The pattern was the same every week. Just before church began, two families, each representing several generations, walked into the main door of the church building. Each family intentionally hung their overcoats in cloakrooms on opposite sides of the lobby. The patriarch of one family led his group through the left door of the sanctuary and sat on the far left side, near the back. The matriarch of the other family led her brood through the right door of the sanctuary and sat on the far right side, near the front. The families spoke to others, but if a member of one family passed a member of the other in the hall, each looked away.
I was a young pastor, and disturbed by this standoff, I asked each family about it. “Don’t want anything to do with them,” the patriarch admitted. “Don’t trust them.”
As for where it started, “Our grandpas didn’t get along,” the matriarch of the other clan told me. “I’m not sure what the original problem was, but since then that family has shown in numerous ways that they’re not our kind of Christians.”
One of Jesus’ most memorable instructions was that Christians must “love one another” (John 13:34). Why is it, then, that even followers of Jesus are so often in conflict?
The reason is simple: even Christians are sinful human beings. The apostle Paul reminded us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and if you and I are honest, we’ll admit that that description applies to each of us. Sin—which includes being unable to get along with others—is the reason Jesus came to this earth in the first place. It was also Paul who said that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
It stands to reason that if you put a bunch of sinful people together in a community—even people with the best of intentions, people who claim Jesus as their Savior—you’re going to see disagreements that can transform into hurt feelings, avoidance, and sometimes open confrontation.
Take, for example, Jesus’ followers while He was on earth. If any group of people could have gotten along, it should have been them. But even in Jesus’ presence they sniped at one another about status (Luke 9:46), money (John 12:5), and leadership (Mark 10:37). The New Testament contains several notable fights between the apostles, including a loud confrontation between Paul and Peter about eating with the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11, 12). At one point Paul and Barnabas fell into a “sharp disagreement” and had to part ways and travel in opposite directions (Acts 15:39).
And it wasn’t just the preachers and evangelists. Most of the letters written by Paul, John, James, and Peter address conflicts in the congregations to which their letters were addressed. Even in the church’s earliest days, mere decades after Jesus lived on Earth, Christians had a hard time living at peace with one another.
A problem to be solved
Fortunately, neither Jesus nor His apostles let conflict become the “new normal.” When Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” He wasn’t just giving good advice. He called this “a new commandment”—an eleventh one added to the Ten Commandments they already had. Furthermore, their behavior toward one another wasn’t just for the sake of courtesy. It was a mark of identity: “By this all will know that you are My disciples,” Jesus said, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:34, 35, NKJV).* And given the importance of good interpersonal relationships to the Christian mission (who wants to join a fighting church?), Paul forcefully urged peaceful coexistence throughout his epistles (Romans 12:19; 13:8; Ephesians 4:2, 3).
But how do you bring naturally combative, naturally defensive human beings into unity? The Bible gives two ingredients for solving conflict: principle and process.
The foundational principle of church unity is Jesus’ eleventh commandment to love one another. The problem with saying “love one another,” though, is that love is a somewhat abstract notion. For example, the patriarch of one of my fighting families told me, “I love those people because God wants me to. But I’ll never like them.” That’s why Bible writers expanded and expounded on the original principle:
- Submission. “Submit yourselves, then, to God,” says the apostle James (James 4:7). Submission isn’t just an abstract idea: it is allowing God to soften and open your heart. If you submit to Him, how can you hate the people He loves?
- Self-inspection. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) Jesus asked. Those who don’t recognize their own faults, and confirm that recognition by confessing them, aren’t able to make peace with others. The wise man wrote, “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).
- Empathy. Nothing breaks down barriers more effectively than trying to look at problems from the other person’s point of view—or, as Paul expressed it, “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:4).
- Forgiveness. Paul also said, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). How ungrateful it would be to refuse to grant to someone else what God has granted to you!
- Forbearance. In Romans 14, Paul tells critics of their fellow Christians that what they were angry about—the foods others chose to eat—wasn’t really all that important. “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food,” he said in Romans 14:20. Nonetheless, “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love” if you eat it in front of them (verse 15).
Jesus knew that in the heat of the moment people don’t necessarily think sensibly or sensitively about their conflicts with others. In Matthew 18 He offers a “slow down” process to be followed when trying to end a fight between yourself and another.
- Step one. Talk directly to the person with whom you have a conflict (Matthew 18:15). As a lifelong parish pastor, I can confidently assert that at least 19 out of 20 church conflicts are misunderstandings that could be addressed easily if the complainer bothered to check with the accused. And this is true in other arenas of life as well, such as in families and workplaces.
- Step two. If a tactful, one-on-one inquiry doesn’t work (though it usually does), meet with your opponent and one other person (Matthew 18:16). Perhaps the three of you can bring about a consensus that just two couldn’t.
- Step three. Only when you have failed to solve the problem with a small group should you take it to a larger group, such as a church board (Matthew 18:17).
Sadly, what generally happens is precisely the opposite: the complaint or accusation is gossiped all over the church before the person who is supposedly at fault ever gets a chance to answer it. What may be a simple miscommunication grows into an ingrained, settled conflict. Like the families in that church when I was a young pastor, the disagreement continues for years—even generations—until its origin is forgotten. And when it reaches that point, it is much harder to root out.
The last step in Jesus’ process is often misunderstood. When Jesus said, “If they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17), one might assume that means you reject the accused person completely. But how did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors? If the story of Zacchaeus is a guide (Luke 19:1–10), He went home with them, dined with them, and made them His friends!
dwelling together in unity
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). Note that the psalmist refers to “God’s people,” because the claim of people who worship together is that they have in common their love for God. Shouldn’t that love for God be shown in kindness toward one another? The apostle John thought so. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar,” he wrote. “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).
Getting along should be every church’s top priority. Frequently the cause of conflict is judgments one makes about another’s theology or behavior. Perhaps if we placed the eleventh commandment—that we should love one another—always at the beginning of the Ten Commandments that we Christians so highly respect, it would make us more patient with the trespasses of others.
We will never have perfect unity as long as imperfect people are in churches. But if we take Jesus seriously, that our love for one another is the mark of being His followers, I think we must at least make a game attempt at it!