Can Anything Mend Our Conflict?

How Cynicism Dies in a Divided Church

Right now, the example of a small band of twentysomething Christian women is helping me resist the many temptations I feel toward cynicism. Let me explain why.

I have been disheartened by the amount of politically/ideologically/culturally driven acrimony, leadership failures, church divisions, ethnic tensions, and relational breakdowns among American evangelicals over the past few years. I wish I could say it’s all exaggerated by media algorithms and irresponsible Christian clickbaiting. But I’ve seen too much up close.

I see evidence of Christian disunity almost everywhere I turn. The three beloved churches where I’ve spent most of my life have in the past few years all experienced significant to devastating internal conflict. Christians who are remarkably aligned theologically, and who have worshiped together for years, no longer bear with each other. Relationships that took years to bond are torn. And the resulting wounds leave a scar tissue of distrust that doesn’t seem to relationally adhere as it did before.

What is going on? A lot. Complex historical, social, cultural, political, leadership, and spiritual-warfare issues factor into this epidemic of Christian disunity. We can’t ignore them. They’re real and seriously affect real people.

But we must be careful. In our analysis and discussions and debates of the problem, we can, ironically, miss or evade the fundamental issue. For when it comes to cultivating priceless Christian harmony, or wreaking destructive Christian dissonance, the greatest causal factor, the one the New Testament far and away addresses more than any other, is love.

Jesus’s Radically Simple Solution

Try not to roll your eyes. I know when there’s a strenuous debate among Christians over something complex, there’s always a guy in the room that says something like, “We just need to love each other!” And it’s usually not very helpful.

“New Testament love is not simplistic, as in reductionistic; it’s simple, as in fundamental.”

This kind of statement comes across as naive, simplistic idealism, because we don’t just need to love each other. We need to fundamentally love each other. We need to know what loving each other means and looks like when we’re faced with a complex issue, when we view matters from different perspectives, when we have no simple solutions, and when the only way forward requires bearing with one another during the extended tension of disagreement.

And in this way, New Testament love is not simplistic, as in reductionistic; it’s simple, as in fundamental. There’s a big difference.

Neighbor as Self

The Beatles’ song-slogan “all you need is love” is naive, simplistic idealism. It sounds right because we all intuitively know love is the supreme virtue. But the statement is conceptually hollow and incoherent. It doesn’t tell anyone what love means, what it looks like when practiced, or what it costs. Consequently, this sentence hasn’t transformed anything, much less conflicts over complex issues.

Contrast that with Jesus’s great command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Do you see the difference? Jesus’s command is fundamentally simple, but not at all simplistic. It’s simple in that everyone immediately grasps the fundamental principle: love ought to be our most core value, shaping all our motives in relation to others. It’s not simplistic, because it is a one-sentence summary of an all-encompassing orientation to all our relationships, and its applications are endless.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is functionally powerful because, in any specific situation, it helps us gain at least some clarity on what love ought to look like, as well as what it will cost. It doesn’t remove complexities from relationships, situations, and issues, but if earnestly pursued, it is effective at dousing the flame of sin that turns our conflicts into wildfires — fires surrounding us in American evangelicalism.

The power of Jesus’s love command (and the many examples and expositions of it in the New Testament) has been lived out by countless saints over the past two thousand years and has transformed the world in countless ways. Which brings me to that small band of twentysomething women I mentioned at the beginning. For me, they are a picture of Jesus’s love command in action.

Taking Love to the Streets

I know most of these young ladies. Through a wonderful story of God’s providential work in their lives, they developed a deep concern over the plight of the thousands of street children in a major city of a Latin American country.

A few years ago, having gained a modicum of experience and raised enough financial support to live simply, they moved to this city and just began walking the streets and ministering to the kids and young adults they came across. These are children who, due to abuse, abandonment, excessive poverty, addiction, or the death of their parents, are forced to fend for themselves.

