Conflict in Church – Curse or Blessing?

Church conflict has a purpose: to learn to love our enemies in a place where we can practice forgiveness, love, and prayer with our opponents. Brothers and sisters in Christ are family, and we can choose our friends but not our relatives. Conflict in the church is God’s training program to teach us to love people we don’t like very much at the moment.

Sometimes it seems that God must love conflict. Why else would God have created a world with so much of it? As Christians we’re often surrounded by conflicts, sometimes mired in conflicts, and often deeply embarrassed by the conflicts in which we find ourselves. Our situation is not new.

Most of our conflicts seem to have one of three different roots. We fight over sins—over desire for stuff and over desire for control over others. We fight over relationships and loyalties —over who we like and who we don’t like. We fight over principles—over what is true and false about God, about ourselves, and about the way the world works. Once a conflict begins, we keep it alive and help it grow with all the things we feel we “need” to do and say, to help our side win.

Conflict Among Jesus’ Disciples

There has been conflict among Christians from the very beginning of Christ’s ministry. Even the disciples who followed Jesus didn’t always get along with each other. Luke tells us that even at the last supper, just before Jesus was arrested, they were arguing.

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. (Luke 22:24)

After all those years of traveling and listening to Jesus, they still hadn’t gotten the point, that this kind of dominance wasn’t something worth fighting about. You can almost hear Jesus sigh as he explains to them, one more time, that those who want to be great will have to be servants, and that they will have to follow the example that he has given them.

Simon and Andrew and James and John were not instantly transformed when they answered that call of Jesus by their fishing boats on the beach. They made a commitment and put their feet on the first steps of a long path, but they were still themselves, still uneducated fishermen, and still people with the normal human range of faults and virtues. James and John were still the sons of an ambitious mother, who could get them to compete for their future positions. Sin was still a very real factor in their lives. Simon was still overly enthusiastic, wanting to do the right thing, even when he thought it meant building houses for Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. Guessing wrong about what to do next, often with the best of intentions, was still a reality even when following Jesus.

One of the truly great things about the stories in the bible is that the writers of scripture don’t clean them up. We hear about the disciples’ finest moments—the moments when they take Jesus at his word and follow him. We also hear about their low points. The moments when their faith falters, the conversations when they show that they’ve missed the point yet again, and the times when they leave Jesus to face his trials alone are all recorded. Their strengths and their weaknesses, including their contentiousness, are written down for those of us who come afterwards to see. Even with Jesus present as their teacher and their example, their conflicts were very painful and very real.

Conflict In the Early Church

The people of the early church, having seen the resurrection of Jesus and been filled with the Holy Spirit, weren’t free of disputes and conflict either. In his letter, James says,

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. (Jas 4:1-2)

Sin was still active and causing conflicts in their lives. Even those who had seen the power of God at work among them could get off track and find themselves in the middle of arguments.

Paul’s experience in the new churches he founded wasn’t all that different. He says to the people of Corinth,

when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted in every way—disputes without and fears within. (2 Cor 7:5)

You can see that conflicts and disputes have been part of the reality of life, even for the closest followers of Jesus, from the very beginning.

You can hear the frustration in his voice as Paul writes his first letter to Corinth. He says,

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” (1 Cor 1:10-12)

Can you picture what Paul must be feeling? He left the community with the gospel message, thinking that they had heard it well and would live its commandment to love each other faithfully. But what happens? No sooner is Paul out of town than things start to come apart. It’s become so bad that the rumor mill has started: people are gossiping about it. The factions have formed. Each faction has chosen its favorite teacher, and followers of the different teachers are ready to fight about why their teacher is the best. Paul has the additional embarrassment of hearing that he’s the leader of one of the factions. Aargh! What can he say?

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor 1:13)

Paul never meant to give anyone grounds to identify with himself, personally. In all he’s tried to do, he’s tried to give all the glory and all the credit to Jesus. The people don’t belong to him, or to Peter, or to any other apostle. The people belong to Christ alone. Why can’t they simply love each other and be children of God together? They can’t seem to help falling into conflict over who they want to follow.

