How To Handle Church Conflict

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Two men who lived in a small village got into a terrible dispute that they could not resolve. So they decided to talk to the town sage. The first man went to the sage’s home and told his version of what happened. When he finished, the sage said, “You’re absolutely right.” The next night, the second man called on the sage and told his side of the story. The sage responded, “You’re absolutely right.” Afterward, the sage’s wife scolded her husband. “Those men told you two different stories and you told them they were absolutely right. That’s impossible — they can’t both be absolutely right.” The sage turned to his wife and said, “You’re absolutely right.”- Dave Moore

In many church conflicts, the loudest voice wins.  Unfortunately, there are bullies in congregations.  Let me define what a church bully is.  It is someone who lets their agenda and their need for control and power become more important than God’s mission.  Those people at times use schoolyard bully tactics to get their way.  They prey on the fact that church members truly have no desires to come to church and argue and fight.  People come to church to be fed with God’s Word and seek avenues that they can use their gifts and talents to help advance God’s kingdom.  So, in church conflicts often the bully has free reign. These power struggles play out in the life of too many congregations and the end results are good people are either hurt in the fight or become disillusioned with Christianity. The bully can take on many faces, but no matter the face, it is Satan’s way of disrupting God’s work among God’s people.

Satan uses many people to accomplish this; sometimes it is a pastor who feels the need to exercise unhealthy control over every aspect of the congregational life.  You see this being played out when the lay leadership has less and less administrative oversight and the circle of power shrinks down to a faithful few committed followers.  These members believe they are doing what is best for the church, but in reality, they are destroying the unity and harmony of the congregation.

Sometimes two factions of a church are fighting over something and the preacher is in the middle.  Silence and inactivity give more power and credence to the bullying behavior and divisive power struggles.  I hope to give you some practical ways to deal with imperfect people and broken relationship. Let me say this first: if the behavior is abusive that needs to be addressed.

The Apostle Paul addressed how to approach a divided and fighting church in the city of Corinth. They were as mixed up as any church today.  Paul’s message to them in 1 Corinthians was there are three things that people who are fighting and divided need to do.

  1. Focus on Jesus because we are United in HIM.

Knowing they are fighting and quarreling, Paul says to them…

I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” I Cor. 1:10

In that one sentence, he reminds them that people in the church share a special relationship with one another. We’re are united under one common faith, we share one baptism, and the church has one common mission.  And for that reason, we should be united around that shared relationship.  If that is truly the case, there is no room in the body of Christ for fighting with each other. Instead, we should come together in Christian fellowship to strengthen each other, not to tear each other down.

  1. Focus on Jesus instead of other people.

Paul says, here’s what I hear is happening there: some of you are saying ‘Paul is your man.’ Some are saying that you follow Apollos. Some of you say you follow Peter, and some of you are even misusing the name of Jesus by splitting off from everyone else and saying, ‘We follow Christ alone.’ The Church isn’t supposed to be like this. Jesus died for us, and we were baptized into Him, not into any mere man.

Paul’s point was that Christians are supposed to follow Jesus and not other people. When you follow someone, eventually they’re going to let you down because they’re inadequate when compared to Jesus. You may be attracted by someone’s personality or something else they have or do well, but they’re still human and will eventually fail you. Others may not be as enamored with another church leader as you and they see his or her flaws and sins, and then you get the situation that Paul condemned in Corinth: people rallying around leaders instead of gathering around Jesus.

The temptation for leaders in the church is to build a sort of “personality cult” around ourselves. We all want to be liked.  The more people heap praise on us the more we begin to crave it and tend to lose sight to whom belongs the glory.  So It becomes very tempting to craft our message in often subtle ways so that we come off more holy than we are.   It may come across as if the leaders don’t struggle with sin as they condemn the sins of those not like us. It becomes tempting to set ourselves up as the example for people to follow. It is here we need to be reminded we preach Christ and him crucified.  Or to say it as a true Southerner, “It Ain’t about me, It’s about Him!”

  1. Focus on Jesus and on what he wants us to do.

Paul told the Corinthian Christians, in effect, “I don’t care about who baptized who. I was just doing what God asked me to do—preaching the Gospel. I don’t care who gets credit; I was just following my orders.”

What God wants from us can be summed up in two words — faithfulness and fruitfulness. God wants us to be faithful to him: to worship and honor him with all our heart, mind, soul.

