WHY IS THERE SO MUCH CONFLICT IN OUR CHURCHES?
Like radioactivity, conflict is the natural crackle in the background of our common life which may become toxic beyond certain levels.
How conflict-averse are you? The answer may depend on several factors, including personality, upbringing and experience. Some cope better than others: extroverts are easier in the middle of conflict than introverts, who tend to shy away from it. However, few would admit to flourishing in the middle of a fall-out.
Churches have something of a reputation for being places of conflict. We sometimes cope with this by pretending the conflict isn’t there, or by living with it as inevitable, like summer rain. The tendency to deny its existence because it does not fit with the image we like to project of our church is especially risky, because conflicts often become entrenched if they are ignored.
Why are churches like this? Though we aspire to be ‘a royal priesthood and a holy nation’ in the words of 1 Peter, the local church is rooted in a specific community which shapes the culture we bring into our common life. Every church is essentially a coalition of people with different ideas of what the church should be and aspirations about where it should go. The church is also porous, allowing all comers a place to belong. Its beauty – the acceptance of all kinds of people on an equal footing before God – allows differences which, though fruitful, can be difficult to manage.
Surrounding society is breaking down rapidly into constituent parts, despite liberal rhetoric about celebrating difference, while the church is duty bound to embrace all backgrounds in one place. Few other institutions bother with this. The dominant narrative about modern institutions concerns division. Splits, factions and arguments are the prevalent way of talking about political parties, football clubs and commercial firms, among others, and any debate about the church, either local or national, is framed in this way, suggesting failure rather than a true reflection on human conflict.
Conflict is not in itself a bad thing. It is present wherever people congregate. Like radioactivity, it is a natural crackle in the background but may become toxic beyond certain levels. Part of the problem is found in the way we define the terms. We are constantly resolving disputes between one another but because we succeed, we choose not to describe it as conflict resolution. Instead, we reserve the term for those arguments we find harder to determine. In this way, we may denude ourselves of confidence and hope.
Some disputes in church nevertheless sap Christians of joy and belief. This is especially felt when the issues at stake seem so small. The common human temptation towards pettiness can be refined to high concentrations of sanctity in the church. It is dispiriting to be sucked into some arguments because they feel so demeaning. Those with emotional intelligence instinctively put themselves out of harm’s way when other people get into dispute. Sometimes it is sensible not to become drawn into degrading conflict and the demands of leadership, in particular, may demand a presidential stance above the fight. As a case by case tactic, this may be sensible; however, it is a riskier generic policy.
The Gospel concerns the reconciliation of people, to God and one another. This is the good news and if we allow some relationships to become permanently soured we may compromise our witness to this Gospel. God is drawn towards problems, not away from them, as the incarnation demonstrates, and our avoidance of other people’s conflict because it does not express the high ideals we hold of the church may prove damaging. Conflict is usually symptomatic of deeper issues which may need to be revealed. It is, anyway, a useful exercise to understand why other people do the things they do. The harder task remains when and when not to involve ourselves in other people’s disputes, which calls for the kind of wisdom on an issue by issue basis that no theories can prepare us for.
The early Church’s journey was potholed with conflict over which it bumped uncomfortably from time to time, occasionally sustaining such damage to its structure that the whole journey was threatened. Luke’s history in Acts suggests this was usually around issues of high principle (whether Gentiles should be circumcised) or personal loyalty (when Paul parts company with Barnabas and Mark). We would prefer to deal with this kind of conflict in our churches because it is expressive of a deeply passionate and highly trusting community. The church should be a coalition of hope, not interest and it is on this challenge that it often founders. My hunch is, all the same, that the early church was marked by other, more degrading conflicts which Luke chose not to reveal because some cracks in the road are too small even to register in the sweeping journey we are on together. The hope that is set before us keeps us sane, even as we are sometimes imagining banging our head against the thick church wall to relieve our frustration.
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