The leaders of the early church found themselves disagreeing on matters of principle, too. As leaders in the early church, James and Peter and Paul held very different convictions about whether a person needed to become a Jew first, before they were able to become a Christian.

The apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him. (Acts 11:1-3)

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. (Acts 15:1-2)

Criticism and debate were no strangers to the apostles, especially on matters about which the people cared deeply.

Conflict In the Modern Church

The many conflicts in the church today are often covered even in our local newspapers. We fight about issues with sin at the bottom—power, territory, assets, control. We fight about when to hold the pot-luck dinner and who gets to choose the color when we repaint the basement. We fight about issues of relationship—who we like, who we’ll follow, and whose behavior we’ll defend against all comers. We fight about matters of principle, feeling quite proud of our rightness, as we argue about homosexuality, abortion, sexual abuse, war and peacemaking, how and where to do mission work, topics for political advocacy, needs of illegal immigrants, support for the disabled and disadvantaged, and hundreds of other issues. Making a complete list of current conflicts in the church is left as an exercise for the reader.

edgartowndark4Of course, once we choose sides and become involved in a conflict, we live down to the lowest possible standards of human behavior. We assume our opponents are evil or just plain stupid, and we act accordingly. Sinful behaviors that we wouldn’t consider using during ordinary times, become justifiable due to the importance and rightness of our cause. In our enthusiasm, we end up acting foolishly ourselves and bringing ridicule on our church. The situation isn’t pretty.

There Must Be a Reason for So Much Conflict

Why is there so much conflict in the church? Why is there so much conflict in all that we do as human beings? It’s easy to say that our conflict is a result of our sin. It’s also easy to see that differences over relationships and principles can lead us into sinful behaviors. But I don’t think that God would have built a world that allowed so much place for conflict, if God didn’t mean for us to learn something from it. I believe that, silly and petty and foolish as many of our conflicts are, the simple presence of conflict in our lives has to be an important gift from God.

Common Sense Reasons for Conflict

As we look around, we can see plenty of examples of success and failure. Some shops are full of customers, while other close quietly. Some businesses come out with one helpful product after another, while others disappear. Some politicians move from small successes to big successes, while others go back to their day jobs. We can see some of the factors that mark the differences between success and failure. Those who succeed often have some things in common: the skills to do the work that’s needed, the energy to what needs to be done, the ability to think clearly and make plans, the motivation to keep going when things look bad, and independence that can still ask for advice sometimes. With the exception of basic skills, all of these other factors are developed and encouraged by times of conflict.

Experience with conflict strengthens our ability to think clearly, to make plans, and to carry them out. In conflict we get lots of practice—trying to understand the difference between our side and the other side, trying to figure what to do to advance our own position, and making plans to get to victory for our side. Conflict is energizing, giving us some visible goals to measure our own performance and giving us an immediate charge when we can see progress. Conflict keeps motivation going, giving us something to push off against, when we might otherwise just give up and take a nap. Conflict requires and exercises independence, giving us practice in standing up for what we believe in, and building our self-confidence in the process.

Those who succeed and practice their skills in conflict have an advantage when it comes to efforts in other areas of their lives. Conflict is a training ground for helpful skills. Athletics and debating clubs in schools are intended to encourage this kind of learning. Student athletes get to define their strategies to win and anticipate their need to defend against the other team’s moves. Debaters develop the skills to formulate, present, and defend their positions. In both cases, energy and motivation come from the need to support their own side as strongly as possible in the face of opposition. Those who learn how to focus and bring energy to bear on their goals will have an advantage as they go on to other activities.

Old Testament Reasons for Conflict

Sin entered this world, as we hear in the story of the Garden of Eden, when the free will, and potential for sinfulness, that God had built into human beings, found expression in acts of disobedience and separation from God. In each generation since, we are born in self-centered self absorption, and we spend years moving step by step to recognize, acknowledge, and yield to inhabitants of the world outside. Specific sins grow out of our sinfulness, and our independent lives are often made up of one sin after another, just looking for places to happen.

