The Next Faithful Step
Conflict is Necessary
Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary
The pastor was sitting across from a couple in their late twenties. This was the second pre-marital counseling session for the couple. The young man was talking about his parents’ marriage. He described how they constantly fought with each other. And he said, “I don’t believe in conflict. It just tears people down.” And then he turned to his fiancé and promised, “When we are married, I swear we will never fight or argue. We know it’s wrong. And we won’t let it get us.” What did the pastor do at that moment? She quietly explained to the young man that avoiding conflict was not really an option because people living in community will always have disagreements to work through and competing commitments to address. Conflict, she said, is a by-product of honesty in community. But there was an irony to that pastor’s counsel. She may have told the couple that conflict was necessary in relationships, but she did not act that way as a minister. She worked hard to tamp down all conflict in her congregation. When acting as a leader she forgot the lesson she proclaimed as a counselor. Conflict is necessary.
Conflict is necessary whenever people live in honest relationship. One of the great strengths that comes from being the diverse Body of Christ is that each of us has a different perspective. You have a different upbringing than I do. You learn different things as you walk through life. You may be the mother of young children, while I may be the father of teens. You may have a heart for evangelism, while I care deeply about discipleship. And we may disagree. In fact, I can guarantee that we disagree about something—just like that pastor can guarantee that the young couple will disagree. Our disagreeing is a by-product of something God intends for the church. It comes from the fact that our diversity of gifts and experiences each contribute something to the Body of Christ. Otherwise, your gift and your experience would be redundant and unnecessary. Christ’s mandate that we all should be unified only makes sense in the context of the diversity of gifts and experiences. One body, many gifts. Conflict is necessary because God intends us each to contribute a different perspective.
When those different perspectives meet, there is bound to be disagreement. And in that moment, we each can either express the difference or stay silent. Many churches believe that the Christian thing to do is to stay silent so as not to offend a sister or brother. But let’s think about that for a moment. The Body of Christ metaphor demands that we speak honestly with each other. Otherwise, I cannot benefit from what God is teaching you—and vice-versa. Yet many congregations are so afraid of conflict that they avoid honesty. They ignore the biblical mandate to act like the Body of Christ and instead swallow their honesty. They value tranquility more than they value being the Body of Christ. They swallow their honesty because they don’t know how to express their honesty in a way that builds up rather than tears down. We have to acknowledge as a congregation the same lesson that that pastor would give as counsel to that engaged couple. Learning to engage in productive conflict is a necessary part of being in relationship. Each person has different experiences and gifts. And each is called to discuss those experiences and display those gifts honestly. Sometimes that honest conversation will create disagreements. But outlawing disagreements means we can never talk honestly. Simply put, No Conflict, No Honesty.
The honest conversation of productive conflict makes for healthy and resilient congregations in just the way that it makes for healthy marriages. This becomes particularly important in times of stress. The acclaimed sociologist Nancy Tatom Ammerman studied how congregations respond to stress. She and her team looked at hundreds of congregations that were in communities attacked by social change. They found that congregations fell into three categories. They found that some congregations thrived in the face of difficulty, while some sank, even as another group barely kept its head above water. Then she made a list of the ten qualities that characterized the congregations that thrived in the midst of disruptive social change. Here is what she found about conflict. “No congregation that adapted did so without conflict” and “No church without conflict adapted.”1 Perhaps we can put it another way. If you showed Ammerman’s team a congregation that had no conflict, they could tell you with sadness that the congregation did not have the resilience to thrive in the face of disruptive change. Conflict is necessary because, without it, a congregation lacks the resiliency necessary to adapt.
But conflict does not guarantee resiliency in a congregation any more than it guarantees resiliency in a marriage. We have all seen marriages and congregations that are eaten away by corrosive conflict. So a choice emerges. We cannot choose between conflict and no conflict. But we can choose between productive conflict that builds up and destructive conflict that tears down.