Conflict and a Parting of Ways in the Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Being Christ’s Church is no easy task.  As far back as the New Testament, churches have been dealing with weighty matters from Bible interpretation to theological wrangling so much that we should not be surprised when some churches fight and split.

Scripture provides us with a blueprint for how to manage conflicts in church.  The question of gentile inclusion in Acts 15, for instance, reveals a process of discernment that promoted communication, testimonies, Bible interpretation, and compromise that produced healthy church growth.

A later incident in Acts 15 describes what happens when people in churches have irreconcilable differences that discernment cannot overcome.  What happens when the only solution to disagreement is a parting of ways?

Acts 15:36-41 recalls a sharp disagreement between Barnabas and Paul on whether to bring John Mark on a second missionary journey.   They did not come to a compromise and they arrived at an impasse.  Paul and Barnabas parted ways.

A close reading of the text reveals four effective strategies in managing a church conflict in which irreconcilable disagreements did not spell the end of friendships but exposed a new season of ministry inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The first strategy is that Paul and Barnabas keep their focus on God’s mission and don’t make the conflict personal.  The Bible clearly outlines that Barnabas and Paul had different personalities: Barnabas was a bridge-building who longed to keep everyone together.  Mark was family, so there was a willingness to give him a second chance.  Paul was all business.  He was not as forgiving, and God’s mission was at stake.

This strategy shows that when churches do conflict resolution well, they emphasize the mission of the church rather than resorting to personal attacks.

Second, Paul and Barnabas valued communication.  Paul could have easily went along with Barnabas only to flirt with resentment if things went sour later in the journey, but Paul was honest with his friend.  He trusted Barnabas with his concerns, and the “sharp disagreement” shows a deep sense of honor between the two men.  There was mutual respect, and in Paul’s later letter to the Corinthian churches (1 Cor. 9), Paul still considered Barnabas his peer and equal after the division–they may not have agreed, but they still affirmed each other’s mission.

What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel” – St. Crysostom.

A third strategy is to have an understanding of God’s sacred time: there is a season for everything.  What may appear to be discomfort, disagreement, or discord to us may simply be the Holy Spirit’s way of inspiring a new season of ministry.

In this season of ministry, Paul recognized that Mark was not the right guy for the job.  Later, after Mark matured in the faith, Paul recruited him to minister to churches in Colossae as Paul remained in prison (Colossians 4:10).

The focus remained on the mission and Mark was not necessarily the problem–sometimes the problem is with our sense of timing.  When seasons of ministry shift, change and discomfort result from that restless anxiety that tips our hat to the movement of the Spirit.

In times of discomfort or disagreement, we need to STOP, LISTEN, and ASSESS where the Holy Spirit may be at work to break us into a new level of revival, mission, zeal, or ministry.

Last, in parting ways not by discord but by effective conflict resolution, Paul and Barnabas expanded God’s mission.  God’s mission does not collapse or implode or falter.  When we resolve conflict by our own strength and design, churches split and bring some ministries to an end.  When God’s mission remains our focus and we make decisions because we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, God replicates and multiplies church communities.

As a result of their parting of ways, Barnabas and Mark ministered in Cyprus while Paul began a second missionary journey that ventured as far as Macedonia.  St. Crysostom wrote about this text, “What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel.”

When conflicts arise, our first step as Christians should be to put in place a process of spiritual discernment that seeks to bring reconciliation and restoration in the church and the church’s mission.  When irreconcilable differences occur, however, we must put in place a process of a different kind; yet, our concern should always be the same: Are we living deeper into God’s holiness and are we proactively reaching the lost with every decision that is made?

Following God’s will is difficult as we face inner turmoil

I had a lovely childhood, except when I had to sit at the designated children’s table.

You know what I’m talking about: the adults sat in the dining room with fine wine and great food while the kids were relegated to the kitchen on old, vinyl chairs and one small square of lasagna. I always protested; I wanted to sit with the adults.

For as long as I could remember, I was always rushing to grow up. This is common among young people. The students whom I teach at Victory Christian School have expressed in various settings their desire to grow up and take on responsibilities reserved for adults.

Little do they know that when they turn 40, this desire will likely reverse.

In many ways we are all trying to grow up or, in other words, discover our identity and our place in this world. We make decisions, form values, and even choose our politics based on allegiances and labels to which we gravitate. We search for some sense of self-identification that provides a sense of stability.

What we fail to realize is that we wrestle with certain tensions in our never-ending desire to define who we are as individuals. These tensions play tug-of-war in our very soul.

One tension pertains to a question of conformity. We are torn between being conformed by God’s Spirit and conforming ourselves to the trends of this world.

This is really a matter of surrender: Are we willing to surrender ourselves to God, allowing the person and lordship of Christ to form us into new creations based on his love and mercy, or are we simply reaching for pinnacles of power and prestige that offer us memberships into the popular social cliques of our time?

Another tension is between defining our personhood by who we are rather than by what we do. The world constantly judges us by what we do, what we have accomplished, and what we can afford. Our first question when meeting another person is predictable: “So what do you do for a living?” And judgment ensues. Our first impressions are based on matters very shallow indeed.

God judges us on who we are, and the true measure of a person is in his or her depth of character. It was the wise elder, Polonius, who offered this wisdom in Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet”: “Above all else, to thine own self be true.”

Is Christ forming us in a way that we become who Christ wants us to be, even if it means sacrificing something that we think we need for immediate pleasure?

It seems that everywhere we look in our society, people are staking out their territory and drawing lines regarding where they stand on issues and how they think. God is concerned much less about our stakes in the ground than He is about our passion and desire to be formed by His very Son’s lordship.

Just putting this in black and white does not make these tensions in us wane. The Christian journey is a constant struggle to overcome ego and self-gratification at the cost of our very souls. In writing of his short stay at a Trappist monastery, late spiritual author and priest, Henri Nouwen, expressed this struggle well:

“It is this type of … total surrender, of unconditional ‘yes’ (to God), of unwavering obedience to God’s will, that frightens me and makes me such a wishy-washy soul, wanting to keep a foot in both worlds. But that is how one stumbles.”

But did Christ not say that following Him was a difficult task? As we all find our way in the world, I would contend that it certainly is.