CONFLICT IN THE CHURCH
I want to tell you a big secret and you have to promise me that you won’t tell it to anyone else ever. Here it is. Sometimes, very rarely but sometimes we have disagreements in the Church. And sometimes we don’t get along and sometimes it even turns into full blown church fights. I know that’s hard to believe. I know that it never happens here but it really does happen in other congregations so I just want you to be aware of it just in case you ever experience it in some other congregation and wonder how that could possibly happen.
But seriously, every congregation has times when its members and adherents, usually in good faith and with their hearts in the right place, disagree on what should be happening in the church and what direction the church should take. That should not really be a big surprise because, in that regard, the church is not so different from any other group of people. In fact, on the whole, it’s made up of the same fallible people that exist in every other organization on the face of the planet.
I will never forget something I learned in my first year of my undergrad studies at McMaster University in 1974. It was in a first year political science course called PoliSci 101. I don’t recall the professor’s name or the vast majority of what he taught. But he said one thing that I did remember and I have thought about it often over the years to good effect. He was trying to define the word politics and I think he did a very good job of it. He said that whenever you get two or more people together you have issues of power, influence and authority. And when you have those issues you have what we call politics. Like I said, I remember next to nothing about the rest of the course, but that has always stuck in my mind. Politics consists of power, influence and authority. I think there’s some truth there.
What that means for us is that even in the church we have politics because in the body of Christ we have two or more people working together which means that we also must deal with issues of power, influence and authority. It can’t be avoided. That also means that there will be times when we will disagree, sometimes strongly. Different people may have different ideas about where the church should be headed. One group wants to focus on community outreach; another on congregational renewal. One group wants to worship earlier because the kids are up anyway; another group wants to sleep in on Sunday morning. One group wants to redecorate the sanctuary while another group thinks it’s just fine the way it is. But whatever the situation, every congregation will find that disagreements arise. It is by definition something that we have to deal with. The only real question is this: How are we going to deal with them? Are we going to deal with them effectively or ineffectively? That’s where we make the choice.
Before I continue, I want to say that this is interesting topic to be dealing with on the very first Sunday after Labour Day when a lot of people are just getting back to church after taking a break in the summer. But I didn’t plan it that way. The readings come straight out of the lectionary so maybe God thinks all churches need a refresher course on conflict management as they gear up for another year of activity. Maybe there’s some wisdom there and a well-timed refresher course is often a good thing.
WHAT CAUSES CONFLICT?
But before we talk about how to effectively manage conflict in the church, let’s spend a few minutes talking about how we get into conflict in the first place. There are many sources of conflict in the church or anywhere else for that matter. We can’t go through all of them this morning but I do want to mention three of the most common ones.
Here’s the first one. People don’t understand the process. That happened here a few times last year. As most of you know, we have new constitution in this church that outlines the way things are supposed to operate. Because it’s new, sometimes people did not understand it and because they did not understand it, they tried to do things that were contrary to due process. It was never done in an intentionally harmful way. It was never done with any vicious intent. It just happened because it’s a new process and there is a learning curve for all of us when that happens. So we sometimes find ourselves in conflict because people don’t follow due process.
A second common reason for conflict is that people try do things that are not part of their mission. Every committee in this church has a mission, every staff member has a mission, every task group has a mission and as much as possible those missions are clear and do not overlap. But sometimes people, again with the best of intentions, see something that needs to be done and they just go ahead and do it without consulting to the people who are responsible for it. That can cause problems because maybe the people who are responsible for it were also seeking to fix the problem but from a different angle. And so what we end up doing is two groups working at cross purposes. That’s a problem. That does not mean that people can’t see things that need to be done and act on them. But before they do that, they need to consult with those who are responsible for that part of our mission.
For example, the person who is responsible for choosing the music for Sunday morning worship is Lou-Anne. That’s her mission and I think we can all agree that she does an excellent job. Every now and then, however, and not very often, there is a song that I think may fit well in the worship. What I do is contact Lou-Anne and say, “Hey, I think Shine, Jesus Shine would fit well on Sunday as the children’s song,” (just so you know, that did not happen this week). But ultimately Lou-Anne decides because she may have something else in mind for another reason. And that’s the way it should be because that’s her mission. As long as each of us acts within our missions, we tend to avoid conflict.
