Conflict in the Church


A Tool for Peace Building and Conflict Resolution among Christians


What does the Bible say about disagreements and conflict resolution? Often times the root of the problem is pride and miscommunication. The Bible clearly warns us against pride and anger. As believers we must avoid provocation and personal attacks. We are called to treat everyone equally with dignity and respect. We must learn to forgive and communicate the truth in love. Communication must be clear, effective and constructive at all times.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12)

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each; I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (3:5-9)

So, if you’re in a fight with other believers that relates to a particular church, one of the first things you need to remember is that the church is not yours. It doesn’t belong to you. It doesn’t belong to the people who are on your side. It doesn’t belong to the majority of the members. It doesn’t belong to the founding members or their descendents. It doesn’t belong to the big givers. It doesn’t belong to the pastor, or the elders. Your individual church belongs to the triune God. Period; every other “ownership” is really just a loan. This basic truth makes a huge difference in the way we think and act with respect to the church, especially in times of conflict.


I wish conflict among Christians were a relatively insignificant problem. I wish we who believe in Jesus could experience the unity he commended to us (John 17:20-24). I wish there wasn’t animosity within churches and denominations.

But all of this is, I admit, wishful thinking. The fact is that Christians often have a hard time getting along with each other. This has been true from the earliest days of the church. The Apostle Paul, who planted the church in Corinth, wrote what we call 1 Corinthians to the believers there principally because of internal conflict in the church. By the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, the tension was largely between Paul and his church.

Even in a healthy church, such as the one in Philippi, conflict was a problem. Thus Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Phil 4:2-3). Two prominent women in the Philippians congregation, people who had been Paul’s co-workers in ministry, were stuck in some sort of conflict such that they needed help from Paul and others to try and get along.

When I was a young Christian, I used to think that the solution to the ills of the contemporary church was to “get back to the early church.” If we could only believe and do as the first believers believed and did, we’d be on the right track. But the more I have studied the early church, the more I have come to recognize the manifold problems that plagued the first Christians. Among these, conflict played a central role.

Perhaps one of the most discouraging things about studying church history, from the first century onward, is to see just how often Christians have been mired in disputes and strife. Sometimes, in our worst moments, we have actually put to death fellow Christians whose theological convictions didn’t measure up to our personal standards. Not a happy story, not at all.

This was not what Jesus intended, to be sure. In his “High Priestly Prayer” recorded in John 17, Jesus prayed: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

A little earlier, Jesus had said to his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). To be sure, there are times when followers of Jesus do love each other in an exemplary way. But, far too often, such love is marred by conflict, tension, and outright meanness. And, far too often, we have not dealt with these problems in a loving way.

So, today I give this message that seeks God’s guidance for Christians in conflict. This series will be relevant, I believe, to ministry disagreements. I will seek to discover and apply God’s revealed wisdom to conflict among Christians. My hope is that when we experience conflict in the church, we will be prepared to deal with it in a way that honors God and strengthens Christian community.

Dealing with Conflict among Christians: One Starting Point

Where should we start if we’re seeking God’s guidance for conflict among Christians? Here’s where my convictions come strongly into play. We should start with Scripture, with God’s inspired Word. Now this is always a good starting point, the best there is, in fact. But in times of conflict it’s even more essential that we begin with and cling to biblical teaching. There are several reasons why.

First, in times of conflict our natural human emotions often try to dictate our behavior. We feel anger and want to lash out. We feel fear and want to defend or attack. We feel wronged and want to get revenge. Yet if we allow our emotions to guide our behavior, inevitably we’ll simply make matters worse. Conversely, if we tenaciously hang onto biblical teaching, we’ll find the power to act rightly even when our feelings try to drag us in the wrong direction. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself wanting to get even with people who have wronged me. Yet by holding on for dear life to God’s Word I’ve managed to avoid behaviors that would have been sinful and self-defeating, even if they seemed to be temporarily satisfying.

Second, in times of conflict we must stand solidly upon Scripture because God’s ways of dealing with conflict are generally very different from the world’s ways. When we’re in the midst of some church battle, we’re tempted to adopt the ways of the world. Chief among these ways is the desire to win. We can also be tempted to use human schemes to defeat our opponents. We spin like we’re in the middle of a dirty political campaign. We rally the troops. We get out the vote. We defend ourselves. We play the victim. We undermine our opponents. We conveniently ignore facts that don’t support our side. We hold grudges, and so forth and so on. It will feel natural to us to use the world’s ways to win church battles, and, as we do, the world around us will cheer. But rarely are these the ways of a God who says to us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). The world doesn’t have much room for one who tells us to turn the other cheek, who calls us to forgive seventy times seven, and who urges us to imitate his humble, self-sacrificial servant-hood. So we need the Bible to show us different ways to operate in times of conflict: the ways of peace, the ways of the gospel, and the ways of Jesus Christ.

Third, in times of conflict among Christians, we need the Bible as the source both of practical guidance (here’s how to act) and of theological insight (here’s how to think about God and the church). The biblical combination of ethics and theology helps to shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Ironically, I hope this series isn’t directly relevant to every one’s life, at least not right now. But even if your church is in a blessed season of harmony, you may be able to direct others to the biblical guidance I will convey. Moreover, if you take seriously what I will share with you, you may very well help your church stay out of serious conflict. And, if this doesn’t happen and conflict comes, you will be able to be a peacemaker in your own community.

Let God Speak to You through His Word

As I suggested that Scripture should be a primary starting point for seeking God’s will when we’re in conflict with other Christians (or anyone, for that matter). Now, I want to draw your attention to one of the most important passages for discerning God’s guidance for Christians in conflict, Philippians 2:1-11. Later I’ll offer some exegetical observations about this text. First, however, I want to bring the entire passage and then offer some guidance for how to let it impact your heart and your actions. I’m writing specifically for people who find themselves in conflict right now, though I hope you’ll find this to be worthwhile even if you’re not facing such a challenge today. Here’s the passage from Philippians:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:1-11)

In light of this passage, if you’re in the midst of conflict with other Christians, let me urge you to do the following. And, frankly, you might well want to do this even if you’re not in a conflicted place right now.

  1. Ask the Lord to speak to you through this section of his Word and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Prayerfully, slowly read this passage. Read it at least three times. If possible, read it aloud. Let each word sink in. Be attentive to what God is saying to you personally. (Note: Don’t start applying this text to others and focus on what they need to do. Let the Lord speak to you about you.)
  3. As God convicts you, go with it. Talk to him about it. Confess if you need to. Ask for his help to obey if you need to. Take time to talk with the Lord about how this passage should impact your life.
  4. If you are able to do so, share with at least one other believer what God has been saying to you through Philippians 2. Be open to encouragement and or correction from this believer (or these believers). Ask them to pray for you as you move to the next step.
  5. Act upon what God has said to you through this passage. Be a doer of the Word, not a hearer only (James 1:22). You may find it very hard to do what God wants you to do. Be assured: He will provide the strength you need if you depend on him.

