Getting Along With Others In Church
Conflict, Personal Resonsibility
If you have ever been part of a conflict in a church family you know how painful it can be. Churches split, friends divide, competing sides charge the other with being “unchristian”. The self-righteousness of the conflict makes it even more difficult to resolve.
These church conflicts bring about deep scars in the body of Christ. Our reputation is strained in the community and the Lord is saddened. In His High Priestly Prayer Jesus prayed that his followers “would be one like He and the Father were”. He told His disciples to “love one another”. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told his listeners that if they were offering their gift at the altar and remembered that someone had something against them, they were to get up and leave the gift at the altar and first go and be reconciled to their brother. Jesus understood that it is difficult to worship when you are at odds with someone else. God wants us to get along.
In Philippians 4, the apostle Paul makes a personal plea for reconciliation in the church.
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Obviously there was a problem with two women in the church, Euodia and Syntyche. Since these women are not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible it is impossible to know the nature of the problem. We may not know what the problem is but we can guess that as so often happens, the church was having to choose sides in the dispute. We can only imagine that,
- groups met in corners and talked about how awful the other side was
- every conversation turned to the conflict
- any little disagreement could act as a match that would result in an explosion disproportionate to the issue. Pressure was building to dangerous levels.
And in this setting the Apostle Paul pleads for these women to agree with one another. And he also pleads for the loyal yokefellow to lend a hand in mediating this problem. We don’t know who this “loyal yokefellow” is, but it is interesting that Paul implies that sometimes you need help in resolving a conflict.
As we look through the Bible and in the verses that follow I want to make six observations this morning about how we can live at peace with each other.
It may seem like I am stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. Euodia and Syntyche were loyal followers of Christ. Paul says they were among those who contended at his side. These women were not non-christian people who were in the church. They were genuine followers.
Christians are new creatures in Christ but they still have some of the old ways about them: personalities still clash, we still get our feelings hurt, we still have times when we may feel a little overwhelmed (making us more irritable), people still disappoint us, and we have different approaches to solving problems. These are the very things that provoke hard feelings at times. There are times when others ARE wrong and that wrong needs to be addressed and that may lead to hard feelings. I don’t think it is sinful that we sometimes rub each other the wrong way . . . that is being human. What is sinful is the way we often handle those times.
Conflict is Costly
It is interesting that Paul does not seem to indicate who is right and who is wrong. He pleads for them to “agree with each other in the Lord.” The implication is quite obvious: if they were “in the Lord” they would work at finding agreement; they would work through their problems. In fact, it seems that Paul is saying that “for the sake of the Lord” they should agree. When Christians fight with each other several things happen
- the Lord’s reputation is harmed
- the Church’s ministry is hampered
- the body of Christ is handicapped
- personal peace is affected
- conflict moves us away from love which is moving us away from God’s heart
Paul scolded the Corinthians,
If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another—and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. [1 Cor. 6:1-8]
Paul acknowledges that we sometimes have disputes. But he argues that Christians should be able to resolve their conflicts without having to parade their dirty laundry before the rest of the world. If there is a problem we should seek to work things out between each other. If that doesn’t work, we should try to find and arbitrator in the church who can help us resolve things in a Christian manner.
Paul makes the bold statement that that we should rather be wronged than bring a stain to the Lord and His church by making our conflict public. We should seek peace for His sake as well as for our own.
We Must Take Responsibility for Our Own Behavior
The one thing you can be sure of in any conflict situation is this: it was always the other person’s fault! We are very good at spotting the faults of others but very poor at accepting responsibility for our own failures. In the sermon on the Mount Jesus warned people not to judge others until they had taken the log out of their own eye!. The idea is simple: when there is a conflict always ask, “What responsibility do I have for this conflict.”
Paul urges both women to work at reconciliation. Both were at fault. It doesn’t matter what kind of conflict is taking place, we certainly have some culpability in the situation. There are a number of good questions to ask yourself if you are in a conflict situation
- Have I fueled this conflict by my own pride, stubbornness or defensiveness?
