Q. Why do many Christians fuel church conflicts rather than turn and pursue peace?
A. In the heart of Psalm 85 we find a verse that, in my experience, begins to address an answer to this difficult “why” question.
I will listen to what God the Lord will say; he promises peace to his people—but let them not return to folly. Psalm 85:8
There is a very real tension captured in this verse, the tension between God’s promise of peace to his people and a warning to them to not return to folly. Before considering that tension, however, we must first firmly grasp to whom this verse speaks.
The promise of peace spoken of in Psalm 85:8 is “to his people” and to no others. As Bible commentator Matthew Henry notes:
“There are a people in this world who are God’s people, set apart for him, subject to him, and who shall be saved by him.”
The church has always been, today is, and always will be populated both by people who are “his people” and those who are not. In the church there are those who self-proclaim their Christian status but who will, in fact, not be saved (see Matthew 7:21-23). Many church conflicts are started and sustained by such people. Church conflict often reveals those who oppose God and his plan for the church.
But the question today is not about those who are not Christians who happen to be in the church. Rather, it asks why do real, genuine Christian people—the saints—turn from the pursuit of peace to the pursuit of war in the pews? That is the point of the tension captured in the warning we find in Psalm 85:8. Christians can say they want peace and Psalm 85 is a prayer for peace, a plea to restore a right and revived relationship. When God speaks peace we who are his are to listen and hear (i.e., conform our will to his). That is obvious. But why then the warning? Why the carefully placed words “but let them not return to folly?”
The truth is, at times, even Christians who say they want peace actually want something more than they want peace. Their “idol of desire” replaces listening to God’s promise of peace and they “return to folly.” The “return to folly” means the return to sin. Some use the term “backsliding” but I prefer the phrase “taken captive” as it is used in 2 Timothy 2:24-26:
And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
Even true Christians can be “taken captive” in the heat of church conflict. Turning from their first call to be peacemakers they become peace-fakers or even peace-breakers. A former passion for peace can become a passion for war waged by those in captivity. Again, Matthew Henry:
To those, and those only peace is spoken, who turn from sin; but if they return again to it, it is at their peril. All sin is folly, but especially backsliding; it is egregious folly to turn to sin after we have seemed to turn from it, to turn to it after God has spoken peace.
Having been warned it would seem we have a two-fold duty:
- The duty of being on guard against our eternal enemy who seeks to take us captive to do his will, and
- The duty to guard against our own “idols of desire” (the passions, no matter how noble in our own eyes), that can so quickly lead to the promotion of passions other than God’s promise of peace.
In pursuit of peace,