I’m going to stop now. Yes, I have a few things I want to say about this passage. But right now I think I should get my words out of the way. What you need most of all is the Word of God, brought to life by the Spirit of God. My reflections will come in due time. But I truly believe that if you’re experiencing conflict with other Christians, and if you take time to prayerfully meditate upon this section of Scripture, and if your heart is open to God, then He will guide you to do what is right and honoring to him. You will begin to see the conflict you’re in from God’s perspective. And you’ll begin to see how you can be an agent of God’s peace at this time. May the peace of Christ be with you . . . really! 

Having the Mind of Christ

Previously I encouraged you to read Philippians 2:1-11 slowly and prayerfully. Here I’d like to highlight a few features of this astounding text.

If you’re in the middle of a conflict with other Christians, however, you might not like this passage very much. Your gut instinct is to win the battle, to be vindicated, to prevail over your opponents. But this text speaks of being agreeable, humble, and considering others as better than yourself. You’d probably prefer that I had sent you to Psalm 58:8, in which David prayed about his enemies: “Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime.” But, like it or not, if you’re a follower of Christ, you’ve got to deal with Philippians 2:1-11. More to the point, you’re stuck with the compelling and challenging example of Jesus himself.

Philippians 2 begins with a series of ethical injunctions that could be paraphrased: agree with each other; love each other; be humble; care more for the concerns others than for your own concerns. These imperatives are summarized in verse five: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In a nutshell, we are to think as Jesus thought.

Paul doesn’t leave it up to us to decide what it means to think like Jesus. We don’t get to pick and choose from the gospel stories or to make up our own version of what constitutes the mind of Christ. Rather, Paul shows us quite clearly in verses 6-8 what it means to think like Jesus:

Though Jesus was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.

This is a tricky text for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the language is rather unusual for Paul and therefore difficult to interpret. This fact, combined with the poetic structure of the passage, has led many scholars to propose that Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn, something he did not write. This explains the uniqueness of the language. But it’s also possible that Paul composed this poetic text when writing to the Philippians. In either case, it’s not easy to determine the precise nuance of every word here, even though the big picture is fairly clear.

What is this big picture? It’s an image of Christ’s active humility. It’s a portrait of one who was fully equal to God the Father, but who, nevertheless, chose to take on the form of a slave by becoming human. Moreover, this passage paints a shocking picture of a divine being who not only became human, but also chose to die a most humiliating and painful death by crucifixion. One cannot imagine a more startling and unsettling image of humility and self-sacrifice.

How might our conflict with others be different if we took seriously the humility of Jesus? How might we react to those who wrong us if we were to reflect upon the self-giving love of Christ? The beginning of Philippians 2 suggests that our relationships with others – including and especially when we experience differences and disagreements with them – would be radically different.

Having the Mind of Christ: Part 2

Throughout the ages, commentators and preachers have seen Philippians 2:1-11 as a theological reflection on Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13. In this gospel text, Jesus literally humbled himself, doing that which an actual slave would ordinarily have done. He did this to teach his disciples how they were to love each other, in anticipation of his ultimate act of love on the cross. In Philippians 2, Paul uses the image of the humble, self-sacrificing, serving, crucified Christ to teach the Philippians believers how they ought to treat each other.

Philippians 2 raises all sorts of tantalizing theological questions about the nature of Christ. In what way was he equal to God? In what sense did he empty himself? And so on. Yet Paul doesn’t deal with such questions in this text. Rather he uses the image of the humble Christ to show the Philippians – and by extension, to show us – how we ought to relate to each other. We’re called to imitate Christ, not in any way we please, but specifically with respect to his humbling, self-giving, sacrificial action.

This isn’t easy to do! It’s hard to do what this text requires in the best of times. Even when I’m getting along well with others I still find it natural to put my self-interest first. But, when you’re in the midst of conflict with other believers, doing what Philippians 2 requires is more than hard. It’s impossible . . . without God, that is. It challenges the very fiber of our being. It calls us to counter-intuitive and counter-cultural humility. And we’re just not wired to do this sort of thing apart from divine help.

But God’s help is available to us in several ways. These are highlighted in verse 1 of our text, which I’d paraphrase in the following way: “If there is any encouragement in Christ – which, of course, there is – any empowering comfort in Christ’s love – which, of course, there is – any partnership with the Holy Spirit – which, of course, there is – [agree together, love each other, etc.].” Here’s what God provides to help us do the impossible:

  1. Encouragement in Christ – The teaching and example of Jesus himself empower us to do what otherwise we could not do.
  2. Empowering Comfort in Christ’s love – The more we experience Christ’s love for us, the more we will be enabled to love with this same sort of love. The more we are secure in Christ’s love, the more we will be able to take the risk of loving, not only our neighbors, but also our enemies.
  3. Partnership with the Holy Spirit – When we put our faith in Christ, the very Spirit of God comes to dwell in us, empowering us with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. The Spirit is in the process of making us more and more like Christ.

Years ago, I was in charge of a group of leaders in the church. This group was in the midst of a nasty conflict. One of the leaders was especially vicious in the way she was treating another leader. I challenged her to think about what Jesus would do. Her response, shouted passionately, was: “I don’t care what Jesus would do! I’m not Jesus!” I was tempted to say, “Well, that’s fairly obvious,” but, by God’s grace, I didn’t. Instead I reminded her of the good news that God, through the Spirit, helps us to be like Christ even when our natural capabilities are inadequate. The confession “I’m not Jesus!” is actually a great place for every Christian to start, including me! But it’s not a place to end. Once we realize our own inadequacies, we’re ready to trust God more completely, and to discover that we can do all things through Christ who makes us strong (Philippians 4:13).

So, when you’re in the middle of conflict, ask yourself: “What would it be for me to have the mind of Christ here?” And don’t just ask yourself, ask Christ himself through prayer: “Lord, how would you think in this circumstance? How can I imitate your example of selflessness and humility now?” The more you look to Jesus, the more you’ll discover how you’re to act in controversial and divisive circumstances. The more you depend upon Jesus, the more you’ll find unexpected strength to be agreeable, loving, humble, other-directed, and Christ-like.

Corinth: The Paradigm of Christian Conflict If you consider the issue of Christians in conflict from a New Testament perspective, you will quickly focus on Corinth. No church in Scripture is more ridden with disagreement and controversy than the Corinthian church, which explains, in part why so much of the New Testament focuses on Corinth. It took the Apostle Paul multiple visits and letters, two of which we have in the New Testament, to sort out the problems in this church.