Note that in both of these examples, no one was being belligerent or intentionally divisive. No one was trying to cause divisions or conflicts. In fact, my experience is that 99% of the time, when there is conflict in the church, it has been caused by people who only had the best of intentions. They genuinely thought they were doing the right thing and did it with a pure heart.
The third source of conflict, however, is a bit more caustic. It is the person who wants something done in a particular way and it’s going to get done that way come hell or high water and if it means that the church gets split in the process then so be it because that person’s always right and if only everyone came around to their point of view, the whole world would be far better off. That’s a problem and that’s when the church can get into really deep conflict. That’s because that person who wants things done their way begins to employ politics and starts to use their power, influence and authority to get people on their side so that they can get enough support to ensure that their idea becomes the dominant idea because they’re always right.
Fortunately, here at Cottam United Church, that is a situation that we seldom if ever have to deal with although in some congregations, sadly, it’s a regular event. My experience is that 99% of the time people do things with the best of intention and not seeking to cause any conflict at all. They’ve just unknowingly stepped outside the lines and need a gentle reminder about process and mission.
And even when real conflicts do arise amongst well intentioned people what we usually discover is that both parties really have the same goal in mind, they’re both trying to achieve the same positive result just from two different angles. Both people have some really good ideas and if we are able to take the best parts of both ideas then we may have something very dynamic that can make a real difference.
BIBLICAL MODEL OF CONFLICT RESOLUTION
We can be sure that disagreements will arise. Conflicts will happen. Jesus was pretty sure of it too because he even taught the disciples how to deal with conflict when it arose. Jesus’ Conflict Management 101 is outlined in Matthew 18. Let’s have a look at it now.
Matthew 18:15 (NIV) reads, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” Note that the very first thing Jesus says is that conflict is going to happen. Your brother or sister will sin against you either intentionally or otherwise. It happens in our fallen world. But note too what is meant here by the word sin. Sin is not necessarily breaking the Ten Commandments. We sin against one another anytime we do something that causes a separation in our relationship. That could be a big thing such as someone stealing your car or kidnapping your child. But it could also be something that we think of as more minor. You say or do something that offends someone else. As small as that may seem, it still causes separation and still may have to deal with in a constructive way. But the bottom line is that sin in this passage is anything that separates us from one another.
The next thing this verse tells us is that when someone sins against someone else we need to address it. That’s because until you address it, it will linger in the church and potentially cause even more division and deeper conflict. “If your brothers sins against you, says Jesus, “the very first thing you need to do is address it.” God does not want separations in the church because we are called to be one in Christ Jesus our Lord. So how do we do that?
Step number one says Jesus is to talk to the person with whom you are having the conflict. Do it on a timely basis and do it privately. This is the principle of dealing with conflict at the lowest possible level. If two people disagree, then they need to try to work it out between themselves. Most conflicts don’t need to go to the Church Board. Most of them can be worked out between two reasonable and mature people. That is absolutely essential.
We all know people who don’t do that. As soon as they have a conflict with someone, they immediately go out and tell others their story of woe and post the story of social media and rally support for their cause and their position. And pretty soon they have gathered a group of people who will vouch for their side and against that other person who did that horrible thing. And maybe the other person has done the same thing and rallied their supporters. And if that happens, guess what we get. We get a divided church. Half of them are supporting one person and the other half are supporting the other person. Does that sound healthy? I don’t think so.
Jesus doesn’t want that in the church. In fact, he teaches against it. He says that if you have something against your brother or sister, go and have a talk with him or her privately and on a timely basis. Why privately? So that you can take some time to discuss it and get all of the facts out in the open which will enable you to understand each other’s point of view. Also you don’t want to embarrass the other person by hanging your dirty laundry out in public for all to see. That seldom ends well.
Why on a timely basis? Because as we have already noted, not dealing with conflict will only cause it to fester and get worse. The sooner we deal with it, the sooner it gets put to bed and we can get on with the work of Jesus Christ.
