This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.
Conflicts are an inevitable part of the human experience. As long as at least two people exist and as long as those two people are not identical, there will be a context for conflict. I Corinthians 12: 20-21 says, “But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” The natural tendency for people to believe that their perspective is the right perspective will inexorably bring about conflict. Indeed, not all conflict is bad. In the right circumstances, and practiced without animosity, conflict can be a means by which each of the participants is sharpened. Proverbs 27: 17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” It is hard to conceive of two iron instruments being brought together without lots of noise and sparks. Nevertheless, when done without sinful motivations, the process brings about the sharpening of each of the participants.
An unfortunate practice among evangelical Christians is the attempt to eliminate all forms of conflict. These believers, usually pietists, can’t stand the noise and sparks that are associated with the process of forging a stronger piece of metal. They mistakenly believe that the Christian experience is more akin to harps and clouds. Therefore, anything that is noisy and boisterous must automatically be incorrect. Many evangelical churches operate in this fashion. Members in these churches walk around with plastic smiles formed on their faces so as to give the appearance of being peaceful, content, and highly sanctified. Everyone greets one another with kind words that mean absolutely nothing. The desire to eliminate good conflict results in communication that is shallow and without content. As a result, individual and corporate spiritual growth never happens in these churches, despite the fact that they can seem very sanctified in their behavior.
A conflict, simply understood, is a difference of opinion about a behavior or a belief. Stated objectively, a conflict appears to be quite innocuous. However, human beings are subjective creatures and it is the rare individual who is able to maintain objective control over his behaviors and beliefs. As we saw in the case of elders who are unwilling or unable to suppress their emotions in order to render a judicial decision, so most individual believers are unable or unwilling to objectively distance themselves from their closely held beliefs. In fact, most believers become highly emotionally involved with their own beliefs and behaviors to the point that an objective “attack” (a challenge to or disagreement with) upon them by another person is perceived as a personal “attack” that needs to be personally “counter-attacked”. The process quickly degenerates from the process of iron sharpening iron to one of two selfish individuals calling each other names and protecting their own emotional turf.
It is vitally important for all believers to maintain emotional self-control. Since almost nobody is able to do this in our churches today, we are filled with sinful conflicts. The fact that emotional, rather than theological, expression has been elevated to the highest standard of communication does little to help the situation. The worldly influence of popular psychology upon the Church has led directly to the presupposition that the expression of our emotions is what leads to spiritual health. But, the heart is wicked and deceitful above all things. It is hard to see how giving free reign to a wicked and deceitful part of our lives is going to bring about spiritual unity. On the contrary, our emotions must be subject to the control of our minds if we are ever going to make progress in spiritual growth and maturity.
Ostensibly, the goal of every believer is to become more like Jesus. In theory that means conforming more and more to the precepts revealed in His Word. It is assumed that each believer is somewhere along the pathway of sanctification and that there are still areas in our lives that need to conform to the Word of God. For the person who is unable to exercise emotional self-control however, it is impossible to make progress because sinful, self-protective emotions quickly surface the moment another person challenges his opinions or behaviors. Of course, all of this is just a fancy way of pointing out that spiritual pride is the nemesis of spiritual growth. As long as we are thinking of ourselves, it is impossible that we shall make any progress. Conflict is the result of selfishness. When we forget about ourselves we are in a position to make moral progress and entirely eliminate sinful conflict.
Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best (Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 8) when he said, “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good–above all, that we are better than someone else–I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.” It is not possible to be offended when you are not thinking about yourself. It is not possible to have a sinful conflict with another person when you are thinking about what is in the best interest of the other person. It is not possible to become angry with what someone has said about you when your own opinion of yourself is so low that there is nothing the other person could say that would challenge that opinion! When we realize that the nasty words coming out of that other person’s mouth really have nothing to do with me and everything to do with their own attempt to self-protect, then we are able to understand the dynamics of conflict.