Confronting Conflict with the Gospel #12: Who Do You Call When Conflict Shows Up?
For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. Philippians 2:21 NIV
When leaders are behaving badly, what is the best thing to do? It appears that Syntache and Euodia were two high profile leaders in the Philippian church. It was hot enough for others to wonder what they should do—while evidently doing nothing. The conflict concerned Paul enough to send a letter. But getting a letter to the church involved having someone deliver the letter as well. This is one of the ‘best things’ about how Paul deals with this conflict with both wisdom and gentle intervention.
Sometimes sending in a peacemaking team can make a huge difference. Timothy and Epaphroditus were not just delivering a letter. They were part of Paul’s core pastoral entourage that traveled with him and were sent by him to deal with tough situations. We know that Timothy had taken on the church in Ephesus upon Paul’s instruction to root out false teachers. Epaphroditus, however, was ‘one of them.’ He was a Philippi native who had been sent by that church to minister to Paul on their behalf.
Paul sees these two men as his best team to help resolve this issue. How do we know this, since he does not actually talk about the conflict in this passage (Philippians 2:19-30)? You have to consider where Paul brings these men into the conversation. He speaks about their coming between his bookend theme of ‘standing firm’ (Philippians 1:27 and 4:1). He could have talked about them at the end of the letter like he did Phoebe in Romans 16 or Tychicus in Colossians 4. However, he puts his plan to send them here in chapter 2 as part of his ongoing pastoral message. “For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” (Philippians 2:20 NIV)
I know too well that church leaders resist calling in help when they are in conflict until it is too late. In an earlier blog (#3 of this series), I described the Five Levels of Conflict. The first level is “We have a Problem.” The second level is, “You caused the problem.” The third level is, “You are the problem.” At that point, the church has waited too long for help. The moment a conflict shifts to blaming a person for causing a problem, the congregation needs help—before the problem is lost to sight and the person ‘becomes’ the problem.
But often that is not how things go. “We can handle this among ourselves,” is a common belief that has wrecked many fellowships. “You are the problem.” is an emotional trap that ensnares even outstanding leaders. Once one’s emotions are aroused, the pull of Level 4 (God is against you.) and Level 5 (We will destroy you.) is an all too easy path to follow.
It takes objective people with a gentle nature and spiritual wisdom to help a church mired in deep conflict, people who have a genuine concern for your church. You need to know who you will call before you get beyond Level 2 conflict.
Of the eighteen church ministry systems I teach and write about, the one that addresses conflict resolution is the Decision Making System. One part of that system is the writing of a comprehensive guiding document. I push the idea of ‘comprehensive’ because many church constitutions, covenants, or policy statements were written when everything was going great for the congregation, especially in church plants. These documents, unfortunately, rarely have anything in them to guide the church when things hit the fan. Like a pastoral failure. Or abuse. Or a church split. Or embezzlement—and so forth.
Why are these things left out? Because they will never happen to us! Churches can sadly think like teenagers, believing that they are immune from the lies and schemes of the enemy within the congregation.
So, before the days of evil come and while everyone is living happily together, I encourage churches to think what they would do in the worst of times. One question is, “Who will we call in if we experience conflict and when will we call them in?”
Several congregations where I have served as mediator after the conflict reached Level 4 would have been spared deep division and loss if they had had that clause in their guiding documents. But in every case, one side was unwilling to yield to the desire of the other side to call in help. No mechanism in their constitution existed to override their objections. As a result, the leaders were at Level 4, on their way to Level 5 before I ever set foot on their campus.
Paul was in a different relationship with the Philippi church. He had the authority to intervene without needing their agreement. But notice that he does not invoke authority here. He says nothing shaming. Paul has two men he is sending who will genuinely care for their welfare. He is being a pastor to them. He wants them to want the guidance of these two men. He wants them to abandon their internal pursuit of rivalry and conceit that he has mentioned just paragraphs before so that each of them will “look not only to his interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4 NIV) You can see how his mind is working in his accolade about Timothy in verse 21.
Make a plan before conflict appears in your church. Who will you call? Who is your Timothy and Epaphroditus? When will these persons be called in? Put this into your guiding documents and pray that God will make you into a church that will never have to see a day when you have to use it.