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01 July 2011

Dealing with conflict in the Church

Dealing with conflict in the Church

In a world of litigious attitudes underpinned by a rights-based culture, the one place that should be a sanctuary from such attitudes is the Church. Yet sadly, conflicts and disputes do break out in churches. They even occasionally cross the line of rejecting God's biblical principles, to the place where man's law reigns.

Jesus taught us many virtues, including not judging, forgiving and praying for our enemies. The Old Testament is full of advice on these subjects. In Proverbs the Bible says that we should not go hastily to court, and that when our ways please the Lord He makes even our enemies be at peace with us. So why is it that disputes and conflicts break out in the Church? After all, it should be a place of holiness and joy; and doesn't the world have enough troubles of its own without the Church creating more? Surely those seeking answers will lose interest in church should they experience more of the same.

The Apostle Paul wrote that we should pursue peace and the things by which we edify one another (Romans 14:19). These words were also echoed by Kofi Annan, former head of the United Nations, who said: "We should pursue peace, even when powerful forces conspire against it." In the body of Christ we know that powerful forces do indeed conspire against peace, as clearly explained in Ephesians 6. The enemy prowls like a lion seeking to exploit our human weaknesses, sowing seeds of discord and dissent among the ranks of God's children, to bring both shame and disrepute upon God and His people. Yet Jesus, the great mediator between God and man, has given us a ministry of reconciliation, so surely the Church should be at the centre of all things reconciliatory.

It is this ministry of reconciliation that I have taken to heart in my professional life, where my experience has taught me that dispute resolution is a complex and dynamic process. The fact is, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to seeking reconciliation. The barriers and obstacles to achieving agreements can be many, and require careful exploratory work to uncover. Within the Church I also see recurring themes, such as poor communication, change, ignorance of God's word, apathy and that old but nonetheless powerful adversary - pride.

As human beings we are by nature creatures of habit and averse to change, yet often adjustment is needed. There are of course areas where change should be resisted. Change for change's sake is pointless. The Rock of Ages does not change. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. But sometimes we need to review how we operate as a church, how we teach, lead and manage the precious resources that God has blessed us with. But beware, wherever there is change, conflicting views and opinions are sure to follow.

A house divided

Church-based conflict is especially damaging because a house divided cannot stand. The reputation of the Church suffers at the hands of those who seek to perpetuate conflict within His body; yet He clearly tells us that if we truly love Him, then we must obey Him. Samuel tells us obedience is better than sacrifice.

"Church conflict is costly because a house divided cannot stand"

Therefore those with pride that seek to cause division within God's precious family should consider carefully the prophet's warning: "For rebellion [against God's authority] is as witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry (1 Samuel 15:23)." These words may seem harsh, but let us not forget the promises of God that are for us and those that judge us. God's word does not return void and those who seek to derail peace processes and unsettle the house of God will reap severe consequences: "As they sow, so shall they reap."

Let me close by offering a few points for those facing church-based conflict, whatever its cause. Pray and forgive. Bless those that curse you. Love one another. Speak softly and turn away anger. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Tame the tongue. Put yourself in the other person's shoes and ask yourself, how are they thinking and why are they doing what they are doing? Remember that pride and ego create a veil between God and man. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

Howard Stern is a mediator and advocate at Amadeus Mediators, an international agency providing mediation, negotiation and conflict resolution services

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