Conflicts: Our Laboratories of Love
I have a model Christian family.
I don’t mean that we are paragons of spiritual maturity, moral excellence, and discipline. We’re not. What I mean is that my family is a microcosm of the church. If you want to see what the messy construction zone of sanctification-in-process looks like, we are a great model. But if you come, I suggest you bring your hardhat.
A Model Christian Family
Seven sinners live together in our home. We are middle-age, teenage, and pre-teen sinners who each have the sin-nature’s assumption that we are playing the lead role in the drama of existence. We all have different sin-infected temperaments, talents, desires, interests, preferences, proclivities, aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses. We have different priorities and different pressures. We have different fears, anxieties, and temptations and as we deal with them in our different ways and at different developmental and spiritual maturity levels, we have a tendency not to be aware of the others’ fears, anxieties, and temptations.
I hardly have to tell you what this means: It all ends up as compost for sinful conflict that erupts in some form almost every day.
What All Churches Have in Common
We are a model Christian family because the same kinds of conflicts that happen in our home have occurred in every church of which I’ve ever been a part.
I’ve been a member of a smaller large church, a mega-church, a house church, and a medium-small church. Two have been in urban contexts and two in suburban contexts. One reaches the very affluent; one reaches inner-city minorities; one reaches the highly educated; and one reaches the American middle class. The churches have had different theological orientations, ecclesiastical structures, missiologies, and methodologies. But one thing they have all had in common: conflict.
And the kinds of conflict have been very similar. Wherever I’ve been, I’ve witnessed — and committed — the same kinds of offenses, disappointments, failures, self-righteousness, misunderstandings, suspicions, jealousies, coveting, insensitivities, selfish ambitions, gossip, slander, impatience, and sinful judgments.
Wherever two or seven or three hundred or five thousand or more Christians are gathered together in Jesus’s name, there sinful conflict will be among them. And that’s one reason why we so desperately need Jesus’s presence in the form of the Holy Spirit with us when we gather. It’s important to note that when Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20), it is sandwiched in the context of dealing with sin, conflict, and discipline in the church.
Why God Allows Conflicts in the Church
Here’s the bad news: You will not escape conflict by fleeing somewhere else. It will be there when you arrive, partly because some will be packed in your own luggage. If fleeing from conflict becomes your pattern, you will bounce from one church (or family) to another until in disillusion you give up on all the “hypocrites” and “idiots” (failing to see the irony in your judgments). You might even conclude that Christianity isn’t real because Christians aren’t loving, when what really happened is that you fled before you could see gospel love in action.
Here’s the good news: Conflict is the laboratory in which love (agapē) grows. Conflict is the construction area where humility is built. Conflict is the radiology department where pride is exposed. Conflict is the field where our treasure is unearthed. Conflict is a discipline God uses to make us holy and bear the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:10–11).
God has not removed conflict from the church because, like the messenger from Satan who harassed Paul, God uses conflict as a means to keep us from being conceited (2 Corinthians 12:7). God is not glorified by our actual sin in conflict, but he is glorified when we see our sin, humble ourselves, repent through Christ, end our rivalries, seek reconciliation, and push to count others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3–4). Christians all do this work imperfectly, some exercising it more effectively than others because they are at different stages of sanctification and spiritual maturity.
The Beauty of Forbearing Love
Conflict is one of the best places we learn that “love bears all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). It’s where we learn “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1–2).
The gospel is portrayed every time we forbear with someone in love, because we are loving them the way Christ loved us (Colossians 3:13). Forbearing love puts on display the beauty of Jesus’s gracious love for us, which is why such love is worthy of our calling. It’s one of the ways the world knows that we are Jesus’s disciples (John 13:35).
And it’s one of God’s paradoxical ways: He often leads us toward the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3) through conflicts that require us to exercise a self-humbling, gracious love. That way sanctification and unity happen simultaneously, and in a way that shows the gospel to the world.
Bearing With Green Peaches
One of my favorite historical examples of forbearing love comes from John Piper’s biographical message on Charles Simeon, who pastored Trinity Church in Cambridge, England for 49 years in the late 18th and early 19th centuries:
One day, toward the beginning of Simeon’s ministry, he was visiting Henry Venn, who was pastor 12 miles from Cambridge at Yelling. When Simeon left to go home, Venn’s daughters complained to their father about Simeon’s manner. Venn took the girls to the back yard and said, “Pick me one of those peaches.” But it was early summer, and “the time of peaches was not yet.” They asked why he would want the green, unripe fruit. Venn replied, “Well, my dears, it is green now, and we must wait; but a little more sun, and a few more showers, and the peach will be ripe and sweet. So it is with Mr. Simeon.”
Isn’t that beautiful? Rev. Venn could have been personally offended by Simeon’s immature arrogance and encouraged his daughters in their self-righteous indignation. A conflict could have erupted that undermined the gospel in that region. But instead Rev. Venn, knowing his own sin and the gracious way the Lord had dealt with him, bore with the brash young pastor with faith-fueled patience and hope. And in his response, Rev. Venn likely was used by the Spirit to help his daughters ripen and sweeten.
Love Your Model Christian Family and Church
I love my model Christian family, though far from perfectly. It is my desire to see more and more the gospel privilege and calling God has given me to bear with them in love, knowing that I am presenting them the same privileged challenge (and they have their work cut out for them, God help them). And I love my local church, my band of redeemed stumbling saints, of which I am the chief stumbler. Our conflicts are our calling to love.
“Our conflicts are our calling to love.”
God knows how to turn green peaches ripe and sweet. Conflict is one of his means, if we will receive it in faith. All of us are green in some ways and so we all need to forbear and be forborn. God’s promise is that, as we lovingly bear with each other’s green seasons, someday we will all reach the full maturity of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).
Until then, let love bear all things.