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?

David can teach us how to confront bullying in the workplace

These days, no one is immune to the consequences of economic hardships.  Even people who have a steady job feel the strain of rising food and energy costs and stress rendered from unemployment, underemployment, and overemployment.

With stress so widespread, bullying in the workplace is also on the rise.  According to some statistics, nearly four in ten employees have been victims of bullying in one way or another.  Bullying can take many forms, from sarcasm and criticism to severe, targeted harassment and humiliation.  The causes for bullying are many; often, our response to bullies are no better.

Victims of bullying in the workplace can turn to the Bible for guidance.  The first book of Samuel has some useful material for this situation.

First Samuel records the rise and fall of Israel’s first king, Saul.  At the beginning of the book, Israel was in disarray; and Samuel, the last of the great judges of old, tried to hold the tribes together.   The Israelites saw their neighboring kingdoms grow in power; they wanted the same and demanded a king.  God begrudgingly anointed Saul.

In the meantime, a young man named David made a name for himself.  He slew Goliath and took command of some of Saul’s armies.  It did not take long for him to become a successful commander.   People started to sing of his greatness:  “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (18:7b).

Upon hearing this, Saul grew jealous of David and plotted against him.  Saul became a bully extraordinaire.

David fled to the countryside and fought the Philistines while avoiding Saul’s legions.  By the time we get to 1 Samuel 24, David and his small band of misfits were shut up in the caves of En-Gedi.  Saul and 3000 soldiers were about to flush them out, when Saul took time to tend to personal business.  Unbeknownst to Saul, he did so at the very cave where David and his men were hiding.

David’s friends encouraged him to kill this evil king.  This was David’s opportunity to put an end to the bullying once and for all.

According to the Bible, David was “a man after God’s own heart;” and, instead of revenge, David responded with righteousness.  He refused to kill Saul and took a piece of Saul’s robe instead.

When Saul ventured back to camp, David came out of his rocky refuge, waved the robe, and told Saul that he spared Saul’s life.  David communicated a deep truth: that reconciliation was a better way forward then endless harassment and vitriol.

David quoted an ancient proverb to show Saul that being a bully to a bully is not productive: “Out of the wicked comes forth wickedness.”  David was going to break the cycle of violence.

David’s righteous response to Saul can help employees who face bullies.  First, David identified the problem (in this case, misinformation–Saul assumed things about David that were not true).   Second, David redefined his relationship to Saul, making the issue personal but respectful (he called Saul “my King” and “father”).

Third, David chose reconciliation over revenge by sharing his feelings with Saul.  Yes, David could have gotten Saul back for all that Saul did, but David would never take the life of another one of God’s children.

David was bearing witness to the magnificence of God’s love–that trusting in God in the midst of adversity can lead to real change.   Psalm 57, a psalm David wrote while in the cave, states, “For Your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds.”

David reminds us that God loves bullies, and we should love bullies too.  My prayer is that when the opportunity presents itself, you can be a minister of reconciliation rather than a little piece in the larger fabric of conflict that pervades many workplaces in our time and day.