News Flash: There is tension and conflict in every Christian congregation!
Maybe that’s not news to anyone. Many who live in Christian community are frustrated and disappointed to discover that all people within the Body of Christ do not live in peace and harmony.
Many distance themselves from the church because they cannot live with the reality of disagreements and discord.
Last month, we discussed polarization and reconciliation within the local congregation. We ended our Ministry Matters article in March making this point:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God … if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:7, 11 ESV). Jesus said, also at the Last Supper, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ESV). In a church body that is focused on the Great Commission, discipleship and disciple-making, it is clear that we are to be known by our love for our Lord, love for one another and love for the world. Anything less hinders our witness to the world. Anything less is a barrier to discipleship and disciple-making. Anything less implies we are not Jesus’ disciples! Because God loves us, in Jesus Christ our Savior, let us love one another.
Reflecting upon our conversation last month, it seems there is something else that should be said about handling tension and conflict within the church — there must always be sacrifice and compromise!
In a church body that was formed because we are not willing to compromise with regard to biblical teaching and the truth and authority of God’s Word, it sometimes seems that “compromise” is a bad thing.
Certainly, we are right in not compromising the faith that has been delivered to us. Certainly, we want to hold fast to the Word of truth. As Luther so famously stated at the Diet of Worms:
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason —
I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
When the Word of God is at stake, unless convinced by Scripture and plain reason, we will not compromise or sacrifice God’s truth. Here Luther stood, and here we, humbly, but boldly stand.
However, most conflict and tension in the church has nothing to do with God’s truth, but with human wants, desires and needs! In these, we must always be prepared to make sacrifices and to compromise.
At a recent gathering, someone asked, “Can there really be resolution of conflict in congregations? It seems the only solution is that someone ends up leaving!”
It is true that often in congregational conflict, rather than seek positive resolve, someone leaves the congregation — either going to another congregation or distancing oneself from the Christian community in frustration and disappointment.
This usually happens because no one addresses the tension and conflict immediately and directly, allowing those involved to become polarized and entrenched with little chance for honest communication and reconciliation.
When addressed openly and honestly from the start — as soon as the conflict arises — there is a real chance for resolution. However, resolution of conflict in the congregation, as in all relationships, requires compromise, which sometimes also means sacrifice.
Whether conflict in the church is about choice of music, worship service times, budgetary matters or the color of the carpet, none of these are of such magnitude that there cannot be compromise. If the goal, truly, is to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3 ESV), it would seem all within the Body of Christ would be willing to engage in honest, open communication aimed at consensus through compromise, which often requires sacrifice.
What is the definition of “compromise” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary?
1. Settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concessions.
2. Something intermediate between or blending qualities of two different things.
“Mutual concessions” means sacrifice. It means each party sacrifices and gives up something in order to reach agreement or consent. In congregational conflict, it is best if all parties in the conflict make “mutual” concessions. Sometimes, however, to reach consensus, one may sacrifice one’s firmly held opinion or desire.
Consensus-building does not mean everyone gets what they want. It means everyone seeks the common good and everyone is willing to make mutual concessions to reach what is best for all. If only pastors, church leaders and individual members would keep that in mind, conflict resolution in the church would come more frequently and easily!
One of our pastors gave me a copy of the book they were using in their congregation. It’s I Am a Church Member, by Thom S. Rainer. In this little book, there is a chapter titled, “I Will Be a Unifying Church Member.” That chapter is followed by the chapter titled, “I Will Not Let My Church Be about My Preferences and Desires.” To be a unifying church member, rather than one who divides, one will necessarily understand that “church” is not about “my preferences and desires.”
Rainer states, “Christians can sometimes act just like those demanding children who want things their way. Temper tantrums in churches may not include church members lying on the floor kicking and screaming, but some come close. But the strange thing about church membership is that you actually give up your preferences when you join. Don’t get me wrong; there may be much about your church that you like a lot. But you are there to meet the needs of others. You are there to serve others. You are there to give. You are there to sacrifice.”
In a survey of “inwardly focused congregations” completed by Rainer’s research team, they found 10 dominant behavior patterns in congregations that were largely self-serving and not mission-driven. They found these common patterns:
1. Worship wars — people fighting over their personal music preferences and order of service.
2. Prolonged meetings dealing with minutia, rather than the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.
3. Focus on the facility, the protection and preservation of rooms, furniture, and other parts of the building and grounds.
4. Program driven — focus on programs as an end, rather than a means.
5. Inwardly focused budget — expenditures focused on needs and comforts of members, rather than reaching beyond the walls of the church.
6. Inordinate and unreasonable demands for pastoral attention.
7. Attitudes of entitlement — members expect and demand special treatment.
8. Greater concern about change in the church, rather than the work of the Gospel to change lives.
9. Anger and hostility — members are regularly angry, regularly expressing anger toward pastor, church staff and other members.
10. Apathy toward evangelism — more concerned about their own needs than the spiritual needs of others in community and world.
The goal for each of us who are church members — disciples and followers of Jesus Christ — is to be a unifying member within the body. We do that by not allowing our personal preferences and desires to influence our thoughts, words and deeds within the congregation. We are members of the body called to serve, to give, to sacrifice and, yes, sometimes, to compromise! We are members of the body for the sake of mission — to reach others with the Good News of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection! Anything else is a distraction and a hindrance to that mission.
Remember, life within the Body of Christ is life in community, and life in community naturally leads to disagreements, which sometimes leads to conflict and division. Let us not become polarized but let us always seek reconciliation and restoration, for the sake of our witness to the world!