How should conflict within the church be handled?
Church conflict is inevitable, but how should we handle the conflict that occurs in the church? What does the Bible teach? The entire book of 1 Corinthians was written to address the problem of a divided church. This is not simply a modern problem. However, there are other principles provided in Scripture, other than that letter.
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How we approach disagreements between fellow church members has a lot to do with what the nature of the argument is. Church conflict can arise over differences of opinion, disagreement with leadership, or instances of blatant sin. Each of these requires a different approach, even though all of them need to share certain basic principles.
Any disagreement between church members needs to be grounded in love and gentleness (Ephesians 4:15). The goal of every discussion should be unity, not "winning" or self-advancement. Also, it's critical that these discussions are based on truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). This means knowing more than appearances (John 7:24), more than gossip (Proverbs 16:28), and more than assumption (Proverbs 18:13). If the only steps Christians knew to take in handling disagreement were to be humble (James 4:10), loving, and patient (James 1:19–20), then the vast majority of conflicts would be resolved easily (Colossians 3:12–15).
When a conflict isn't resolved exactly as a person would prefer, often the best resolution is simply to forgive and move on (Matthew 18:15–35). Churches are made of imperfect people, so they will never be perfect. Unless the issue is one of serious doctrinal error, or overt sin, it's better to maintain unity than to fall on one's sword over a petty issue (Psalm 133:1; Ephesians 4:1¬–3).
The easiest conflicts to handle are—or at least, should be—simple differences of opinion. The Bible is quite clear that on many issues, Christians are going to disagree. When those disagreements are over issues of "Christian liberty," the easiest resolution is simply to agree to disagree. Some differences are simply not worth creating a commotion over. In fact, some conflicts—if not most—have more than one guilty party (Matthew 7:1–5).
The truly difficult part of this is realizing that many of the traditions and preferences a church practices fall into this category. Musical styles, use of media, movies, food, sports, and so forth aren't inherently linked to any particular doctrine. A Christian needs to be very, very careful not to be judgmental or critical of a fellow believer over something that's really none of their business.
Disagreements with leadership are somewhat harder to handle. As with all other issues, church members need to pursue humility and truth, while avoiding gossip or arrogance. When handled correctly, these situations can be great opportunities for a church to grow (Acts 6:1–7). When handled poorly, they can lead to lifelong grudges and broken churches.
Approaching leadership over a disagreement should be done carefully and in a spirit of humility (Hebrews 13:7, 17). It should only be done when a person is strongly convinced that it is necessary (1 Timothy 5:19). Good leaders should be willing to hear complaints and take them in a humble, considered manner (1 Peter 5:1–3). In serious cases, it is safest to follow the procedure for church discipline in order to be sure that the process is transparent (Proverbs 11:14).
Church discipline is the process used for conflicts involving overt sin or critical doctrinal error. This is a serious situation, and so it requires a very structured approach. Matthew 18:15–20 provides an outline for handling major church conflicts. The beginning step is to personally address the issue with the other person. This can solve many problems without it becoming public.
When a personal discussion is ineffective, the Bible teaches to take one or two others to confront the person. This involves other witnesses without making the matter public, again allowing resolution without making the problem evident to everyone.
If this is ineffective, the local church is the next step in resolving conflict among its members. If a personal discussion and involving one or two others will not work, church leadership should be able to intervene in the process and bring resolution and restoration to the situation.
The final step is found at the end of verse 17. If the entire church cannot bring about resolution, the person is to be treated as an unbeliever. In other words, if the person will not respond to biblical teaching at all, then the person is either not truly a Christian or is living in sin to the extent that he or she should be treated as an unbeliever.
An example of this can be found in Paul's writings to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 5:1–5, Paul spoke of a person in the church who was bragging about his sexual immorality. He commanded the church to "deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh," a phrase generally understood to mean they were to exclude him from the church.
Then, in 2 Corinthians 2:6–10 we read, "For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ." Hopefully, this man later repented and was forgiven and restored to fellowship in the church.
Even in cases of severe sin, unity and restoration are the ultimate goals. Even in the worst situations, when a person repents, he or she is to be forgiven and once again embraced as part of the family of God. The vast majority of conflicts within a church don't involve anything so drastic. For this reason, it should be possible for church members to resolve—or at least choose to forgive—their differences in times of conflict.
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