Conflict in the Church
Occasionally I will hear someone say, “I wish we could be like the church we read about in the book of Acts!” To which I usually say a quick “Amen!” with an even quicker follow up question. “What part of the early church do you particularly admire?” The unanimous response is the church as it is described in Acts 2:42-47.
"And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.
Since I am one who wants to make sure we are telling the “whole truth,” I usually remind them that it takes a lot of hard work to maintain a church as it is described in Acts 2. For example, we must be willing to lovingly and honestly confront difficult issues. Then I point out that the early church had to face conflicts. In fact, Acts records four major ones dealing with money, ministry, the message, and the messenger. I’m sure you’re not surprised that they are even alliterated
So, you can have a healthy church and you will still encounter conflict. But those conflicts must be handled in a biblical manner. Stay tuned for further insights from these early church conflicts in next week’s edition of Distilling Truth in Deeply Divided Times.
Mark Elliott, DoM
A Pathway to Healthy Relationships
“What are some verses that give you encouragement?” The following are a few of mine:
I find that these verses are often quoted, but few of us remember the context from which they are gleaned. All are in Philippians 4:2-9 and in that context Paul is writing to a much beloved church, and he is giving advice on how to deal with conflict that exists between two church members: Euodia and Syntyche (v 2). In eight short verses we find eight imperative verbs—commands that Paul gives to the two women and to the church! Let me call the passage A Pathway to Healthy Relationships.
I. Healthy Relationships Require Work (vs 2-3). Following Jesus’ general guidelines found in Matthew 18:15-17, Paul first exhorts the two ladies to come together in Christ and resolve their differences. He then immediately exhorts church members, expressly pointing to Clement whom we presume to be an elder in the church, to assist the ladies in their pursuit of peace.
II. Healthy Relationships Start with a Healthy Me (vs 4-7). Here Paul extends four imperatives. The first is that we are to be a person of joy—even in the midst of adversity. Secondly, he exhorts us to be known as a reasonable person—one with a forbearing spirit. Thirdly, Paul tells us to avoid anxiety—much like Jesus did in Matthew 6:25-34. Finally, he challenges us to have a prayer life filled with genuine gratitude. Just a few verses later in 4:11-13 Paul gave a personal witness to the impact these principles have had on how he lives his life: “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content…”
III. Healthy Relationships Start with Healthy Thoughts which Will Trigger Helpful Actions (vs 8-9). Here Paul exhorts us to meditate on the right things—“whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy.” Our challenge today is that our news sources, entertainment media, and the internet are filled with things that shouldn’t be heard, seen, nor done in polite company. His final exhortation is one that challenges me personally to the core: “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do.” I’m not sure that I could say as Paul did that you should do as I do, because I am a man with feet of clay. But I do pray that you will do as the Bible says!
Within the passage, Paul twice provides us with encouragement. If you are willing to follow a Biblical path in your relationships with each other then “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (v 7), and “the God of peace will be with you (v 9).
Let me close with a personal challenge. Select one relationship in your life that needs a little TLC. Begin to apply the principles Paul lays down in this passage. Be patient and persistent with that person, because there is a high probability that if you really change your heart and approach, they will get suspicious of your motivation. Remember, the genuine change will have to occur in you before you can expect it from others. Finally, know that even if they don’t change and you do, then the God of peace will be with you and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your heart and mind through Christ Jesus.
Identifying the Conflict Level
If you have read the first two articles I posted on finding truth in times of deep conflict, you know that two critical components are an honest and humble assessment of what you think you know, and the reality that your preferred conflict style is getting in the way of discovering truth. Let me combine these two areas, as we look at five different levels of conflict. As I do, let me ask you to honestly identify what level of conflict you are in as it relates to THE most important conflicted relationship you have today.
Level I: Problem Solving
We have conflicting goals, values, needs, and plans. But we are problem-oriented not person-oriented. We are collaborating to seek solutions. Our language is clear, specific, and descriptive. Our strategy should be to seek resolutions by working together as we define the problem, gather information, and seek consensus on the best solution.