They sleep in culverts, under bridges, and in doorways, and they do whatever they must to find food. The streets are brutal, ruthless places for vulnerable children. Terrible things happen to many of them. Tender hearts harden and become distrustful. Danger and desperation exacerbate depravity.

But these women just began loving these kids — each one as a precious soul. They sought to love them as they loved themselves (imperfectly, they’d want me to emphasize). And they’re down there loving them right now.

They feed them, clothe them, take them to doctors when they’re sick or injured, and help many of them dealing with chemical addiction get into (or return to) treatment centers. They walk with young pregnant girls through the frightening journey of childbirth and beyond. They play Uno with kids in the parks and celebrate their birthdays with cakes and parties — something many of these kids have never experienced before. And as the Lord gives them opportunity, they share Jesus with them, pray with them, study the Bible with them, and connect them with good churches. As a result, an increasing number are coming to faith in Christ and getting baptized.

‘Because They Love Us’

Having won the trust of these hardened street kids through loving them with the tenacious, steadfast, faithful, self-sacrificial love of Jesus, now hundreds of hardened street kids have grown tender, loving these women back and genuinely caring for them in various ways. And of course, word on the street spreads fast, so more and more kids are seeking these women out and the modest ministry center the Lord has provided them.

Government officials are also now seeking them out to discover what they’re doing that’s so effective. These officials are also asking the street kids why they go to these women first when the government centers have more resources and programs. The kids’ answer: “Because they love us.”

Let that sink in. These women aren’t recognized experts, and they don’t have long experience, abundant resources, or PhD-designed programs. Neither do they have formal theological training. And yet they are proving remarkably effective at reaching these kids and helping them transition toward a more hopeful, productive future. From a kingdom standpoint, they are bearing more fruit in transformed lives and making more disciples than just about anyone else I know — even among a very neglected and historically difficult-to-reach group. Why? Ask the kids. They know why: “Because they love us” — each one as a precious soul.

Living Sacrifices of Love

So, what do these women have to do with the epidemic of Christian disunity in America? Answer: they are examples of taking Christian love seriously. But isn’t it apples and oranges to compare them to us? Contextually, yes, but not fundamentally.

My report of these women’s story, due to brevity, sounds more ideal than it really is. It’s hard. At times heartbreakingly hard — literal blood-sweat-and-tears hard. And it’s messy. Kids turn away. Kids disappear. Kids relapse into addiction. Kids are raped. Kids are killed. And the women make mistakes. They are misunderstood, sometimes maligned, and sometimes in bodily danger. They regularly feel inadequate, lonely, confused, grieved, bewildered, homesick, and like failures. They wonder if they’re doing it wrong. And they’re all too aware of their own sin.

“Living out Jesus’s love command seriously and intentionally will be hard, and the cost in numerous ways will be high.”

No matter the context, living out Jesus’s love command seriously and intentionally will be hard, and the cost in numerous ways will be high. We will feel the same ways in our context as these women do in theirs. That’s part of what it means to be a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).

But this kind of love is transformational in ways that nothing else is. In our divisive and conflicted times, we urgently need to examine whether we’re seriously seeking to obey Jesus’s love command in our complex context. Our rancor, bitterness, division, and relational breakdown does not look like Romans 12–15, 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 4, or 1 John 3. We also should examine whether we’re paying any meaningful attention to our contextual equivalent of our wounded neighbor in the street.

As He Has Loved Us

The stakes are high. A deficit of love creates relational wreckage and distorts people’s perception of Jesus. For he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). And he raised the “love your neighbor” bar even higher than we would have thought when he said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Sometimes, when the muck is flying and the disunifying din is blaring, it helps to focus on saints who are simply (not simplistically) loving like Jesus in their difficult contexts. They can help us gain perspective on ours and remind us what, fundamentally, is most important. And they can be a blessed antidote to cynicism. That’s what these remarkable young women are for me right now.

And as I see them trying to love their broken neighbors as themselves, I hear Jesus say, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).