The Dysfunction of Church Conflict

October 18, 2016

Google “church conflict” and the information superhighway will give you 75,000,000 possible hits in .46 seconds. It’s because church conflict is one of the hot button issues of the times. If survey material from a study by Christianity Today Magazine is accurate, 95% of pastors have experienced some degree of church conflict. What is more, 20% of those interviewed indicated that they were dealing with a church mess at the time the inventory was taken.

The Christianity Today article opened with this assessment:

If five pastors are sitting at a table, in most cases all five of them can tell the story of a major conflict in their church, and one of them can describe a battle that’s raging right now. Conflict is common in the body of Christ, but must it be debilitating? Disagreements are to be expected, but must the way Christians settle their disputes-too often nasty-be our defining characteristic? (Article by Eric Reed, Leadership Surveys Church Conflict[1])

Though the Christianity Today survey may be dated, it does resonate with much of what church observers are indicating about the spiritual landscape of the nation at this time. Church conflict is real. Apparently, more of us are dealing with it than we’d prefer to acknowledge.

The dysfunction of church conflict isn’t that church people have disagreements. With a wink and nod we’ll talk about the color of carpet in the sanctuary, the temperature settings on the thermostats around the facility, or who gets a burial spot in the church cemetery. The real dysfunction is that most churches don’t have a systemic conflict resolution process to identify and deal with those troubling things that divide and therefore inhibit the mission of Christ’s local body.

When I was privileged to serve the South Carolina Baptist Convention as Director of Pastoral Ministries several years ago, dealing the church conflict was one of my most pressing assignments. During that time I noted five prevailing attitudes that made this dysfunction so real:

(1) Most of us are naïve about church conflict.

This naiveté moved along two predictable lines. First, there was usually a level of denial about troubling differences within the body. In most instances they weren’t publically verbalized for fear of creating visible division and open conflict within the church. Second, many church leaders, pastors included, believed that most differences within a congregation would be settled in time.  My response was always very firm and brief: God’s Word gives clear direction for resolving conflict, whether of a personal or corporate nature. Why would God provide such guidance if God’s people were supposed to ignore it?

(2) God’s people are often selective in applying Scripture to their occasion of church conflict.

Sinful humans know how to stake out personal justification when questions of conflict arise. We’re skilled at proof-texting our own positions and covering our stances with fifty shades of gray. James annotated this behavior with the practical advice the Spirit revealed to him: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1).

(3) Questions of control are the occasion of most church conflict.

Eighty-five percent of the pastors surveyed in the Christianity Today poll cited decision making as the leading cause of the conflict they were experiencing or had experienced in their congregation. In many of these instances there was internal stress in the church because the various gate-keeping structures were unclear or unspecified.

(4) Unresolved conflict can hinder the growth and mission of a local congregation. 

Further assessment beyond the Christianity Today research indicates that conflict simmering under the surface of church life often results in disunity, loss of mission focus, and acceleration of the back door motion of the church.

(5) Most church conflict is addressed by in-house identification and resolution mechanics, relying on business models rather than the clear instruction of Scripture.  

God’s Word is sufficient for every matter of life and faith. Few pastors and spiritual leaders are equipped to assemble and apply the broad teaching of Scripture to the various layers of disagreement and dissension occurring in church life.

As a result, my counsel to churches experiencing any level of church conflict involved learning and teaching a systematic approach to settling the minefields congregations experience in pursuing unity of spirit and mission. In most instances, I advised every pastor to read The Peacemaker by attorney and believer Ken Sande as their guide in educating themselves and their leadership in church conflict situations. Peacemaker Ministries, an organization of Christian attorneys, provides a wide range of educational materials to create a culture of peace in a church setting. Their history, doctrinal positions, and resource curricula are available at Peacemaker.net.

Disagreement in a church is not the dysfunction of church conflict. Humans are going to differ on a wide range of issues. This is abundantly clear, even in the spiritual confines of a New Testament church. Read the Epistles for evidence of discord when even Spirit led believers gather for worship and mission.

The dysfunction of church conflict is that so many spiritual leaders and churches don’t have a clear, Bible directed plan for resolving those issues before they divide the church.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). To ignore this Beatitude and the full counsel of God revealed in Scripture is the real dysfunction of church conflict.

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NOTES

[1] www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2004/fall/6.25.html The entire study may be viewed at ChristianityToday.com/go/conflict

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