Conflicts are inevitable
I have met people who are disappointed in church. “I used to go to church but you know, something happened in my last church and after that I just sort of lost interest”. Sometimes even church folks don’t get along. Churches split from time to time. The pastor misbehaved and that causes some churches to split. Or a disagreement arises over how the church spends its money, or the color of the new carpet or what kind of stained glass windows the board agreed upon. Not everyone was pleased. I learned from someone in this congregation that one church in the USA experienced a major conflict over whether to provide red or green Jell-o for church dinner. They finally compromised to offer both. Congregations divide into fighting factions and oppositional camps. Some congregations struggle through the issue of music styles. Some folks want hymns, others love the praise and worship songs. Some like traditional worship styles with set liturgy, other enjoy the contemporary free style of worship. Two pianists in a congregation in Atlanta recently had a falling out over whether the piano lid should be raised or be left down during the service.
Have you ever visited a church that is in the middle of a major conflict? You enter the doors and can feel the tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. People won’t speak to one another. They go down separate aisles and sit on separate sides of the church. You can tell when folks avoid each other and sit in the congregation fuming mad. Or they exchange hostile glances. Not everything is sweetness and light in church, is it? If you have been around church long enough you’ll find people are people. We irritate each other and get on another’s nerves.
Conflicts are an inevitable part of life.
Conflicts happen on playgrounds with children in the sandbox, they happen on school yards and classrooms. They happen in families as parents and kids argue and spouses quarrel. Have you ever driven anywhere with a pack of kids in the back seat? “Mom, tell Joel to quit looking at me!” “Jenny, stop touching me. Mom!” “How much longer, Daddy? Billy is in my space.” “Will you kids be quiet! You’re driving me nuts.” Some of mine and Stephanie’ best fights happen on the way to church. What goes on in your car on the way to the House of God? Is Sunday morning a peace-filled, harmonious moment of serenity? Or, is Sunday morning spent dragging the kids from bed against their pleading and trying to get everyone bathed, hair combed and dressed? Get a little food in them and then get to Sunday school? It’s like pulling teeth, isn’t it. Conflicts take place in offices and boardrooms, between family members and friends, neighbors and nations. What is a conflict?
What is conflict? Definition(s)
Conflict: a disagreement or clash between ideas, principles, or people. Have you had a clash lately? Maybe you are in the middle of a big fight now. Just think how it feels. Conflict can cause worry, anger, and loss of sleep, insecurity, hurt feelings, and a sense of loss. Dear friends and lovers separate over conflict. But conflict is inevitable and we must face it and face it squarely.
Conflicts occurred in the early church
I am glad that the writer of the Acts of the Apostles told the truth about those early Christians. He didn’t tell us just the good parts. He didn’t gloss over the dirt and or paint a rosy picture. He told it like it was. Right there in their earliest days the church faced a very real threat, a conflict. What caused this conflict? The writer tells us: But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.
One of the first major difficulties faced by those first Christians related to ethnic diversity. The congregation was multicultural. The church experienced initial growth, but their very growth meant that the organization was changing. The church decided to reach out to the widows among them. In those days there was no social security and no safety nets. A woman, especially an older woman, who lost her husband and had no children or grandchildren to care for her, if she was not independently wealthy would be truly destitute. She would depend upon God and whatever any kind soul might do to help her. The Jewish Synagogue had a long tradition of caring for the widows in the towns and cities. The Christian Community made this one of their number one priorities. Remember James, the first pastor of the Jerusalem Church, made the widows his special concern. He wrote in his letter: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27
The church opened a soup kitchen for the local widows. The Apostles tried to administrate this endeavor but the stress of the work kept growing; more widows joined the soup lines; there were Bible lessons to teach; sermons to preach. Sick people needed pastoral visits. Families needed someone to help since the father was in prison. A woman and her children suffered because her husband comes home drunk and beats her; more new converts need to be trained and baptized. Well, life just got busier and busier. You can’t attend to every detail can you?
Now we don’t know if it was deliberate, but as the soup lines formed the Hebrew speaking widows all flocked together and the Greek speaking widows huddled together near the back of the line. Language is such a problem, isn’t it? When we don’t understand one another well we get a little irritated and impatient. Ever been in line at McDonalds? “I thought I told you decaffeinated coffee. That is DE-caffeinated coffee. No I do not want regular coffee. I ordered d-ecaff-ein-ated coffee.” Sometimes Americans believe that if you talk slow and loud people who don’t speak English will understand you anyway.
You know how it is. “Birds of a feather flock together”. We all gravitate to the people most like us. Just observe what happens around TIC after service. Americans together to talk in little groups; The South Africans gather together and chat in Afrikaans, Taiwanese and Chinese huddle together. It is just natural because we want to be with our friends mostly.
I heard the story about one young woman who moved into a new community because of her work. Gail began attending church nearby. The congregation was older adults, mostly retired folk. For weeks she attended regularly but noticed that almost no one spoke to her. She hung out in the foyer near the doors after the service but still few noticed her. She went to the coffee socials in the fellowship hall after service, but seldom did anyone speak to her. It was like she was invisible. She had a problem breaking in to that congregation. After a few months her parents from out of town visited her and attended service with her. After the worship she and her Mom and Dad were surrounded by people in the congregation all eager to meet her parents. Why? What made the difference? It was because she was young and she didn’t appear anywhere in their radar screen. They weren’t being unfriendly. The congregation of older adults just didn’t see her. They were unaware that she really wanted to know them. She was not on their mental maps. They assumed that she wasn’t like them and wouldn’t be interested in them getting to know her. But they just gravitated towards her parents seeing them as more their age. Age and language and skin color and ethnicity can cause barriers, can’t they?
