Conflict isn’t far from your church. I don’t simply mean that it’s in that congregation down the street—I mean it’s coming to yours.
Tara Barthel and David Edling have written an excellent primer on church conflict titled Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care. With years of experience in conflict mediation through Peacemaker Ministries, they are well qualified to speak to this issue.
The book is structured around the “Acts 15 Model for Redeeming Church Conflicts”—a four-stage rubric based on the flow of Luke’s narrative: Perspective (15:2–4), Discernment (15:5–7a), Leadership (15:7–35), and Biblical Response (15:11, 16–18). Real-life case studies are interspersed throughout the book, and each chapter concludes with lists of “Questions for Reflection” and “Recommended Resources for Further Study.” Barthel and Edling suggest we have much to learn from Luke’s account of the meeting in Jerusalem “to redeem the early church’s first major conflict” (78).
The strengths of Redeeming Church Conflicts are many. Here are five that particularly stood out to me:
1. The Primacy of God’s Word
In their endeavor to make sense of church conflicts, Barthel and Edling unfailingly gravitate to the Bible. Scripture isn’t simply their confessional authority, but their functional authority, too. They trust it deeply.
Apart from a tenacious loyalty to God’s Word, individuals and churches have little hope for meaningful resolution. Danger abounds when Christians in conflicted churches begin to act in accordance with their emotions “rather than being guided and ruled by God’s Word” (25).
2. The Centrality of the Gospel
Gospel amnesia is a sure harbinger of trouble, distorting our focus and leading us to let circumstances outweigh Calvary. Far from just nodding to the centrality of the gospel, Barthel and Edling repeatedly insist that conflicted churches can have hope for restoration only when the gospel is “recaptured and thrust to the forefront” (79).
In fact, after decades of experience the authors can write: “We are unaware of any church that has successfully resolved its churchwide conflicts without first going back to the basics of what the gospel message is, its implications for faith and life, and God’s statement of purpose and mission for his church” (79–80). God has indeed loved and forgiven us far more than we’ll ever be called to love and forgive another. The ultimate foundation for all biblical responses to church conflict, then, is gospel grace.
3. The Necessity of Humility
Reconciliation is elusive apart from humility. Conflict, on the other hand, will endure so long as those involved remain curved in on themselves. Genuine humility calls us to put our trust in God rather than in our own shifty hearts (Prov. 3:5–6).
Sin appears deceptively small in its crouched state (Gen. 4:7), and pride is no exception. But it’s lethal among God’s people:
Pride drives us to overlook our own sin while, for the sake of winning, we quickly look for and find the faults of others. Pride motivates us to guard the reputation of the church to outsiders, even a false reputation, more than we guard the relationships already within the church. Pride skews our focus to numeric growth in attendance and financial donations, rather than to the maturing of faithful, involved members of the church (48).
As brothers and sisters in the church, we must realize that “no issue at the center of a conflict outweighs God’s call to put relationships in Christ above all other considerations” (200). Only humility can lead one to think this way.
4. The Context of Eternity
Conflicts flourish as eternal vision fades. We must strive, then, to examine our conflicts through the lens of eternity. Otherwise, as Ed Welch puts it, God becomes small as people become big.
Every church will experience conflicts. How a church handles these inevitable conflicts determines its future and the spiritual health of its members. If properly approached, church conflicts can be used for spiritual growth–both individually and corporately as the body of Christ. Redeeming church conflicts–making something glorious out of something awful–provides evidence to a watching world that the gospel is real and powerful.
Throughout the book, Barthel and Edling pull back the curtain of eternity and urge us to reorient our perspective accordingly.
Apart from right worship, we will love something or someone more than God as temporal concerns triumph over the unseen concerns of faith. Apart from right worship, we will willingly sacrifice other people on the altar of desires—money, property, worship styles, ministry leaders, “winning this fight,” “being right,” or “getting my way.” Only right worship can effectively foster deep and lasting heart and attitude changes that prioritize the value of eternal grace (176).
Zooming out from our immediate issues enables us to see the eternal reality of our relationships. Consider your future with that difficult brother or sister: before long, you’ll be worshiping a common Savior in perfect unity. So why would you pour fuel on the fire of conflict now?
An eternal perspective is essential for helping us to live out our identity in Christ and to treat others in accordance with theirs.
5. The Preciousness of God’s Glory
According to Barthel and Edling, the question of supreme importance is, “How can I please and honor the Lord in my church’s present conflicts?” (175). They are exactly right.
I wonder how many church conflicts arise out of a fundamental misunderstanding regarding what a church is. Infighting, for example, makes little sense once we grasp that the church is an earthly body designed to display heavenly unity. Indeed, the purpose of the church is to showcase God’s glory to a watching world. His character is at stake, then, even in the smallest skirmishes.
Ultimately, church conflicts are about Jesus. We ought to be exceedingly slow to fight with those whom he has forgiven and war with those whom he has welcomed.
The strengths of Redeeming Church Conflicts far outweigh its shortcomings. Nevertheless, I have a couple minor misgivings that may be worth noting.
First, the authors assert that Acts 15 stands as “a paradigmatic and normative model for the church today” (21). Perhaps, but that chapter’s major players were authoritative apostles whose office and role don’t parallel my pastor or yours. As inspired Scripture, Acts 15 is immensely profitable; I’m just not convinced it’s a prescriptive, step-by-step model for handling church conflict, as Barthel and Edling argue (20–21).
Second, Barthel and Edling appear to assume that congregational and elder-led models of polity are mutually exclusive (14, 74). This, I think, is a false and unfortunate dichotomy. Congregationalism in the context of elder leadership is both viable and biblical.
Don’t Wait Until You’re in a Conflict—Read and Benefit Now
Barthel and Edling have done the church a vital service in applying biblical counseling principles to the realm of congregational conflict. Don’t wait until you find yourself in a relational mess to consult this helpful resource; read and benefit now.
As the authors remind us, the “call to redeem our church conflicts will continue until the day the Lord returns and makes us perfect” (221). Indeed. Come, Lord Jesus!
This review originally appeared in the May–June 2012 edition of the 9Marks Journal.