Level II: Disagreement
We have begun to protect our position and are now shrewd and calculating. Our language has shifted from specific to general. Instead of talking to one another, we begin using phrases like “There is no trust;” “We have a communication problem;” and “People should just act more Christian.” We have become reluctant to share all we know about a situation, withholding information that might hurt our position or enhance someone else’s position. Hostile humor is often present. Our strategy should be to work to reduce fear and increase trust by encouraging broader participation in decision making, empowering parties in their participation beginning at the lowest possible level of the organization, helping people to be open and honest; teaching communication skills, and seeking ways to encourage compromise.
Level III: Contest
Our objective has shifted to winning and we are unwilling to compromise. Factions have emerged and problems are now clustered into issues and causes with people taking sides and seeking to gain control. Language shifts and perceptions become distorted by magnifying every issue, becoming polarized, making false assumptions, and distorting time. We are reluctant to make peace overtures because that would appear to be losing. Our strategy should be to reduce the effects of fear; intervene as needed to address distorted thinking that is hiding the truth; encourage trust by reminding each other that we have gotten through tough times before; highlighting similar goals and interests; promote clear communication, and carefully structure the whole process. This usually will require outside consultation.
Level IV: Fight/Flight
Our emphasis has shifted from winning to removing all opposition through fighting or running. The dominant themes have become fighting for what is right and punishing wrong. Factions are solidly established with strong leaders emerging and we declare that getting our way is the only way to maintain the health of the church. Language has jelled into an ideology with members talking about principles more than issues. People have become detached, unforgiving, cold, and self-righteous. Our strategy should be to get outside help; lay careful and if necessary somewhat arbitrary ground rules; and appoint a monitoring or arbitration team.
Level V: Intractable
The goal is to remove the other parties from society. It’s not just good enough for us to win; the other side must be obliterated. We are now fighting for an eternal cause or for universal principles. The strategy now requires us to use outside arbitration.
In my opening article, I mentioned that the number one thing I have been invited to do in my soon to be 27 years of ministry as a DoM is to come into a church in the midst of conflict. The problem is that by the time I get the call, the church is at level IV or V conflict. By then, the genie is out of the bottle, the lid has blown off the pressure cooker, and all I can do is help churches pick up the pieces.
My prayer is that through better self-awareness and honest diagnosis of what conflict level you are in, you will be able to take the right steps and avoid further escalation. It also helps to approach difficult situations with the right heart. In addressing a polarized situation in Philippians 4, Paul exhorted them to “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” and to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Next week, I’ll point out the specific steps Paul suggested in that passage.
Distilling Truth in Deeply Divided Times Part II
Last week I quoted Jesus’ statement to Pilate, “I came into the world, to testify to the TRUTH. Everyone who belongs to the TRUTH listens to my voice” (John 18:37). I also mentioned that even those of us in the church will struggle to identify TRUTH during times of conflict. I then pointed to the assumptions we make, and the time distortions we use to inform “our perceptions of truth.” Let me point to one of the biggest challenges we face as we seek to see things as God sees them: our conflict style.
A great tool that I ran across years ago is the Conflict Style Assessment developed by Jim Van Yperen and published by ChurchSmart Resources. I have used this piece and have seen the significant impact it has on staff development, pre-marital counseling, and general church leadership settings. The assessment identifies four primary ways that we will approach conflict. It has been extremely helpful in developing self-awareness. And the bonus part is that it doesn’t leave us hanging with our baggage, but it also lays out a Biblical seven-step process on how to practice peacemaking. Jesus stated, “Blessed are the peacemakers; For they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Here are the four primary conflict styles:
A quick sidebar—because of foundational Christian principles on forgiveness, the majority of churches will be filled with people who have these two responses. That is unless the church has a history of conflict. If that’s the case, then the evasives will simply leave and the majority of those left will be passive. Ultimately, when passives and evasives get their way, truth is diminished because no one is willing to confront falsehoods.
Another sidebar—everyone knows who the defensives and aggressives are in their church. They are the loudest and often viewed as the initiators of conflict. To the passives and evasives, the defensives and aggressives will be described as steam rollers. Ultimately when defensives and aggressives have their way grace, love, and compassion get swept away in pursuit of truth.