The potential for sinfulness means that we have the ability to understand and distinguish between good and evil. The reality of our fallen nature and our practice of sin means that we choose evil of our own free will. Of course, we don’t think of ourselves as choosing evil; we have lots of excuses, rationalizations, and convenient memory lapses to protect our self-image. But the reality of the situation is that, no matter how hard we try, we are simply unable to choose good consistently. We sin directly, by taking more than our share, by hurting those we don’t like, or by turning off our ears to those who ask for help. We sin indirectly, by choosing to follow leaders who will do our thinking for us, and leaders who deliver the products of sin to our doorstep without our having to do the work or the thinking ourselves. Without even noticing it, perhaps because we don’t want to pay attention, we slide into complicity in acts of pride, domination, and violence. When we stick together in groups, we’re even more effective at nastiness than any one of us can be alone.

The scripture of the Old Testament puts two limits on the impact on our potential for sin. The first limitation is applied immediately, right after our initial disobedience. Our sinfulness is limited in time, limited to the space of a single lifetime.

The LORD God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. (Gen 3:22-23)

This natural limitation at least gives us the hope of a fresh start with each new generation.

The second limitation put on our ability to sin is one that limits our ability to sin in unison. The story of the Tower of Babel is the story of the unlimited potential of cooperation.

The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth. (Gen 11:5-8)

Barriers were set up among us, in the differentiation of our languages, customs, and cultures; and this is the heritage into which we were born and in which we live.

Our sin and our competition for the fruits of sin, are the underlying cause of much of our conflict. The limits of our human nature—our fragile bodies and our limited lifetime—most of the time keep our sin from getting too far out of control. As a secondary protection to limit the effects of our sin, we have the checks and balances provided by misunderstandings, a factor which is still effective even though we’re able to cross the boundaries of language. The potential for conflict based on our differences and for the exacerbation of sin-based conflict through miscommunication continues to be with us.

New Testament Reasons for Conflict

Jesus was quite emphatic about our commandments to love. The commandment to love God above all else was not a surprise, since it had been the first of the Mosaic laws. The shock to his listeners came when Jesus raised the commandment to love our neighbors up to number two. In the Old Testament, this commandment had been buried among many others, far down the line from the top ten. Jesus surprised everyone by moving our ability to love others into such a prominent position.

More controversial and difficult were his teachings about love for enemies. He said,

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matt 5:43-45)

What he has told us to do is to change our reactions from the natural to the unnatural. No one in Jesus’ time would have expected someone to react with love to hatred and persecution. It was hard enough to love those inside our families and our neighborhoods. Jesus commands us to love those who are outside our normal circle of cooperation as well.

Even as he’s saying this, I believe Jesus realizes how much of a stretch it is for us. He says,

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. (Luke 6:32-33)

Jesus tells us, quite specifically, that we are supposed to do more than these others, and actually love our enemies. Doing what he asks, takes a major stretching of the heart.

How are we supposed to love our enemies? Who are our enemies, after all? Our enemies are those with whom we are in conflict, one way or another. Does he command us to love our enemies in order to make the conflicts of our lives more tolerable, or does he command us to love in the middle of conflict because trying to obey that commandment will transform us? I believe that the second possibility is the true one, and that conflict is meant to be an agent of our transformation.

Loving Enemies Is Hard

It is a real challenge for us to love our enemies. Fortunately or unfortunately, most of our enemies live at a fair distance—somewhere else in the world, away in Washington D.C., at the state capitol, at denomination headquarters, in the other color states, or in organizations we can’t get a handle on. It’s hard to get to know and love someone you don’t ever see or meet. John talks about a similar problem when he says,

those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20)

How can we get practice loving the enemies that we mostly never get a chance to see? I think it’s by getting to practice with the opponents that we do see. Our conflicts—up front and personal at the local level, delivered to our homes by television at the national and international level—give us lots of opportunities for engagement.

Learning to love our enemies does not come naturally. After all, enemies are the ones who are getting in the way of things we are trying to do and things we care about. Learning to love them does take practice, and sometimes it takes lots of practice. Sometimes we don’t even try, letting our anger and disgust at what the other person is saying spill out without thinking about it. Sometimes we let our snap judgments characterize the other person—just another limousine liberal, just another conservative red-neck—so that we don’t even hear the actual words they’re saying. Sometimes we listen just enough to let particular words or phrases trigger our own emotional responses. Sometimes we actually try to be “polite,” and treat the other courteously by completely ignoring whatever they have to say that we find offensive.

