Christian Conflict Resolution
By Pastor Tom Anderson
You heard the one about the Christian stranded alone on a desert island. She built three huts. When rescuers arrived from a passing ship they asked about them. She said, “The first one is my house and the one next to it is my church.” “But what about the third?”, the rescuer asked. “Oh,” said the Christian, “that’s the church I used to go to.”
Conflict is a natural part of relationships. It’s easier to resolve in the workplace because we are all motivated by the desire for a paycheck and enjoy the advantages of a clear chain of command. It’s more difficult in a volunteer setting where the only tie is our common will and the only tool is gentle persuasion.
The early church was full of conflict--this is evident in nearly every book of the New Testament. Perhaps the greatest conflict in the early church was recorded in Acts 15. It is instructive to consider the steps the first Christians took to resolve conflict in their community. These steps to conflict resolution can be adapted to use in almost any setting. It started by holding a family meeting! Have you tried this in your home?
First--clearly identify the issue. The question is clearly stated in Acts 15:1-5. Is it necessary to circumcise new believers and require them to obey Jewish ritual laws in order for them to be saved? This step is critical. Many conflicts never get resolved because the people involved never agree on a clear statement of the issue. Conversation breaks down into a confusing and unrelated hodge-podge of problems and counter accusations.
Second--get insight by carefully listening to the people involved. The gathered church in Acts 15 listened carefully to the missionary testimony of Paul, Barnabas and Peter from the mission field. All three reported in great detail how non-Jewish people had come to faith in Jesus Christ, received the Holy Spirit and were baptized without ever knowing Jewish ritual law. These important witnesses all agreed on a main point: we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. (Acts 15:11)
Third--consult scripture. It was the apostle James who turned the assembly’s attention to “the words of the prophets”--i.e. The Bible! The Bible’s message from Genesis on had repeatedly declared God’s intention to save the Gentile nations and include them in his people. (Acts 15:14-17). No vote was taken. The Bible was the only authority for the faith and practice of the early church.
When congregations are divided over the authority of scripture they often seek to compensate for it with voting. But as Acts makes clear, the church was never intended to be a democracy but a theocracy--a community of faith living under the authority of the word of God. It is only in a common and vital commitment to the authority of scripture that the church has survived it’s conflicts through the ages. To be sure the Bible does not speak to non-essentials like Sunday service hours, church architecture or how much water should be used in baptism. But the essentials of church mission, morals and message are defined in the Bible. Many dilemmas of the modern church could be resolved by rebooting our commitment to the authority of scripture.
Forth--giving clear instruction about the way forward. The Jerusalem Council sent a straightforward letter to all the churches endorsing the notion of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus.(Acts 15:22-29) They then advised new Christians to avoid pagan religious practice and to avoid sexual immorality. These instructions left no doubt or confusion about the practice of the church going forward. Here’s a great lesson for Christians. When we’ve talked through our controversies, it’s crucial to write down what we’ve agreed on and how we’re going to proceed. This makes progress.