The letter we know as 1 Corinthians (which is actually Paul’s second letter, see 1 Cor 5:9) was written primarily because the Christians in Corinth weren’t getting along with each other. After greeting the letter recipients at the beginning of the first chapter, Paul explains what he has learned about this church:

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul, “or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” (1Corinthians 1:11-12)

The Greek word translated here as “quarrel” can also mean “argument” or “strife.” Paul uses this same word again in the third chapter of his letter: “For as long as there is jealous and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh . . . ?” (3:3). The Corinthian church is being torn apart, not by one single controversy, but by multiple conflicts and tensions.

As we read through 1 Corinthians we can compile a list of these divisive issues. They include:

  • Over-identification with one or another Christian leader.
  • Too much pride in one’s own spirituality.
  • Sexual immorality.
  • Suing fellow Christians in court.
  • Prostitution.
  • Marriage and divorce.
  • Participating in the worship of idols.
  • Participating in the worship of idols.
  •  Dressing immodestly in the church gatherings.
  • Selfishness in church gatherings.
  • Interrupting the gatherings with ecstatic utterances.

Beneath this plethora of issues lay the challenge of working out the Christian life in a non-Christian culture. When some of the people in Corinth put their faith in Jesus, naturally enough they brought along their cultural baggage, including prior experiences in paganism. For example, since it was commonplace for wealthier members of Corinthian society to eat in pagan temples, the privileged few in the Christian community continued to do what came naturally. Yet this scandalized other Christians, especially those who did not have the financial means to eat in temples and who, therefore, considered all temple visitations to be the worship of idols.

In the next part, and in several to follow, I will summarize Paul’s response to the conflicts in Corinth. As promised, I will draw practical conclusions as well as make some historical and theological observations.

For now, however, I simply want to note once again that conflict is a normal part of Christian experience. I’m not happy about this, of course. And Scripture makes it clear that God isn’t happy about this either. But conflict is a fact in Christian fellowship. As I’ve said before, I once thought: “Oh, if I could only be back in time of the apostles it would be great. Then the church wouldn’t be in such as mess as it is today.” Yet, if you go back and read the New Testament carefully, especially the letters of Paul or the letters in Revelation 2-3 to the seven churches in Asia Minor, you realize that the church has experienced conflict from the get go. This fact encourages us not to be surprised when we face conflict today. We should be ready to see it in God’s terms and to follow God’s guidance for how to resolve it.

Whose Church is it?

In the last paragraphs I set up the first-century Corinthian church as a paradigm of a church in conflict. The letter we know as 1 Corinthians is the effort of the Apostle Paul to resolve the controversies that were plaguing this early Christian community.

Before we get into some of the specifics of this effort, however, we should look at how Paul addresses the Corinthians at the beginning of his letter. He writes to: “the church of God that is in Corinth.” “Church” translates the Greek word ekklesia, which meant “gathering” or “assembly,” and referred in particular to the gathering of voting citizens in Corinth. Paul wasn’t writing to the “ekklesia of Corinth,” a phrase that would easily have been misunderstood. Instead, he addressed his letter to the “ekklesia of God that is in Corinth.”

By referring to the Corinthian church as the church “of God,” Paul is doing more than distinguishing it from the civic voting assembly, however. He is also letting the Corinthians know who “owns” the gathering of Christians in Corinth. In a phrase: God does. The Christians are not simply one more religious club formed and guided by its members, of which there were many in first-century Corinth. Rather, the Corinthian assembly belongs to God in a strong, ultimate sense. (Later in the letter Paul will add that even the bodies of the individual Corinthians also belong to the Lord.)

Paul reiterates this point at the conclusion of his opening address: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9). Notice, first of all, that the Corinthian believers aren’t in the fellowship because they chose to join. From a theological point of view, they “were called” by God into the fellowship. They are members of the Corinthian church by God’s choice and invitation. Moreover, they belong not merely to a human institution, but to a fellowship that has been founded by and is the property of the very Son of God.

Twice in his opening address to the Corinthians, Paul emphasizes the fact that their gathering is not their own. It belongs to God the Father and to the Son of God. Later Paul will explain that the church comes into existence through the work of the Spirit of God (see 12:12-13). This is a fundamental truth about the church, and one Paul emphasizes intentionally because it relates to the problem of conflict among Christians.

To relate Paul’s point to the situation of conflict among Christians today, let me say this: when you’re caught up in a disagreement with other believers, you need to remember whose you are. You belong to God through Jesus Christ. This is true of you personally and also of the church. Whatever else it may be, the church is the church of God: the church that comes from God, is governed by God, and belongs to God.

So, if you’re in a fight with other believers that relates to a particular church, one of the first things you need to remember is that the church is not yours. It doesn’t belong to you. It doesn’t belong to the people who are on your side. It doesn’t belong to the majority of the members. It doesn’t belong to the founding members or their descendents. It doesn’t belong to the big givers. It doesn’t belong to the pastor, or the elders, or even the denomination (if there is one). Your individual church belongs to the triune God. Period. Every other “ownership” is really just a loan.

This basic truth makes a huge difference in the way we think and act with respect to the church, especially in times of conflict. For example:

  • If we truly believe that the church belongs to God, then we’ll be more committed to finding God’s solution to our conflicts than making sure that our side wins.
  • If we truly believe that the church belongs to God, then we’ll be quick to admit that our personal ideas about what should happen in the church may very well be wrong. Only one opinion really matters, the opinion that belongs to God.
  • If we truly believe that the church belongs to God, then we’ll realize that the church is not to be trifled with. The church is not first of all a vehicle for my self-expression, or professional security, or enjoyment, or whatever. It is, first and foremost, a vehicle for God’s glory. The church exists to do God’s bidding, to represent God’s kingdom, and to bring praise to God.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for us to remember to whom the church belongs and, for that matter, to whom we belong. When I was in the middle of a passionate argument with my elders at my first Church, for example, one of the best things we did is to stop and pray. As we care before God, we remembered that we were on holy ground. We relinquished our desire to control God’s church and submitted ourselves to his will. Before the majesty of God, we humbled ourselves and shared together in common humility. Such an experience of God’s sovereignty didn’t magically take away our disagreements, but it did put them in a completely different light. Antagonists vying for ownership of the church became fellow seekers for the will of the One who truly owns the church. Winning no longer mattered, except for the victory of God.

This process that I’ve just described happened several times throughout my ministry at Irvine Pres, though it usually didn’t flow as quickly or smoothly as the last paragraph would imply. Nevertheless, I’ve seen the recognition that the church is God’s church transform hearts, including my own. So, one of the most important things we can do if we’re in the middle of church conflict is to step back and remember – really remember – that the church belongs to the triune God.

What is the Church?

In the last paragraphs I worked with the question: “Whose church is it?” The answer from 1 Corinthians is clear. The church is God’s church. The church is the creation and “property” of the triune God. Acknowledging this means that when we’re in the midst of church conflict, we must seek God’s will for God’s church above all. Here I want to ask a related “big question”: What is the church? What is this entity that belongs to God?