Unfortunately, all these options have something in common: they ignore the reality of the other person, and they ignore the real challenge in the conflict. What Jesus challenges us to do is to love the whole person who is our opponent, including those well-intentioned aspects of character and conviction that lead the other person to stand against us. What Jesus is challenging us to do goes completely against our grain, because it goes against all that we care about and all that we are trying to accomplish. It’s a struggle even to keep thinking about it.

Diversity and Our Differences

We talk a lot these days about diversity within our culture, and about our need to celebrate our differences. There are some differences that make life more interesting, like regional music, cooking flavors, and decorating styles. These we find it easy to share and celebrate. But when it comes to a difference that really makes a difference to us, whether it’s the color to paint the fellowship hall or sexual standards for ordination, we all pull back. Diversity that enriches our experiences is easy; diversity that brings opposition to positions we care strongly about is quite another thing.

Our differences of opinion and conviction come from our different personal histories and cultures. Each of us has a different perspective, based on the place where we stand when we observe the goings on around us. We bring different information to bear, based on our exposure to past events and experiences. We have different styles of thinking and different ways to decide how to apply our principles, based on our cultural practices and our personal preferences. Even when we have very similar positions and concerns about an issue, we may have different priorities in the way we believe that issues should be addressed. These factors provide a wide range of potential differences for us to work with and work through.

We have a tendency to explain the behavior of others, particularly when they’re not in full agreement with us, in negative terms. Those others are just selfish or just being sinful. Those others are deceptive or manipulative just trying to get their own way. Positions that are based on limited or incomplete information seem to intentionally ignore what we see as important truths. When we don’t like what we hear, we tend not to give the benefit of the doubt, when we think about the motives and intentions of our opposition.

In fact, understanding what another person truly believes is a matter of projection as well as deduction. Each of us has a slightly different understanding of what is right, based on our distinctive learning experiences. We can never truly understand another person’s internal processes, so we make our best guesses based on the way we imagine that they would think things through. It’s hard to identify and separate the mix of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and priorities that the other is using, even when we try to understand where they’re coming from. In practice, it’s hard enough for us to know how we come to our own positions, and we often don’t even understand ourselves clearly. When we run into differences that bother us, it’s important to at least try to understand the processes that are the source of the differences. In order to respect and relate to our opponent, we need to see that they’ve come by their position honestly.

Real inclusion of racial/ethnic minorities in the church, for example, encounters the fact that some minority groups are at the same time both politically liberal and theologically conservative. Wherever you stand on our controversial issues, you will find that some of the minority voices we want to include will oppose some of your favorite positions. When you find yourself feeling pricked, you’ll know that your enthusiasm for diversity has moved from areas that you don’t really care about, to areas that matter for you. All of a sudden, the need to be empathetic and respectful across our opposing positions is engaged. Our negative reaction is our signal that we’re being presented with a challenge to grow in our ability to love across our differences.

We Have Different Callings

Where do our differences come from? For Christians, they come from our different life experiences and from our different understandings of the priorities within the gospel message. We are born with a unique combination of gifts, talents, and abilities. These develop and are tuned by our unique life experiences, some flowering and some lying dormant as circumstances allow. Our unique life experiences provide us with models for action and reaction, patterns for understanding what compassion, love, and sin actually mean in practice. Our experiences also expose us to different kinds of needs, the very different ways that injustice and suffering are experienced by those around us. Our calling is the place where these come together, the place where the needs we encounter and the capabilities we have meet the opportunity and call to action.

Our awareness of and commitment to our particular calling comes through, and is strengthened by, our experiences. The lives of our children, for example, can bring a whole new awareness of an area of need. In the 1980’s, several senior executives in major corporations whose daughters were facing resistance to their business careers, suddenly became advocates for the advancement of women in their organizations. At the same time, one friend of mine, seeing the struggles faced by her mentally ill son, became an advocate for the rights and concerns of those struggling with mental illness. Our life experience puts a personal face on an otherwise abstract cause, and this is what gives us the determination and energy for taking action.

