Summary: God provides grace to reconcile relationships among those committed to advancing the Gospel.
Someone wrote a poem about conflict in the church:
To live above, with the saints we love;
Oh, that will be glory!
But to live below, with the saints we know;
now that’s a different story!
Today we meet two women who probably sang that ditty every morning! They were angry with one another, embroiled in conflict, hurt, and distrustful. They refused reconciliation, which damaged both them and the church, requiring the Apostle to “call them out from the pulpit” (so to speak).
[Read Philippians 4.1-3. Pray.]
When their plane ditched at sea, six men found themselves stranded on a deserted island. Two were Jewish, two Roman Catholic, and two Baptists. The Jews got together and founded Temple Immanuel. The two Roman Catholics established the Church of the Holy Name. The Baptists each formed their own church and began arguing over who would get to use the name, “First Baptist”!
I read that story in a sermon by a Baptist pastor, but it seems Presbyterians could be chided for the same. In fact, some call us the “Split P’s” because Presbyterian churches continue to split into smaller and smaller denominations, always finding a reason to separate.
Conflict and division – surely not what we expected when we came to faith in Jesus. I remember my high hopes for the church when I was converted some 25 years ago. I assumed the family of God would be a place of peace and harmony, of friendship and unity. Sharing the experience of God’s grace, how could we not love one another and thrill to be together?
But the darker side of church life does not stay hidden. Even sincere and committed Christians still carry a sin nature in their hearts, and trouble enters the church with us: selfishness, pride, power struggles, greed, lust, anger, self-righteousness, laziness. Nor is moral failure the only problem – theological error, differences of opinion, immaturity, even conflicting taste in music or decorations set us one against another.
We should be encouraged that the Bible does not hide this difficulty. Since the fall in Genesis 3, when our first parents blamed others for their failures, torn relationships have needed reconciliation. Abraham and his nephew Lot had serious conflict; Isaac argued with Esau; Jacob fought with his brothers. Moses and Aaron did not always agree; Saul wanted to kill David. Absalom (one of King David’s sons) killed his step-brother Amnon, leaving him estranged from his father and eventually leading to treason and his death by Joab, a general in David’s army.
These conflicts continue, but they are not limited to Old Testament times. The disciples argued regularly; every church had divisions, and even Paul (who tells these women in Philippi to agree), quarreled with a guy whose nickname was “son of encouragement.”
Acts 15.37-39: “Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.”
It makes sense that conflict often occurs in the church when we realize that this is the family of God. Just as in natural families, disagreements and discord divide us. Peace depends on overlooking flaws, being gracious with one another, showing patience, and compromising. Something similar needs to happen in the church. We could chose to find a new church when conflicts rise, but we miss the benefits and blessings of God’s lessons if we run from problems like these.
Someone said that Christians are like porcupines in winter. We desperately need to huddle close to stay warm, but “my how the needles hurt”!
Pastor Terry Johnson (Independent Presbyterian Church, Savannah, GA, Tabletalk, March 1, 2009): “I can only think of one time in twenty years that our congregation has suffered persecution, either fierce or mild, from outside the organized church. But from within? I can hardly think of anything good that has not been resisted, often fiercely, by those who do not understand the gospel, whether from the legalistic end of the spectrum or the libertine. On a personal level, Christian people typically suffer far more at the hands of fellow professing Christians than people of the world. Think of your own wounds and scars of recent years. Who has inflicted them? Who has discouraged and defeated you? Has not most of this come to you from within the visible church? Why? Because the besetting sin of zealous Christians is Pharisaic self-righteousness. We can become Pharisees about food and drink, child-rearing and education, fashion and finances, and make these tests of orthodoxy.”
It is likely that we all bear the wounds of church wars; some in Philippi did. Let’s see what God would tell us about dealing with such conflict.