A Biblical Approach to Church Conflict
Written by Whitman H. Brisky
Divisions in the church are like fires. If not properly contained and handled, they can destroy the fellowship and witness of entire congregations, not to mention the faith of those involved. Many of those burnt by divisions in the church leave and never come back. However, if properly handled, divisions can refine a congregation and, in some cases, even help build the Kingdom.
For better or for worse, church splits and divisions happen. While pastors may be equipped to handle the spiritual and personal dynamics that fuel division in the church, they are likely not equipped to handle the legal challenges that often arise when a congregation splits or is on the verge of splitting. Frequently the pastor, himself, or herself, is the dividing issue. Factions also fight over property and control of the church. These issues usually involve complex questions of property and church by-laws, customs, and procedures. And as with any legal dispute, if the sides cannot resolve conflicting claims, the matter must be brought before a secular court at great expense to both the pocketbook and witness of both sides. The Apostle Paul warned against believers taking their case before a civil judge. (1 Cor. 6:1-8).
In his appeal to the believers in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10), Paul begins his discourse on divisions in the church. He spends the first half of his letter discussing three areas in which the church in Corinth found itself in conflict: 1) church leadership; 2) unrepentant immorality; and 3) civil grievances. In each of these three areas, they were acting not as spiritual people but as people of the flesh. 1 Cor. 3:1. Some followed Paul, others Apollos; one was sleeping with his father’s wife, many tolerated his behavior; believer was suing believer.
Sadly, little has changed in nearly 2000 years. Almost all present day Church conflict still falls within the same three categories identified by Paul. Major denominations and local congregations are perverting the grace of God into a license to sin and creating conflict within the Church. Believers are still fighting each other in courts across the country, including fights over church property. Our firm has been involved in all three kinds of disputes and seeks always to encourage a resolution which honors God and helps build the Kingdom. While we seek to avoid litigation in the civil courts wherever possible, there are unfortunately times when it is unavoidable (Matt. 18:15-17).
The remainder of Paul’s letter instructs the believers how to live according to the Spirit and is just as instructive to the church today. Following this instruction can help avoid conflict within the Body. Paul, writing in the Spirit, advises those who lead to do so as servants and stewards of what God has given the church, and advises believers to flee immorality and its bondage into the freedom found in glorifying God with their bodies according to His word. As to our civil grievances between believers, Paul advises that it is better to suffer the wrong than to bring the matter before the courts instead of before the church elders.
In the past we were able to help a group of believers who were in the majority reach an amicable separation agreement with the minority group led by a new pastor. The situation had all the ingredients for disaster and could have quickly blown up into a blaze of bitter back-stabbing and belligerent posturing which would have led both sides into court. Thankfully, and in part because the Lord also provided the other side with godly legal counsel, and because both sides wanted to avoid litigation, we were able to reach a fair resolution, including an agreed split of the property. This spared both sides the time, shame, and expense that would have come with litigation. Now both groups have their own churches and are about the task of building the Kingdom. We have even heard reports of personal reconciliation among people from the two groups. Praise God!