Some Conflict Is Healthy

How Division Can Serve Churches

In most cases, cruelty — not wisdom — would have told them to cut the baby in two. How many kings in history would have had the sword brought, not to draw out the true mother, but to violently end the matter? Who would have imagined that thousands of years later, we’d still hold up such a brutal scene as a beautiful model to imitate — as a masterclass in conflict resolution?

Two women came to King Solomon, like so many others, to settle a dispute. They were both prostitutes, so deciding whom to trust wouldn’t be easy. Both had recently given birth to sons, within just a few days of each other. One boy was now dead because of a horrible accident. His mother woke to find she had smothered him while the two were sleeping. Can you imagine the horror when she realized what she had done?

Desperate, she added horror to horror. She took the living son from her roommate’s breast, and laid the cold body of her carelessness there instead. She stirred the heavy storm of guilt into a hurricane. When the other woman woke up, she found the child at her side was dead. After examining the baby more closely, though, she discovered what evil had happened (like any mother would). But how could she prove it? She couldn’t; they “were alone” (1 Kings 3:18). So the two went to court, both declaring, “The living child is mine, and the dead child is yours” (1 Kings 3:22).

We know what the king does next — the jarring way he uncovers the truth. Who would have guessed he’d threaten to have the child cut in two? When Israel heard of the judgment Solomon rendered, they stood in awe of him, perceiving that the Spirit of God was in him (1 Kings 3:28). Can you explain, however, why he was wise to reach for a sword?

Needful Conflict

We might say Solomon was wise because it worked. The true mother proved herself by pleading that the boy be spared, even if that meant he would be raised by another woman (1 Kings 3:26). Likewise, the selfish response of the other woman exposed her treachery. That it worked, however, doesn’t explain why the king was wise (only that he was). Surely the same strategy would have failed in lots of other crises.

What made Solomon wise, in this case, was that he knew to lean into the conflict between them to prove who was who. He pressed on the sensitive issue at hand until each woman revealed what kind of woman she really was. The apostle Paul offers a similar piece of wisdom to the church when he writes,

When you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. (1 Corinthians 11:18–19)

There must be factions among you. In other words, some conflict is necessary for churches to remain healthy. Why? Like Solomon with the prostitutes: to prove who is who. Who’s really here to worship, obey, and enjoy King Jesus — and who’s here for some other reason?

Isn’t Division Bad?

Aren’t all divisions in the church to be avoided, though? After all, the apostle himself says (earlier in the same letter, even),

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

I appeal to you that there be no divisions among you — not some or few, but none. And then later in the same letter (just a few verses after chapter 11, in fact),

God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:24–25)

So God himself has built the body in such a way as to avoid and remove all division. Elsewhere, Paul calls division a “work of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19–20). He says to those who cause and stoke such conflict, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).

How then could he possible say, “There must be divisions among you”? The answer lies in the rest of the verse: “There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Corinthians 11:18–19). To prove who in the church is really the church. The conflict that inevitably comes in the life of any church serves to confirm and refine those who are really his. In this way, like so many thorns we suffer, it’s both an awful consequence of sin and a precious instrument of mercy.

What Does Division Prove?

But how would division in a church prove anything good about anyone? In the way the sword did for the mothers. It drew coldhearted selfishness out of the grieving woman, and warm-hearted selflessness out of the other. This is what conflict does: it draws out whatever’s inside of us — for better or worse. This is true in churches, in marriages, in friendships, in any relationship. The fires of strife will make those enslaved to sin act all the more sinfully, and those captive to grace act all the more graciously. This makes division a revealer and a purifier.

“This is what conflict does: it draws out whatever’s inside of us — for better or worse.”

What sets the godly apart in these divisions? A few verses after Paul warns us about the weeds of divisiveness, he tells us what grows in gardens watered by the Spirit: love, not loathing; joy, not grumbling; peace, not agitation; patience, not irritability; kindness, not cruelty; goodness, not corruption; faithfulness, not flakiness; gentleness, not harshness; self-control, not indulgence (Galatians 5:22–23).

And the presence (or absence) of any of these qualities is felt more acutely in conflict, isn’t it? We may not really notice love or peace until they’re surprising. We may not appreciate someone’s patience until we expected them to be impatient, their kindness until we expected them to be harsh, their faithfulness until we expected them to give up and walk away. Division harvests whatever has been growing within us, whether good or bad, and displays it for others to see.

Preciousness of Genuineness

We need to see what conflict reveals (“there must be factions among you”). Sometimes, we’ll discover that someone we thought was genuine was not. Even this is a mercy, though, because it allows us to lovingly confront that person and call them to believe and repent. If someone has been captured by sin, and no one around him knows, how will he be set free? How will he taste the grace he can only pretend to know? Conflict will draw sin out of all of us that we can help one another put to death (Hebrews 3:12–13).

But conflict will also uncover secret beauty. It will prove the genuineness of the genuine — the hidden holiness we may not always notice in one another. Isn’t God kind to give us glimpses of the good he’s doing in us? This is why followers of Jesus can rejoice even in the midst of our trials:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials [could this have included relational conflict within the church (see 1 Peter 1:22; 3:8; 4:8)?] so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6–7)

Why has God allowed for conflict in the church? In part, so that we might see the gold he’s beautifying within her. How dull might the gold of genuine faith seem without a fire to refine and illuminate it?

Factions Can Strengthen Families

Over time, division in healthy churches produces unity, not division. Don’t let the good fruit of conflict silence the apostle’s clear charge: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you.” Christians don’t aim for conflict; we aim for agreement and harmony in Christ. We can’t let the usefulness of divisions make any of us divisive.

“Over time, division in healthy churches produces unity, not division.”

After all, Paul’s comment — “there must be factions among you” — comes clothed in a vision for togetherness. He’s writing about the Lord’s table (1 Corinthians 11:33–34). There is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Table — so put away whatever is separating those that God has joined together.

Factions will come, and they must, but they come as catalysts to a deeper, more meaningful sense of family. So as far as it depends on us, let’s pursue togetherness in the truth — and receive church conflict as an invitation to explore and experience more of the oneness we have in Christ.