Most every foreigner here knows what it is like to not understand Chinese and not be able to make yourself understood. Any church as acquainted with ethnic and cultural diversity as we are at TIC will meet many frustrations. Our Sunday School and Children’s church teachers struggle with this language barrier as some Chinese parents drop their children off for Sunday School and Children’s church to learn English. It is challenge to every teacher and helper to reach these children when language is an obstacle.
How do you solve these differences of language and ethnicity? I don’t believe there is any one answer. But we try to do what we do as Christians. One answer would be to simply exclude those who are different. Or ignore them. That is one strategy. “No shirt, no shoes, no service”; “Black ties and jackets required here” “Whites Only”, “No Indians allowed”, “God hates fags”. These are all answers of exclusion.
You know there is just nothing easy about this unity in the body of Christ business is there? Ever since the Tower of Babel people have struggled with differences. There were those Hebrew speaking Jews and those Greek speaking Jews. Maybe some of the servers in the line didn’t care for the Greek speaking Jews. “Why don’t they learn Hebrew like proper Jews? They just speak the language of the foreigners.” Maybe the Greek speakers just took their place at the back of the line every time the doors were opened. By the time they reached the serving area the soup was pretty thin. “Sorry, we’re out. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.” But day after day this seemed to happen. The Greek speaking Jews felt discriminated against, and apparently they were. Trouble was brewing. And “…there were rumblings of discontent”.
Conflicts as creative opportunity
Conflicts are not all bad, they can furnish us with occasions to learn and grow; it all depends upon how we handle them. Once the problem is out there, what we do with it can be healthy or unhealthy. In a moment of conflict we usually do one of two things: fight or flight. Some people ignore the problem and run away. Become defensive or go on the attack. Neither response is healthy. Max Lucado said, “Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” Our text in Acts 6 gives us some clues to how the early Christians handled conflict.
Some Healthy and Unhealthy ways to handle conflict
In moments of conflict things can get messy. One of the most unhealthy ways to deal with conflict, be it in church, the work place or family is this: To deny that there is a problem. DENIAL: Disputants tend to ignore the real problem and deny what is going on. They just push in under the rug. The Apostles allowed this complaint to surface helpfully. They practiced a healthy ACCEPTANCE: They acknowledged the existence of a problem and the need to do something about it.
Another unhealthy way to relate the problem is this to turn the conflict into something personal. Personal: Those involved mix the people and problems together and assume that by changing or eliminating the people, the problem will be solved. The Apostles could have done that. They could have clobbered the widows and told them that they shouldn’t complain. They could blame them for the problem. They could have vilified them for being too forward and told them to get back into their place as women. By the way that strategy has been used with women in the past! They could have made them feel unwelcome. This would not have solved the problem but only made it worse. It would have gone underground and festered there.
Instead the Apostles called a meeting of the whole congregation. They listened to the complaints and tried to hear what was said and what was not being said. No one wanted to blame the widow or the Apostles for the problem of discrimination. The Apostles practiced a healthy way to handle conflict.
They kept the conflict one the impersonal level. They were able to see the difference between the people and the problem—and did not mix the two.
A third unhealthy pattern of handling conflict affects communication. Conflict can affect communication. Often in moments of conflict we shut communication down or limit it. This doesn’t help.
COMMUNICATION IS DIMINISHED: people speak only to those with whom they already agree. Sometimes third parties carry messages. People send anonymous letters. The Apostles faced the situation head on and consulted the people involved. They knew that everyone was a stakeholder and so all were allowed to voice their concerns. They helped create an atmosphere where communication is open. COMMUNICATION IS OPEN. People spoke directly to one another and everyone was given the same information. No secret meeting behind closed doors were called. It was a healthy way to deal with the problem. The Apostles chose to face the trouble head on with some creative solutions. Rather than letting the trouble split the church and alienate the Hebrew from the Greek speaking Jewish Christians, they chose to bring the dispute into the bright light of day and deal with it creatively.
They recognized that the source of the real trouble was not a moral failure on their part for not helping the widows more. Nor was it those bad complaining widows who would do better to just keep their mouths shut. The real trouble was that the Apostles had reached their genuine limits and needed help. They put this idea before the congregation: It was time to expand the ministry and get more helpers. They instructed the congregation itself to help solve the problem. They were to choose seven qualified assistants to administer this feeding program. This was a creative solution. The writer reports: “Everyone liked this idea.”
Their concerns were heard, an assessment of the source of the trouble was found. They worked together and found a creative solution.
Oh how I wish all our matters were dealt with so. We don’t always act like that do we? But in this case the congregation participated in the solution, more workers entered the ministry. This new division of labor allowed the Apostles more time to focus on their ministries of teaching, preaching and prayer; the congregation avoided a nasty church split, and they diffused a potentially divisive ethnic tension.
What happened then?
Because the congregation handled this potentially divisive issue in a healthy way good results followed. The writer concluded the episode this way: So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too. Conflicts are inevitable. They will come. We like to avoid them, but they will come. Whether they become divisive an destructive depends largely on how we handle them.
M. Scott Peck wrote: The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.
What conflicts are you in today? How can you see them as opportunities for creative solutions? Who need to be consulted? What wisdom do you need to help you in the conflict? These are some questions that we can all think about and pray about.
“May the pain you have known and the conflict you have experienced give you the strength to walk through life facing each new situation with courage and optimism.”