(The first draft of an introduction to series of lessons on how to create a peace. Church conflict is painfully and extraordinarily common.
We will go very wrong in thinking about conflict in the church, if we think that conflict is necessarily and always evil: even though the conflict we experience is almost always evil. Conflict springs from a desire for what is good, but sin perverts the longing for good and turns it to evil. That is why conflict is so strong — and especially why conflict can take such deep root in a congregation.
Conflict Seeks Justice
Conflict comes about because something is wrong and it must be fixed.
Imagine you see a man quietly steal another man’s wallet. There is no conflict: the victim doesn’t know his pocket has been picked. But you know the theft has occurred. You shout, “Thief!” At that moment you and the victim chase the thief. As soon as you acknowledge the evil, a conflict takes place.
Something wrong has taken place: your sense of justice has been offended. You immediately seek to change things. Yet, there is another person who does not agree with your change. Therefore, a conflict ensues.
The conflict may be unpleasant and undesirable, but the conflict is not evil when it seeks to change an evil state for a better state.
Conflict arises because one person seeks justice: there is something wrong and someone works to fix it even though others will not cooperate and may even fight back.
God Brings Conflict
While God is a God of peace, that is not all the story. Exodus 15:3 tells us that, “The LORD is a man of war.” The Egyptians had enslaved and oppressed the Israelites. God brought war against Pharaoh for Pharaoh’s wickedness. There was conflict, but the conflict was motivated by justice and obtained justice.
Jesus was the Prince of Peace. But Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:51.) Jesus’ death upon the cross was an act of war (Col. 2:15; 1 Peter 3:22). The Christian life is a life of war (Eph. 6:10-17). God working in the world is an act of war, and that is not a metaphor.
The Engine of Conflict
At its heart, conflict springs from a sense that something has gone wrong and I must fix it. A desire for justice, for making things right, for fixing what is wrong drives conflict.
As long as my sense of justice continues and strength does not wear out, I will continue to prosecute the conflict.
If we do not understand that at its heart, conflict springs from a sense of justice, we will never understand how to respond to conflict.
Everyone in a Conflict Thinks Themselves Justified
Everyone in the war at some level justified their actions to themselves (even if it was a personal fear of punishment for not fighting in the war).
The same thing happens in personal conflicts: the people on both sides of the conflict are certain they are right. Imagine two men, one is peaceful and minding his own business. Another man attacks him physically or verbally. The peaceful has now been hurt. His sense of justice has been offended and he responds: he is right to respond, because a man has done him evil.
Sometimes our sense of need can justify our conflict. A poor man is starving. He sees a richer man with food. The poor man attacks the rich man to steal the food. The poor man may not think it is wrong for the rich man to have food, but the poor thinks it is wrong that he does not have anything to eat. Justice demands that I eat, that I not die, thinks the poor man.
My Sense of Justice is Broken
It is completely true that conflict takes place because I think something is wrong. The trouble is that my sense of right and wrong, my sense of justice, is broken. I willingly fight for the wrong things.
I’m an American, and I grew up knowing that the United States defeating the Nazis was an unqualified good thing. The Nazis were completely wrong and we were completely right. The problem is, someone on the other side of the war was certain they were right.
The Germans and the Japanese in World War II were the exact same kind of human beings as the Americans (in fact, plenty of Americans fighting in the war were descendants of Germans and Japanese people). The people fighting against the Allies were as certain they were right as the Allies were certain.
At least one side of the conflict takes place because someone’s sense of justice is broken. If everyone had precisely the same sense of right and wrong, there would never be conflict between human beings. But we don’t have the same sense of right and wrong in every circumstance. Therefore, either there is no absolute right; or, something has caused our sense of justice to be broken.
Why Our Sense of Justice is Broken
Sin has ruined our ability to think and feel correctly; sin has disordered our desires. Sin makes us stupid and needy.
Romans 1 explains that human beings have refused to acknowledge God and be thankful to God, therefore, human beings have become “futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom.1:21). Human beings “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25). Human beings have been turned over to debased desires. “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” (Romans 1:28) This sorry state is called the “noetic effect of sin” – that means sin has twisted-up our mind, our desires: We cannot think straight and we do not want the right things.
Our sense of justice, or right and wrong is out of whack. But our desire for justice, our desire for things to be right has not gone away. We know the world is wrong, and we desire it to be different, but we can’t fix it.
Imagine a carload of drunks whose car breaks down in the desert. They know their situation is completely wrong. They know they have to get out of the desert or they will die. But due to drunkenness and ignorance, they can’t fix the car and can’t formulate a good plan to save themselves.
Human beings have precisely that problem. Sin has made us ignorant, foolish and perverse.
