Q. When pastors in conflicted churches call you, what do they need the most? Is there a certain piece of advice or Scripture passage that you always end up giving them?
A. A pastor tensely (and loudly) said, “You just don’t understand, Dave; no one has ever faced a situation like this and many, many people are going to be hurt and the church will never recover!” On the phone this pastor, this under-shepherd of the Lord and King of Creation, was so distraught and overwhelmed by his church’s conflicts that there was simply no hope left in him. For him, the end of the world had truly arrived. But had it really?
One aspect of the account given to us in the opening verses of Acts 15 that always amazes and encourages me is the response that Paul and Barnabas displayed when traveling through the land to take a matter of church conflict back to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for counsel. The early church was facing a very serious doctrinal challenge to the Gospel’s message of free grace in Christ. Paul and Barnabas knew the stakes were high as evidenced by the fierce encounter they had with those demanding the addition of the works of the law. But we find them as they travel through Phoenicia and Samaria telling people how the powerful message of grace has led to the conversion of even the Gentiles (those considered by the “religious people” of the day as outcasts and “unclean”). And, as Acts 15:3 goes on to tell us:
“This news made all the brothers very glad.”
The anxiety of conflict could have diverted Paul and Barnabas from the good news of the entrance of new believers into the eternal kingdom of God. Had this happened, we could well have had an account reporting that:
“The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how a great church conflict was raging in Antioch and many were leaving the church. This news made all the brothers very sad.”
But that was not how Paul and Barnabas acted and that is not what happened. Why?
Of course, it was because Paul and Barnabas knew and had seen the power of God’s grace in action. Just take a few minutes to read the chapters immediately preceding chapter 15 of Acts and imagine for a moment how you would react if someone then told you “No. God’s grace in Christ is not enough for your eternal salvation.” That would sound like rubbish and nonsense. But then what? Do you keep on joyously serving God’s people in truth or do you react in some other manner? Are you suddenly overwhelmed by discouragement, anxiety, and an end-of-the-world mentality? That was exactly where this pastor was during our phone call. (And exactly where many pastors have been during many phone calls I have had with them.)
A serious conflict had struck his church. What do I now say to bring him back to a perspective that serves up a large dose of the reality of grace?
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
That is the most important message—God’s message—that this pastor and every person in conflict needs to hear. It is the message of the reality of eternal grace that overcomes every distraction, even the distraction of conflict. But to understand that message in context we need to understand and believe something more. These verses begin with the key word “Therefore” indicating that what came before establishes the basis from which the belief-action of change can follow. We see that before the “Therefore” of verse 16 come these powerful words of eternal truth:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6
It is written: “I believed therefore I have spoken.” With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. 2 Corinthians 4:13-14 (emphasis added)
When I responded to the pastor with the words of 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 I was not advocating some pie-in-the-sky mind game to try to manipulate him into feeling better. No. When I spoke of living consistently from an “eternal perspective,” I was reminding him of all of the truths he already believed; truths that would give him hope to courageously and joyfully face his conflicts. I gently encouraged him:
“Pastor, your belief, your faith, in the risen Christ demands of you a new way of thinking and speaking. If you believe that God raised Christ from the dead and that he will also raise you then you have the present power of that faith to change and face every conflict with that same spirit. Our common faith is in a presently unseen reality that changes everything; it opens the door to hope and it means you never again have to be overwhelmed by anything in this life.”
When the distraught pastor regained his perspective he began to change. He realized that the situation he faced may be out of his present control but that it wasn’t out of God’s control. He believed again that by faith he could see the situation anew. Even though the conflict was serious, it was not paralyzing. He could become the messenger of encouragement and hope that God had called him to be. With that renewed eternal perspective he began to understand what trust in God really looked like. And as he trusted in God, he lost his anxiety and began to lead. Under his leadership the church’s members responded in faith and hope and the conflict eventually became the message God was using to grow up his disciples.
Redeeming conflicts begins with faith, hope, and trust in the God Who raised the dead then and Who still raises the dead today. God is at work in every situation, even the excruciatingly painful fire of church conflict.
With man this is impossible, but not with God: all things are possible with God. Mark 10:27
The power making eternal salvation possible is also the power behind redeeming church conflicts. Believe it. Live it. Have hope.
In our new book, Redeeming Church Conflicts, Tara and I unpack Acts 15 as one of God’s powerful demonstrations of the Gospel at work. Look for it on May 1st or pre-order at Amazon.com today.