This same principle is taught by many secular organization to their employees. If you have problem with your co-working then take some time and the two of you go have a coffee and try to work it out. In the army we called it Alternate Dispute Resolution and it’s interesting how closely it mirrors Matthew 18. It causes us to think that maybe the Bible is not as old and irrelevant as some would like us to believe. Maybe Jesus is on to something here.
That’s the first step; go and have a talk with the person with whom you have a disagreement. But what happens if that doesn’t solve the problem? If the problem persists, then we move to step two of Conflict Management 101 which we find in Matthew 18:16 (NIV) which says, “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along so that every matter may be established by two or three witnesses.” So if the two of you can’t work it out then what? The next step is to call in some help, no everyone. You don’t need the cavalry yet. Just a few people to maybe give some different perspective and help both of you to see the other person’s point of view. Again, it’s not a large group. You don’t need to stand before the entire church and air your laundry. Just pick a few trusted and respected people in the church and allow them to mediate. Maybe they’ll be able to see things that you failed to see. Maybe they will help you to see if you are being reasonable or not. Maybe they can help you to find some middle ground that neither of you saw before.
That’s a very useful process, not just in the church but everywhere. If a married couple has fallen on difficult times in their marriage and that is not unusual because marriage can be hard work, it’s often a good idea to find a good Christian counsellor who can help them through it. A good counsellor will not tell them what to do. A good counsellor will not offer solutions or try to fix their problem. A good counsellor will act as a coach by asking the right questions and reframing things to help two people see other sides of the issue, find common ground and other possible solutions. So step two is to find two or three respected and trusted people in the church to help you through the conflict situation.
But what happens when even that does not work? When that doesn’t work, if the conflict continues, then we move on the step three of Conflict Management 101 and that’s where you do make it public. In Matthew 18:17a (NIV) says this: “If he refuses to listen to them [the two or three other people from step two] tell it to the church…” If you can’t resolve an issue in a small group, then you have to think about placing it before the church. But when you do that, you have to understand what you are doing. When you take an issue to the church you are no longer asking a few people to mediate the conflict. What you are doing is asking the church to make a decision for you. You give you side of the story and the other person gives their side of the story and the church makes the decision. Did you hear me? If not, then let’s be clear about it. When you take an issue before the church, the decision is no longer in your hands because you are asking the church to decide the matter. The church may side with you or it may side with the other person or it could choose to do something in between or totally different. The decision is taken out of your hands and that’s why you should try to avoid this step by resolving conflicts at the lowest possible level. That’s better for you. It’s better for the other person and it’s better for the church.
That’s step three. There’s one more step to Jesus’ Conflict Management 101and it is found in the second half of Matthew 18:17b (NIV) which says: “… and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Ouch. But what does it mean? If the church has been asked to make a decision regarding a conflict within the church and it makes that decision and still the other person will not cease and desist you are to treat them like a pagan or a tax collector.
How did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors? He treated them fairly. He treated them with compassion. He treated them with respect. But what he didn’t do was change his mind to suit them. Jesus was always very clear. He had great compassion for those who were somewhat wayward in their lives – like pagans and tax collectors – but he didn’t change his position just because they may not have liked what he taught.
The church needs to do the same thing. Once it has made a decision, it needs to stick to it. The only time that might change is if new information arises which causes the church to rethink its decision and that’s fair. But unless that happens, the church needs to stand firm and stand united as one body in Christ even if someone doesn’t like it.
And what the church says to the person who may still not be in agreement is that they are welcome remain with the congregation and take part in the ministry as much as they are able. But what they can’t do is keep working behind the scenes to undermine the plans of the church as a whole. They can’t employ politics – power, influence and authority – to continue to try to work at getting their way. All that will do is cause further division and discord. And that is never good.
Ultimately unity in the church is essential. That does not mean that we all have to agree on absolutely everything all the time but it does mean that all of us, more or less, have to buy into the direction the church has decided to go. We must be willing to support the ministry of the congregation even if we don’t agree with all of the details.
GOD IS THERE
This passage that outlines Jesus’ teachings on Conflict Management 101 ends with an interesting verse. Matthew 18:19-20 says this: “Again, I tell you that if two or three of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
These are words of hope because they point to something important. It says that when two or three ask for anything God will answer that prayer. It says that God will do that for two or three people. What it doesn’t say is that everyone has to be in complete agreement before God will hear and act. It doesn’t say that everyone has to be in agreement, only two or three.
