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Confronting Conflict with the Gospel #1: Are We Correctly Addressing Church Conflict?

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel. Philippians 1:27 NIV

At 13, my world came apart when the only church family I had known went through a split—not a splintering. The church of 500 exploded as people I had respected, who had taught me God’s truths, and whom I had prayed with every Wednesday night, fought and accused and said horrible things to each other. 100 people remained. 100 started another congregation. 300 wandered out into the wilderness. My parents, who could not stop the conflict and would not participate in destroying others, wanting to protect their children, found refuge in another congregation. This conflict haunted my spiritual life for years.

Aside from personal sin, I know of no greater spiritual disaster for believers than church divisions. We who have put our faith in Jesus and are given the Spirit to empower our obedience—the destructive forces unleashed by our anger and pride can just pulverize people. How can we squabble with such venom and literally come to hate our siblings in Christ?

I have come to see in working with conflicted congregations that what is lost in all the word arrows shot is the transforming gospel. It is the gospel that can save us even from deep disagreements if we surrender to its truths. In order to see this in reality, we will explore Paul’s practical theology about conflict in Philippians.

What is this letter to the Philippians all about? Some see it as a letter about rejoicing, because Paul used that word a lot. Others take it as an expression of his gratitude and affection for the Philippian church with some make-weight-instructions thrown in. Still others see Paul, who is a prisoner at the time, explaining the secret of his contentment.

What if I told you that Paul is really writing a cohesive directive to a church he loves about dealing with conflict? Paul is not just writing a nice note to catch up or share some random thoughts. Everything he says is aimed at addressing a deep division in the congregation, centered on two women leaders.

“What?” you might ask. “Where are you getting that?” I find it in plain sight. Notice above that Paul tells the church to ‘stand firm in one spirit, striving together as one’ in Philippians 1:27. This was his call for unity for the gospel’s sake. Now flip to the last chapter and read the first verse. There Paul says, Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! Did you notice that he was concluding his ‘stand firm’ theme? Notice that this standing firm required unity—one spirit? And directly following this closing statement Paul gives a plea to Euodia and Syntyche to share the same mind as Christ. Standing firm together is not just about unity in the face of the enemy, but about not allowing the enemy to destroy your fellowship from within.

Paul did the same thing when he wrote his letter to the Romans. Penning his magnum opus to a church made up of Jewish and Gentile believers, his purpose was to address the biggest church headache of the first century—the relationship between the Gentile believers and the law. He explained how all believers are transformed by the work of the Spirit, not by keeping the law. Notice how he begins and ends the letter. “Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience.” (Romans 1:5 NIV) “. . . so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith.” (Romans 16:26 NIV)

My point in all this is that, in Philippians, Paul is arguing that division—even seemingly irrevocable splits—do not have the power to stand against God’s transformational work in His people. For Paul, most of what we divide over is not as important as the gospel, no matter what doctrinal outcomes we think are important or church emphasis we hold as sacred.

One church leadership conflict I was called into occurred a number of years ago. Several elders had left the church and a couple of others were ready to walk as well. The object of their distain was the pastor, who was quite unsure what the issues were.

I asked the remaining elders why the others had left. One told me that their ‘season’ at the church was over. I got it. They were ‘justified to leave’ because God gave them permission. How can you argue against that?

So the first thing I did was teach the gospel. I walked the entire room through the concept of unfinished business and surrendering what was in their hearts to Jesus. When I finished, I asked again why the others had left. They got it. They had not been grappling with what God was really saying. None of them were addressing the real reason for the division. We got down to brass tacks and before the evening was over, the pastor and his leaders were talking about what was really wrong between them.

I saw that pastor the other day. He reminded me of that night I was there and told me that the leaders are still with the church. Believers can find it hard to continue to be divided in the face of the gospel.


-Steve Smith