A few weeks ago I wrote that the most frequently used search term that brings people to this site is “how to fire your pastor.” I lamented that fact because we desperately need God’s supernaturally gifted and theologically trained leaders who are so committed to God’s kingdom that people in the pews are left with a sense of awesome respect for what God has done in raising up a mere creature to be a proclaimer of God’s faithfulness to his people, his chosen race.
The second most frequently used search term for our site is a phrase: “causes of church conflicts.” People are apparently trying to understand why their church conflicts are happening and what they should be wary of as their church conflicts unfold.
Tara and I address this topic (causes of church conflicts) at length in Redeeming Church Conflicts, but I wonder if perhaps this search term is pointing to a different question; not just factual patterns and examples, but “the core dynamic.” Something that goes beyond the various presenting symptomatic issues to reveal one commonality. One root cause.
In thinking through the various conflicted churches I have helped over the decades, and also after reviewing the fact patterns and case studies we included in our book, I see one clear commonality: worldliness. Our churches are wracked by destructive conflict because we are too often “mere infants in Christ”; more concerned with the pattern of this world than of God’s eternity to come. Paul, when addressing the divisions that racked the church at Corinth, identified this very problem as the root of church conflict:
Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 1 Corinthians 3:1-3
This is the heart of the matter: God expects His eternal children who inhabit His church to be more than mere men! And that means to not be worldly. Rather than being driven by narrow passions, God expects us to live on an entirely different plain and not bring the divisiveness that defines the world into His church. Are we still worldly? That is a question that every church in conflict should be carefully asking itself. And if your conflict is destroying the unity of the saints, promoting divisions, backbiting, slander, factions, anger, rage, bitterness, and malice? Then the answer will always be (shamefully), “Yes.”
It’s been years since Tara or I were in law school, but we never forget certain Latin phrases from our legal training and one supports this assertion perfectly:
Res ipsa loquitur: The thing speaks for itself.
That’s Paul’s argument: if you are “biting and devouring each other” in your church conflict (Galatians 5:15), then you are still worldly. The thing speaks for itself.
Consider the conflict your church is facing. It may have started from impure motives and an intentional focus on doing harm. But that’s not usually the case. Usually, there is a disagreement. Or someone becomes personally hurt. Then what happens? Do we listen to the loud culture around us? Are our minds so attuned to the materialistic, self-driven, pleasure-oriented, short-tempered, envious message of the world that even we who call ourselves Christians respond just like unbelievers? Does our worldly conditioning manifest itself in graceless, loveless, words and actions? Do we pour into the church destructive venom and sinful bitterness whenever our personal desire (or our group’s desire) is not satisfied? If so, then we act exactly like those of the world.
Worldliness is the root cause of church conflicts. So what is the cure? Listen to God’s Word:
Do not deceive yourselves. If anyone thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 1 Corinthians 3:18-20
When we have conflicts in the church we merely prove that the wisdom of the world has become our standard, our level of wisdom. From God’s perspective, that is just foolishness. And such foolishness reveals that we have been deceived:
Do not be deceived. 1 Corinthians 6:9b
When we fight in the church just like those of the world fight in the world, we are fools who have been deceived. But God gives us the way to guard against such deception:
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2
How are we transformed by the renewing of our mind? How do we guard against deception? We believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ alone transforms us. He renews us. He gives us true wisdom. He graciously protects us from deception. But remember! Believing means acting. If you really want to see what you believe, consider how you live. Are you dying to self? Forsaking the treasurers of this world (fame, comfort, ease, pleasure)? Do you engage with the hurts of others? Live a life that is heavenly-oriented and not worldly? Do you love, pray for, bless … live at peace with even the most difficult people in your church (or do you just avoid them)?
When we are transformed by the renewing of our minds; when the finished work of Jesus is manifested in His gracious, continuing work of conforming us to His likeness; when Jesus renews and transforms us by His grace … then we will root out this foundational cause of church conflict (worldliness) because the things of earth will hold no power over us. We will pray and serve and bless and live all for the glory of the Triune God and the building up (the edification) of His children.
Just as we desperately need pastors who are supernaturally gifted leaders in our churches, even more so we need Christians in the pews who are supernaturally gifted church members who have intentionally rejected the world’s philosophy and influence. Then, and only then, will destructive church conflicts be seen for what they really are: mere deception. And we will see clearly that the way of the Lord is different:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13-18
In the Lamb,
Dave Edling (with Tara Barthel)