- Have I contributed to this conflict by hurtful words, aggressive tactics, or by twisting what really happened?
- Have I refused to give someone the benefit of the doubt and instead concluded that I know what the motives of another really are?
- Have I hindered reconciliation by my bitterness, evil thoughts, or stubbornness?
- Am I acting like I have no responsibility for the problems that exist?
- Am I guilty of resisting God by refusing to extend forgiveness and seek reconciliation?
- Am I guilty of perpetuating this conflict by my laziness?
- Am I waiting for the other person to make the first move and thus violating Paul’s command to do everything that we can do to be reconciled?
It is amazing how fast reconciliation comes in a situation if people honestly are willing to admit and address their responsibility in a conflict situation. As we look at our own hearts and attitudes we are taking a step toward reconciliation. We are beginning to remove the barrier that exists between us and another person.
We Should Commit the Matter to Prayer
One of the best ways of getting to the heart of our responsibility and obligation is to turn to prayer. An amazing thing happens when we begin to pray. We come before the Lord and we begin to present our argument that justifies why we are angry. We say, “O Lord, Woe is me . . . I have been treated so shamefully . . .”. And the Lord listens for awhile and then begins to turn the searchlight on our own attitudes and actions. He shows where we have been petty, insensitive and cold. In short, He begins to show us the log in our own eye. In these times the Lord has shown me (much to my chagrin) that,
- I was being unrealistic in my expectations
- I was expecting people to meet expectations I never told them about
- I was expecting people to care about the same things I cared about
- I was defending my “glory” and not His
These are not pleasant revelations, but they are necessary. When you take the matter to the Lord in honest and open prayer, He will start by addressing your responsibility in the conflict. And then, the Lord will begin to urge you to do what is right. God may urge us to “let it go”, to forgive, to go and talk to the person about the problem, and He may even push us to apologize for our own wrong-doing.
I have found that I can resist this for a long time but not forever. The whole time I am resisting I know nothing of that peace that surpasses comprehension. My relationship with the Lord is strained, I have trouble sleeping, I try to justify my actions but the more I resist the more pressure He puts on me. The Lord won’t let us get away with ignoring the truth.
In many of Jesus’ parables he reminds us that we are sinful people ourselves and if it wasn’t for God’s forgiveness we would not be able to stand. In fact, God will remind us that our sin before God is so much greater than the sin that others have committed against us. And then it seems that the Lord says something profound like this: “O.K. do you want to treat others the way I have treated you? Or, would you rather I treat you the way you treat others?” Once God gets us to this point we are usually ready to listen.
Extend Grace Where Possible
A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense. [Pr. 19:11]
A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult. [Pr. 12:16]
Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out. [Pr. 17:14]
Paul told the Colossians,
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. [Col. 3:12-13]
There are many molehills that we make into mountains. A little issue becomes a big deal. If we want to be people who reflect God’s love in our relationships with each other then we must be willing to overlook offenses. Some things should just be overlooked.
We all have bad days and bad moments. We are all irritable at times and in those times we are often offensive. We feel stress so we react to everything. It’s a fact of life. We must be willing to accept the humanity of the other person. We must be willing to extend the same grace to others that we hope they will extend to us. Ken Sande in his excellent book, THE PEACEMAKER tells how this principle worked in his own marriage,
I remember one day when Corlette said something that really disappointed me. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember going out into the back yard a few minutes later to rake leaves. for about fifteen minutes I treated myself to a real “pity party,” and I was increasingly convinced that I should go back inside and let her know how hurt I was. But then by God’s grace, Philippians 4:8 came to mind.
