The poor way we handle conflict within the Church is hurting us and damaging our witness.When we fail to treat each other with love, we are more like a horrible warning than a beautiful example.In my pastoral and mediation roles I see a lot of conflict in churches and I see the terrible pain and destruction it brings for all involved.
Here is my own confession: a number of years ago, I ran away from an opportunity to face an uncomfortable conversation with fellow Christians where I believed they had done something wrong that I found hurtful.When we are hurt by the actions of someone in our church, our strategies tend to be:
- erupt in the moment and have an angry row – an uncontrolled explosion
- avoid them/avoid the subject – try to be ‘nice’?
- talk to other members about them – particularly those who agree with us
- leave that church (for another one, or none)
Funnily enough, Jesus expects there to be conflict in the church and he has told us how we should approach it.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Matthew 18 v15 (NRSV)
That is in stark contrast to our present pattern.Jesus is asking us to talk honestly, privately and with the intention of restoration.There are a few reasons why that might be hard for us to do:
- Fear: we are afraid to face an unpleasant/painful conversation; after all, they have already hurt us once
- Hopelessness: we cannot imagine this going well and leading to positive change or restoration – we worry that this direct strategy will only make things worse
- Inadequacy: we have not seen this modelled by others, so we are not sure how to go about it, we doubt our own ability to manage the encounter, and we have not experienced being on the receiving end of this kind of respectful, restoring challenge
- Ego: we don’t want restoration – we feel hurt and angry, maybe we want to punish them, make them sorry and we feel justified in our own stance (we withhold our mercy and forgiveness)
How would it be if we accepted the challenge of this biblical instruction when facing conflict with each other?We would begin to experience something quite new in our church relationships.We don’t have to do this perfectly. We could take the risk of trying it and helping each other to find our way together.
It takes courage for me to go to someone and say, ‘here is how your actions have been painful for me, and this is the change I am seeking for the future’ – yet, this is the only route whereby we have a chance of reaching a healthy place together in our relationship.Such a risk says that I value our relationship and I believe that you are a person who can hear my concern and reflect seriously on your own actions.And I am also open to discovering something unexpected in that conversation – perhaps uncovering a misunderstanding or gaining a new insight into myself.
If church members followed this instruction we would offer a very different witness on how to deal with hard issues lovingly.God knows we will find this hard but He makes a promise to us at the end of this passage:
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”Matthew 18 v20 (NRSV)
Laurie Randall is an independent practitioner in pastoral supervision, mediation, facilitation, and training.She is involved in Pastoral Support for clergy and their partners in Connor Diocese.Laurie also works for Mediation Northern Ireland.