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Ecclesia and Conflict: Resolving conflict as a Church

Date: 04/07/2021/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Why talk about the Church and conflict? Because conflict is something we all deal with in our lives, and we see conflict happening within the Church too – both within our own church community as well as in the bigger Church community. And we are all not very good at dealing with conflict in a healthy way. Or perhaps I should speak for myself first – I am not very good at dealing with conflict. So working on this sermon was as much for me as it is for you. J

Conflict is not new and has existed since the beginning of time, as seen in the Bible. *In the beginning chapters of Genesis, we read about how Cain was angry with his brother, Abel, and ultimately the conflict turned into an attack and Cain ended up killing his own brother. There are many other examples of conflict throughout the Bible and some are not so violent. But suffice to say, conflict between human beings is not a new thing. Conflict has existed throughout history, especially within the Church. In fact, historically the Church has had a terrible record where it came to dealing with conflicts over doctrines and beliefs. Depending on who was in power at that time, people who dared to disagree with the religious leadership were sometimes put to death.  

*Question 1 (Word Colud)

What examples of conflict can you think of in the Bible and in the Christian world, including today’s context?

In our modern times, we are thankfully less violent, in general, when dealing with conflict situations. Human beings and the way we manage conflict have evolved and whether it is conflict within our own church community or conflict with those outside our church community, we are better at listening, engaging and communicating with those we disagree and experience conflict with. But I would say conflict is still something many of us find challenging to navigate well.

Let me ask you: How do you usually deal with conflict? This is your own honest observation and reflection of yourself. It’s not where you hope to be but an honest evaluation of where you are right now in relation to conflict situations.

*Question 2 (Multiple Choice)

When it comes to conflict, I tend to:

  1. Avoid conflict situations as far as possible
  2. Confront it head-on, often in a defensive way
  3. Respond calmly and proactively listen to the other person’s POV
  4. I don’t know

The board, leaders and many of you know this but I have a tendency to be conflict-avoidant. But this is an area that I have been challenging myself to grow in. *One thing that Brene Brown said in her book, Dare to Lead, is “To be clear is kind. To be unclear is unkind.” And that is something I am striving to be better at. To be clear in the way I express my needs and opinions, to be clear in communicating my expectations and disagreements, to be clear in conflict situations whether as a direct participant or as a mediator. I still have a long way to go but I’m thankful I get to work at this together with you in this church.     

We all know and have experienced how destructive conflict can be. If I were to interview all of you, many would probably say “conflict is stressful” or “it ends up hurting everyone involved”. So it’s understandable why many of us try to avoid or control it as best as we can.

We see this happening in the early Church too. A quick glance through Paul’s letters in the New Testament shows that conflicts and disagreements were a part of congregational life then. But Paul’s primary designation for followers of Jesus is “brothers and sisters,” a term used 271 times in the New Testament. Scot McKnight notes that “the idea of siblingship is the dominant self-understanding and self-designation of the church.” We are siblings—family. Not business associates. Not neighbors. Not even merely friends and acquaintances. We are family.

So we bring the best and also the most challenging aspects of family into our life together as a community. For better and for worse, we are wonderfully stuck with each other. We have a bond that is bigger than ourselves because this connection finds its grounding in Christ, which means Christ is at the center of our family life.

*Last week in my sermon on Ecclesia and Jesus, I ended with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily community of many years, Christian community is solely this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.

We belong to one another through and in Jesus Christ. In a church, we will have differences of opinions, disagreements and even conflicts. Siblings do. That is okay. But Christ is present in our midst and the love of Christ holds us together. So we commit to remain connected to each other, open-minded, humble, courageous, and willing to learn.

The Philippian church at that time was experiencing dissension, a rift in the fellowship (Phil 4:1–3). Paul calls that congregation to unity in Christ by pointing to the humbling stance of Jesus:

*Philippians 2:1-6 (NLT)

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,[a]
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.

Paul here was reminding the Philippians that they were not alone when experiencing conflict in church. This is true for us too. If we have experienced any encouragement from belonging to Christ, any comfort from his love, any fellowship with the Spirit, then we have what it takes to love each other through the challenges of any conflict. Not only that, we have Christ as our model as we check our own attitudes during conflict situations. Do we have the same attitude as Christ when tensions are high, and disappointment and anger are the dominant emotions? As followers of Jesus, we are continually in the process of being formed into the image of Christ. We are called to become like Christ in every aspect of our lives, including how we live our lives together in our community.  

