Church conflict can help everyone grow

I was recently asked what helped me to grow as a Christian. Of course, there are the usual things to mention like reading the Bible, sitting under teaching, belonging to the church. When asked that sort of question, I tend to take it as a given that those are basic means of growth. But one of the more surprising things that leads to growth is church conflict.

Of course, conflict is rarely fun. Only psychopaths enjoy church conflict. I certainly don’t. But I’d equally be lying if I said that such conflict has not been a real source of growth. And I don’t think that is unique to me.

The thing about conflict is not that it is good of itself. It isn’t. It is that we learn an awful lot about ourselves in the midst of it. It is when we disagree with people we have to think about we are going to resolve our differences. It is as we work through our differences together that we grow in maturity.

Let’s put it this way, if all we ever experience in church is the joy of sweet agreement all the time – which is a wonderful thing to have – we are unlikely to ever grow that much as we only ever interact with people who think exactly like we do all the time. But when we rub against people whose cultures are different to mine, who think differently to me, who have very different approaches to church life, we are forced to examine our assumptions. Is this what the Bible really says? Is this a matter on which the Bible speaks at all or is it just something cultural I have assumed? Is this really a matter of principle or is it a matter of preference? Is it something Jesus demands or just something we’ve always done?

One of the biggest issues with monocultural churches, full of people who have grown up in them at that, is nobody is alive to the oddities that might have developed. It is very hard to assess your own culture because it is just the water you swim in. It usually means you don’t have major quarrels because everyone is operating on the same assumptions. But it also means you might be blithely carrying on doing what is not wholly appropriate or is biblically sub-optimal because you, your church and perhaps even your wider culture is entirely blind to it as an issue.

But when we have these cultural disagreements, we are thrown back to the Word. What do the scriptures actually say about this? Are we standing on what seems culturally appropriate to us rather than doing what is, actually, biblical? It is good to be challenged (periodically) on these things because it forces us to examine the scriptures again. As we dig into the Bible, and we do so as people indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are likely to change. We are likely to grow.

It seems distinctly unlikely we are going to look at the Bible and conclude everything we are doing is perfectly biblical and couldn’t possibly be any better. It would be somewhat arrogant to assume that our culture is definitely the one that has perfectly understood how to do everything the Lord wants us to do. We have to be alive to the possibility that we have been shaped by our culture as much as we have scripture (if not more so). If that is true, we need to be open to the correction of the Word and God’s people from other parts of the world who may see matters more clearly than us.

So, what helps me grow? Church conflict. Preferably not horrible, batten-down-the-hatches style conflict. But disagreement. People saying, why are we doing this? Does the Bible actually say this is what we should be doing? These sorts of things force us back to the Word and help us to grow.

But also, how we engage with those saying these things helps us grow too. We have to work out how we are going to engage with this person. If they are right, we will need to be humble enough to admit it. If they are wrong, we need to handle the matter carefully so the person is not crushed without being woolly and not actually answering.

At the same time, the person bringing the questions is (hopefully) forced to grow too. It’s very easy to bring our question in the form of a challenge or a telling off. That’s never helpful. I have lost count of the number of times arguments have kicked off and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the question being asked or the concern being raised, but the manner and tone with which it is raised gets everybody’s hackles up. It is never a helpful way to have a conversation. So, the one asking the questions needs to think about how they are asking, why they are asking and – perhaps most significantly – how they will respond if the answer is not what they are hoping for. But if they just agree or happily go along with everything that is happening, this limits their room for growth. But when these sorts of things are raised, working through them together and not running away or getting in a moody like a child that dropped their sweets provides opportunities to grow.

You may, like me, not enjoy church conflict. I suspect most people do not. But it pays to remember that it doesn’t always have to be painful. Even if it is, it helps to remember that it might be the means the Lord is using to grow you to maturity, to help the other people involved to grow and the church to be brought back to what is properly biblical.