When Change Seems Unlikely in Church Conflicts

Tara has suggested to me that we present a short series of stories of hope—positive experiences we have had when working with churches in conflict. The aim of such a series, of course, would be to reveal God’s faithfulness to his people and the way that faithfulness has brought evidence of hope to difficult situations where change seemed unlikely. We both have witnessed people of faith change the desires of their hearts when it dawned on them that they were to be about building God’s kingdom and not just their own (“a kingdom of one” to use Paul Tripp’s phrase). How wonderful it is when people change because that truth is realized and embraced!

Tara’s first question to get us started was this:

“What is one of your all-time favorite memories in a church conflict (i.e., when did church leaders and members truly redeem their church’s conflict)?”

In our new book, Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care,  we tell many stories of churches in conflict to illustrate biblical principles, but one we don’t tell is of the response of a denominational synod (the national leadership of all churches of the denomination meeting together) when challenged with the message of biblical peacemaking. It is one of my favorite memories because it brought such an immediate and significant response that affected so many local congregations.

I had been engaged by the denomination to preach at the synod’s opening worship service and then, the next day, to teach a day-long seminar on conflict in the church and how best to respond. My sermon message centered on the text of 1 Corinthians 10:31:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

I was completely unaware as I began my engagement with these fellow Christians that a divisive case of church discipline (an appeal to the synod from a local church) had been festering at the national level for over twenty years! After my sermon and day of teaching on God’s wonderful grace to us and his standards for being peacemakers, I was utterly shocked to learn that in response, the Synod’s meeting agenda was being set aside for the next two days in favor of resolving this long outstanding case of conflict in the church.

This was shocking for many reasons, not the least of which was that these national-level gatherings are planned months, sometimes years, in advance. To scrap a highly orchestrated plan and come to a point where people agreed that they “must make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) is a pretty big deal! This gathering of several hundred pastors and lay church leaders did just that, however, as they said, “We haven’t put God’s priority for relationships first in our church and it is high time that we did so.” They redeemed and resolved this festering case and I had the opportunity several months later to work with a Synod committee tasked with re-writing sections of the denomination’s Book of Church Order as they captured in a permanent manner the values they had re-captured from the Scriptures.

Why did they do this? God’s grace to them, of course, but also because their corporate spiritual maturity allowed them to embrace their task of becoming more and more a kingdom-focused church being built on God’s revealed will through his Word. I am not a great or powerful public speaker, but God used me on this occasion as a simple messenger to remind these godly and gifted leaders of his grace to them as it applies to church conflict.

At the core of that message is the call to “do it all for the glory of God.” Matthew 5:23 and 24 communicate one way how we glorify God in conflict—those key interrelated principles of urgency, relationships, and worship:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the alter and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the alter. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

God is essentially telling us we can’t worship in a right manner, with a right heart, if we are living under the cloud of conflict, a broken relationship with a sibling in Christ. Indeed, we are showing ourselves as hypocrites when we try to do so. Acts of worship are meaningless to God if conflict goes unredeemed and unresolved. God’s demand for right relationships among his people, peaceful relationships, is paramount. The leaders of this denomination were given “ears to hear” (Matthew 11:15; Hebrews 3:7-8) and acted in faith because they knew God’s priorities surpassed any other consideration. It was a privilege for me to be associated with such a group of devoted Christians. God brought evidence of his faithfulness as his people were faithful. That is building a kingdom that will last … and a lasting wonderful memory for me, as well.

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him. 1 John 2:9-11

I pray for many “ears to hear.”

– Dave Edling

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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