Our gifts and experiences are the foundation for our particular calling, and these are different for each of us. Our own calling leads us to our priorities, personal and public, for addressing the needs we see. My calling may be similar to yours, or it may be very different. Deep in the commitment to my own priorities, I may see your priorities as appropriate, irrelevant, or completely backwards. We may end up in conflict for resources, helpers, and public support. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since both of the causes we support need to have their own advocates.

Our different life experiences are also the lens through which we read the scripture and hear the gospel message. Based on our perspective and our sensitivities, we each put different weight on different parts of the gospel we hear. Sometimes we fall into thinking that others are stupid or malicious because they do not read the same sections with the same focus and sense of urgency. As fellow Christians, we do bring a common commitment to follow Jesus to our understanding of his teachings. However, since we differ in perspective and priority, we often find ourselves disagreeing about which teaching is most important, how we are supposed to act on particular teachings, or even about what the scripture “meant” to say in the first place.

Media Involvement Worsens Our Conflicts

Much of our conflict is played out under the watchful eyes of the communications media, which amplify what they see for a wider audience. The impact of the presence of the media is to exaggerate our differences and exacerbate our conflicts. This is not malicious or necessarily even intentional on the part of the media representatives, but simply a result of the way the media work.

News media are most interesting to their audience when this content is farthest from normal. What is expected, what is normal, is boring. We read our newspapers and magazines, watch our televisions, and listen to our radios to experience something different from our ordinary daily life. As a result, our news is specialized in publicizing the extremes, showing our most spectacular behavior, our most outrageous statements, and our most foolish consequences. The result is to enhance the perceived differences in our conflicts.

Let me give you a practical example. There was a time when I took classes at two different seminaries, one quite liberal and one very conservative. One day a picture appeared by the mailboxes at the liberal seminary showing a demonstration at the funeral of a young man who had died of AIDS. The signs of the protesters, shown clearly in the picture, said, “God hates fags.” The insensitivity, anger and hatred shown at that moment of grief were heartbreaking to those who sympathized with the family and friends, and the picture alone spoke to the hearts of all who passed by and saw it. I took a copy of the picture to the conservative seminary, where students were convinced of the sinfulness of homosexuality. They were equally horrified. “That’s not us,” they said, “We all sin. God doesn’t hate anyone because of their sin.” The picture, by capturing an extreme minority in an emotional situation, managed to polarize its audience against a much larger, but more rational and compassionate, group of people on the opposite side.

Unfortunately, news will always be most successful when it is most extreme. The spectacular sells best and keeps the attention of its audience. The same principle applies in the entertainment media, in television and movies, as well. Fictionalized versions of current events and the conflicts on which drama itself is based, also get more attention when they incorporate the spectacular rather than the mundane. An additional factor in presentations for entertainment is that identifying with the “good guys” is more fun when the “bad guys” are not sympathetic at all. This results in one-sided portrayals of the participants in a conflict, showing all the best of the “hero” side and all the worst of the “villain” side. The audience, in participating in the drama and being entertained, is further polarized when they re-encounter the reality of the particular conflict that has been portrayed, in their own lives.

Conflict Is a Process, Not a Project

Based on my years of observation, I find it extremely unlikely that even the best, well formulated argument will bring an opponent over to our side. In any given conversation, our opponent has probably heard all that we have to say before we even start. Even while we’re speaking, presenting the best evidence we have to offer, our opponent is busy thinking, not about how good our position sounds, but about how to present and defend the opposite point of view. To be fair, while our opponent is talking, we’re not really listening either, not really open to how the things being said might actually be right. Argument almost never results in a change of position on either side. So why should we waste our time talking at all?

Conflict is really not about results but about process. We tend to see conflict as about winning and losing—about having things my way, or about my having to put up with things done your way. In fact, I believe that the results of the conflict, the rewards of victory or the losses of defeat, are only secondary. The most important result of our conflicts can be the way we engage them, from the things we do and say and feel while we’re engaged in battle. Do we come out a more Christ-like person—more loving, more caring, more open to those around us—or do we come out more angry, more disgusted, and more ready for violence the next time? What is the fruit of our conflict in our own souls, separate from the transitory points that have been won or lost? The point of conflict is not about winning and losing, but about learning to work with those we want to fight with, and about learning to love others, right in the middle of our differences and our anger.