At FCC, we have experienced many moments of conflicts between pastors and leaders, leaders and leaders, members and members, and every other combination in between. Some conflicts sadly led to people leaving, while some conflicts led to a deeper understanding between the people involved and growth in our relationships. So it’s clear that conflict can be constructive and destructive. And as a church, we can do better. The difference between constructive and destructive conflict is mainly in the outcome.

*In a destructive conflict, the disagreement leads to people not feeling heard, creating feelings of frustration and antagonism, while in a constructive conflict, the disagreement leads to deeper listening and the mutual commitment to create solutions together.

• A constructive conflict strengthens the relationship between the parties involved.

• A destructive conflict harms the relationship between the parties involved.

*Question 3 (Open)

In what ways can conflict be constructive? 

*Recently, I read a book called Conflict Without Casualties: A Field Guide For Leading With Compassionate Accountability by Nate Regier, and I found it very helpful in changing my own perspective and mindset regarding conflict and it gave me ideas about how we can respond to conflict more effectively. Regier said when it comes to conflict, we often think of conflict reduction, management, or mediation. All of these concepts imply that conflict is something to be lessened or eradicated, as if it’s fundamentally a bad thing. And it’s not surprising that many people would view conflict this way. The casualties of conflict are everywhere you look.  Naturally, people would want to avoid or control it.

But there can be a better way and he calls it compassionate accountability.

At the most basic level, conflict is a gap between what we want and what we are experiencing at any given moment. Conflict is everywhere.

Before evaluating whether conflict is good or bad, or how we should respond to it, it’s important to recognize that conflict generates energy. That energy shows up in a variety of ways. It could show up in racing thoughts and thinking about what to do next. It could show up in increased heartbeat and flushed face caused by increased cortisol levels in the bloodstream. It could show up as an overwhelming desire to fight back or run away. Conflict generates energy, and conflict is unavoidable. In fact, Regier says that conflict is part of the grand design of the universe. Conflict is a necessary part of our human experience. Humans are created to be different from each other. Because of this, we will inevitably have different needs, wants, and pursuits. When these come into contact with each other, conflict occurs. Conflict is energy. Conflict is unavoidable. The only real question is: what will you do with the energy created by conflict? How will you spend it?

We have two choices – struggle against or struggle with.

Struggling with is a process of mutuality and creation. It’s about seeing the solution as a two-way street, viewing the struggle as an opportunity for a win-win outcome, and adopting an attitude of shared responsibility for resolving the discrepancy between what we want and what we are experiencing.

Recently, I was talking with our board members and we identified areas where there was a discrepancy between what we want and what we are experiencing. And we saw the solution as a two-way street where we had a shared responsibility to create something that resolves the gap. That is struggling with.

Often when there is a conflict, we struggle against ourselves or each other instead of struggling with. The word compassion originates from the Latin root meaning “co-suffering.” Com means “with” or “together” or “alongside.” Passion means suffering or struggling. Together, “compassion” means a process of struggling with others.

*The key to productive conflict is compassion, the art of struggling with people instead of against them.

Compassion is not about being nice, and repressing the conflict or our emotions.

*“Compassion is the result of people taking ownership of their feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and choosing to spend the energy of conflict pursuing effective solutions that preserve the dignity of all involved. Compassion is more than care and concern for others. It’s about the willingness to get in the trenches and struggle together as an equal with others.”

The greatest change agents in history, those who have made the biggest positive difference, have practiced this kind of compassion. From Gandhi to Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa to Martin Luther King, each has struggled with instead of against.

Compassionate accountability can be helpful to us within our church community, and also when there are conflicts with people outside our community, especially over issues that we deeply disagree on.

*A few days ago, news broke that The Methodist Church in the UK has voted to allow same-sex marriage in a momentous vote. This vote to change the definition of marriage at the Methodist Conference was overwhelmingly passed. With that, the Methodist Church became the largest religious denomination in Britain to permit same-sex marriages.

I was delighted at the news but there were many Christians in Singapore who were not as thrilled, to put it mildly. The Methodist Church in Singapore issued a statement to clarify that their position is not the same as the Church in UK and stated the points where they disagreed. Even in the UK, a former vice-president of the Methodist Conference, warned there was a “significant minority” of Methodists who were “planning on leaving or resigning their membership” as a result of the vote. She said, “Today is a line in the sand for many people and seen as a significant departure from our doctrine.”

