Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
At the heart of the Gospel message is conflict between who we are in ourselves and who we become in Christ. In my forthcoming book, Life in Tension, I explore this theme in great depth, in part, because both conversion and sanctification involve what can be painful transitions. The transformation of souls often requires giving up cherished sins, dysfunctional relationships, and fears. This is why redemption in Christ requires active participation of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
In their book, Redeeming Church Conflicts, Tara Barthel and David Edling—both attorney’s by training—focus on the Jerusalem council controversy summarized in Acts 15 and discuss it in the context of troubleshooting church conflicts with Peacemaking Ministries. By conflict, they mean: “a difference of opinion or purposes that frustrates someone’s goals or desires” (16). They present a number of case studies of churches in conflict, but return to one conflict with particular frequency: Lakeview Community Church (a pseudonym; LCC; 13).
In Acts 15, the authors see four core principles—perspective, discernment, leadership, and biblical response—and structure their book around these four principles (15-19). Let me follow their lead.
Perspective. A starting point in church conflicts is that a healthy perspective is lost and things often get personal (15). In Acts 15, we read:
“And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” (Acts 15:2 ESV)
People get into conflict when they begin to pick nits, let worldly views dominate, and demonstrate a lack of trust in God and one another (27-33). Groups within the church also start picking sides and things may get emotional (37). Still, the authors admonish us that: “No matter the level of conflict in our church, God is still at work.” (35) Centering on God is an important first step both in prayer and in moving towards a resolution of conflict (50-58).
Discernment. Citing Ken Sande, the authors see 6 types of conflicts: Internal conflicts, material conflicts, value and belief conflicts, relationship conflicts, information conflicts, and system conflicts (61). Classifying conflicts is helpful in diagnosing what to do about them. For example, personal conflicts are typically resolved not through negotiation but through repentance, confession, and forgiveness (62).
Like Jesus, the authors focus on motivations and the heart. They define: “A heart motivation (or interest) [as] the primary reason a person favors one position over another.” (63) This is an important observation because many conflicts begin over rather trivial disagreements among individuals that spin out of control. Learning to deal with such spiraling conflicts in a church context has the benefit of teaching conflict resolution skills that can be applied at home and in the workplace.
In Acts 15, we read:
“The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said…” (Acts 15:6-7)
The authors underscore this point:
“We are unaware of any church that has successfully resolved its churchwide conflicts without first going back to the basics of what the gospel message is, its implications for faith, and life, and God’s statement of purpose and mission for his church…” (78-79)
At the heart of this point is the need for serious discussion and dialogue: “much debate”. This point is particularly important today as our society has increasingly tried to sweep important controversies under the rug, arguing that they are not politically correct. Because discussion is required for resolution, political correctness stagnates the democratic process and, in doing so, ultimately leads to further conflict.
Citing Ephesians 4:29-31, the authors observe these standards for biblical discussion:
- It starts with prayer.
- Perfection is not the objective.
- Communication requires listening.
- Emphasize agreement, not disagreement.
- Be flexible and charitable (79-80).
Humility, hard work, and a willingness to admit contribution to the problem all help to resolve church conflict (86).
Leadership. The authors observe that “many church conflicts center around church leaders” (135). Common issues include:
- Moral failure.
- Failure to meet expectations.
- Failure to implement change appropriately.
- Personality differences.
- Conflict with lay people with informal influence and power.
- Selfish misuse of church leadership positions.
- Idolatry (135-137).
In particular, they highlight 4 characteristics of failed church leadership:
- A lack of biblically balanced shepherd-leadership or even the expectation of it.
- The pastor develops a “hired hand” mentality.
- The pastor refuses to set by example.
- The lack of a long-term vision (138).
In view here is the image of a shepherd-leader (the good shepherd) found in John 10 and also in 1 Peter 5:1-3. As lay leaders and pastors, we are truly under-shepherds of the Good Shepherd and accountable ultimately to Him.
Biblical response. The idea that church conflict, much like other forms of individual adversity, can be redemptive or formative is a uniquely Christian idea, one that is frequently rejected out of hand in our society. The authors return at this point to the LCC and ask these questions, based on the core principles articulated earlier:
- How can we glorify God at LCC?
- How have I [personally] contributed to the conflicts at LCC?
- How are we called to speak the truth to one another?
- What does it look like for us to forgive one another just as in Christ we have been forgiven? (167-168)
These questions are, in fact, a restatement of the 4 Gs of the Peacemaking Ministry:
- Glorify God.
- Get the log out of your eye.
- Gently restore.
- Go and be reconciled (171).
Each of these admonishments are taken from scripture.
Tara Klena Barthel and David V. Edling’s book—Redeeming Church Conflicts—is filled with helpful advice about conflict resolution, especially in a church setting. I was frankly surprised at the number of scriptural situations that are directly related to this ministry of peacemaking. This is the kind of book that church leaders should study seriously and apply. Seminarians and young pastors should take special note.
 Ken Sande. 2005. Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. Page 11. Also see review: Sande Resolves Conflicts; Makes Peace (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-eV). Also: http://PeaceMaker.net.