I suppose one of the most stressful experiences in my own life is the time when I am in conflict with someone else. Someone does or says something to hurt me or, worse still, harm my family or perhaps someone at work needs to be "talked to." At Oklahoma Christian University my entire job dealt with conflict because I had to continually deal with students (and their angry parents) who were in trouble.
Some of the things that you go through when you are in conflict include:
- Talking to yourself a lot. You rehearse what you're going to say or do.
- Feel unbalanced. You're okay and then think of the person and get mad all over again.
- Headaches, sleeplessness, irritability, loss of concentration (all you can think about is the conflict).
- You think of the dumb things you said or did while in conflict with the person and now are wondering how to reduce the dispute.
Whatever your feelings while you are going through conflict, one thing is for sure - conflict produces stress. A lot of stress!
In this chapter I'd like to talk about the stress caused by conflict but in the context of the friction that we experience in the church. Hopefully some of the things we learn from this example can be applied to other conflict situations.
Conflict in the Church
Since becoming a Christian I would say that most of the conflict situations have been with members of the church and not with non-christians. This is natural since we live in a closely knit community and we try to keep our contact level with brothers and sisters high. Conflicts in church are very stressful because many times you can't just "run away", you have to live with the person and see them quite often. In addiction to this there is great pressure on us, as Christians, to resolve conflict (it's part of our religion!) and this creates even more stress because many times confrontation about conflict causes more stress than the conflict itself!
In I Corinthians 3:1-23 Paul reviews a series of conflicts in the Corinthian church and offers Christian guidelines in how to deal with them. The Corinthians were Greeks, Gentile converts who did not have the same background in moral training and living that their Jewish brethren had which would have greatly helped in stabilizing their church.
1And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. 2I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? 4For when one says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I am of Apollos," are you not mere men?
The members were creating divisions and taking sides, appointing leaders for their causes. Even though they had the "spirit" because they were all Christians, they were acting like people who did not have the spirit- acting like "mere men", verse 3. The Corinthians thought that they were very spiritual because they had gifts (chapters 12-14) but the conflict they were involved in here showed that they, in fact, were quite immature.
5What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. 8Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.
Paul refers to the "leaders" they claim to follow in their self-inflicted division and shows that they are all servants of the same master doing different tasks but for the same purpose.
10According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. 11For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. 14If any man's work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Here the Apostle describes the church as a structure and those like Apollos and himself as workers whose task it is to build the church. There is no competition here, merely cooperation to achieve the same objective each using his own skill. Their work will be tested (idea of fire). This is a reference to the Corinthians, not the workers. Paul and Apollos have built on the right foundation- Christ, so they are without reproach, however, the building itself (the Corinthians) will be tested to see if it will stand. This is a warning concerning their division and conflict. Paul says that they will literally burn down the structure if they continue in their conflict.
16Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.
He gives an even more direct warning to those who are causing problems. The structure is not just any structure but a holy temple of God, and to destroy it will be punishable by God. Actually, to destroy it is to destroy self!
18Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, "He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness"; 20and again, "The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless." 21So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.
The problem in Corinth was that they had an improper view of wisdom (they saw it as worldly wisdom/philosophy). Their style was to debate the value of one philosophy over another. They were looking at the gospel as just another philosophy or system and they exalted one teacher against another to form philosophical parties in order to debate. Paul tells them that this not only created conflict (and the symptoms of stress that accompany conflict), but it also demonstrated their immaturity as Christians and the danger of them destroying what had been legitimately built by himself and others, and which belonged to all of them equally in Christ! No need for conflict in the church, we all equally own our part of the kingdom!
Conflict Resolution in the Church
Our conflicts with people in the church may not be philosophically based. Maybe somebody forgot to return a book or a brother's child hurt your child or perhaps there is a conflict over how things need to be done or how we feel we ought to be treated, or what we believe about a certain issue, etc. Whatever the conflict, this passage gives us several guidelines on how to go about resolving the conflict and thus reducing the stress that usually come with it. Remember, the conflict continues to create stress until it's resolved. Even if we don't think about it, it continues to produce stressful feelings until it is settled one way or another.
Here are four rules to help resolve conflict:
1. Look In
In marriage counseling the hardest problem in resolving conflict is tho get people to see what it is that they are doing that contributes to the problem. They see the other person's faults but not their own. So, the first step in resolving a conflict is to try to see what we are doing that causes problems.
For the Corinthians the problem was their worldliness and immaturity in Christ that made them compare and use the gospel like they used worldly philosophies in the past, which automatically led to division.
Many times we don't "look in" before we try to resolve issues and even when we do we rarely see what the problem is. A good way to "look in" is by asking someone else to advise us and tell us what it is that they see we are doing that may be contributing to the conflict. This is usually an eye-opener and leads us to a clearer vision of step #2.
2. Look Out
Looking out means trying to assess the "real" situation that's causing the trouble. Usually when we "look in" first we are better able to look out and see more clearly the true situation at hand. Most conflicts arise from one or more of the following:
- lack of communication
- confusion over the facts
- or a mixture of these
The Corinthians were confused concerning the gospel and what the true role of the Apostles and ministers were, and this led to the conflict. Usually when we see ourselves clearly and are made aware of the true facts of the situation, the conflict is diffused and the stress caused by it is lowered.
3. Look Up
In the world, diffusing the situation is enough but in the church, we consciously strive to go beyond just "not being mad at each other." In the church we strive to build each other up in love (Ephesians 4:16). So, as Christians, we not only look in and look out, we also look up.
Paul reminded the Corinthians that they were a "holy temple" and their conflict was a threat to a Godly structure. Our motivation to resolve conflict and avoid division is motivated not only by the desire to eliminate the stress that comes with it but also by the realization that we are Christians and that as Christians we are to love one another as a witness of our faith. Every time you are in conflict with a brother or sister- look up and ask God if He is on your side, if He is blessing your conduct or if He will declare you the winner at judgement.
4. Look Around
When we see the many physical blessings we have and recognize the spiritual blessings we all equally share, that no one can take away from us - we realize that conflict is the devil's way to rob us of our peace and joy.
Paul encouraged the Corinthians to recognize that they already possessed what was valuable in Christ, there was no need to argue! Look around and see those who are suffering without the hope of Christ (ie. China, Iraq, Afghanistan etc.) and we will recognize that our reasons for conflict are usually petty, worldly, selfish and covered with pride.
We need to look around and see how our conflicts hurt others and destroy our blessings. We, therefore, need to ask Jesus for forgiveness and help to resolve whatever disputes we have, especially with those in the household of faith.
- Conflict causes stress, especially in the church.
- Conflict continues to create stress until it is resolved.
- Causes of conflict are usually misunderstanding, miscommunication and/or gossip.
- Remember the four rules to help resolve conflict:
- Look In - "The trouble with us is me"
- Look Out - Try to see both sides at once
- Look Up - It's not just who you are, it's Whose you are.
- Look Around - You already have it all, don't spoil it!
- When in your life and with whom have you had your greatest interpersonal conflict?
- How do you tend to handle conflict? Give an example if possible.
- Read I Corinthians 3:18-23 and discuss the following question:
- According to vs. 18-23 how can we resolve all divisive conflicts between Christians?
- Have the group select one of the conflicts identified in the first question and examine it in terms of the following principles.
- Who are the participants and how did they conflict begin?
- What, in your opinion, is the root problem?
- What would an outside observer say is going on?
- What resources do you have to deal with the problem?
- What is one concrete step that could/should be taken to resolve the conflict?