We Christians, we brothers and sisters who are adopted children of God through Jesus, are one family. We may not have much in common with some of the others who’ve responded to the call of Jesus, and we may not even like them, but they’re our brothers and sisters in Christ nevertheless. You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your relatives. We are all one family in Christ. Our conflicts and our differences are all part of God’s training program, to teach us to love those that we don’t like very much at the moment. What matters most is not the particular points won or lost, but the transformation that happens in us when we interact with each other.

The Growth Opportunity

Conflict is the arena in which we learn to love better. Conflict brings together the factors that make love difficult, and conflict challenges us to get better at loving in spite of the obstacles. In conflict we have the opportunity to learn how to live with each other. We can learn how to listen to each other, to understand and to respect each other. We can learn to sympathize with each other, to feel empathy and compassion at times when they don’t come naturally. We can learn to get along with each other, to make compromises and to take turns. We can even learn to work together, to collaborate and support others in areas we share, even in the irritating presence of important areas that we don’t share.

As James says,

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jas 1:2-4)

This is always one of our least favorite passages, because none of us really likes to face trials. When we face conflict, we see it as a trial that has a clear goal in the victory of the position we advocate, in the success of the concerns we stand for. In fact, the challenge of conflict is not in the struggle to win, but in the opportunity to grow. We receive an opportunity to grow in love for our neighbors, for our friends, and for our enemies through the way we approach and live out our conflicts. By enduring as Christians, by maintaining our determination to love in the midst of conflict, we have the opportunity to grow into that ability to love which Christ showed, and which we share when we are mature and complete in his image.

Always, in all of our striving, the goal is not to win for ourselves, or even to win on behalf of those values that we are called to defend and advocate. The goal is to let the gospel of Jesus Christ shine forth from us, throughout all of our efforts. In this, the way we approach our work is far more important in demonstrating the impact of the gospel in us, than any of our actual achievements. Paul says,

Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:17-18)

We show the power of God when we demonstrate it working in us. We let the power of God be seen in us when we live transparently, hearing the specific call that we are given to live out, and then living it in a way that demonstrates the image of Christ that is in us. All of our work—all of our striving and all of our results—needs to point to Christ in this way and not to ourselves.

Living in Dynamic Tension

In many areas of modern life, we live in the dynamic tension between opposing needs in competition. Labor and management struggle regularly to defend the interests of the groups they represent. If labor won all of the battles, terms would be so generous that their companies become less competitive in the marketplace. If management won all the battles, costs would be kept so low that working families wouldn’t be able to live decently. I personally am glad that both sides live with and in their ongoing conflict, and that they manage to work together the rest of the time. Dynamic tension provides a workable balance that addresses the main needs of both parties, as well as a mechanism for protection of either party when extreme situations arise.

The effectiveness of dynamic tension depends on the honest efforts of the opposing advocates. Should negotiators do their best for the side they advocate? Of course. Should a negotiator hate her opponent for winning a particular point. No. The loser owes the winner at least respect, honest acquiescence, and courtesy. If the loser is a Christian, she also owes the winner love and compassion. And the winner owes the loser the same, no matter how hard fought the battle.

The role of advocate for a particular constituency is an honorable one, and entering conflict on behalf of that constituency can be an appropriate calling. Many different constituencies are in need of defenders and advocates. But the way we practice our advocacy is critical. Advocates need to respect the integrity of their opposition, to treat their opponents with the same honest and respect that they expect to receive themselves. Advocates should sympathize with their opponents’ efforts and empathize with their opponents’ concerns, while still defending the interests of those in their charge. Serving our particular side in the conflict well serves all sides in the conflict, by working toward usable common ground.

Our Opponent Is Our Colleague

Whatever the issue, the main thing we have in common with our opponent is that we believe the issue matters. We care about it in a way that those who do not join the fray simply do not. If we’re open to getting to know our opponents and to understanding the convictions and experiences behind their positions, we’ll find new and unexpected brothers and sisters.

