According to 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, all truly saved Christians are part of the Body of Christ. It reads, “12 For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. 14 For in fact the body is not one member but many.”
Yet, differences sometimes exist in the opinions and interpretations of Scripture between the members of the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 13:9-12, Paul gave us a biblical reason why some of these differences may occur, “9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
Sadly, there is also the other side of the “differences” coin, so to speak. These differences are often caused because of pride and arrogance and also due to the Word of God is not being studied for what it says but rather twisted to accommodate personal likes and dislikes. In these instances, differences often result in heated debates and even strait forward and fleshly disputes. 1 Timothy 4:1-2 warns that this would increasingly happen in the latter days “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron.”
This leaves us with a few questions, such as: “Is everybody who claims to be a Christian, part of the Body of Christ?” “How much should I tolerate?” “How should Christians resolve their differences?” “Is there a point where we should rather walk away and distance ourselves from others who claims to be Christians?” “Am I causing division in the Body of Christ?”
In an article published by Dr. Mark D. Roberts, he provides good guidance on how to deal with these differences and disputes. Much of what he said is build into our article. He started his article by saying, “I wish conflict among Christians were a relatively insignificant problem. I wish we who believe in Jesus could experience the unity he commended to us (John 17:20-24). I wish there wasn’t animosity within churches and denominations. But all of this is, I admit, wishful thinking. The fact is that Christians often have a hard time getting along with each other.”
These disputes were not what Jesus intended. In his so-called “High Priestly Prayer” recorded in John 17, Jesus prayed:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
A little earlier, Jesus had said to his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). To be sure, there are times when followers of Jesus do love each other in an exemplary way. But, far too often, such love is marred by conflict, tension, and outright meanness. And, far too often, we have not dealt with these problems in a loving way.”
No church in Scripture is more ridden with disagreement and controversy than the Corinthian church. It took Paul multiple visits and letters, two of which we have in the New Testament, to sort out the problems in this church.
Among other things, some of the divisive issues in the Corinthian church included over-identification with one or another Christian leader and selfishness in church gatherings. These might seem familiar to some of you …
Beneath the plethora of issues lay the challenge of working out the Christian life in a non-Christian culture, as well as a huge crowd of lukewarm church goers and “religious” people.
DEALING WITH CONFLICT AMONG CHRISTIANS: ONE STARTING POINT
God’s inspired Word is always the best starting point there is.
First, in times of conflict our natural human emotions often try to dictate our behavior. We feel anger and want to lash out. We feel wronged and want to get revenge. Chief among these ways is the desire to “win” our opponent. We defend ourselves and we play the victim if needed. We conveniently ignore facts that don’t support our side. We hold grudges, and so forth.
Rarely are these the ways of a God who says to us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). The world doesn’t have much room for one who tells us to turn the other cheek, who calls us to forgive seventy times seven, and who urges us to imitate his humble, self-sacrificial servanthood.
Yet, if we allow our emotions to guide our behavior, inevitably we’ll simply make matters worse. Conversely, if we tenaciously hang onto biblical teaching, we’ll find the power to act rightly even when our feelings try to drag us in the wrong direction. So we need the Bible to show us different ways to operate in times of conflict.
Also, in times of conflict among Christians, we need the Bible as the source both of practical guidance (here’s how to act) and of theological insight. The biblical combination of ethics and theology helps to shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
LET GOD SPEAK TO YOU THROUGH HIS WORD
One of the most important passages for discerning God’s guidance for Christians in conflict is found in Philippians 2:1-8.
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
In light of this passage, if you’re in the midst of conflict with other Christians, you need to do the following:
- Ask the Lord to speak to you through His Word and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. As God convicts you, go with it. Talk to Him about it. Confess if you need to. Ask for His help to obey if you need to.
- Be open to correction from other believers.
- Act upon what God has said to you through His Word and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Be a doer of the Word, not a hearer only (James 1:22). You may find it very hard to do what God wants you to do. Be assured: He will provide the strength you need if you depend on him.