Two processing questions:
“We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth… the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:14 & 17
To reflect the love of God, we must be willing to become more Christ-like in our approach to difficult people and circumstances. Through the indwelling and infilling of the Holy Spirit, we too must become filled with both grace and truth.
Are the lines straight or angled?
The number one thing that I have been asked to do in my twenty-seven years as a Director of Missions has been to step in and help a church in a time of conflict. As I have listened, I have heard brothers and sisters in Christ describe what had happened in a deeply divided narrative. Their stories are so different that I wonder, “Can they really be talking about the same incident, on the same planet, in the same universe, in the same time-space continuum?” A statement I always make is “Although your perception IS your reality; your reality is not always TRUTH.” As I say it and then explain it briefly, I try to do it with a little bit of humor knowing that what I have just said carries a little bite with it.
Today we live in an entire nation that is deeply divided. If you listen to a variety of news sources, you will hear a very different perspective on current events. I have found it has become more challenging to have a good conversation with someone who has a very different perspective. All of us have become entrenched in our positions, and to one degree or another have been blinded by our perceptions to the absolute truth of any given situation.
In His trial before Pilate, Jesus stated, “I came into the world, to testify to the TRUTH. Everyone who belongs to the TRUTH listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Unfortunately too often we are like Pilate whose response to Jesus was, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
When I have encountered conflict in churches and in my own life, I have found that a huge contributor has always been a clouding of TRUTH by each individual’s perceptions. Stop and ask yourself, “What informs my perceptions?” Stay tuned for more to come, but let me suggest two biggies:
My counsel is to approach every challenging situation with a huge dose of humility, an abundance of prayer, and a desire to seek TRUTH from the Lord. Conflicts are a natural part of life, but we can learn to handle them in an unnatural way. A truly Godly way.
This weekend we celebrated the anniversary of our nation’s birth. It falls in the midst of a historic time when all things are being called into question. Many are questioning the spiritual moorings of our history—can a nation claim manifest destiny that legalized slavery for the first seventy-five years of its existence, and that treated the Native Americans so poorly? Historic monuments are being vandalized and removed in an effort to correct or re-write our history.
As my reflections are being sent out, I am actually enjoying a few days of vacation with my grandsons in the Black Hills where I was born and raised. One of the sites we saw was Mount Rushmore during a time when it was drawing significant national attention as President Trump visited it on July 4th. Not only is the area the place where I was born, but it is also the place where I was born again. As a citizen of the great state of Wyoming—the Equality State where women were first granted the right to vote—and of the United States of America—a nation unique in history in many ways—I also became a citizen of the Kingdom of God!
Now, as a seventy-year-old grandpa, I returned to my roots with a different perspective. I have been greatly enriched and unbelievably challenged by my life experiences. But maybe, more importantly, I have been encouraged and edified by spiritual insights gleaned from God’s Holy Word. Some of those passages that speak to the issue of being a patriotic American are:
"I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness."
Part of my heritage is what we called the Mountain West mentality as I was growing up. I have described it as rugged American individualism on steroids. God’s word has both tempered and informed me to realize that I cannot live my life in isolation, but neither can I deny my personal responsibility and accountability to God for all that He has given me. Living out that tension is not easy. There are moments when I want to buy a little cabin in the woods and run from the chaos of society. But my responsibility to God and my fellow man tells me I am to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. In times like these, I am CONSTANTLY reminded by God of the simple, yet profound, prescription He gave us for times when Christian Patriotism is hard:
"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
On this 4th of July week, like none other in your life, join me in humbling ourselves before God, praying and seeking His presence (knowing everything depends upon Him), and turning from our self-serving individualism. God has promised that if we will do this with pure hearts, then He will hear our prayers, forgive our sins, and HEAL OUR LAND!
Mordecai’s exhortation “For Such a Time as This” was extended to Esther whom he had raised as his daughter after her parents' death. We often quote this as an individual faces a difficult decision. Every pastor in America has had to make difficult decisions in recent weeks, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there will be several more in the immediate future.