On the simplest level, a church is a gathering of people who belong to God through faith in Jesus Christ. Wherever Christians come together in Christ, there is a church. But this is just the beginning. In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul speaks of the church in striking and surprising language:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple; (3:16-17)

For years I read this passage as speaking about me as an individual Christian. A parallel text in 1 Corinthians 6 does indeed speak of the body of the Christian person as a temple for God’s Spirit (6:19). But the emphasis in chapter 3 is different. Here the temple of God is the church, the gathered fellowship of believers.

The context in 1 Corinthians 3 makes it clear that Paul is not focusing on individual believers when he says “you are God’s temple.” In verse 9, the Corinthian church is “God’s building” (3:9). Those who labor as church-planters are in the construction business, so to speak (3:10-15). So when we come to verse 16, we know that the temple of which Paul speaks is not the individual believer but the assembly of believers. The verse might be paraphrased: “Do you not know that you folks [plural in Greek] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells among you?” Or, to use the language of my new home state, “Do y’all not know that all y’all are God’s temple?”

This interpretation is confirmed in verse 17, which warns the Corinthians not to destroy God’s temple. The first three chapters of 1 Corinthians have to do, not with threats to individual believers, but with the threat of division in the church at Corinth. So when Paul says, “If anyone destroys God’s temple,” he’s referring to the church of God in Corinth, which is at risk because of the conflicts in the church.

Part of what makes the church so special is the presence of God’s Spirit. When believers gather together, God is with them through his Spirit. The power of God is available so the church can be strengthened. Paul will have much more to say about this in chapters 12-14.

From the mere fact that the church is God’s temple, you’d naturally conclude that it ought to be treated with reverence and supreme care. But in case you missed that implication, Paul adds: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person” (3:17). Now that’s a threat to take notice of, don’t you think? Before you start trifling with the church of God, you’d better realize what you’re doing.

Sometimes, especially in the heat of church conflict, people can forget what they’re dealing with. They easily think of the church in human terms. I know pastors who have seemed almost willing to destroy a particular church in order to defend their reputation or career. How sad this is! And, given the threat of 1 Corinthians 3:17, how ill advised.

On the contrary, I have seen church leaders sacrifice their advantage for the sake of God’s church. A friend of mine was pastoring a solid and growing church when a faction that didn’t like his leadership tried to force him out. As he prayed about what was best for God’s temple, my friend decided that it would be best if he resigned. Though he felt sure that he could defeat his foes, he also believed that this fight would seriously damage the church. His career, his income, his reputation . . . none of these mattered as much as the church he loved so much. So he resigned.

I’m not suggesting that every embattled pastor should quit. But I am suggesting that every one of us, especially if we’re in the midst of church conflict, should realize, not only that the church belongs to God, but also that it is his temple, the dwelling place of his Spirit. With this in mind, we will do everything in our power both to honor and to protect the church, even if it involves self-sacrifice.

So, if you’re in the midst of church conflict, step back from the issues long enough to remember what it is you’re dealing with. Are you thinking of your church as the temple of God? Are you doing everything you can to protect and care for God’s temple? 

How to Think About Christian Leaders, Part 1

During my years as social work at the Church, every once in a while I’ll hear somebody refer to the church as “a particular leader’s church.” Though I understood the shorthand, nevertheless it grated on my soul like fingernails on a spiritual blackboard. During my years as a Christian, I’ve seen cases where churches are so identified with the pastor that things are way out of balance. A church that belongs to God ends up being spoken of, and sometimes even thought of, as the personal property of some individual. The identity of pastor and church are so intertwined that it’s almost impossible to think of them as distinct. That which exists for the sake and glory of Christ ends up as a personality cult with the pastor as the dominant star.

The tendency of Christians to over-identify with their leaders is an old one. In fact, it goes back to the earliest years of the church. In the letter we know as 1 Corinthians, Paul gets right to the point after his opening address:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” (1:10-12)

Fundamental to the divisions and disagreements in the Corinthian church was the tendency for the different “parties” to identify with some Christian leader over and against the others. It’s easy to understand how this could happen, especially when you consider that in some of the pagan mystery religions the person who guided you into the mysteries held a special place in your heart.

Of course love and appreciation for Christian leaders is a fine thing. But when this love and appreciation becomes divisive or idolatrous, then we have a real problem. In Corinth, the different “leader parties” were splitting the church, with people claiming allegiance to their particular hero rather than embracing the whole church of Jesus Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul seeks to set the Corinthians right by helping them to have a right understanding of Christian leadership:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each; I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (3:5-9)

It seems that Corinthians were divided especially into the group that supported Paul and the group that identified with Apollos, a more articulate preacher and one who might have had greater appeal among the more educated and wealthier Corinthians. Yet in their devotion to a human leader, the Corinthian were missing the point. Both Paul and Apollos were equally servants of God though they may have different functions. Moreover, they shared in the common purpose of building a church for God’s purposes. Yet the major point Paul makes is that the servants aren’t the main thing at all. God is the main thing. God is the Master of the servants. God is the only one who can cause the church to grow. God is the owner of the church, whether seen as a field or a building.

Paul wraps up his argument in verse 21 with a simple imperative: “So let no one boast about human leaders.” Though appreciation of leaders is fine, this must not run over into bragging or anything that would divide the church.

Here is a measure for determining the health of leadership in a church: How do the members talk about the leaders? Are they drawing up sides for and or against their leaders? Do they pit some leaders against others? Or do they see all leaders as servants of the One who really matters?

Pastor Mark of Irvine Presbyterian Church comments like this. I confess that, during my years as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I found it easy to get too entangled with the church I served. I could even begin to think of Irvine Presbyterian Church as “my church” in a way that wasn’t healthy. For me, this wasn’t so much about my glory as about an overactive sense of responsibility. Though God had called me to the Irvine church and though he blessed my ministry there, I was not nearly as essential to the church as I might have thought. God could take care of this church just fine without me. Though God used me at Irvine, I was not necessary to the life and health of the church. This has been demonstrated in the three years since I’ve been away from Irvine Pres, which is now being led by a fine new pastor, Scott Bullock.

How to Think About Christian Leaders, Part 2

In the last few paragraphs, I examined 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, considering its implications for how we think about church leaders. I closed by admitting that sometimes it is not easy for a pastor or other leader to seek God’s glory, especially when we are in the midst of conflict. Here I bring you an experience shared by Pastor Mark;

I know from personal experience how difficult this can be. About fifteen years ago I was in the midst of one the hardest times in my ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church. I had a staff member I’ll call Shirley with whom I was having many conflicts. From my point of view, she was not fulfilling her job description in many, many ways. From her point of view, I was being imperious and unsupportive. Though I tried everything I could think of to make things work out, they were going south faster than a goose in November.