HAVING THE MIND OF CHRIST
Philippians 2:1-8 speaks of being agreeable, humble, and considering others as better than yourself. This passage begins with a series of ethical injunctions that could be paraphrased: agree with each other; love each other; be humble; care more for the concerns others than for your own concerns. These imperatives are summarized in verse five: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In a nutshell, we are to think as Jesus thought.
The bigger picture is an image of Christ’s active humility. It’s a portrait of one who was fully equal to God the Father, but who, nevertheless, chose to take on the form of a slave by becoming human. Moreover, this passage paints a shocking picture of a divine being who not only became human, but also chose to die a most humiliating and painful death by crucifixion. One cannot imagine a more startling and unsettling image of humility and self-sacrifice.
How might our conflict with others be different if we took seriously the humility of Jesus? How might we react to those who wrong us if we were to reflect upon the self-giving love of Christ?
In Philippians 2, Paul uses the image of the humble, self-sacrificing, serving, crucified Christ to teach the Philippians believers how they ought to treat each other. We’re called to imitate Christ, not in any way we please, but specifically with respect to his humbling, self-giving, sacrificial action.
This isn’t easy to do! Even when getting along well with others it natural to put our self-interest first. It’s impossible to obey without God. It challenges the very fiber of our being. It calls us to counter-intuitive and counter-cultural humility. We’re just not wired to do this sort of thing apart from divine help.
When we put our faith in Christ, the very Spirit of God comes to dwell in us, empowering us with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. The Spirit is in the process of making us more and more like Christ. Once we realize our own inadequacies, we’re ready to trust God more completely, and to discover that we can do all things through Christ who makes us strong (Philippians 4:13). The more you depend upon Jesus, the more you’ll find unexpected strength to be agreeable, loving, humble, other-directed, and Christ-like.
WHAT IS THE TRUE CHURCH?
Which church is the one that God loves and cherishes and died for? Which church is His bride? The answer is that no visible church or denomination is the true church, because the bride of Christ is not an institution, but is instead a spiritual entity made up of those who have by grace through faith been brought into a close, intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9). Those people, no matter which building, denomination, or country they happen to be in, constitute the true church.
On the simplest level, a church is a gathering of people who belong to God through faith in Jesus Christ. Wherever Christians come together in Christ, there is a church. But this is just the beginning. In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul speaks of the church in striking and surprising language:
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (3:16-17)
Here the temple of God is the church, the gathered fellowship of believers. The context in 1 Corinthians 3 makes it clear that Paul is not focusing on individual believers when he says “you are God’s temple.” In verse 9, the Corinthian church is “God’s building” (3:9). Those who labor as church-planters are in the construction business, so to speak (3:10-15). So when we come to verse 16, we know that the temple of which Paul speaks is not the individual believer but the assembly of believers.
The first three chapters of 1 Corinthians have to do, not with threats to individual believers, but with the threat of division in the church at Corinth. So when Paul says, “If anyone destroys God’s temple,” he’s referring to the church of God in Corinth, which is at risk because of the conflicts in the church.
From the mere fact that the church is God’s temple, you’d naturally conclude that it ought to be treated with reverence and supreme care. Before you start trifling with the church of God, you’d better realize what you’re doing.
So, if you’re in the midst of “church” conflict, step back from the issues long enough to remember what it is you’re dealing with. Are you thinking of yourself and your opponent as the temple of God? Are you doing everything you can to protect and care for God’s temple?
WHOSE CHURCH IS IT?
The church is not simply a religious club, formed and guided by its members. It belongs to God in a strong, ultimate sense.
Paul reiterates this point at the conclusion of his opening address to the Corinthians: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9). Notice, first of all, that the Corinthian believers aren’t in the fellowship because they chose to join. From a theological point of view, they “were called” by God into the fellowship. They belong not merely to a human institution, but to a fellowship that has been founded by and is the property of the very Son of God.
