On Why Reconciling Conflict is Ground Zero for the Inbreaking of the Kingdom

I was speaking at a Church Multiplication Training Event last week and I said (and tweeted :) ) these words: “Reconciling conflict is ground zero for the inbreaking of the Kingdom.” I feel like I need to explain more fully what I meant. So here goes:

Time and again over the past twenty five years I have been witness to church conflict in evangelical churches. I have seen time and again the pathetic response of infighting, division and the arbitration of who is right by a singular authority figure. It was only by intensely studying John Howard Yoder in the 90’s that I came to realize the absolute necessity of conflict in the church as the basis for a Christian social body’s presence in Mission. For in this moment of conflict, which always emerges out of either a.) the exposure of sin, or b.) a disagreement over something we’ve never confronted before,  the new territory is engaged bringing Christ as Lord, new victories over sin death and evil are won. And a world is now invaded with the gospel in a way that was not possible before the conflict. I believe there is something dynamic going on when Jesus says “there am I in the midst.”(Matt 18:20)

Yet it is the church that lives under the habits of establishment that treats conflict as a contest over who is right or who wins. The habits of believing that everybody already agrees on the premises, already knows the language of “Jesus is Lord,” and that the experts are already in place to keep things on the right track … come from a church firmly ensconced in a position of power in society. But for us who have disavowed such illusions, we gather in the Holy Spirit extending the gospel, indeed the witness of Jesus Christ Himself into new territories. New evils are being overturned, sins we did not know we had are being uncovered and forgiven and rendered impotent over our lives and all those lives who would enter into His victory.  Conflict, disagreement is at the very heart of this extension.

Conflict therefore should be welcomed. It’s a sign of the Kingdom when new sins are being uncovered in our body (sins we did not know we had – including in the pastor). Conflict is a sign of the Kingdom telling us we are engaging new territory we haven’t had to struggle with before (like the church’s conflict over same sex relations). Right here, in the conflict, whenever we gather to bring the issue for discernment, we must recognize we are submitting to Jesus as Lord. We are saying “may your Kingdom reign here.” And so when we submit to one another trusting the Spirit to speak, illumine, and guide, Jesus as Lord is present, the Kingdom breaks in, “what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.” Matt 18:18. Out of this space of prayer, and the agreement that comes forth, we are able to ask ANYTHING in His name, and it shall be done Matt 18:19. Conflict is the unbelievable place of inbreaking power of the Kingdom. Yet we often ignore it or have not trained our people to enter into it. The moment passes. And often, I’m afraid, the church denies the Kingdom by our CEO actions in arbitrating conflict in the church.

As you nurture your communities into the Kingdom, do you welcome conflict? To help you welcome conflict into your church community as a sign of the inbreaking of the Kingdom here’s three tips for leaders of any type.

1.) Nurture mutual submission to Jesus as Lord. The work of the Kingdom only happens when we submit to the Lordship of Christ at work in this body. It all begins in the posture of submission first to Jesus Christ and then to each other. This principle is evident whereever Paul says “one to another.” It is in the principle of the gifts, ever subitting to the authority of the Spirit in the other’s gift. It is implicit wherever Paul or the other epistles call for nuturing gentleness, reverance (of for the reigning Lord), humility, forebearance. It is explicit in Eph 5:20. It means we come together always speaking truth, but then submitting it to the other for his/her examination. Non-coercive, humble and gentle mutual submission is the fundamental disposition of one in relation to his/her Lord. It is the fundamental mode of being in the biody of Christ that moves forward into mission

2.) Don’t manage conflict. Follow Matt 18:15ff. Let the disagreements and the sins emerge from below. When one appears, urge people to go first to their brother or sister. No agreement. Cool. Take a third party. No agreement. Cool. Go to shepherds elders. No agreement? Cool Then call the church – all those interested to discern the issue. If a disagreement or sin gets this far, it is a communal matter for the direction of the whole church in her self-understanding as a holy people moving into bringing the gospel into new territory where God is working. In this gathering, exalt Scripture and those recognized for interpreting. Exalt those with faith , those with discernment. Listen in humility and gentleness. Pastors don’t dictate. Let the Holy Spirt work. Lead out of observation and coalescence.  “I see this,” “I suggest this,” “I think I heard this,” “let me summarize and submit to you” … . Let the Spirit work!

3.) Ask what Is God doing here/ and observe. Ever be asking “what is God saying?” here and testing it. In silence and prayer, reflecting on Scripture recognizing the ones gifted in this, seek a word from the Lord. This isn’t piety, this is reality. This kind of activity happens all the time in Acts and always moves the community in Acts further and further into God’s mission

In summary

All of the above is reason for why I continually find myself saying “Conflict is ground zero for the inbreaking of the Kingdom.” Too often I or our church have failed at this (this is why I have to write this stuff to remind everybody including me). I find this kind of cultivating the Kingdom to be almost impossible once you get above a certain number in your church (three hundred?). It is probably because of the tendency for churches to self organize into CEO leadership once their numbers dictate this is the only way to survive. I wonder, as a result, whether megachurches can experience God’s Kingdom in this way? Whay say u? I have become convinced that you do this kind of cultivating for five years with a group of twenty to thirty people and you will be amazed at that vibrant Kingdom life taking shape among you. Anyone have experiences that can validate this way of Kingdom life?

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David Fitch
David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.

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