And if that happens, God promises to be with us because, as Jesus said, “Where two or three come together in my name, there I will be with them.” It’s odd that Christians quote that verse, often as an excuse for the fact that there aren’t many people worshipping in that congregation. But the odd thing is that this verse has nothing at all to do with worship attendance. It’s part of Conflict Management 101. What it means is that all it takes is a couple of people who are genuinely trying to work out their difference for God to be with them. What this tells us is that God honours our efforts to unite the church under a common mission and goal. If we can agree on those things, then we can be assured that God will be with us. And there is nothing more important to the ministry of the church than to know that God is there. And that’s good to know as we get back together again for another season of ministry in at Cottam United Church.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
We gather, O God, to pray, to give you thanks and ask for your intercession in our lives. We thank you for the integrity of communication, the mutual freedom to share all that burdens our hearts and all spontaneous joys. We thank you for the shared agony of mutual acceptance and growth and the destruction of false images about who the world says we ought to be.
We thank you for the reality of who we are in all of our imperfections and glory: not always excited by the challenges of your amazing world; often overcome, unattractive and heart-broken. We thank you for the burning, redemptive touch of love – exposing, restoring and comforting; inspiring us to be all that you have called us to be.
We thank you that children, teachers, staff and volunteers are returning to school after a summer’s absence. May this be a time of learning and growth. Keep us from labelling children and adults on the basis of their past record. Help us to see signs of change and maturity so that we may encourage those people, young and old, to grow in grace towards their fellow human beings and toward Creation.
We pray for ourselves, often overburdened and weighed down. Sometimes, it is our own sense of sinfulness that lays us low – the knowledge that we so often fall short of your glory and all that we could be. Sometimes, it is our disappointment with others, their actions, words or lack thereof that causes us to be separated from them. This, too, is a burden that weighs heavy on our hearts.
Our prayers go out especially for those who have or are in the midst of experiencing the power of nature with rain storms and flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes. Give people a special measure of wisdom and strength as they seek to survive these natural phenomenon.
We pray for those who are sick, at home or in the hospital. All of us need your healing touch. All of us need to be mended by the power of your Spirit. Touch us, O God, in our deepest places for it is there where the pain is often the most profound.
O Jesus, stand
with us in the darkness of our crucifixions. Die with us in the suffering of
this world. Rise with us as we are reborn by your grace, as love, hope and faith
endure. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
September 10, 2017 / Pentecost 14 / Proper 18
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14
CALL TO WORSHIP
The day is near; the hour is here.
The message is clear; God’s love is dear.
Let us come before God in worship and sing our joyous praise.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
We come before you, O God, seeking a deeper sense of your indwelling Spirit. The winds of change blow around us. Autumn breezes wisp where the warm summer winds used to journey. Crops are being prepared for harvest. Leaves are beginning to change colour. All around us is variation and movement. But you, Holy God, and the one constant presence in our lives. No matter where we are, you are there. No matter when we need you, your touch is only a prayer away. In your arms, we find comfort and strength. Enter our worship as you enter every day of our lives. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
God of Mercy, we thank you that our sins are forgiven and that you will not remember them again. Help us, also, to put our confessed sins on the shelf. Enable us to put the past in the past and to take hold of the new life that you have given us this day. Give us the courage to walk fully in your new covenant of forgiveness and freedom that has been established through Jesus Christ. Thank you that through his sacrifice, you make all of this possible. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
To experience new life is to be released from the chains of sin and death that would lay hold of us. Be assured that when we confess our sins, God forgives and remembers them no more, no longer counting them against us. In him we are free.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
We dedicate our offerings as an act of stewardship. The things of this world have their greatest value when they are used for your purpose. Enable us to use these gifts in the most valuable ways possible, that your Kingdom may be built and your Gospel shared. Amen.
We leave this place
of worship to continue on our journeys towards God’s wonderful Kingdom. Every
step, every minute, every moment is an opportunity to shine God’s love to the
world. Let your light shine that his grace and glory may be seen in your life.