This is the (draft) introduction to first chapter of a short book on Church Conflict. The goal of this book will be to train a congregation to avoid conflict. And, while nothing can perfectly protect against sin, there is a great deal which can be done to encourage a congregation in patterns of behavior and thought which can make conflict more difficult to maintain and easier to resolve.
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: It begins with the love of some-thing, and then the desire for the protection and promotion of that-object. Since we are fighting for what we love, we are fighting for justice. When we rightly love what is true and beautiful, our defense of that thing, that person, that right is just. Conflict springs from the apparent love of justice.
But sin has perverted our loves and has perverted our sense of justice. Sin has taken something good (the desire to protect the good, true and beautiful) and turns it into evil. Conflict is powerful and destructive because it is the misuse of something good and necessary.
Conflict also covers itself with the language of virtue: If you are fighting for what is right, you are fighting for virtue. When conflict comes within the Church, it uses spiritual language: conflict takes on sin, love, God, et cetera. Therefore, our opponent in church conflict can easily be portrayed as the enemy of God!
The church at Corinth fell into terrible fights among factions, with each party claiming to be most godly:
11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 1 Corinthians 1:11–13 (ESV)
When love of justice and the language of God’s side come together it not surprising that conflict can take deep root in a congregation.
An Example of Righteous Conflict
King Saul’s story in Scripture is marked with conflict. His first official act as King was an instance of righteous conflict, instigated by the Spirit of God. First, there was a problem, a foreign King, Nahash the Ammonite threatened the city of Jabesh-gilead with slavery and the lose of each citizens’ right eye:
5 Now, behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen. And Saul said, “What is wrong with the people, that they are weeping?” So they told him the news of the men of Jabesh. 6 And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled. 7 He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” Then the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they came out as one man. 1 Samuel 11:5–7 (ESV)
Here there conflict – there is open war. But the conflict is wholly just on the side of Saul. Our text tells us that Saul’s anger, aroused by his sense of justice, was stirred by “the Spirit of God”.
This instance teaches that conflict is not necessary evil – at least that it is not necessarily the case that both parties involved in a conflict are wrong. Here, Saul was wholly just in his anger and the conflict against the Ammonites was a righteous act.
How Sin Hijacks our Sense of Justice
But not all conflict is righteous. The conflict which troubles us is unjust conflict, particularly the conflict where both parties are in sin. As explained above, conflict springs from a sense of offended justice. Where sin hijacks our sense of justice and leads us to seek to protect that which is evil, our participation in conflict is itself sin.
This is the first step in sinful conflict: our sense of justice, of right and wrong is altered. Do do this, sin hijacks our desire and our language. We see both perversions in the life of Saul.
In 1 Samuel 15, God commands Saul to destroy the perpetual enemy of Israel, the Amalekites. Saul brings the battle, but he does not utterly them. He spares “best” from destruction:
9 But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction. 1 Samuel 15:9 (ESV)
Those things which Saul (and the people) desired as “best” – the objects of his lust – these were kept alive in direct disobedience to God. Saul desired something more than the glory of God. Perversion of desire is the first step in sinful conflict.
Saul then takes the next step, perversion in language: rationalizes his sin (which makes Samuel out to be the one who is contrary to God):
13 And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” 14 And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?” 15 Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.”
1 Samuel 15:13–15 (ESV)
Saul uses spiritual language, the language of justice and virtue to dress up his sin. And, if Saul’s opponent had not been a prophet of God, Saul (who made a decent argument and who argued from a position of power) would have won. At the very least, Saul would have been able to prosecute the conflict for quite a while (as Saul did in the case of David).
Below, we will examine the details of how conflict perverts love and justice to sinful ends.