Rev Sonia Hicks, the current president of the Methodist Conference, said: “The debate today and our wider conversation has been conducted with grace and mutual respect. As we move forward together after this historic day for our Church, we must remember to continue to hold each other in prayer, and to support each other respecting our differences.”

I’m not sure what the conclusion will be and if a significant minority of Methodists in the UK will eventually leave the Church but I see how Rev Sonia Hicks is striving to practise mutual respect and support in the midst of a conflict of doctrine.

*“The purpose of conflict is to create.” —Michael Meade

This is such a powerful and profound statement. It made me pause and think about the possibilities if we can just shift our mindsets a little and think of conflict as a creative force. We would be less afraid, less avoidant and less defensive.

In this sermon, I’m just scrapping the surface of what the book covers. I like that Regier gives concrete examples and practical exercises to help us learn how to practice compassionate accountability in our lives. Perhaps we can organize a workshop on this topic some time in the future. I say this because in order for us to engage in conflict differently, our whole church culture needs to change. For example, when someone hurts you, ideally I would want you to be able to go to that person asap and have a hard conversation. But this can only happen if we build up a church culture where everyone agrees and knows how to conduct and receive such conversations. A lot of times, people won’t go directly to the person who hurt them because they are afraid that person will flare up and hurt them even more. And that fear is valid. So we can choose to engage in conflict in a new way. But we need to learn to do this as a community.

This brings me back to what Paul was talking about in Philippians.

*Philippians 2:1-6 (NLT)

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

As a community belonging to Christ, we need to come together and allow our mindsets to be challenged and changed so that we can love each other better. One practical way of doing so is to be more thoughtful and reflective about our meeting together at the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion. Meeting at the Lord’s Table reminds us that our congregation is made up of siblings in Christ, and by the Spirit, we live into this reality.    

*Bonhoeffer writes: “The Scriptures speak of three kinds of community at the table that Jesus keeps with his own: the daily breaking of bread together at meals, the breaking of bread together at the Lord’s Supper, and the final breaking of bread together in the reign of God. But in all three, the one thing that counts is that ‘their eyes were opened and they recognized him.’”

‘Their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus.’ Do our eyes recognize Jesus every time we come to this sacred meal? Through this meal we affirm the presence of the crucified and risen Christ in our midst, and our commitment to live as siblings in our lives together.

As we share in the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of the Last Supper where Jesus washes the disciple’s feet (John 13:1–17). Jesus is our model in this humbling act.

*John 13:12-15 (NLT)

“Do you understand what I was doing?” he asks his disciples. “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” 

At the Table, we seek reconciliation with each other, forgiveness, restoration. Where there have been misunderstandings, hurt, and harm, we try our best make it right (Matt 5:23–24, 18:15–20).

*I’m not saying that this will be easy, but gathering together at the Lord’s Table holds the promise of fostering a new culture, over time, in a community where we see each other as siblings in Christ.

The Lord’s Table shapes how we live our lives with each other in worship, in witness, and as a community. It transforms every aspect of our congregational life. These aspects include:

The Board/Council/Ministry/CG/Fellowship Table

In remembering the Lord’s Table, the table where we gather for meetings, planning, deliberating, and the sharing of our lives is transformed. The Lord’s Table reminds us how we are to act at the board room table, at council meetings, at board and council meetings as well as ministry, cell group and fellowship meetings. Board and council meetings can sometimes feel like business meetings where difficult decisions have to be made. There will sometimes be disagreements, disappointments and mismatching of expectations. And that is okay. Sometimes at the ministry, cell group or fellowship table, hurtful comments are made and people get hurt. Approaching all these matters in the spirit of the Table, where we are reminded that we are connected to Christ and to each other as sibling, changes the way we do our work and relate to one another. In Christ, we can learn to align our hearts and minds with compassionate accountability, to struggle with each other instead of against, as we strive to live out God’s call to us.

In the midst of our differences—even through our differences—we can create and we are one in Christ, experiencing the peace of Christ, as we demonstrate the love of Christ. The Lord’s Table is the practice of the church that reminds us of the way of Jesus, the way of emptying and humility, that we are in the process of being made in the likeness of Christ.

*Question 4 (Word Cloud)

What is one thing you want to do differently regarding conflict situations?

Will you decide to stay, to listen, to embrace each other as siblings in Christ, even when it’s hard? Will you stay open in conflict situations and choose to struggle with each other as we work together towards creative solutions? Compassionate accountability and the Lord’s Table are practices that can change our hearts and the way we live out what it means to love one another. Amen.