Jesus deals with a very sensitive topic today – the topic of conflict within the church. Conflict doesn’t have to be a negative experience in the church or in any form of relationship. Rather it can be an opportunity to delve deeper into a relationship.
Jesus provides advice for resolving conflicts among church members which can also be used outside of the church as we deal with others in our families, in our marriage, in our workplace. The world is confused when they hear that churches can sometimes have conflicts. Don’t tell me Christians can’t get along with each other!!! What hypocrites!!! It goes to show they are not true followers of Jesus! We know that’s not true.
Conflicts can occur in even the strongest congregations and relationships. A conflict even arose amongst Jesus’ disciples when James and John requested to be seated in places of honour in heaven: When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. (Mark 10:35-41) The earliest church community had a major conflict when Paul and Barnabas had to go their separate ways over a conflict as to whether or not to bring Mark along with them (Acts 15:36-41).
Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians because of a conflict that had occurred in one of the very first churches. Conflicts will always arise because of human nature but it’s how we deal with those conflicts that sets us apart as Christians rather than being a church without conflict. Harm will come to a church community when if refuses to deal with conflicts.
Conflicts do not need to break down churches.
Dealing with conflict in a proper way that uses confession and forgiveness can in fact build a church up. Jesus knows this and gives instructions for dealing with conflict among Christians. His first instruction is – If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. Our human nature has a tendency to deal differently when we are hurt. Our instant reaction is to hurt back – to even up the hurt. We find others to support us – we create a division – whose side are you on – we begin to gossip about the other person. It becomes a shouting match and we become in danger of saying hurtful words – words we regret – words we cannot take back. That never resolves a conflict but inflicts more and more hurt. Or we become defensive when someone points out our fault. We make excuses or we may avoid the conflict by leaving. It becomes a swapping of accusations – what about the time you did …
St Paul says that this not how love is shown when he says – love keeps no record of wrongs. And that’s probably the difference between conflict resolution with a Christian understanding and how the world deals with conflict – forgiveness.
Christian conflict resolution reflects God’s conflict resolution with us.
God did not look for us to make the first move or to even up the hurt we caused. St Paul says: God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:8) And there is the challenge for us – will we be the ones who seek reconciliation even if we are the ones who have been hurt? Jesus understands that human nature gets in the way of our ability to reconcile conflict so he says: If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you and If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; Jesus provides a process for healing from conflict and it does not include blame or retribution. Jesus recognises that sometimes in a conflict we need to listen to others.
Sometimes it’s too difficult because of the hurt to be able to work through the matter ourselves so we ask the church for help. In a conflict sometimes both parties believe they have been wronged and instead of healing there is more hurt created. Sometimes we are so hurt that we cannot see how we have contributed to the conflict or we are so hurt that we just cannot forgive. How often don’t we hear – I could never forgive that person for what they have done. Words we will never hear God say!
And so Jesus also understands that sometimes it’s just so hard to forgive. It’s just so hard to overlook the hurt that has been caused. In those cases we need our church community – not to take sides or work out who is right and who is wrong – but to support and bring healing. Conflict resolution is not about working out who is right and who is wrong – it is about forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus finally says: if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let that person be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Sadly we have at times misunderstood what Jesus is saying here. We have used that as a reason to excommunicate someone. We have used it to withhold communion from that person. But again we need to look to Jesus and the example he set in treating Gentiles and Tax Collectors. Jesus sat down and ate with them. Jesus spent time with them. Jesus loved and cared for them. While the religious leaders criticised Jesus for eating with Tax Collector Zacchaeus, it was Jesus’ love that changed his heart and brought healing. While the disciples questioned Jesus’ time spent with the Canaanite woman and the Samaritan woman at the well, it was that time that produced great faith and even spread the word by the Samaritan woman to her people. It was Jesus acceptance of a Samaritan Leper that caused him to turn back and worship Jesus.
Whereas conflict is a painful experience to go through, it is a joy as you work through that conflict and grow deeper in your understanding – deeper in your love – deeper in your relationship with that person. As the Psalm says: How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! (Psalm 133:1) But even more than that it brings you deeper into your relationship with God as you begin to understand the pain that God went through as his people rejected him – rejected his son – and went after other gods.
Life is too short to remain in conflict. How often I have seen a person who has regretted last words said to a person who has died and realised they can no longer take back those words. Paul reminds us of that shortness of time and how important it is in the church as our concern should be to get the Gospel out into the world. So often the Gospel is hindered because of our conflicts. Paul reminds us that salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in quarreling and jealousy. (Romans 13:13) Conflict is never easy but it becomes an inevitable part of any relationship. It doesn’t mean the relationship is over or in trouble but has reached a point where understanding and learning is needed. It is an opportunity to grow deeper in love and understanding of each other. Just think how God grew deeper in his relationship with us as he dealt with his conflict with us; He began by destroying the human race he regretted creating with a flood. He introduced a system of sacrifice where his people would acknowledge and pay for their sin through daily complicated sacrifice. He exiled them out of his land but his love brought them back. And then his deepest love for us would be shown as he sacrificed is one and only Son to fully reconcile us for all time. Conflict resolution takes sacrifice but leads to deeper and rich blessings.
We are thankful that God treats us as Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. He invites us to sit with him at his table and receive again the cost of his conflict resolution – the body and blood of his Son.
May we too reflect that sacrifice in our relationships, here in church, and in our daily lives as we reflect God’s love and reconciliation with others.