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Confronting Conflict with the Gospel #13: The Safeguard of Rejoicing

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Philippians 3:1 ESV

“All church conflict is theological.” explains Jim Van Yperen in Making Peace. When we choose our preferences over unity, we are denying the biblical truth of the gospel. Instead of rejoicing in the Lord, we rejoice because we have gained what we believe is the spiritual high ground.

Van Yperen says that this is because our understanding of church unity has changed from spiritual integrity to spiritual autonomy. Integrity means Jesus is our peace, and through his body has made divided people into one, destroying the barrier of hostility. Integrity is about being a community, and reveals itself in the way we are undivided in our relationship with God and others.

But many believers prefer autonomy. We look upon being able to be our own person as normal and good. As a result, we put our own stock of wisdom and preferences above all others, even judging our church family based on our perceived superior knowledge and position. One small example of this is in how many different versions of the Bible one can find in any given church!

In fact, we can even get pretty emotional over our autonomy. Our emotions can and do become the arbitrator of who is right (ourselves of course) and what the right thing is to do when we are in conflict. The value of obeying Jesus by being reconciled is weighed against whether we feel we have the right to walk away from those who offended us.

If I had not seen this with my own eyes more than once, I would probably miss what Paul is saying when he uses the word ‘safe’ in this passage.

Paul is still speaking to the Philippians conflict. But with these two sentences, he has begun moving towards his conclusion, starting with ‘Finally.’ He uses this word in a number of his letters (2 Corinthians 13:11; Ephesians 6:10; 2 Thessalonians 3:1) to draw his readers in intimately. “Here is an important matter which I want you to keep in mind.” One is a request for prayer. Another seeks to unfold to them the nature of spiritual warfare and exhort them to put on the full armor of God. But 2 Corinthians 13:11 is much like this one. “Rejoice! Live in unity!”

Rejoicing is not about personal emotions, but personal focus. All I need for life and godliness is found in the Lord—in the good news about Jesus. Here is where we should be ever grateful. Paul knows from dealing with so many church plants in the first century that believers can lose that focus in the hurly-burly of life. They can lose that focus when they are urged to believe that there is another way to righteousness. They can lose that focus when in conflict with other believers.

Repetition is the order of the day for Paul. “It is not trouble for me to keep saying this, because this is where we are safe. “ This echoes David when he declares, “God, you’re my refuge. I trust in you and I’m safe!” Psalm 91:2 (Message)

What does Paul mean when he says this makes us safe? The word itself is rooted in the idea of certainty. To rejoice in the Lord is to cling to a solid foundation. Your emotions certainly are not safe. They veer around like drunken drivers, trying to keep in their lanes, but often ending up in the ditch. One of the hardest early lessons I received in church conflict was watching people who had nurtured me as a young believer get so worked up emotionally that they were ready to throw punches. One actually pulled his belt off to swing it at his perceived enemy—a fellow believer who belonged to his own church family. No, their emotions were not safe—were not rooted in certainty.

Nor has human reasoning shown itself to be safe either. Human reasoning has split hairs and divided more believers over the centuries than we could even imagine. When I was pastoring a Converge [Swedish Baptist] church in Wisconsin, my neighbor showed me his discipleship book from his church. It was a lesson on compromise and warned him to have nothing to do with the Swedish Baptists, among other Baptist groups, because of their open association with other believers who belonged to ‘non-approved’ denominations! This was their application of, “Come out from them and be separated!” (2 Corinthians 6:17 NIV)

I have seen the gospel heal congregations and bring people who were divided back together. I have seen the gospel break down the walls of historic wrongs between people of different backgrounds. I have seen the gospel renew churches in purpose despite a lack of resolve over some issues. This is why rejoicing in the Lord brings safety. It reminds us that Jesus is the main thing. That he reigns. That someday we will stand before him and give an account of all we said and did.

Let your mind stay aligned with this, because there are plenty of false teachers, even ones you like, that would direct you down a dead end path. Where conflict is even more intense and worthless.


-Steve Smith