And God wants us to be fruitful for him too. One can be faithful and still miss the boat as far as being fruitful. God’s desire is to transform us into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) and make us as fruitful as He was. We want to always be ready to “give an account for the hope that is within you” (1 Peter 3:15). We desire to be the “good soil” Jesus spoke of in the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:3–9. The result of spiritual fruitfulness is that as God is glorified, we grow, and others are introduced to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the ultimate fruitfulness for a child of God.

We’re imperfect people, and so our tendency is to be selfish and self-centered. Our goal is to see things from Christ’s point of view, that is only possible through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and prayer.

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26 thoughts on “How To Handle Church Conflict

  1. This is a wonderful post and so true. I know some folks who stopped going to church because of in-fighting. You’re absolutely right (I couldn’t resist) that we need to focus on Jesus and not the people at church.

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  2. I like your article on church conflict; it hits the bull’s eye of the problem. You are very right that the problem is very much leadership as well as congregants.

    Earlier this year I successfully defended a doctoral dissertation on the subject. In this work, I actually designed a peace making strategy to educate local church members to resolve conflict. The approach It significantly utilizes church members as the solution with pastoral oversight of course. Peacemaking is a Christian duty as well as peacekeeping.

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      1. The title of my dissertation is: “Bridging The Church Conflict Gap: A Peacemaking Strategy To Educate Local Church Members in Resolving Conflicts” (Author: Michael W. Dewar). It is published on ProQuest, date 2016.

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  3. It is not easy, but this is good advice. I believe Satan goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he can devour. Stay in the Word, and bind every spirit between you and those who talk with you. Plead the blood of Jesus. This helps. You may still have to speak and confront. Do this with the boldness of the Lord, and know you are forgiven, and you stand in Him. Then say what you mean clearly. “Satan get behind me. Stop manipulating my thoughts. Holy Spirit move on my behalf in Jesus name. Fill me Holy Spirit. What is the name of the demon coming against me?” I bind self, satan and sin. In Jesus name.

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  4. You may have to fast to find the name of the demon coming against you through someone. It is common for Satan to bully through someone. He tries all kinds of things to keep us off task, and not praying. Prayer warriors have defense. Use it. The word will send Satan running. Rebuke him and tell him to go in Jesus name. One can put many to flight, but two in agreement will put 10,000. The trouble is getting two to agree. You and one other person. Don’t be frustrated. Fast, and seek God’s opinion on the matter. What God wants is being fought.

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  5. I had been in a church like this for twice…both church got split..recently one of the believer even committed suicide..it’s sad the bullies and faction doers are too ignorant for being toy of the devil…and mostly it is the preacher and pastor who are bullies..they don’t wan’t to lead the congregation in a GOD’s way..and you are right when you said Focusing on Jesus for the conflict solution..
    Here is one article i had read yesterday…http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/291873-five-dangers-church-cartel-thom-rainer.html

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  6. I had been in a church like this for twice…both church got split..recently one of the believer even committed suicide..it’s sad the bullies and faction doers are too ignorant for being toy of the devil…and mostly it is the preacher and pastor who are bullies..they don’t wan’t to lead the congregation in a GOD’s way..and you are right when you said Focusing on Jesus t solve conflict.
    Here is one article i had read yesterday…http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/291873-five-dangers-church-cartel-thom-rainer.htm

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  7. Thank you for writing this. I have found that the bullies tend to say, “This is my church, and we will do things my way.” I have always tried to respond, “This is not your church–this is Christ’s church.” Sad to say, even that does not always work. J.

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  8. You said, “…if the behavior is abusive that needs to be addressed.”

    How do you define abusive behavior and how would you address it?

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    1. Abusive behavior in a congregation is when people are verbally abused or threatened. You handle it by holding the offending party accountable for their actions. We have a process in Matthew 18 that Jesus laid out to deal with the offending party.

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  9. One of the important, but often neglected aspects of equipping the saints, is to coach congregational families on what grace-based cherishing/respecting looks and sounds like – especially under the stress of disagreements, disappointed expectations, and conflict. I’ve found that people in churches don’t talk through their differences well because they don’t do that well at home. I have some material I’ve developed called “Let’s Talk Out Your “IT!”” It uses scripting as a way to train people on what to say and not say – when they are working these things through. The focus of the training is to teach: 1. achieving mutual understanding. 2. repairing hurt. 3. collaborative problem-solving. Matthew 18 and other passages provide the template for what to do and why it’s important – but coaching teaches people how to say it.

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