A transformational church handles conflict effectively.
Big myth: strong, healthy churches are always one big, happy family. They are devoid of conflict, always working together without tension or frustration toward mutually satisfying goals. In a dream world, healthy churches have near-perfect pastors leading unified, hardworking members through one successful ministry experience after another. When the church is envisioned as “the family of God,” we imagine it resembling a perfect family, which doesn’t exist any more than a perfect church does.
Most churches are like normal families—crazy uncles, bossy aunts, unruly teenagers, imperfect fathers, and overworked mothers! All families, including strong families, have conflict from time to time. That’s normal when people are in vulnerable, emotionally charged relationships. In ways more realistic than idealistic, transformational churches are like families—normal families with occasional conflicts between people who love one another and are genuinely committed to one another for the long haul.
Another myth is mature Christian leaders never have disputes. Our incorrect assumption is pastors, missionaries, professors, elders, and deacons have reached such a level of spiritual maturity—evidenced by their elevation to leadership status—they no longer have disagreements with other leaders. That’s far from the truth! Leaders aren’t always perfect examples of Christian decorum. Christian leaders—including competent, spiritually mature leaders—experience discord with other leaders. These disagreements can be about doctrine, methods, personnel, or personalities. Depending on the stature of the leaders involved, in today’s world these conflicts can become media events, widely publicized and even sensationalized beyond the true scope of their importance. These conflicts can also result in these leaders’ churches or organizations having tension with other Christian entities.
Even when conflict is understood as a normal part of church life, it’s often assumed healthy churches handle it so well that everyone is satisfied when it’s resolved. That’s another myth. Sometimes conflict is resolved and everyone is happy with the outcome. Other times, disagreements end with a truce, not genuine peace. Not everyone is satisfied with the outcome and lives happily ever after. Those conclusions end fairy tales, not real-time divisions and debates among church members or Christian leaders.
When outsiders view strong churches from a distance, they can have an unrealistic impression of their unity and fellowship. People who observe Christian leaders from a distance often see only a positive caricature. But believers closer to the situation see things differently. Healthy churches know they have conflicts, many times similar to the conflicts in struggling churches. Members of strong churches still have conflict with one another and with their leaders and observe discord among their leaders. What differentiates these situations in healthy churches (from similar events in struggling churches) isn’t the nature of the disagreements but how they are handled. What separates transformational churches from dysfunctional churches is their ability to resolve conflict situations successfully and move on rather than being defined, preoccupied, or permanently entangled in the process.
First, Antioch is a model of a church handling conflict effectively. It experienced disputes over doctrinal issues, tension with another church, discord among its leaders, and division over a personnel decision. Let’s look at each of these situations and their parallels in contemporary church life, along with some key principles for handling conflict in a healthy church. Remember, church health isn’t defined by the absence of conflict but by how it’s handled. Transformational churches manage conflict effectively.
Jeff Iorg, The Case for Antioch (Nashville: B&H, 2011).
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