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Confronting Conflict with the Gospel #8: Do You Have to Win?

Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:1-4 (NIV)

Since the Fall, two factors have motivated how people, including me, approach conflict. I desire to be right. And I desire to win.  And even if I lose, I still believe I am right. This mentality is not Christian, but it is human and colors how we fight our battles.

I was called in to help a church that had torn itself in two. Many had already left by the time I arrived on the scene. I met with many of the leaders over the course of the day. One who was at the center of the conflict was a highly respected Bible teacher who was adamant that those who opposed his point of view were just plain wrong. Though he grieved over the impact their disagreement had had on the congregation, he was in no way ready or willing to back down. He spoke in glowing terms of his beliefs. He conceded nothing to his opponents’ point of view.

His church family was torn apart and bleeding, but he was going out with his head held high and his beliefs intact.

If you have wondered at how churches end up at Level Five conflict (Level 5: I and the people with me will destroy you!), the answer is not just our anger, but also our pride. It is this underlying pride that Paul begins to spotlight with his continuing counsel about the Philippians’ conflict. His guidance is spot on for us today.

Ever aware of his audience, Paul begins to apply the transforming gospel to their lives. Because we read these words in English, we can miss the richness of Paul’s point. Where we read ‘if’ in verse 1, we need to read ‘since you have.’ That is a much closer sense of Paul’s argument. Our translation using ‘if’ seems to suggest a note of doubt—is this true for you? But Paul is not in doubt. He knows that they know what the gospel has done in and to them to make them into the family of God. “Since you have encouragement from being united with Christ, since you have comfort from his love, since you have a common sharing in the Spirit, since you have tenderness and compassion, then . . .”

The transforming gospel does not mean we are passive players in our growing in grace. Because of these benefits Paul is referencing, we find ourselves needing to engage in a serious self-examination of the motives of our hearts. Why are we fighting? More important, what does belonging to Christ mean in a practical way?

Can I, for example, just walk out of fellowship with my fellow believers because I am angry? Am I, as one group of departing leaders once told me, rupturing relationships with Jesus’ approval?

Paul did not think so. He is telling them that he, their spiritual father in the Lord, would only be completely joyful if they chose being in their right minds over being right. Being in their right minds meant not just seeing the unbreakable nature of the body of Christ, but embracing the underlying oneness that was the hallmark of Jesus’ Church.

And then he gets a little more pointed about pride. Humility, not selfish ambition or conceit, is the order of the day. A little background here is important. Philippi was a Roman colony in a foreign land. It was a place where good soldiers went to retire and represent the Roman Empire’s interests in that land. Because the Jews had been banned from Rome some years before because of rioting over Christ, they were also generally banned in Philippi when Paul showed up with the gospel. As a result, this was mostly a Gentile congregation, probably dominated by retired military personnel.

Humility was not a highly prized virtue of the Roman male population, especially in the military. It was seen as weak, softening the warrior spirit necessary to maintain the Roman Pax. So ‘in humility to value others above themselves’ was not a natural way to live. Paul is going to dig deeper into this in the next few verses, but stop here and ask yourself: How often when in conflict am I thinking of the value of the other person or people? Do I consider my rights are above theirs—above Christ’s?

If you are going to surrender yourself to the deep change that the gospel brings, you cannot escape this. The gospel is not a fair weather commodity, to be chucked when someone in your church family questions your motives, beliefs or suggest a difference of opinion that you take as a personal insult. At some point you have to come back to the gospel and examine the conflict as one who lives as a servant of Jesus.

…The church I mentioned recovered its fellowship. People’s hurts were healed. That was a true win.  But that teacher never returned. He decided to be right instead. A missed opportunity for him to make Jesus’ joy complete.