During this time, Shirley began to lobby the troops on her side. She complained about how I was mistreating her. She would visit shut-ins and tell them I was getting ready to fire her (which wasn’t true). She was clearly trying to divide the church and was doing a fine job of it. I must confess that I was sorely tempted to join the game and beat her at it. I wanted to get people on my side. I wanted people to know the truth and defend me. The church started to become all about me . . . me, me, and me. We were going the way of the splintered Corinthian church.

Everything came to a head at a meeting of our congregation. This was by far the toughest meeting I’d ever been a part of. The elders of the church were recommending that we dismiss Shirley from our staff. In the congregational debate, many people chewed me out for what they perceived to be my management flaws. These were people who believed they knew the truth because they had heard it from Shirley. The temptation to divide and conquer the church was huge for me. But, by God’s grace and following the counsel of my fellow leaders, I didn’t do it. I took my licks, even ones I didn’t deserve. I owned my failures and tried to listen to what people were saying to me. Frankly, it was excruciating. But I sensed that my job as pastor was to help the church be unified in Christ, not divided in order to defend me. Many of my supporters sensed the same. Though they could have risen to my defense, they realized that it was not the time to do so. Wisely, they remained quiet, and so avoided a fight that could have deeply wounded our church.

The congregation did, in the end, vote to dismiss Shirley. I left feeling, not vindicated, but ashamed and exhausted. Several friends gathered around to encourage me. But I still felt as if I had been taken to the congregational woodshed for a beating.

In the aftermath of that meeting, only a couple of people left our church, much to my surprise. In time, many of those who had scolded me actually came to apologize. One man said, “It was only later that I learned some of what had really happened with Shirley. I’m sorry for the things I said to you.”

But the greatest result of that whole debacle was not that I was somehow more highly regarded or more beloved or whatever. It was that our people ended up, truly, more united in Christ. I can’t explain how this happened, exactly, except that it was a work of grace. But I do know that my effort and the efforts of those who supported me, to focus on Christ and not on me helped move us toward such a positive result. Nevertheless, I still look back on this whole experience, and the congregational meeting in particular, as one of the hardest times of my ministry. It required that I subordinate myself to a degree I had never done before. It required that I trust in God rather than my abilities to persuade and organize. That was Pastor Mark. Then, what’s your story?

If you’re caught in a church conflict, watch out for the role of leaders in that conflict. If battle lines and being drawn up around certain personalities, don’t participate. And if you’re a pastor, I’d urge you to remember – as hard as it may be – that you are merely a servant of the Master. Devote yourself to seeking what’s best for whole church. Seek to unify rather than divide. Don’t let your people choose up sides, even if this game seems to be to your favor. Rather, do all you can do to further the peace and unity of Christ’s church. Let the focus be upon him, with yourself as his servant.

How NOT to Solve Conflicts among Christians, Part 1

One prominent church leader “Jeff” was the pastor of a church in Southern California. Jeff’s church was on the conservative side, both theologically and liturgically. They had hymns and an organ, proudly so. Nevertheless, Jeff wanted to add a few more contemporary touches to the worship services, like praise songs and a more informal time of prayer. So, one Sunday, he made these slight changes. His elders were not happy with Jeff, however. At the next board meeting there was a big fight, with two or three of the elders denouncing Jeff in demeaning ways. In the end, however, the board voted to sustain what Jeff had done, much to the dismay of the minority that had opposed him.

Two days later, while Jeff was sitting in his office at church, he received an ominous looking letter from a law firm in town. Reading the letter, he was distressed to learn that one of his elders was suing him in civil court because of the changes he had made in worship. I can’t remember the specific charges, but I do well remember Jeff’s great distress over what was happening to him and his church. He just couldn’t believe that one of his elders would actually sue him over a church matter.

Since Jeff shared his plight with me eight years ago, I’ve heard other things like this. Another pastor friend of mine was sued by a former church leader for failing to lead the church in the right direction. I’ve heard of pastors who have threatened to sue members of their church when they felt they were being mistreated. And I’ve watched with concern as individual churches and denominations rush to secular courts to solve church related property issues. Sometimes this happened in my former denomination as particular churches decide to Part Company with us.

The problem of Christians using the legal system to deal with conflicts with other believers isn’t new. In fact this was one of the problems facing the church in Corinth in the middle of the first century A.D. We learn from 1 Corinthians 6 that one member of the church had some sort of dispute with another member. But rather than work it out within the church, one of the believers sued the other in secular court. This sort of behavior was common among the wealthy members of Corinthian society. Winning in court was usually more a matter of preserving honor than getting a financial settlement. And being held in honor was the highest value among the Corinthian elites.

But the Apostle Paul was not pleased with what was happening in his church. Here’s what he wrote to the Corinthians:

When you have something against another Christian, why do you file a lawsuit and ask a secular court to decide the matter, instead of taking it to other Christians to decide who is right? Don’t you know that someday we Christians are going to judge the world? And since you are going to judge the world, can’t you decide these little things among yourselves? Don’t you realize that we Christians will judge angels? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disagreements here on earth. If you have legal disputes about such matters, why do you go to outside judges who are not respected by the church? I am saying this to shame you. Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these arguments? But instead, one Christian sues another–right in front of unbelievers! To have such lawsuits at all is a real defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated? But instead, you yourselves are the ones who do wrong and cheat even your own Christian brothers and sisters. (1 Cor 6:1-8)

What is wrong with Christians suing other Christians in court? First, there should be sufficient wisdom in the church to solve conflicts. Notice that Paul assumes that disputes among Christians are the business of the church. If a Christian brother has a conflict with another brother, that’s not a private matter. It’s something that impacts the church and is part of the church’s rightful concern.

Moreover, for Christians to sue each other in secular court looks terrible to observing unbelievers. It certainly doesn’t commend the gospel of Jesus Christ if Christians sue each other. For that matter, the desire to win and get even doesn’t reflect the cross of Christ at all. Thus Paul can end his denunciation of Corinthian lawsuits with a rather shocking statement: “To have such lawsuits at all is a real defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated?” (6:7).

How NOT to Solve Conflicts among Christians, Part 2

In the last paragraphs I examined a passage from 1 Corinthians 6, which instructed Christians to avoid solving their problems in secular court. Let me quote that text again before suggesting some practical implications.