Sinful Conflict is Conflict Without Justice
We know that God brings just conflict against sin.
We know that sometimes conflict is good and right when conflict is used to bring about justice. God was just to bring war against the Egyptians. David was right to kill Goliath.
But we also know that most conflict does not flow perfectly from God’s justice.
Even right knowledge about God’s justice is not sufficient to cause of to desire the right. Cain killed Able immediately after God told Cain how to be right. In fact, it was knowing God’s just demand which provoked Cain (Gen. 4:7-8). Saul hated David because God was with David (1 Sam. 18:11).
Sinful conflict comes about when a desire for something other than God’s perfect will drives our actions:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
James 4:1–4. Sinful conflict comes about when our personal, selfish desires drive us.
Sin Hijacks Justice
But here is the dangerous part: Remember when I said that conflict comes about because of our sense of justice has been offended? Our sense of justice perverted by sin merges with our selfish desires and we mistake our selfish desire for justice. Since we experience our selfish desire as a just and right desire, we war and we know that we are in the right to fight for our desires.
Conflict is so powerful and dangerous because the injustice of our actions is hidden from us. Sin uses an illusion which causes us to think that our selfish desires are just desires. James calls this sort of “wisdom” “demonic”:
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
Our Brokenness Persists Even After Salvation
If the broken sense of justice comes about because of sin, then shouldn’t the church of God’s elect be freed from sinful conflict? Sadly no. Even after we are regenerate, we are imperfect. Our life after salvation is a life of sanctification, of gradual conformity to Christ. But perfect peace among the people of God belongs to glorification, which is to come.
Paul’s letters to Corinth (two letters), Rome, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon deal with church conflict, at least in part. 1 Peter, 1 John and 3 John, as well as Jude and Revelation also imply or directly address conflict in the church.
This is where the danger becomes acute: After we have become reconciled to God and know the truth, we can become even more certain that we are right about everything. When sin attaches itself to our heightened sense of being right and justice, the potential for conflict is even greater. Christians who have been deceived by their own sin masquerading as justice and truth can be greatest devils on the earth.
Our Conflict Ought not Be:
Now comes the sobering part. Jesus goes on in 17:21 to say something that always causes me to cringe. If as Christians we do not cringe, it seems to me we are not very sensitive or very honest, because Jesus here gives us the final apologetic. What is the final apologetic? “That they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” This is the final apologetic.
In John 13 the point was that if an individual Christian does not show love toward other true Christians, the world has a right to judge that he is not a Christian. Here Jesus is stating something else which is much more cutting, much more profound: we cannot expect the world to believe that the Father sent the Son, that Jesus’ claims are true, and that Christianity is true, unless the world sees some reality of the oneness of true Christians.
Now that is frightening. Should we not feel some emotion at this point?
Look at it again. Jesus is not saying that Christians should judge each other (as to their being Christian or not) on this basis. Please notice this with tremendous care. The church is to judge whether a man is a Christian on the basis of his doctrine, the propositional content of his faith, and then his credible profession of faith. When a man comes before a local church that is doing its job, he will be quizzed on the content of what he believes. If, for example, a church is conducting a heresy trial (the New Testament indicates there are to be trials in the church of Christ), the question of heresy will turn on the content of the man’s doctrine. The church has a right to judge—in fact it is commanded to judge—a man on the content of what he believes and teaches.
But we cannot expect the world to judge that way, because the world cares nothing about doctrine. That is especially true in the second half of the twentieth century when, on the basis of their epistemology, men no longer believe even in the possibility of absolute truth. And if we are surrounded by a world which no longer believes in the concept of truth, certainly we cannot expect people to have any interest in whether a man’s doctrine is correct or not.
But Jesus did give the mark that will arrest the attention of the world, even the attention of the modern man who says he is just a machine. Because every man is made in the image of God and has therefore aspirations for love, there is something that can be in every geographical climate—in every point of time—which cannot fail to arrest his attention.
What is it? The love that true Christians show for each other and not just for their own party.
Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, “The Mark of a Christian”, vol. 4 (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 189–190.
We Can Do Something About Church Conflict
Look back at that list of New Testament references to conflict in the Church. That tells us two things: We know to be prepared for sinful conflict.
Now here is the hopeful part, we also know that God expects us to do something about conflict. We have a mountain of instruction and help available to us which was not available to these earliest Christians.
When conflict first broke out in Corinth, the Corinthians did not have 1 Corinthians from Paul. But we have the letters of Paul, Peter, John, Jude, Jesus – we have the entire canon of Scripture for our help. We have the gift of the Spirit. We have what we need “for life and godliness” – if we would only make the effort to use it.