollo, Peter, and even of Jesus. The situation was creating conflict and quarrels among the entire congregation. The Greek word used by Paul to address what was happening in the church is σχίσματα from where we have the English word schism.
For Paul, the only remedy for schism is unity of mind and purpose. This is exactly how he appeals to the Corinthians. In Ephesians 3:5-6 (which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus), Paul makes clear the mystery of the unity of the church. This unity cannot be threatened by any type of religious partisanship that may arise within the church. Furthermore, those involved in this schism need to understand that their attitude was bringing not only damage to themselves but to the entire congregation.

Another situation within that church that was creating division is reported in chapter five of the same letter. The circumstances described in this chapter have to do with sexual immorality. Again, Paul received a report about what was happening; however now, he does not reveal the source of information. Paul in this case recognizes that what he is about to tell the church would probably need his physical presence; however, he defends himself by saying “for though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present I have already pronounced judgment” (1 Cor. 5:3). Paul then gives the verdict on the man who has acted immorally: “in the name of the Lord Jesus…when you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:4-5).

Two different situations followed by two different judgments lead to the question: What can the church learn from Paul’s decision? First of all, it is imperative to recognize that situations such as these are still happening in the church today. We are not exempt from idolatry and immorality among modern church members. It is possible that idolatry and immorality today are even more common than during Paul’s time. Paul’s actions give us the biblical model on how the leader should act when situation of division happens in our churches. Based on the course of actions taken by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 1:10-17 and 5:1-5, I want to suggest 10 ways to help the congregation manage church division.

1. Do not wait to deal with conflicts only when you are physically present – there will come times when people will report to us what is going on in the church. It is important however, to make sure that the information is accurate. In being so, act upon it using the means you have at hand (email, telephone call, text messaging, etc).

2. Address the issue as early as possible – this is connected with topic number 1. The apostle Paul waited only to finish the thanksgiving address in order to jump right into the matter of conflict. The more we wait to deal with conflict the more complicated the situation will become. Avoiding or ignoring the problem can make the situation “destructive.”[3]
3. Understand the nature of the conflict – different situations demand different routes of action. We cannot act the same way when faced with different situations. Each conflict has its particularities that must be known before hand. This will help on the process of decision making.

4. Be explicit about the root of the problem – some cultures avoid direct statements for fear of hurting people. In dealing with division in the church, our attitude must be as direct and frank as possible. This does not mean that we have to be rude or impolite, but that we need not to circle around. Go as soon as possible to the point and stay there throughout the entire process.
5. Make use of the teachings of the Bible – Paul uses theological arguments to defend his point. It is imperative in conflict situation that we, using the words of Dr. Godfrey, “teach people to be Christian.”

6. Be aware of possible opposition – when faced with divisions in the church, Paul was aware that not all of them would agree with his teachings. In fact, Paul probably did not have the majority of the people on his side since they were divided into many groups.

7. Stick with the truth no matter what – it is comfortable for us to stay closer to those who support us or in this case “belong” to us. However, our role is not to please anyone, not even those who love us. The truth is bigger than us and we must not only stick with it but also speak it in love, independently of the hurt it may cause on those who are on our side.

8. Be prepared to face evil – conflict situations can become very messy and ugly. We need to know that some of our actions may evoke the worst of human reaction. We must be prepared for counterattack.

9. Be sensitive to the Spirit of God – for many of us, Paul’s decision to expel the man involved with sexual misconduct was not in accordance with Jesus’ teachings. However, this is not true. Paul was in harmony with the entire Trinity. Furthermore what Paul did was not for the men’s destruction, but rather for his salvation.

10. Choose always the community over the individual – in community settings the whole is more important than the individual. Thus, if a person or groups is causing the rest of the community great trouble, deal with them always in light of the benefit of the large community.

It is important to understand, however, that in church community differences are welcomed. We are not trying to make robots out of people, determining what they should do in every aspect of their lives. This is not the point! Even the apostle Paul recognizes the benefit of, in some settings, conflict.

“But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you” (1 Corinthians 11:17-19, bold added).
As Halverstadt says, “A Christian communal perspective on conflicts defines community as an incorporation of differences rather than as a homogenization of differences.”[4] In many cases the conflict will teach the church how to “incorporate their differences into a larger social wholeness.”[5]

Disagreement, triangulation and splits
Disagreements in the church can happen over almost anything. For instance, people can disagree over the color of the carpet, over the type of bread of the Lord’s Supper (leavened or unleavened), over the worship style, the list could go on and on until fills this entire page. However, some people cannot deal with disagreement by themselves and usually involve a third party in the discussion. More often, they end up triangulating the conflict with the immediate leader or in small churches with the pastor. This behavior is more common than one may expect and is usually done to lower the anxiety between the main parties involved. Unfortunately, if the person involved in a triangulation is not aware of the trap he/she is being involved, he/she can end up absorbing the entire anxiety upon his shoulders. To be involved in a conflict as a third party, one must be acting as a mediator. To act as a mediator, one must avoid any kind of emotional involvement. Otherwise, the mediator will not act unbiased and his/her intervention may cause more damage than healing.