When you have something against another Christian, why do you file a lawsuit and ask a secular court to decide the matter, instead of taking it to other Christians to decide who is right? Don’t you know that someday we Christians are going to judge the world? And since you are going to judge the world, can’t you decide these little things among yourselves? Don’t you realize that we Christians will judge angels? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disagreements here on earth. If you have legal disputes about such matters, why do you go to outside judges who are not respected by the church? I am saying this to shame you. Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these arguments? But instead, one Christian sues another–right in front of unbelievers! To have such lawsuits at all is a real defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated? But instead, you yourselves are the ones who do wrong and cheat even your own Christian brothers and sisters. (1 Cor 6:1-8)

In our time of history, this may be one of the most counter-cultural passages in all of Scripture. It’s not news that we live in a highly litigious culture. People sue each other right and left for the most trivial things. It’s a given in our society that you should never “accept the injustice and leave it at that.” Rather, we are taught to press every possible advantage for the sake of gain, even if that means suing a fellow believer in court.

I realize that some Christians will be offended by the suggestion that we should let 1 Corinthians 6 guide our behavior when it comes to suing each other. Some of my readers might find what I’m saying downright offensive. Let me clarify that I’m not saying Christians should never turn to secular courts under any circumstances. There may be times when a church system is so dysfunctional and the damage done to people so significant that justice can only be found in the secular courts. Moreover, when the behavior of church officials is illegal, then justice requires legal action in criminal court. But Christian use of the courts to solve personal conflicts is nothing we should be proud of or seek to perpetuate. Whatever else, secular lawsuits should be the last resort among Christians.

Moreover, there are times when a person should simply choose to lose rather than to sue. I think of another pastor friend of mine who was meanly and unjustly fired by his church board. I expect he could have sued and received a significant settlement. But he chose not to press legal charges because he took 1 Corinthians 6 seriously. Moreover, he didn’t want to hurt the church he loved, even though the board of this church had badly injured him.

This was a truly Christ-like sacrifice on the part of my friend. His case illustrates the deeper point. We are to imitate the sacrificial example of Jesus Christ. As Jesus taught, we are to turn the other cheek, to walk the second mile (Matthew 5:39-41). Jesus modeled self-giving sacrifice through his death on the cross. Yes, indeed, this sort of thing grates against our own desire for vindication as well as our culture’s preoccupation with winning no matter what. But our Lord teaches us, both by word and by deed, how to give up our lives so that we might gain true life, eternal life, life in all of its fullness.

If you’re in a conflict with other Christians, whether it is personal, professional, or ecclesiastical, the way NOT to solve the problem is through suing each other in secular court. (I’m not, by the way, implying that lawyers can’t be helpful here. Christians with legal expertise can often assist us in finding just solutions that will keep us from lawsuits. I have seen this very thing happen in ministry, where lawyers were extraordinarily helpful in terribly conflicted situations. Competent Christian attorney can help us avoid lawsuits.) Secular lawsuits must not be your first choice, or second, or third. The church, when functioning properly, is the place where true wrongs can and should be adjudicated. Only if the church fails miserably in this duty might it be necessary in some cases for you to get secular legal help.

But before you turn to the civil courts as a last resort, you need to ask the Lord whether he wants you simply to lose. I know this sounds strange. But I think, in light of 1 Corinthians 6 and the example of Jesus Christ, we need to ask the Lord whether he’s calling us to lose the fight. Yes, we may sacrifice our pride for a while. Yes, we may lose certain advantages, financial and otherwise. But what we gain, and what the church of Jesus Christ gains, may well be worth the cost.

In the few last paragraphs I was telling the story of my friend Jeff, a pastor who was sued by a disgruntled elder. When Jeff found out that he was being sued, he did not call a lawyer. Instead he did the counter-cultural thing. He called up the elder and said, “I’m not going to fight back because I’m your brother in Christ. We need to work this out in the Lord.” When the elder resisted, Jeff got some other elders to talk with the one who had filed suit. Among other things, they reminded him of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6. They called him to act as a follower of Jesus Christ. They offered to help work out reconciliation. The unhappy elder was finally willing to drop his suit. Though he and Jeff never fully agreed on what worship should be in their church, they were able to live together in Christian fellowship without recourse to lawsuits.

Yes, I know it doesn’t always end like this. Often people are not as spiritually mature as Jeff. They get caught up in a worldly effort to win. Sometimes church leaders aren’t willing or able to step up, as were the elders of Jeff’s church. But the fact that we Christians fail to do what Scripture calls us to do is no argument for not trying to obey in the first place. We should make every effort to settle our disputes within the context of Christian community. And when this fails, there will be times when God will call us simply to lose rather than to fight on in the courts. Yet in this losing, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, there will be a great gain for God’s kingdom, and even for our own souls.

More insights on resolving Conflicts God’s Way (James 4:7-10)

A dour Englishman was seated on a train between two ladies arguing about the window. One claimed that she would die of heatstroke if it stayed closed. The other said she would expire of pneumonia if it was opened. The ladies called the conductor, who didn’t know how to resolve the conflict. Finally, the gentleman spoke up. “First, open the window. That will kill the one. Then close it. That will kill the other. Then we will have peace.” This was going the worldly way of resolving conflicts, and as Christians we can’t go that way.

The world has many ways to resolve conflict, but invariably, they leave God out. God tells us that His ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). His ways are much higher than our ways, and often run counter to our ways. If we want true and lasting peace in our relationships, then we need to resolve conflicts God’s way. His way for resolving conflicts is not to give us surface techniques that achieve outward peace. Rather, God goes for the heart—primarily our heart relationship with Him. When our ways please Him, then we have a foundation for resolving conflicts with others (Prov. 16:7).

In James 4:1, he asks, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?” He goes on to show that the source is selfishness. In a section running through verse 12, he shows,

To resolve conflicts, repent of your sinful selfishness and humble yourself before God.

  1. To resolve conflicts, judge your selfish motives (4:1-3).
  2. To resolve conflicts, turn from all spiritual adultery and humbly entreat God’s grace (4:4-6).
  3. To resolve conflicts, submit to God, resist the devil, and repent of all sin (4:7-10).
  4. To resolve conflicts, stop judging others and submit to God’s Word (4:11-12).

Let us look at another side, where James says…

To resolve conflicts, submit to God, resist the devil, and repent of all sin.

Our text is sandwiched between the quote from Proverbs 3:34, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (in 4:6) and the concluding command, “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (4:10). Keep in mind that the overall context is about resolving conflicts in the church (or home). Here James zeroes in on God’s way of conflict resolution, which deals with our hearts before Him. Conflict with God is often behind conflicts with others. First and foremost in any conflict, we must get right with God.

1. To resolve conflicts, submit to God (4:7, 8, 10).

We can sum up three of James’ commands under this one head: Submit to God unconditionally (4:7); draw near to God (4:8); and, humble yourself before God (4:10).

A. Submit To God Unconditionally (4:7).

You can go to seminars on how to be more assertive, but I’ve yet to see a seminar on how to learn to submit! It’s not a popular concept, but it is a biblical one. The word means “to put yourself in rank under” someone, implying a hierarchy of authority. It is used of the obligation to submit to government authorities (Rom. 13:1, 5; 1 Pet. 2:13); to elders in the church (1 Pet. 5:5); of mutual submission of husbands and wives to one another, and of wives to husbands, in marriage (Eph. 5:21, 22; 1 Pet. 3:1, 5); and of slaves to masters (1 Pet. 2:18).

