Conﬂict in the Church
Working Toward Consensus
By Ted N. C. Wilson
Whenever a group of people get together, the potential for conflict is invariably there—even among Christians. From the beginning of the Christian church, even earlier, there has been conflict among believers.
How should we faithful Seventh-day Adventists deal with conflict, particularly when it surfaces in the church?
The book of Acts provides striking examples and a sound biblical foundation for dealing with at least three types of conflict within the church. Through its stories we discover believers in conflict over physical needs, theological beliefs, and with each other. The creative and godly ways in which these conflicts were handled provide worthy models for us to follow in the church today.
Practical Conflict Resolution
After Pentecost the apostles cared for church finances and the distribution of necessities to the believers (see Acts 4:34, 35). However, as the numbers increased, so did the logistical and practical challenges.
“Now in those days, when the number of disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1). Realizing they could no longer carry all of the responsibilities in the fast-growing church, the apostles recognized it was time to delegate some of their duties to others so they would be free to preach the gospel widely.
The apostles invited those aggrieved to “seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” (verse 3). Everyone was satisfied with this suggestion. They appointed seven men to fulfill this important role. The apostles prayed and “laid hands on them” (verse 6), ordaining the first deacons of the Christian church—in response to conflict.
Through prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit the conflict was resolved. “Then the word of God spread; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (verse 7).
Theological Conflict Resolution
Antioch, located more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of Jerusalem, had a large, growing church. This city, third in importance after Rome and Alexandria, was a center of missionary activity. The church’s membership was made up of many classes of people, both Jews and Gentiles.
Some of the Jewish converts were concerned that Gentile converts would carry some of their unwelcome practices into the Christian church. Hoping to guard against this, as well as wanting to retain their distinctiveness as Jews, the Hebrew Christians insisted that Gentile converts must be circumcised. While this was certainly an issue with religious aspects, it was also difficult for early Christians to set aside their national heritage and their rights and privileges as Jews. They were being called to rise above their pride as citizens of Israel and to express their newfound identity as citizens of a higher kingdom.
For many this seemed like an unattainable divide. Political and separatist tendencies led to disunity and division. The wrangling and contention within the church was so fierce that there arose the fear of a split. Finally Paul and Barnabas, along with other church representatives, went to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders, along with delegates from the other churches in order to resolve the issue. Those in Antioch agreed to stop the controversy and wait for the Jerusalem Council’s decision.
The way this theological conflict was addressed at the Jerusalem Council is outlined in Acts 15.
They held a general council meeting. Since Christ is the head of the church, and no one on earth can claim that right, it is important that church leaders and representatives discuss important matters affecting the church by asking for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. So we are told, “The apostles and elders came together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6).
Time for open discussion was provided. A clear description of the situation in Antioch was given, then delegates were able to discuss the question: Was it necessary for Gentile converts to be circumcised in order to be accepted into the body of Christian believers?
A lively discussion followed, with everyone having an opportunity to speak. At last Peter spoke, reminding the council about his vision of the unclean animals, and the voice from heaven telling him, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (Acts 11:9). He described his meeting with Gentiles in Caesarea and how he had seen the Holy Spirit descend on them, just as on the Jewish believers.
Paul and Barnabas supported Peter’s point by giving examples of how they too had seen the Holy Spirit working among the Gentiles.
Main thoughts were summarized and compared with Scripture, and a proposal was presented. After everyone had opportunity to speak, James, who was chairing the meeting, summarized the main points and compared Peter’s testimony with what the Scriptures had prophesied: “ ‘And I will restore it, so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,’ says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago” (Acts 15:16-18, NASB).
Seeing that Peter’s testimony agreed with Scripture, James proposed “that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood” (verses 19, 20).
A consensus was reached, and the decision was put in writing and delivered to the Gentile believers in Antioch. After listening to James’s proposal, the apostles and elders agreed that this was the right course to pursue. A letter explaining the council’s decision was delivered by Paul, Barnabas, and other Christians from Jerusalem.
While the Gentiles were grateful for this outcome, not everyone was pleased. Ellen White wrote: “There was a faction of ambitious and self-confident brethren who disagreed with it. . . . They indulged in much murmuring and faultfinding, proposing new plans and seeking to pull down the work of the men whom God had ordained to teach the gospel message. From the first the church has had such obstacles to meet and ever will have till the close of time” (The Acts of the Apostles,pp. 196, 197).
Resolving Interpersonal Conflict Between Christians
From time to time, even among Christians, there is interpersonal conflict. Such was the case between Paul and Barnabas as they were about to leave Antioch. Wanting to encourage other believers, the two prepared for their journey. However, when Barnabas suggested bringing the younger John Mark with them, Paul refused. The young missionary had deserted them once already when things got difficult, and Paul was not ready to have to deal with him again. (Acts 15:36-40)
Barnabas, however, saw potential in John Mark and wanted to encourage him in gospel work. The two experienced missionaries disagreed sharply and finally ended up going their separate ways, with Barnabas taking John Mark, and Paul taking Silas.
Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. Through the mentoring of Barnabas, John Mark became a strong worker for the Lord and later reconciled with Paul, who referred to him as “a comfort to me” (Col. 4:11) and as “useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11).
What can we learn from this conflict between two well-respected church leaders?
They kept the disagreement between the two of them, and did not involve other leaders or the corporate church.
When they were unable to come to an agreement, they decided to go their separate ways for a time rather than prolong the conflict.
They still respected each other and did not speak ill of the other, allowing each to continue as an effective worker for the Lord.
Biblical Basis of Church Governance
Next spring (2013) we Seventh-day Adventists will celebrate 150 years of a church organization built on a biblical, God-given system of governance. It’s a system that seeks to build consensus led by the Holy Spirit, based on consistency with His Word.
Any visitor to the world church headquarters will notice that one of the most prominent architectural features of the building are the glass-enclosed committee rooms where church leaders meet to pray, discuss, and vote on important items affecting the world church. Rather than being governed by an oligarchy, the church works through committees and is dependent upon the working of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide as issues are discussed and voted.
The church system throughout its various levels of administration, from the local church to the conference/mission to the union to the division/General Conference level, and, of course, at worldwide sessions of the General Conference, use methods of consensus and democratic voting after seeking God’s guidance through the Bible, the Spirit of Prophecy, earnest prayer, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
As we look to and follow the examples of the early church as recorded in the book of Acts, we too can be assured of God’s leading in our past, present, and future. God is calling us to be united in His Word and work together under the direction of the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul invited Christ’s followers to participate in the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18).
As we near the end of this world, we must not allow the devil to divide the church with controversy or conflict. Let us plead with the Lord for revival and reformation leading to the latter rain of the Holy Spirit that will keep us united in our biblical beliefs and our mission to this world. We must follow the example of the early disciples as we fulfill God’s designs for us as His last-day disciples.
Ellen White wrote: “More than eighteen centuries have passed since the apostles rested from their labors, but the history of their toils and sacrifices for Christ’s sake is still among the most precious treasures of the church. This history, written under the direction of the Holy Spirit, was recorded in order that by it the followers of Christ in every age might be impelled to greater zeal and earnestness in the cause of the Savior” (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 593).
May God guide His church, and each of us personally, as we unitedly participate in the ministry of reconciliation, looking to the Holy Spirit to guide us in reaching consensus as we utilize the church’s representative and democratic process in decision-making.
* Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Ted N. C. Wilson is president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.