The principles behind our positions and the processes we use to get to our positions are universal. We share them with out opponents. The experiences and information we bring are unique to our own perspective, and our own understanding can be enriched by hearing those of our opponents. Hearing and understanding do not mean that we necessarily change our own positions, of course, but they do give us the opportunity to widen our knowledge of the complex reality of our conflicts.

The best illustration of a way to come to see our commonality of principles and process I have seen came in a discussion of ordination standards for practicing homosexuals I attended in a local church. Participants held the full spectrum of positions, from strongly in favor of ordination to strongly opposed. No one expected that the conversation would change anyone’s mind or position. Each participant, taking turns around the table, got their turn to speak for as long as they wanted. They could say anything they liked, in any order, but there was no cross talk, no other conversation or questions during their time to speak. Each person in the group gave respectful attention to the person whose turn it was to speak.

The flow of the speakers’ comments, each in turn, was amazing. Each in their own order covered the same basic territory. Each talked about the scripture and how they understood what the bible had to say. Each spoke about their homosexual friends or relatives, and how the issue was brought home personally to them. Each spoke about how they came to their convictions, and why they thought their position was important. Each spoke about the opposition and where the opposition’s concerns seemed to have validity. Each spoke about their own personal struggle, as they came to decide where to stand. Each spoke about the weakness of their particular position, and about their concern that it wasn’t perfect. Eventually, each ran out of things that they wanted to say, usually in about five to ten minutes.

In the end, we realized that each person around the table had struggled with scripture and with relationships, with principles and with their impact on real human lives. We realized that we had a lot in common—our caring about the issue, our caring enough that we really wanted to do the right thing, our uncertainties about our own positions, our recognition of the legitimate concerns of our opposition. We came to respect each other more and respect each other’s thought process, even though, as expected, no one changed their position on the issue. We came to empathize with each other’s struggles, with a liberal member’s fight with homophobia as well as a conservative’s grief over broken friendship. We didn’t change our advocacy positions, but we did come to realize that the values that united us were deeper and stronger than the strategic concerns that separated us.

On any given issue, we may succeed or we may fail. We may find that our point is accepted by the powers that be, or we may find that it is rejected. We may find ourselves living with an uncomfortable compromise, or we may find ourselves stuck with situations that cause us great grief. When we care deeply, anything less than the success of what we have been called to do hurts us personally.

With whom do we share these risks and this pain? We share them with our opponents in the conflict. Those who don’t care—those who don’t strive—don’t suffer this kind of disappointment. If nothing else, in our victories, our hearts should go out to our opponents who tried so hard and cared so much. In our defeats, we should be able to sympathize with the apparent victors, knowing that no success is so complete that it will last forever, or so perfect that we aren’t at risk of arrogance in our celebration. It’s our opponents, those who also care deeply, who are closest to us, not those who pass by and don’t care at all.

There is a wonderful line from a movie that captures this aspect of our situation. In the film Grumpy Old Men, two neighbors have an ongoing conflict that lasts for years. Finally one of the combatants is ill, and his neighbor goes to see him in the hospital, full of mixed feelings. He is brought up short when the hospital attendant, directing him to the right room, asks, for her records, whether he is “friend” or “family.” He doesn’t know how to answer. “Enemy” is not one of the options. It wasn’t an option for him going up to a hospital bed, and it isn’t an option for us now in the church. “Friend” or “family”—those are the two options for us, as we face our opposition, and both call for our love.

Receiving the Blessing

The point of our conflict is not to win it, but to demonstrate the way we live as Christians through it. It is our golden opportunity to learn to love better, to grow into the kind of love that Jesus showed.

We’re called to continue to live in conflict, to live in tension with those who are called to different perspectives and different ministries from our own. This doesn’t mean that we advocate for our own calling any less strongly. It does mean that we need to recognize the conflict as a gift of God, and as a challenge that enables us to grow in love, if and when we choose to respond to it appropriately.

May the Holy Spirit grant us the power and the judgment to live our own callings with courage, and to continue to grow in Christ-like love in and through our conflicts.

©2009 Jean F. Risley – All Rights Reserved