495+ Years and a Lot of Conflict

This week marks the 495th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. It was on October 31, 1517, that an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany a statement listing 95 theses that condemned the theology and practices of a corrupt Roman Catholic Church. That was the beginning of the largest conflict in the entire 2000-year history of the Christian church.

Since then, of course, there have been many more, if somewhat less notable, conflicts in Christ’s church. There has been one consistently common thread, however, among all of those church conflicts. It is best captured by a question:

If we are justified before God not by our works but the free grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ, why are church conflicts almost always characterized by defensiveness and self-righteousness?

Christians in seriously conflicted churches are almost always defensive and self-righteous. Why? In church conflict, why do people defend their record of righteousness? Is it because they do not know the clear teaching of Scripture that it is Christ’s record, and not theirs, that counts?

“Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.” Romans 3:19-24

In many respects this passage captures what the Reformation was all about.[1] The conflict over salvation by faith alone or faith plus our works is eerily manifested in almost every church conflict case where I have been a consultant. What happens when Christians fight is that they become either legalistic legalists or legalistic antinomians. They defend their actions on the grounds of either how their faith has been more righteous (that is, that they have kept the commandments—works righteousness—better than their opponents), or how their faith has been demonstrated with more love than their opponents (that is, that they have kept the commandments—works righteousness—better than their opponents). Either way, they forget that it is not their righteousness that matters; it is Christ’s and his alone.

The need to defend oneself concerning anything, if we truly believe that our righteousness rests solely in Christ’s imputed righteousness, becomes absurd and faith-denying.  Our “good works” mean nothing and yet that is what is almost always being defended when God’s people turn against one another.

So why do we have church conflicts? In many ways, it’s because many Christians have forgotten the Reformation. They have forgotten that we are bound together by the five unifying cries of the Protestant Reformers:

  • Sola Gratia (By Grace Alone)
  • Sola Fide (Through Faith Alone)
  • Solus Christus (In Christ Alone)
  • Sola Scriptura (According to Scripture Alone)
  • Soli Deo Gloria (For God’s Glory Alone)

As you celebrate the Reformation this year remember how much the unity of the church depends on remembering these foundational commitments. And then, when conflict surfaces, apply their principles to its redemption. We are Protestants for a reason: this is what the Word of God proclaims and why we willingly sacrifice any notion of personal righteousness as having such little value when stood next to our Lord’s.

In the Lamb,
Dave Edling

[1] I admit that is an oversimplification of a complex historical and theological debate that continues to this day. If you want the rest of the story please listen to the sermon preached on October 28, 2012, by my pastor, Rev. Mark Bates, on Romans 3:19-31: Just Mercy. I recommend this as a fine way to celebrate the Reformation if your church hasn’t made any special plans.


About David V. Edling

Dave Edling is an experienced Christian conciliator who has worked with many conflicted churches. During his decade of service on the senior staff of Peacemaker Ministries, he participated in over 200 mediation and arbitration cases and worked with nearly twenty thousand Christians engaged in conflicts affecting churches of almost every denomination. Dave holds several graduate degrees in addition to his Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State University. They are: Master of Arts in Human Behavior, United States International University (now Alliant International University); Juris Doctor, California Western School of Law; Master of Arts in Religion, Westminster Seminary California; and Master of Arts in Biblical Conflict Resolution, Birmingham Theological Seminary. Dave has served as a trustee on the Board of Directors for Covenant College and Westminster Seminary California and has taught in the Doctor of Ministry programs for Reformed Theological Seminary, Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. In addition, Dave has been a lecturer in practical theology for several other Christian colleges and seminaries.
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3 Responses to 495+ Years and a Lot of Conflict

  1. JR says:

    “What happens when Christians fight is that they become either legalistic legalists or legalistic antinomians” I only think this works when the conflict is over persons and personalities and not over principles and doctrine. Otherwise, we would have to say that the conflict that Luther made over salvation by faith alone or faith plus our works was legalistic (which would be ironic, I think).

    So, isn’t it possible for Christians to try to be true to Christ and His Word to argue for and defend correct doctrine with right motives? Certainly, we should all be careful with our tendency toward personal legalism. However, it seems like a very post-modernist view to approach all conflict situations as if no one is actually right. Perhaps, I’m misunderstanding though.

    • JR,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree that ideally Christians can, and should, defend legitimate matters of faith without becoming personally defensive and self-righteous. But, in my experience dealing with churches in conflict, that is not what happens. While I have seen such purely doctrinal disagreements start out on a plain without personal rancor, they rarely stay there. Take, for example, the issue of women in ministry positions. There are a number of passages of Scripture that address this issue. Those who hold that women should not be ordained ministers or ordained elders in the church look to those passages. Those who disagree dismiss such biblical authority as culturally bound and irrelevant today. This is a doctrinal issue that could be debated without defensiveness and self-righteousness but have we seen that dynamic? Denominations and local churches have split over this issue and the language associated with these conflicts is typically judgmental, defensive, and anything but devoid of angry defensiveness. I see your point and wish it were so but that has not been my experience.

      In the Lamb,
      Dave Edling

      • JR says:

        Roger that. I think that’s mostly what I’ve witnessed as well, so I resonate with what you’re saying. Will listen to that sermon you mentioned above also. Thank you for your time and bless your continued service.

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