This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.
James 4: 1-3 describes the source of sinful conflicts among men:
What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God?
What is the source of sinful conflict? Our own emotions of lust, envy, and pleasure seeking are the source of our conflicts. Our own basic presupposition that the way of the world is the correct way to behave brings about conflict. I will never forget a time when I was working as an apartment painter. On my way home after work one day I boarded an elevator to take me down to the parking lot. The landlord was standing on an outside hallway and he was in the process of evicting a person who was well behind on his rent. As I was standing there waiting for the elevator the man who was being evicted launched into a profanity filled tirade against the landlord. The landlord, a believer, listened quietly and did not respond. The elevator door opened and I entered the compartment along with the man who was being evicted and his girlfriend/wife. As the doors closed and we began to descend he turned to the woman and said, “I just had to express how I feel”. After all, he was just expressing his feelings. In his mind, and in the eyes of the world, that justified his verbal abuse of an innocent man.
Objectively, this man was a thief. He was stealing from the landlord by writing bad checks and obtaining living quarters for free. It had taken almost two months to go through the process of eviction and the man had never paid a penny in rent. In essence, he had stolen hundreds of dollars from the landlord. However, from his emotional perspective, the landlord was a tyrant who was oppressing him. From his point of view the landlord deserved to be the recipient of a severe verbal attack that was laced with profanity. His lust, envy and pursuit of personal pleasure had blinded him to objective reality. That is the essence of a sinful conflict.
Sinful conflict comes into existence when one or both of the parties to the conflict decides to abandon the pursuit of objective reality by rational means and, instead, decides to protect themselves from the possibility that they could be wrong. Merely admitting that it is possible to be wrong is not usually a threat. However, for most people who find it impossible to control their emotions, an admission of error is far more than an objective statement. It is a highly emotionally charged statement that most people are either unwilling or unable to perform. I John 4: 20 gives some insight into this dynamic when John says, “If some one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
It is not possible to claim to love God (and therefore be a Christian) and hate His people at the same time. John simply says that the person who claims to do so is a liar. It is not possible for a person to love a God that he has not seen when he is unwilling or unable to love a fellow professing believer that he does see. In other words, genuine love for God will always be demonstrated in genuine love for other professing believers. If there is no evidence of genuine love for other professing believers, then there is no reason to expect that person is a true believer.
I Corinthians 13 lists several of the qualities of the love that John speaks about. Among other things love is “patient, kind, does not brag, is not arrogant, does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, and endures all things”. It is not difficult to understand that there is very little love going on in our churches. As I said before, if you are a member in the “Church of Shallowness” where nobody ever says or does anything that is deep or genuine, then it may appear as if people actually love one another. But reality will eventually intrude. Something will come up. Maybe it will be what color to paint the bathrooms. Maybe it will be who gets the best parking spot. Maybe it will be who decides what style the choir robes are going to be. Maybe it will be who decides what should be put out as a snack around the coffee pot. When it does, look around to see how much patience, kindness, and care for others is being displayed.
I have witnessed and been involved in hundreds of conflicts between professing believers in my thirty years of being a Christian. In almost all of those conflicts I have seen precious little patience. Kindness is almost immediately thrown out the window because the practice of real kindness would not allow the combatants to call each other names. Self-seeking is the name of the game and the battle lines are drawn between the warring parties. Schisms form and members are actively recruited to join the different sides as a gesture of their dedication to some particular point or idea. The idea that “love is not provoked” quickly flies out the window as each side accuses the other of provoking them in one way or another. Perhaps most disgustingly, each side manages to find long lists of previous “sins” that have been committed against their individual members which are then dragged out and made public. These lists can be extremely long and go back to alleged offenses that often took place years earlier. So much for “not taking into account a wrong suffered.”
Sinful conflicts originate from our own sinfulness. That may sound like a bit of an oxymoron but it is amazing how that truism is ignored or suppressed. In every sinful conflict, one or both parties to the conflict are in a state of sin. Sin is not something that can be ignored. Sin is something that must be resolved. The standard practice of most people and churches to simply wait and hope that everything will eventually calm down is not enough. The common practice of finding a scapegoat and blaming him for all that has happened and hoping that he will eventually leave the church does not honor God. God has given in His Word some specific principles for the resolution of sinful conflicts. We will examine three of them here.