In the book of Acts, we find one of the most providential disagreements recorded in the annals of church history. The episode narrated in Acts 15:36-41 is providential simply because of the outcomes of the conflict. Instead of just one course of action, the split gave birth to two courses of actions involving four missionaries. By pointing out this fact, I do not justify modern day church splits and subsequently new churches. Paul and Barnabas’ conflict was providential only because it happened in that particular period in the history of the church. Before we consider some practical considerations about this episode, let us first understand what really happened between Paul and Barnabas.

In Acts 13:13, John deserts Paul and Barnabas in the middle of their mission. Hence, the work which was being shared among them three had to be done by two only. For Paul, to run back to Jerusalem that soon as John did meant to abandon work, meant irresponsibility. Thus, it came to the point where the missionaries (Paul and Barnabas) would go up on another mission trip. In fact, Paul’s intention was to go back all the way and revisit the churches that were opened. Barnabas knowing that they would have much work to do suggested to Paul to take John with them. What followed next was a demonstration of unresolved internal conflict exposed. Paul not only rejected Barnabas suggestion but also pointed out the reason of such rejection. Barnabas on the other hand, did not accept Paul’s opinion and the situation became worse. The Bible says that the discussion became so sharp that they ended their partnership that same day. Some theologians say that Paul was still angry at Barnabas due to the episode described in Galatians 2:11-13 (But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy). Thus, Paul probably was not completely healed from the disappointment he had with his partner, which became evident during the discussion with Barnabas. A wound not healed can bleed again at anytime. This is probably what happened to Paul. The anxiety grew bigger and two friends were arguing to the point of splitting. But since they both loved Jesus and His work, each got a new partner and went different ways.
In light of the situation above, how can we learn from Paul and Barnabas’ episode? What are the practical implications for our ministry? What can we learn from disagreements, triangulations, and splits?

1. It is okay to disagree – we do not share all the same opinions of others. In Paul and Barnabas’ case, even both being great leaders, their leadership and vision however did not match. God providentially separated them so they could be more effective apart from one another.

2. Be sensitive to the matter of the conflict – even though we may disagree with somebody’s opinion, it does not mean that we are insensitive to their claims. Neither Paul nor Barnabas was sensitive to each other claims, generating conflict.

3. Do not overreact – it seems that either Paul or Barnabas overreacted on this issue. It is important for us to stick with the facts and draw a limit to the arguments of the conflict.

4. Read between the lines when overreaction is noted – the argument that Paul was still mad at Barnabas because of the incident with Peter is totally valid. The Bible does not tell its readers about why the argument got sharp, but something else more than disappointment with John may have happened.

5. Weigh the facts – Barnabas was too stubborn regarding John. John had demonstrated a spirit of rebellion, which Barnabas should have considered. Paul on the other hand, could have had forgiven John not allowing his relationship with Barnabas to end this way.

6. Family matters – Colossians 4:10 tells us that Barnabas and John were cousins. Perhaps this brings some light to the sharpness of the conflict. However, we need to understand that people are more willing to fight for those who are part of their family than for those who are not.

7. Allow time for reconciliation – as stated before, it is okay to disagree; however, it is not okay to remain like this way. Fortunately, Paul, Barnabas and John were reconciled later on in their ministries (1 Cor. 9:6; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philem. 24).

8. Have a plan B and keep going – conflicts, disagreements, and eventually splits happen all the time. So, it is important to understand that this should not stop our work in the Lord. Paul and Barnabas did not continue lamenting over their fight but rather they picked a new partner and kept moving forward.

The Bible and especially the New Testament contains several other cases of conflict among godly and consecrated people. The examples written in this paper, however, begin the process of conflict resolution. It is important though to understand that a complete resolution can only be considered a utopia in some settings. Thus, the more important thing to do is not to resolve the problem completely as if one wins and the other loses, but rather, to work through the conflict until one finds a win/win approach to the matter. When a win/win approach is reached, people usually are more willing to let go of the problem and release their anxiety. If this situation is achieved, one can boast that at least for a while, he/she resolved a conflict. But, just until another one comes along and everything starts again.


Halverstadt, Hugh F. Managing Church Conflict. Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991. .
Steinke, Peter L. Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times : Being Calm and Courageous no Matter what. Herndon, Va: Alban Institute, 2006. .

[1] Hugh F. Halverstadt, Managing church conflict (Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 2.
[2] Peter L. Steinke, Congregational leadership in anxious times : being calm and courageous no matter what (Herndon, Va: Alban Institute, 2006), 15-17.
[3] Halverstadt, Managing church conflict 32.
[4] Halverstadt, Managing church conflict 27-28.
[5] Halverstadt, Managing church conflict 28.
Note: Copy of this material is allowed and free, since the source is cited / A reprodução dos textos é permitida e gratuita, desde que citada a fonte.
Rodrigo Serrao

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