Of course, God is the ultimate and only sovereign authority in the universe, and it should be obvious to everyone that it is most unwise to rebel against His authority. Since He is “opposed to the proud” (James 4:6), verse 7 infers, “Submit therefore to God.” It is the only sensible thing to do!

But because of the fall, as Paul explains (Rom. 8:7), the mind set on the flesh “is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” (Subject is the same Greek word as submit in James 4:7.) Unbelievers are unable to submit to God’s law, because they are unwilling to do so. Using the same word in Romans 10:3, Paul asserts, “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” In pride, fallen man wants to set up his own righteousness as good enough, but it falls far short of God’s absolute righteousness. So the essence of human rebellion against God is that we do not submit to His holy law or to His perfect righteousness. You cannot separate submitting to God from trusting Him for salvation. While much more could be said, here are four ways that we tend to resist God and thus need to focus on submitting to Him:

(1). Submit Unconditionally To God’s Way of Salvation.

All of the world’s religions, except for biblical Christianity, teach that salvation is a matter of human endeavor and goodness. The world’s way is, “Work hard, be the best person you can be, and you’ll go to heaven.” Such teaching feeds human pride. It gives the good person reason to boast.

God’s way of salvation is totally opposed to man’s way. God’s way allows no one to boast before Him. He declares that we all have sinned and deserve His judgment. Further, because of our sin and pride, we aren’t willing to come to Him for salvation. All of our good works would never qualify us for heaven, because they cannot pay the debt of sin that we owe.

But what we could never do, God in His mercy did. He sent His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He satisfied God’s justice by dying in the place of sinners. God offers His salvation as a free gift, received by faith alone, apart from any human works or goodness (see Eph. 2:1-9). To be saved, we must submit unconditionally to God’s way of salvation.

(2). Submit Unconditionally to God’s Person.

We all tend to submit to the part of God’s person that we naturally like, but we either ignore or deliberately dodge the part of His person that we don’t care for. Nobody has a problem with God’s great love, but many have a problem with His hatred of all sin and His absolute justice that demands that all unrepentant sinners be punished for eternity in hell. But if God’s Word reveals that sinners will be punished eternally in hell, and if Jesus Himself taught it (and, He did, Matt. 25:46), then we dare not fight it or reject it, even if it is not to our liking! We must submit to all of who God is as revealed in His Word.

(3). Submit Unconditionally to God’s Word.

Let’s be honest: There are some difficult things in the Bible that, if we had the choice, we would cut out of it. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, who was not a believer, literally took scissors and cut out the parts of the Bible that he did not like! While none of us would be so brazen, in effect we often do just as Jefferson did. We don’t literally cut out the difficult parts, but we just ignore them or don’t work at understanding and submitting to those parts!

I know Christians who don’t like the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty in choosing some, but not all, for salvation. So they just skip passages like Romans 9, which God inspired Paul to write for our spiritual edification. Of course, they must also skip many other texts, since the doctrine of God’s sovereign election is all through the Bible. Or, they explain it away by saying that God foreknew who would choose Him, so He chose them. They never pause to reflect that such a view turns the Bible on its head and makes sinful men sovereign, rather than God!

I once talked with a Jehovah’s Witness woman who came to my door. I found out that she formerly had been a Lutheran. When I asked her why she left the Lutheran faith, she said that she couldn’t understand the trinity. But the issue with the trinity is not whether you understand it, but rather, is it clearly taught in Scripture? If it is, you must submit to it.

In Spurgeon’s day, there were many liberal critics attacking the truthfulness and authority of the Bible. He saw that behind such attacks was the hostility of the unregenerate mind. He said, “The only real argument against the Bible is an unholy life. When a man argues against the Word of God, follow him home and see if you can discover the reason of his enmity to the Word of the Lord. It lies in some form of sin”.

(4). Submit Unconditionally To God’s Providential Dealings with You.

God does many things in our lives that are not especially pleasant or to our liking. There are many such trials that we will never in this life fully understand God’s reason for them. It may be the untimely death of a loved one. It could be unfair treatment at work or at school. Perhaps you had abusive parents or were the object of racial discrimination. You may suffer from some terrible disease or deformity. In the context of James 4, it may be a difficult person in your life who is always trying to stir up conflict. The potential list is endless, but you can’t read the daily news without realizing that life is terribly unfair, from the human point of view.

Yet the Bible is clear that nothing happens to us apart from God’s providential permission or care. If Satan attacks the godly Job, killing all of his children and taking away his possessions and health, it is only because God permitted Satan to do it. God has all of our days pre-numbered (Ps. 139:16) and He even has all the hairs on our heads numbered (Matt. 10:30). If He allows James to be beheaded, but Peter to escape, that’s God’s prerogative (Acts 12). If Peter later dies a martyr’s death, but John lives to a ripe old age, that’s God’s business (John 21:21-23).

You can fight against God for the difficult things that happen, or you can humble yourself under His mighty hand, casting all your anxiety upon Him (1 Pet. 5:6-7). “Submit therefore to God” in His way of salvation, in His person, in His Word, and in His providential dealings with you; There’s a second aspect of submission:

B. Draw Near To God (4:8).

James gives a command and a promise: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” Before I comment on what this means, let me clarify what it does not mean. It does not mean that God is waiting for sinners to make the first move toward Him, and then He will respond. Not only does that run counter to all of Scripture, it also runs counter to this verse, which is God commanding us to draw near to Him!

Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). In case we missed it, He repeated, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65). God always makes the first move toward us. If He did not, we all would perish in our sins (see also, John 8:34, 43-44; Rom. 3:10-12). So if you have drawn near to God for salvation, it was because God chose you and drew you to Himself. As Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me” (John 6:37).

But these words in James are written primarily to believers. It is easy even for believers to drift away from the Lord. James’ point is, “Guess who moved?” It wasn’t God! If you’re engaging in continuing quarrels and conflicts, you are not close to God. You’ve drifted. He is calling you to draw near to Him, with the promise that He is ready and waiting to draw near to you. The thought of not enjoying sweet fellowship with our loving Lord should move you to clear up whatever stands between you and Him.

You cannot be close to God at the same time that you’re angry or bitter toward someone else. That’s why immediately after teaching how serious the sin of anger is, Jesus said (Matt. 5:23-24), “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” You can’t draw near to God until you first clear up, as much as it is in your power, any relational difficulties. If you think that you’re close to God, but you’re angry and bitter, you’re deceiving yourself! Submit to God; draw near to God.

