I didn’t intend to eavesdrop or spy that day, but the line to enter the Disneyland ride was long, and it was impossible for my wife and me not to notice the family of five who were waiting directly ahead of us. We didn’t know their names, but I remember how different they were from so many of the other families around us. You’ve probably noticed, as I have, that even the most fun, most anticipated family outing can turn everyone grumpy as the day wears on. But this family was surviving better than the rest.
The difference was evident in the way both the mother and father spoke softly and politely to the children; how the children listened and responded; the smiles that passed between all of them. Even though the young ones were clearly weary, each one—even the children—seemed determined to keep a balance of cooperation and good spirits so they could make it through the day. The key was, I thought, mutual respect: Mom and Dad never had to raise their voices or make “or else” demands, and the children didn’t have to be loud and cranky to get their parents’ attention.
Not every family has that kind of harmony. Yet when we see it, we know that’s the way families, at their best, should be.
Jesus started a new kind of family when He was here on earth. He taught His followers that when they gathered in His name, they were a family of believers who, if they cooperated, could do great things for God. He called His family “the church,” and He intended that they should live together with harmony, grace, and a sweet spirit. “That all of them may be one, Father,” He prayed, “just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:21).
Obstacles to a happy family
In his book Great Church Fights, Leslie B. Flynn tells about hearing his daughter and several playmates in a heated quarrel in the backyard. He rushed to intervene, but his daughter stopped him with a smile. “Don’t worry, Daddy,” she said, “we’re just playing church.”
The letters of the apostle Paul to the early Christian churches show that just a few decades after Jesus Himself had created the church for His followers, the people in His churches already had great difficulty getting along. “My brothers and sisters,” he said, “some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you” (1 Corinthians 1:11).
Indeed, much of what Paul wrote in his epistles has to do with their many conflicts.
Paul knew that churches are composed of fallible and sinful human beings who don’t always behave in Christlike ways. We humans are, by nature, selfish, which means that one of the most frequent causes of conflict, both in domestic families and church families, is that each of us wants to get his or her own way.
I once asked a psychologist, “What makes a family happy or unhappy?” “The happiest families are cooperative, respectful, and democratic,” he replied. “They listen to one another, take account of one another’s feelings and desires, and try to find ways to do things that are win-win for everyone. Something we often see in unhappy families is one person—usually an angry or insecure parent—who lords it over everyone else and tries to force the others to conform to his or her wishes. There’s no better way to create lifelong strife and rebellion than to be overbearing.”
Causes of church dissension
Three of the most common causes of dissension are pride, control, and theological differences.
Humility is an essential ingredient for happy church families. When rich members of the Corinthian church brought baskets of expensive food to the Lord’s Supper to eat all by themselves, Paul said, “Do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (1 Corinthians 11:22). Ideally, he said, you will “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3, 4).
Perhaps you’ve heard of churches with a dictatorial pastor who insists that everyone has to do precisely as he says. Frequently such leaders are abusive. Or maybe you’ve seen a church where a forceful lay leader makes life a living hell for a well-intentioned pastor by constant criticism of his work. Neither way leads to family happiness. The same counsel Paul gave husbands and wives applies to pastors and church members: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
Theological differences are a third major source of church conflict, and Paul’s churches had them in abundance. In Corinth, the fight was over which of the evangelists’ teachings had brought them to Jesus! Writes Paul, “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’ ” (1 Corinthians 1:12). Just like today, each preacher had his own way of talking about Jesus.
Paul was a brilliant scholar, and it would have been easy for him to argue for his point of view and disparage his fellow preachers. Instead, he asked, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (verse 13) In other words, as long as they were united in Jesus, they should be able to live in peace in spite of differences in other theological details. Paul reminded them that just as there is “one God and Father of all,” so there is only “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:6, 5).
Unity, it seems, doesn’t mean being in perfect agreement on everything, including theology, but in following the same Lord. “Has it ever occurred to you,” wrote A. W. Tozer, “that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be, were they . . . to strive for closer fellowship.”
The imperative of love
The Beatles famously sang, “All you need is love.” The sentiment may sound naive when you hear it in a pop song, but it has a lot of truth. Families—both biological and spiritual—are bound by love. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” Jesus told His followers (John 13:35).
There’s a parable of a father whose three sons were constantly fighting with one another. One day he called them together and handed them a bundle of sticks bound together with a string. “Break these,” he said, handing the bundle to his oldest son. But no matter how hard he tried, the boy couldn’t do it. Neither could the second boy or the third. The father took the bundle, unwrapped the string, and proceeded to break the sticks, one at a time. “Do you see?” he said. “Together no one can break you. But if you let divisions come between you, if each of you stands on his own, you are weak.”
So it is with Christ’s family. Though we may be individually weak, when the church is bound together by love, we are strong. To the fighting Colossian church, Paul recommended compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness. But these aren’t enough. “And over all these virtues,” he concludes, “put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:14).