Redeeming Even the Messiest Church Conflicts
The Acts 15 model provides leaders with guidance.

Over the years we have seen the best and worst responses to conflict from our brothers and sisters in Christ. But the story of one conflicted church, a church we will call Lakeview Community Church (LCC), stands out from the rest because of its shocking ending.

God-fearing immigrants founded LCC almost 100 years ago on lakefront property near Cleveland, Ohio. These hardy people shared not only a common faith but common values. They did business with each other, and the children of many of the families married and continued to grow the church and the family businesses.

Over the years, the neighborhood around the church's property changed significantly. The new ethnic demographic of the community contributed to the church's growing sense of being disconnected from their immediate neighborhood. In addition, many of the children and grandchildren of the founders lived in more upscale suburbs, but continued to remain members, traveling to the church each Sunday to attend service and visit grandparents. As the grandchildren grew into teens, intergenerational conflicts began to erode the former unity of the church.

Following the longtime pastor's retirement, a series of relatively short pastorates ended with the present senior pastor taking the church five years ago. This pastor had excellent credentials and experience, and his call to the church was nearly unanimous. Things went pretty well for three years until the church grew to nearly 700 and an associate pastor was called. The new associate was fresh out of seminary and eager to serve. It so happened that he was related to one of the founding (and most influential) families in the church.

Conflicts between the senior pastor and the associate pastor began almost immediately. They had extremely divergent views about how LCC should function as a church. In addition, their personalities were polar opposites, so as intergenerational pressures grew, tension between the two pastors also grew. Each began to recruit church members to his side. The senior pastor was focused on serving the existing members, whereas the associate pastor was recruiting those who would focus with him on evangelistic outreach. As a result of the church conflicts, a painful and devastating family conflict grew because the grandparents of the associate pastor strongly supported the senior pastor, but the parents (and wife and children) of the associate pastor strongly supported him. The four generations of this family became further and further estranged as the conflict grew.

One final piece of background: two years earlier, the senior pastor significantly changed the church governance structure from a strict congregational polity to an elder-led model where almost everything was decided by the pastor and elder board. Initially, people did not mind this change. But once the conflicts began to grow, how decisions were made began to be a major source of conflict.

By the time a team of Christian mediators was hired to help this conflicted church, the situation was a convoluted mess. Members were withholding financial support or leaving the church altogether. Dear friends and even family members who had spent their lifetimes together were no longer speaking with one another. And, of course, the ministry of LCC to its surrounding community was almost nonexistent.

So how was this church conflict redeemed by its members? Could both pastors really be happy with any result? Could the members be nearly unanimous in the decisions that would ultimately proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to their community in one of the most powerful ways we have ever observed? Shockingly, yes. And the Acts 15 model for redeeming church conflicts was the "road map" for how it happened.

The Acts 15 model

In Acts 15, a serious conflict arose in the early church. God gave those involved great wisdom, and that same wisdom is available to us today. We call this the Acts 15 model for redeeming church conflicts:

Perspective. We can know for certain we have lost perspective if we begin to take conflicts as personal offenses. Conversely, if we see so-called opponents with eyes of compassion, we know God is working in us to redeem the conflict for his glory and our growth.
Discernment. We know we are on the path of healing discernment if we find ourselves spending more time listening than speaking. Further, as we carefully form and ask questions seeking group health, rather than merely advance a personally favored solution, evidence emerges that God's work of redemption is advancing not only his interests but also our holiness.
Leadership. If we embrace our personal and individual responsibility for leadership within each of our own personal spheres of influence, we gradually become group problem-solvers and increasingly turn away from narrow personal agendas. The more we see ourselves as shepherd-leaders serving others among God's flock, the greater the opportunity for creating an environment from which peace will flow.
Biblical response. As we remember that Christ loves his church more than we ever will, and that he has paid more for it than we ever will, our confidence in the Bible and our commitment to faithful pursuit of biblical responses to conflict will be clear and steadfast. One of the biggest mistakes people make in church conflict is failing to trust Scripture.

Every church conflict can be redeemed because every church conflict can be used for genuine spiritual growth, both individually and corporately within the body of Christ. Christ can use you to redeem your church's conflict–regardless of how other people respond, even if you are only one lay member out of hundreds or even thousands. You can be God's instrument in redeeming your church's conflicts by following the biblical principles revealed in Holy Scripture, while humbly depending on the Holy Spirit.

Excerpted fromRedeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Careby Tara Klena Barthel and David V. Edling (Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2012). Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

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