The fact is that every pastor has been called of God to under-shepherd a part of God’s flock as its spiritual leader. But not every pastor is comfortable with the reality that along with the call to proclaim from the pulpit “thus sayeth the Lord” there comes a responsibility to step up as a leader and make difficult decisions. Those decisions will need to be bathed in prayer, backed with wise counsel, communicated clearly, and implemented well. If those basic steps are not taken and decisions are not made, then a pastor will find that the broader context of what Mordecai told Esther will likely come to pass.
“For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Forgive me for getting “down and dirty” with what I am seeing, but American Christianity is at a critical crossroads. We cannot and will not survive with a “business as usual” mindset. If you think your church can get back to normal church life by simply outlasting COVID and surviving the “current” racial tensions, I am suggesting you will be very disappointed. There were significant indicators that the average American church was not healthy in February. I would suggest that if you have decided to simply wait out our current challenges, then “relief and deliverance will arise…from another place.”
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know we have to correctly define reality and get a better grasp on the Biblical basics of how to make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples. In doing a re-read of J. Robert Clinton’s book The Making of a Leader, I ran across the description of an epiphany moment that Dawson Trotman, the founder of the Navigators, had.
"Dawson picked up a hitch-hiker whose speech indicated he was not a believer. Within moments he discovered this man was one of his “converts” of the previous year whose decision had not been followed up and who had virtually died on the vine. Shaken, Dawson responded that there must be countless such persons who had sincerely, perhaps with tears, called on the name of the Lord, but whose lives had not been changed. What was wrong?
My prayer is that the current challenges will startle you and begin a journey of self-analysis that will help you choose a better path for your future and by that a better future for your church. Heartland Church Network exists to connect, support, and start churches passionate about changing the world. We are here for you!
The other day I was asked, “What do you see as the number one leadership development issue in the church today?” As I approach the end of my 27th year of serving as a Director of Missions and having worked with hundreds of pastors and lay leaders, I answered without a lot of hesitation, “Pastors and Christian leaders who don’t have an honest assessment of who God has created them to be or a willingness to celebrate how God uniquely created them to serve Him.”
When most of us look into a mirror we want to see someone else: someone we admire and strive to emulate. Psalm 139 quickly comes to mind as a source of wisdom on this topic. David acknowledged that God knows exactly what we look like when we stand in front of His mirror: O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. (1-3) So how should we respond to that kind of knowledge?
David also stated that God’s mirror is a “magic mirror.” It is able to guide us into the knowledge of who He wants us to be: Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed, and in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. (16) So how should we respond to that kind of knowledge?
How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You. (17-18) So how should we respond to that kind of knowledge?
David closes the Psalm by asking God to help him see what God sees today when He looks in the mirror: Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting. (23-24) So how should we respond to that kind of knowledge?
The one thing you don’t want to see when you look into God’s mirror is something like the reflection that is seen in this roadside mirror that was erected along a desert road. In these days that are truly testing the souls of all of us, my prayer is that you will reflect a vibrant radiant glow that comes only when one loves the Lord with all their heart and soul and mind and when they love their neighbor as themselves.
I begin this brief article with the reality that I am touching on an incomprehensibly complex issue that no matter what I say will be viewed by some as inappropriate. That issue is racism. Thanks to the proactive nature of Heartland Church Network’s Moderator, Rev. Dr. Ralph Lassiter, HCN has hosted a couple of opportunities for dialogue around the issue of racism. Although we have barely chipped an ice cube off the top of a huge iceberg, we have begun a conversation that I pray will incite future dialogues. Stay tuned for the announcement of future dates and times.
But for a moment, let me ask you to reflect on a familiar parable: the Parable of the Soils/Sower (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:4-15). First, I would note that the parable has two titles based on two very different perspectives—that of the soil and that of the sower. Your perspective - who you are and your life experiences- WILL inform your position on race.