“Ha!” I thought at first. “What’s noble, right, or lovely about the way she’s treating me?” But the Holy Spirit wouldn’t give up. Within a few moments, I grudgingly conceded that Corlette is a good cook. (This counterbalancing process often begins with the basics.) Then I admitted that she keeps a beautiful home and practices wonderful hospitality. And, yes, she has been very thoughtful toward my family. And she is certainly pure and faithful– I remember how much she had supported me through some difficult times in my work. Every chance she gets, she attends the seminars I teach and sits smiling and supportive through hours of the same material (always saying she has learned something en_. Corlete is a marvelous counselor and has helped hundreds of children. And didn’t she even take up backpacking because she knew I loved it? I realized that the list could go on and on.
Within minutes my attitude was turned upside down and I saw the offensive comment for what it was — a momentary and insignificant flaw in an otherwise wonderful person. I did go back inside, but not to confront Corlette about what she had said. Instead, I just wanted to give her a hug and tell her how glad I was to be married to her. [Ken Sande THE PEACEMAKER p. 78-79]
Are there petty things that you have made into major issues? Maybe you need to focus on the positive. Maybe you need to realize that what happened was really just a momentary thing. Maybe you just need to let it go.
I know that is easier said than done. When I was in college I was even dumber than I am now. On occasion someone would say, “O, shut up!” and I’d be offended. And my response would be to literally clam up . . . for days. The problem was, that after a few days I realized I was being really childish and stupid. I was punishing myself and making others miserable. But I didn’t know how to stop making “such a big deal” out of things. Inevitably I had to swallow my pride and just start talking again. Often I had to admit that I had been childish. Sometimes all I had to do was be sane again.
Maybe that’s what you need. Instead of ignoring the person, say “Hi” or extend your hand. Instead of avoiding someone go right up to them and ask them “how they are doing?” Do something to break the ice. Maybe you can send them a “Thinking about You” card or write them a note for a special day. Maybe you could bring them some cookies. If you have made a molehill into a mountain do something to put things back into perspective.
Lower the “Temperature”
In Proverbs we are told that “a soft answer turns away wrath”. Calmness and gentleness leads to reconciliation. Aggressiveness and harshness leads to more entrenched battles. This counsel is just the opposite of the counsel we get from the world. We are told to stand up for our rights. We are taught to be more assertive, more aggressive, more antagonistic. These are unbiblical approaches and yet, we seem to feel being aggressive and “no-nonsense” is a badge of honor and something to be proud of.
Aggressiveness results in,
- making the other person defensive rather than open
- it puts us in attack mode rather than reconciling mode
- things are said that are designed to wound rather than heal
If you see that you are becoming aggressive you know that you need to get alone with the Lord and work things out. When there is a need to confront a problem it is always good to do several things,
- affirm the positive
- confess your own responsibility honestly and specifically
- explain rather than attack
- wait for your anger to cool
- refrain from words like “always” and “never”
- keep focused on the main issue
- work towards reconciliation, not blame
In a couple of weeks we are going to look at Paul’s command to be gentle. This is good advice for conflict situations as well as in life.
I hope I have given you some practical things to think about and put into practice in conflict situations. One of the best ways to show that Christianity is genuine is in the way we handle conflict. God can change us . . . if we let Him. We can learn to be peacemakers rather than troublemakers. We can become soft rather than abrasive. We not only CAN . . . we MUST. The stakes are high. The world is watching.
I’m not suggesting that we will resolve every conflict. Paul told us that “as far is it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Sometimes the other person doesn’t want to listen. Sometimes they don’t want reconciliation. Sometimes the issues are too big to simply shrug them off. In those times we can only walk away and hope for an opportunity to be reconciled some time in the future. But we must not do this too quickly! We must work and work hard at being reconciled before concluding that there is nothing more you can do.
So, examine the situations that keep you churning. Take another look at the things you are bitter about. Rather than stoking the fires of resentment, look at your responsibility. Are you at fault in some way? Are you guilty of making a mountain out of a molehill? Is there something you can and should do to mend this relationship?
It is easier to walk away. It is easier to blame others for everything. But it is not the Savior’s way. He wants us to be one. He wants us to work together and to help each other. I guess what I’m saying is this: You may not care about you relationship with that certain person. But God does.