First Mennonite Church
July 26, 2015
The Journey: Conflict in the Church
Text: Matthew 18:15-20
In the last two Sundays we took the story of Isaac and Rebekah’s family to look for possible causes for family conflicts. Today, I would like for us to start looking at the various views and attitudes related to conflicts in the church. Instinctively, we humans flee conflict. We all know so well that conflicts are messy, ugly, and can even turn violent. People generally try to avoid conflicts. This is even more so among church people. In church we have a tendency to look at conflict as being “unchristian.” Somehow, we have come to believe that the church should be a conflict-free group of people. Ever so often, we would like to believe that the church is made up of all nice people who never have disagreements.
I would like to read to you The Unspoken Ten Commandments of Conflict in the Church by John Paul Lederach in his book Reconcile. Read excerpts from pages 144-146.
Let us scan the New Testament to find incidents of conflict.
You remember when John and James asked Jesus for places of honor in his coming kingdom. When the ten other disciples heard of it, they were mad against these two brothers. They felt betrayed or at least left out from having a fair chance to vie for the spots. (Mark 10:35-45)
In Acts of the Apostles, there was conflict among the new believers. Those of Gentile background were complaining about the bias held against their widows by the ushers of Jewish background. Race and privilege seemed to be at play, even when unintended. (Acts 6:1-7)
There was conflict between Paul and Barnabas. These two missionary companions got into a heated argument over whom to take along on their mission trip. Barnabas wanted to take Mark along, but Paul had his reservations about Mark’s unsteady character. Their “sharp” argument led Paul and Barnabas to part ways because they could not agree. Disagreement on opinions can be serious enough for conflict in the church. (Acts 15:36-41)
Two important ministry companions of Paul, Syntyche and Euodia were at odds with each other. Besides calling them to reconcile, Paul also urged the church to help them make peace with each other. (Philippians 4:1-3)
Some of Paul’s letters were written in response to conflicts happening in the churches. The First Letters to the Corinthians was written because Paul wanted to help this church deal with all kinds of internal conflicts. There were fights among the church members. There was a case in which one brother took another to the court for unresolved conflicts. The Second Letter to the Corinthians was written by Paul to address a conflict between him and this church.
We should be cautious when at times we wish we’d like to be like the New Testament church. Yet, there is one thing we can be sure about: the New Testament church was not free of conflict. Therefore, we can be comforted to know that when we have conflicts, we are not different than the Early Christian church.
Let us read Matthew 18:15-20
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
In today’s passage there is so much Jesus clearly states about church conflict just as there is whole lot he “assumes” about conflict. The Greek word “ean” translated “if” can also be translated “when” or “whenever.” In this case, we can also read Jesus’ words in the following manner: “When your brother or sister sins….” In so doing, we can see that Jesus assumes there will be occasions for conflict and trouble among his disciples. This makes us understand that Jesus simply assumed that in the life of the church, as in life of any other kind of relationship, time will come when there will be conflict and interpersonal or group clashes.
Next Sunday we will look at the “steps” Jesus gives for dealing with conflict. For now let us look at the dynamics of conflicts, that is, let us take a look at what happens when we are in conflict. To do so, I will be borrowing from John Paul Lederach’s book Reconcile, again.
Changes Conflict Cause.
When there is harmony in the church and a situation of disagreement or difference emerges, we feel compelled to work it out. The first thing we do in such circumstances is that we readily acknowledge there is a problem that’s disrupting our relationship or that has come in the way of carrying out our work. Next, we come together and share the responsibility in resolving the issue. But when the problem is not acknowledged and the relationship within the congregation begins to stress or the work we should do cannot be carried out, we are likely to begin to take a defensive stand. Instead of coming together we move away from each other. We become afraid to be blamed either as being the source of the problem or the one who is making it worse. The problem becomes a “hot issue” that no one wants to touch. Anytime the issue comes to the surface, the heat goes up among those who brought it out. The issue gets confused with persons who might or might not be linked with the problem. We begin to see the other person as the problem. This subtle change of view that the problem is now a person or group of persons changes the whole dynamic when dealing with conflict. This change of view that a person is now the problem causes deeper division in the church. It creates opposing groups of people and a group who would want to remain neutral. What is interesting is that each group believes it is in the right side of the issue or has all the biblical support for its stand on the issue. Reaching to this point also leads to a more destructive path because each opposing group begins to seek to expand its group by actively trying to influence those who had chosen to remain neutral.
The other major change that takes place when we begin to see the person as the problem is that we either want to change the person or flee from the person. In the worst case, we desire to get rid of the person.
Next Sunday we will look at the steps Jesus gives in Matthew 18 when dealing with church conflicts. As for now, let me close by reminding ourselves that Jesus did not envision a church as a group of people free from conflict. The church is not less than a church when it has conflicts or internal disagreements. In fact, the church is a place where differences can be expressed and worked out. We should be reminded that the church is where the presence of the Risen Christ manifests itself in the way we can interact with each other in spite of our differences. It is in the context of conflict that Jesus said: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
The “two or three together in my name” refers to those who come together seeking healing, restoration, and reconciliation in the name of Christ. This means that when conflict arises in the church, instead of fleeing from each other, we are being called to come together seeking to be healed, restored, and reconciled in the name of Jesus. Amen!