Conflict can be positive

When we think of all the destruction that has taken place in Gaza and Ukraine, to speak of the possibility of conflict being positive sounds absolute madness. The lives that have been lost, the injuries sustained, the homes that have been destroyed, and the hopes that have been blighted! What possible positive outcomes have there been? The same could be said of the 1914-1918 and the 1939-1945 world wars, Even although Britain and its allies were victorious, that victory came at a massive cost.

However, in a blog entitled ‘Church Matters’, my focus this week is not on the terrible suffering of war, but of the conflict which goes on in the church. Strange as it may seem when Jesus is the Prince of Peace, many of his followers do not live at peace with one another. Research has shown that “on any given day in perhaps three-quarters of all the churches the ministry of that congregation is reduced significantly as a result of nonproductive conflict”. Indeed, “in perhaps one-fourth of all churches that internal conflict is so sufficiently severe that it must be reduced before the parish can redirect its energies and resources towards formulating new goals and expanding its ministry”.

Sadly, like most ministers, I know at first hand something of the in-fighting that goes on amongst the people of God. True lives may not be lost, but faith can be shattered, and children and young people can be so disillusioned by the behaviour of their elders that, understandably, they eventually leave the church.

As I look back on my years of ministry, thankfully we had good relationships in the theological faculty when I has teaching New Testament and Greek in the National University when we were missionaries in Congo/Zaire.  Similarly I have no memories of unhappiness during the thirteen years when I was minister of Altrincham Baptist Church. However, then things well and truly changed. For when I became Principal of Spurgeon’s College I discovered that my colleagues were not pleased with my appointment and for the next six years they did their best to get rid of me. That was extraordinarily painful and eventually caused me to suffer a ‘breakdown’.  However, surprising it may seem, but there was a positive outcome. For when I returned to local church ministry I discovered that I had more to offer as a pastor, for my experience of suffering, misunderstanding and rejection enabled me to empathise with the many people who had similar experiences. I had become what is termed a “wounded healer” and so was better placed to help others.

From Spurgeon’s I went on to become the senior minister of what is now known as Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford. There again the first seven years of what eventually proved to be a very happy and fulfilling ministry were marked by conflict. The cause of the conflict was the refusal by a small handful of members to accept the decision of the church meeting that we needed to radically renovate our premises if we were to attract people to come to our church.  They objected strongly to our spending £2 million pounds on  this project and made life ‘hell’ for me and indeed for others. However, raising the money which involved double tithing (a tithe for the church, and a tithe for the building fund) caused us to depend on God for our needs in a way which we had never done previously. Instead of being a highly dysfunctional church we became a united church, and instead of being an inward-looking church we became an outward-looking church. Conflict had a positive outcome.

Indeed, there is a place for healthy conflict even when people are not fighting one another. Here I have in mind low-level conflict. I find it instructive that when Paul urges his fellow-Christians to “speak the truth in love” to one another (Eph 4.15), he in effect is recognising that there is a place for Christians to express disagreement and different, which in turn leads to growth in the body. “By speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into Christ, who is the head”.

This understanding of low-level conflict is behind Prov 27.17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpest the wit of another”. A church is the stronger when people are able to disagree with one another. I have benefited no end from friendly ‘conflict’, where it is not about winning an argument but discovering the best way forward. God has given us one another, so that we can learn from one another.

In summary, surprising as it may seem, conflict in the church can be positive.

One comment

  1. I have always thought it important to learn how to disagree well. John and I have recently met up with old University friends while we were in Devon (where they now live) and we had a delightful cream tea and a most harmonious and human conversation, despite the fact that one of the four of us announced that he was a tribal Labour supporter, while another admitted to being a tribal Conservative!
    Indeed , John and I have always held very different opinions about some things and we have had to accept (increasingly amicably) that we do disagree. So whether in churches or relationships, I agree that conflict can be a positive thing!

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