Conflict in the Church

Conflict regularly occurs in the church. If experience doesn’t teach this reality, then we only need turn to the pages of the New Testament for verification. Paul and Barnabas separate (Acts 15:36-41), divisions arise in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10-17), accusations are hurled at apostles (2 Corinthians 10), pride disrupts (Galatians 2:11-14), personal disagreement festers (Philippians 4:2-3), sin abounds (James 2), etc. The church consists entirely of sinners, this side of glory; therefore, church life often includes conflict, this side of glory.

Yet, I think much of our conflict could be minimized or even dissolved by practicing a remedy we witness the Apostle Paul employing in the New Testament. Many of our conflicts would benefit from seeing them in light of eternity.

Paul often takes this tack in addressing Christians. He says to Euodia and Syntyche, “Agree in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2) In a similar way, he reminds Philemon that Onesimus was his slave in the flesh—that is the temporal world—but now he is a beloved brother, “in the Lord” (Philemon v. 15). He focuses Euodia, Synthyche, and Philemon on the eternal. In effect, he is making the case that they enjoy a relationship that is greater, deeper and fuller than the conflict itself. In fact, their relationship shall endure without end, whereas the reason for the conflict will end.

Paul offers an interesting comment to Philemon in this regard. He allows his apostolic mind to run a little. He suggest that Onesimus may have been predestined to run away from Philemon so that Philemon might have him back not just for this life but for all of eternity (v. 15). He doesn’t speak definitively about God’s providence, but he is willing to guess. “Maybe,” Paul is suggesting, “just maybe Onesimus’ running away was actually for your eternal benefit, Philemon. That you might have another brother for all eternity.” It minimizes the sting of the offense, when we see it against the backdrop of eternity.

We have all watched as two small children sit on the floor and a fight between the two suddently erupts. Tears flow, screaming ensues, sometimes a hit or even a bite will be employed. Why? Because both children desire the same toy. It could be a doll or a whistle or ball. It really doesn’t matter. Because once the stronger child possesses it, it is but played with for a few minutes. The newness wears off, the joy dissipates, or something else captures the attention. As an adult watching this scene, we can’t help but shake our heads. “If only they knew,” we say to ourselves. The fight is not worth having. The tears didn’t need to be shed. The offense surely did not need to be offered. The joy in that toy is fleeting, the reason for anger was trivial, the object secured so inconsequential. So it is with many of our conflicts in the body of Christ. When eternity is kept in view, the reason for the conflict seldom proves worth it. Maybe this is why Paul begins speaking about love with noting that it is “patient and kind.” Patience takes a long-view and kindness tends to flow with such a view in mind.

How many of our disagreements, misunderstandings, bitterness, and lack of forgiveness in the Body of Christ would disappear if we but looked at our conflict in light of eternity? If we but lived in light of eternity?

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