What if we are sure we are right about a contested issue of church doctrine, worship style, or use of the mission budget? What if we believe that the other side hasn’t been honest in the way it has handled its side of the disagreement? How can we avoid letting dangerous people have their way?
Such questions might be especially troubling if we are also aware of the damage conflict can do. We may know of family or friends who won’t darken the door of a church as a result of getting caught in the middle of a bitter split. We might know of members who routinely dismiss the thought of ever again getting actively involved in the work of the church. We may know of discouraged pastors who have left the ministry to sell life insurance, real estate, or cemetery plots.
So, knowing the danger of church disputes, what do we do? Do we let people walk all over us for the sake of unity? No, to begin with, we need to see that the Bible gives us reason to say . . .
Don’t agree if you don’t. Don’t, for the sake of peace and unity, try to be so agreeable that you lose your integrity in the process. Don’t contribute to the deadly, dishonest silence that often precedes an outbreak of conflict.
Remember that Moses, Jesus, and Paul were not known for being agreeable. They did not play it safe to avoid rocking the boat. They did not pursue peace at any price. Through their example and the whole of Scripture, the Bible consistently gives us reason to believe that . . .
Disagreement can be healthy. While the Bible warns about the dangers of bitter disputes, it also gives us many reasons to cultivate the art of gracious disagreement. Solomon taught that safety is found in a multitude of counselors, not a multitude of nondissenting, compliant followers (Prov. 11:14). He said that the wounds of a friend are faithful (27:6), that manipulative lies of flattery are dangerous (26:28), and that real friends are to sharpen one another the way iron sharpens iron (27:17).
If we have not learned to practice healthy, animated, and vigorous disagreement, we will not be ready to manage our response to conflict when it comes. If we have not given one another permission to test our ideas, any disagreement can feel like a personal attack. Defenses go up. Tempers flare. Feelings are hurt. We end up kicking ourselves with regret while living with the proof that “a brother offended is harder to win than a strong city” (Prov. 18:19).
If we have not learned to cultivate healthy disagreement, any issue can be dangerous. Trouble might develop over family relationships, church policy, doctrine, budgets, staff salaries, music, curricula, use of facilities, young people’s activities, or church discipline. Friction could occur around an agingpastor, a freewheeling youth director, a wealthy committee member, or a strong-willed treasurer. Bitterness could surface over a discussion of the pastor’s friends, wife, priorities, or teaching style. It might involve trends in the denomination, elimination of the Wednesday night prayer service, missionary support, or philosophy of outreach. The anger could erupt over important matters or personal irritations.
In light of the fact that almost any issue can turn into conflict, how then do we develop the kind of gracious disagreement that results in counsel, safety, and wisdom rather than conflict? That’s what we are going to attempt to answer in the remaining pages of this study. Before we do, though, there’s one other important matter we need to keep in mind . . .
Conflict is unavoidable and not necessarily bad. We don’t need to feel guilty just because we are involved in church conflict. Trouble is unavoidable. Conflict will come. It comes to the best of churches, to the best of spiritual leaders, to the best of church boards, and to the best of friendships. Conflict came to Jesus and His inner circle. It came between Paul and Barnabas, and Paul and Peter. Conflict came not only to the immature church of Corinth, but to the much more mature church in Philippi. Conflict came to the inner circle of Christ even after He had served them communion on the night of His betrayal.
History shows that the “honeymoon experience” of new relationships is always followed by testing and trouble. Any expectation to the contrary will result in disappointment. It makes far more sense, therefore, not to pray that the Lord would keep us from conflict, but that He would enable us, as gracefully as possible, to manage our response to it. Our challenge in the words of Paul is, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18).
But how do we develop such an attitude when faced with people who obviously do not have our best interests at heart? How do we cultivate the art of gracious disagreement in the presence of people who don’t even like us? One of the most practical things we can do is realize that as far as conflict is concerned . . .
The problem is not the problem. Disagreement over issues is not what causes us to walk all over one another. Disagreement is not what causes board and committee meetings to erupt in anger. The real story of conflict occurs not in what we are disagreeing about, but in why and how we are disagreeing. Until we get below surface issues to our own unseen motives, we have not even begun to deal with the problems that are dividing us. And until we get below our unseen motives to the underlying beliefs that form them, we will still have a very shallow approach to conflict.
Our differences might be important. Our concerns might be critical to the life of the church. What we need to see, however, is that issues do not cause conflict. Unseen motives and underlying misbeliefs cause conflict.