Second, I would note that the parable provides a broad and very general description of four types of soil/ways that people respond to Christ:
A third area I see in the parable stems from my agricultural background. For any plant to be healthy, it needs water and nutrients from the soil. And based upon the plant species, the type of soil and specific nutrients needed for healthy growth will vary. The soil will need the right pH; the right texture, depth, and drainage; the right balance of major nutrients (N/P/K); and the right balance of micro-nutrients. In other words, what works for one person to be able to understand and respond appropriately to the race issue can and at times will be different from that of another.
The fourth area of understanding also comes from my agricultural background. Plant nutrients come from both the air (respiration and photosynthesis) and the soil (absorption). From a human perspective, let me suggest that our root structure absorbs from the very soil from which we were created a sin nature. The name Adam is derived from the Hebrew word for earth/soil. In other words, at the tip of each of our roots (and they can number in the hundreds), we will find a single element being absorbed daily: sin. However, let me push the analogy just a bit, and point out that a plant also gets nutrients from the air (respiration). Note that the words for wind and spirit are the same in both Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma). Also, note that the sun (our source for light) is the ingredient required for plant photosynthesis. Jesus said, “I am the Light of the World.” In other words, we daily deal with the reality of our sin nature being absorbed from the very root of our existence; however, its impact can be countered by our willingness to receive the Light of the World into our life and a willingness to surrender our wills to the Holy Spirit which indwells the life of a believer.
As we respond biblically to the issue of racism, we must acknowledge both its complexity and its singular source (sin) as well as its singular solution (radical life-transforming salvation). Keep praying and keep talking to God and to one another.
Times of significant interruption can be used by God to bring greater clarity as we pause to ask, “Why?” It might be “Why me, God?” And if we are willing to listen carefully and look deeply within, we can usually find something that needs to change if we are going to be all that God wants us to be.
In our current setting where pastors and churches have had to make significant changes in their weekly activities, some are beginning to ask, “Why haven’t we tried this before?” Remember, the primary mandate of the church is to make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples for the glory of God. Let me suggest that it is also imperative that we ask, “How well have we been doing?” An honest analysis would say that Christians look more like the world, than we look like Jesus. We are to be in the world, but not of the world. That reality forces us back to asking, “Why have we been doing the same thing year after year, expecting different results?”
One small change that can make a big difference is if we quit thinking of disciple-making like we were putting on our socks, and begin thinking more like we have to think when we put on our shoes. Socks can go on either foot. Shoes are specifically designed to fit a single foot. You can put your socks on in the dark, but you have to pay attention when you grab your shoes and try to put them on.
Recently, God convicted me with the reality that too often we look at people as if they were socks and try to put them into any one of the numerous open or underserved positions we have in our church. Since God has given church leaders the primary purpose of “equipping the saints” (Eph 4:12), we should be treating people like they were shoes, uniquely designed for a specific application.
That brings us to a tension that all church leaders have to face. Is it more important to staff the organization we have created or to equip the people God created and has called to serve Him? Are there activities and ministries in your church that are not being staffed? If so, are you asking, “Why are we doing it?” Or are you more concerned with sustaining those ministries than you are with helping believers evaluate, identify, and enhance their God given giftedness?
I truly believe that if every pastor and every church would focus first and foremost on equipping the saints that God sends their way, then the ministries God needs us to establish in our churches will be adequately staffed. That means, we have to stop treating people like they were a sock and treat them like they were a shoe.
Mark is in his twenty-seventh year of serving as an Associational Missions Strategist. He served in western Iowa for almost eight years, and is in his nineteenth year with HCN. He has a passion to see pastors and church leaders grow in their abilities to lead their churches. He continues to have a heart and desire to see new churches planted and God continues to use his strategic thinking skills in this area. Mark also has a wealth of experience in helping churches clarify who God has created them to be, and what they can do best to reach their community. He has had ample opportunities to help churches in times of conflict, and has seen God do exciting things to restore a spirit of harmony, returning churches to a time of fruitfulness. He also helps churches in transition by working with search committees. Mark and Phyllis who were married in November of 2018 have four children and three grandchildren. They will enjoy their combined 87th anniversary in just a few days.