Twice in his opening address to the Corinthians, Paul emphasizes the fact that their gathering is not their own. It belongs to God the Father and to the Son of God. Later Paul will explain that the church comes into existence through the work of the Spirit of God (see 12:12-13). This is a fundamental truth about the church, and one Paul emphasizes intentionally because it relates to the problem of conflict among Christians.
To relate Paul’s point to the situation of conflict among Christians today, when you’re caught up in a disagreement with other believers, you need to remember whose you are. You belong to God through Jesus Christ. This is true of you personally and also of the church.
The church doesn’t belong to you or to the people who are on your side. Not even to the majority of the members or to the founding members or their descendents. It doesn’t belong to the pastor, or the elders, or even the denomination (if there is one).
If we truly believe that the church belongs to God, then we’ll be more committed to finding God’s solution to our conflicts than making sure that our side wins. Only one opinion really matters, the opinion that belongs to God. The church is first and foremost, a vehicle for God’s glory. The church exists to do God’s bidding, to represent God’s kingdom, and to bring praise to God.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT CHRISTIAN LEADERS
Idolizing pastors and church fathers is often one of the major causes of disputes. There are many cases where people are so identified with the pastor or church fathers that things are way out of balance. A church that belongs to God ends up being spoken of, and sometimes even thought of, as the personal property of some individual or denomination. The identity of a pastor (or church father) and church are so intertwined that it’s almost impossible to think of them as distinct. That which exists for the sake and glory of Christ ends up as a personality cult with the pastor (or church father) as the dominant star.
The tendency of Christians to over-identify with their leaders is an old one. In fact, it goes back to the earliest years of the church. In the letter we know as 1 Corinthians, Paul gets right to the point after his opening address:
“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”” (1:10-12)
Fundamental to the divisions and disagreements in the Corinthian church was the tendency for the different “parties” to identify with some Christian leader over and against the others. Of course, love and appreciation for Christians leaders is a fine thing. But when this love and appreciation becomes divisive or idolatrous, then we have a real problem. Paul wraps up his argument with a simple imperative: “So let no one boast about human leaders.” Though appreciation of leaders is fine, this must not run over into bragging or anything that would divide the church.
Our “job” is to help the church be unified in Christ, based on the truths in the Word of God, not to divide in order to defend ourselves, our denominations, our church fathers, our pastors or our own opinions. Devote yourself to seeking what’s best for whole church – the Body of Christ.
HOW NOT TO SOLVE CONFLICTS AMONG CHRISTIANS
As mentioned earlier, we are to imitate the sacrificial example of Jesus Christ. As Jesus taught, we often need to turn the other cheek, to walk the second mile (Matthew 5:39-41). Jesus modeled self-giving sacrifice through his death on the cross. Yes, indeed, this sort of thing grates against our own desire for vindication as well as our culture’s preoccupation with winning no matter what. But our Lord teaches us, both by word and by deed, how to give up our lives so that we might gain true life, eternal life, life in all of its fullness.
If you’re in a conflict with other Christians, whether it is personal, professional, or ecclesiastical, the way NOT to solve the problem is by making it a personal vendetta or humiliating your opponent before others. Yes, we may have to sacrifice our pride for a while. Yes, we may lose certain personal advantages and popularity. But what we gain, and what the church of Jesus Christ gains, may well be worth the cost.
Often people are not as spiritually mature and they get caught up in a worldly effort to win. But the fact that we Christians fail to do what Scripture calls us to do is no argument for not trying to obey in the first place. We should make every effort to settle our disputes in a Christ-like manner. And when this fails, there will be times when God will call us simply to lose and walk away, rather than to fight a useless battle. Yet in this losing, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, there will be a great gain for God’s kingdom, and even for our own souls.
Do not miss out on TOLERANCE – PART 2. It will be published on the blog within the next few days.