C. Humble Yourself before God (4:10).

Pride is at the heart of all disobedience to God and of almost all relational conflicts. If God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6), then you want to make sure you’re not making yourself God’s opponent! The theme of God humbling the proud, but exalting the humble, runs throughout Scripture (1 Sam. 2:4-8; Job 42:6, 10-17; Ps. 34:18; 51:17; Prov. 3:34; 29:25; Isa. 57:15; 66:2; Ezek. 17:24; Matt. 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14; 1 Pet. 5:6). In the context of dealing with relational conflicts, the apostle Paul tells us to imitate the Lord Jesus, the supreme example of one who humbled Himself and was exalted by God (Phil. 2:8-9).

The key to developing biblical humility is in the phrase, “in the presence of the Lord” (James 4:10). Only those with hardened hearts could be proud in the presence of the Lord! The holy angels in His presence cover their faces (Isa. 6:2). When Isaiah had his vision of the Lord, he was undone—personally shattered—and immediately aware of his own sinfulness (Isa. 6:5). When God portrayed the wonders of creation before Job, he had no further arguments against God. Instead, he said (Job 42:6), “I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” When the apostle John, who formerly had rested his head on Jesus’ chest, saw Him in His glory on the Isle of Patmos, he fell at His feet as a dead man (Rev. 1:17).

“The soul becomes humble by the true knowledge of God and ourselves” (Exposition of the Epistle of James  “The stars vanish when the sun arises; and our poor candle is slighted into a disappearance, when the glory of God arises in our thoughts…. And we see our vileness in God’s majesty…. Get as large and comprehensive thoughts of him as you can; see his glory, if you would know your own baseness.” The first step in resolving relational conflicts is to submit to God, which includes drawing near to Him and humbling yourself before Him.

2. To resolve conflicts, resist the devil (4:7).

The liberal German scholar, Rudolph Bultmann, wrote, “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless, and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits”. Take your pick: either Bultmann is right, or Jesus or the New Testament writers are right!

While often Satan does not need to involve himself or his demonic forces in our conflicts (our flesh incites them without any extra help!), there are times when demons are directly involved in disrupting our relationships. While it would be out of line to see a demon behind every quarrel, it is also out of line and naïve to think that demons are never involved.

The Greek word for devil is diabolos, which means, literally, to throw against. It is the word for slanderer. It translates the Hebrew word for Satan, which means “adversary.” The devil is an evil fallen angel who stands against God and His people, always ready to accuse or slander them (Zech. 3:1, 2; Rev. 12:10). While we are no match for him in our own strength, in the name of the Lord and protected by the armor He provides, we may simply stand against Satan and he will flee. To resolve conflicts, first submit to God. Then, stop and pray in Jesus’ name against the prince of darkness.

3. To resolve conflicts, repent of all sin (4:8, 9).

James sounds like an Old Testament prophet as he proclaims, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.” He is talking about thorough, heartfelt repentance.

Those whom James confronted had laughter and at least superficial joy. If you had seen them, they would have seemed quite happy. But, as we have seen, they had become friends with the world. At the heart of worldliness is finding joy and pleasure in things other than God, or while disregarding and disobeying God.

There are people in churches who are outwardly happy in their positions of power in the church; happy with their abundant material possessions, and happy with their self-centered lifestyles. Yet at the same time, they hate others in the church, ignore the needy, and never give sacrificially to the Lord’s work. It is to these types that James shouts, “Be miserable and mourn and weep!”

James’ words show that there is an emotional element to genuine repentance. It is not just a glib, “I’m sorry that I offended you.” Or, “I’m sorry that you’re upset” (implying, “it’s your fault!”). When you are truly repentant, you accept full responsibility for your sin. You don’t excuse it as a shortcoming or oversight. You mourn over how you have offended God, disgraced His name, and hurt your brother or sister in Christ (2 Cor. 2:1-7; 7:7-11).

Psalm 34:18 promises, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” In Psalm 51:17, where David laments his sin with Bathsheba, he writes, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” John Bunyan wrote a beautiful short book on that verse, The Acceptable Sacrifice[Banner of Truth], in which he explains how to know if your heart is broken before God, and how to keep it tender.

The mourning of biblical repentance is not opposed to the biblical joy that we are commanded to have at all times (Phil. 4:4; 1 Thess. 5:16). In fact, true joy comes only through true repentance, because it is then that we experience God’s forgiveness and mercy. The woman who wet Jesus’ feet with her tears knew the joy of sins forgiven. The proud Pharisee, who did not see his own need for forgiveness, had neither her tears nor her joy (Luke 7:36-50).


Don’t sit passively and wait for resolution in a conflict to happen spontaneously. James gives ten active commands in machine-gun fashion in these four verses: Submit to God! Resist the devil! Draw near to God! Cleanse your hands! Purify your heart! Be miserable! Mourn! Weep! Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into gloom! Humble yourself! God’s way to resolve conflicts is to submit to Him, resist the devil, and repent of all sin.

Application Questions

  1. Agree/disagree: Almost all relational conflicts are rooted in one or both parties not being fully in submission to God.
  2. Why is an angry or bitter person necessarily distant from God? Consider Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 4:31; 1 John 4:20.
  3. How can we know if the devil is actively involved in a relational conflict that we are experiencing? Are there signs?
  4. How do we know if our repentance is sincere enough or deep enough? What if we do not have feelings of grief or mourning?


Where conflicts fail to be addressed in an adequate way they tend to create violence and to diminish people’s lives or prevent the development of the potentials that humankind has. This is true for conflicts in close relationships, between different groups in society as well as in the larger political sphere. But when it comes to the church and Christians, the story is more interesting. However, very often the suffering arising from unresolved conflicts can be transformed into chances and opportunities for growth and development for the institution and all those parties involved.

For this purpose, conflicts have to be recognized, addressed adequately and strategies and instruments have to be provided to deal with the issues underlying. In addition to institutional ways of conflict resolution (e.g. social norms, laws and courts), alternative methods of conflict transformation have successfully demonstrated all over the world that conflicting parties can well be empowered to take their future into their hands and cooperate at resolving complicated disputes. One of those practical ways proved working is to go the Christian way as demonstrated time and again in the bible.

However, for this to happen, persons are needed who understand the dynamics of conflict, who are able to develop visions and perspectives in intricate situations and who are willing to play a constructive role as a supporter of one, several or all conflicting parties. They will need to consider their own motivation, capacities and possibilities in relation to a given conflict scenario.

The 1990ies saw a rise in public and political awareness that legal procedures, forceful control and social work as responses to conflict do not always provide sustainable solutions. Alternative methods of conflict transformation became a topic of general interest, but at the same time these approaches were also disconnected from their justice-oriented aims and content.

Therefore, as Christians we resort to follow the biblically proven ways and following God’s sovereign counsel and trusting our faith in Christ we see these conflicting situations come to pass in the most honest and non violent manner.