Intra-congregational Conflict and the Impacts (or not) on Individuals’ Spiritual Formation

By Jehan Loza


Conflict among God’s people has existed since the beginning of time.

Beginning with the fall and the first conflict between Adam and Eve, the Old Testament is peppered with conflict between Israel and other nations and among the Israelites themselves. Even the New Testament, with its message of hope and love, includes stories of conflict.

One only needs to read the Book of Acts to see conflict between two cultural groups (Acts 6:8-15), theological contentions (Acts 15:1-3) and disagreement between the Apostles (Acts15:3-20). Much of Paul’s writing that follow the emergence of the first church in Acts is oriented towards teaching the Brethren and the Church principles of reconciliation and unification. In fact, Isaak (2011) maintains that it is clear in the Pauline letters that the Apostle has a deep concern for the unification of those Christ has reconciled in his body and that it is in community life that the first expression of God’s plan to reconcile all things is seen. Yet Pauls’ letters also show that as Christianity spread across the world, these first century churches and their Brethren continued to experience their fair share of intra-congregational conflicts. The first church of Corinth, for instance, provides a fine example of a congregation in the midst of conflict.

In modern times, church conflict continues to be a reality. Yet the fact that church conflict exists is an anomaly with the general admonition of modern Christian life which positions passivism as a virtue and a condition of conflict avoidance (Ennis 2008). Those accepting this view attempt to rid all conflict from their relationships, considering it improper, deviant and ‘unchristian’ to expect conflict as a plausible condition of the human experience. However, as Ennis (2008) argues, all individuals, including Christians, are marked by a sinful nature, which includes the propensity toward selfishness. And Ledeen (1999:16) claims that conflict, “flows from the deepest well spring of human nature. It is not an aberration … it is an integral, inescapable part of what we are”.

Conflict is defined as a disagreement between groups of interdependent people. Conflict is the result of a perception of incompatible or mutually exclusive needs, ideas, beliefs, values or goals across a social (e.g. role conflict) or intrapersonal (e.g. conflict within an individual) context (Macdonald 2012).

Grace Chou (2008:95) argues that congregations are composed of members who want to pursue and advance their religious interests. Put simply, “intra-congregational conflicts occur when members’ interests are not satisfied”.

Whether the outcomes are positive or negative, intra-congregational conflict has implications for spiritual formation and, therefore, presents a significant pastoral concern. What is the impact of intra-congregational conflict on an individual’s spiritual formation?

A misnomer? Church as God’s mission: Church as breeding ground for conflict.

Scripture does not contain a verse that defines the mission of the church. For some writers, the mission of the church is altogether spiritual – the Church represents “God’s mission to bring about the blessing of the nations and redemption of creation” (McGrath, 2000:258). For others, it is purely relational – the church is “a living body that relates to or interacts with people” (Koinonia Fellowship – For others still, the mission of the church is “a continuation of Christ’s earthly ministry” (Robbins 1995).

Acts 2:42-47 provides a neat summary of the church and presents an image of the ideal church based on a model of the loving fellowship that is supposed to exist in our churches:

And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). 

Newberger (2011) suggests that this model is upheld by pastors and congregation members alike. The model is also what causes Bill Hybels (2002:23) to assert that there is nothing like the local church (with the clause: “when it is working right”):

Its beauty is indescribable. Its power is breathtaking. Its potential is unlimited …Whatever the capacity for human suffering, the church has a greater capacity for healing and wholeness. 

What happens then when conflict strikes at the heart of the local church? What impact does and can such conflict have on the spiritual formation of believers?

Church conflict has existed since the emergence of the first churches. The book of 1 Corinthians, for example, tells us that all was not well with the Church at Corinth. Though we do not know the details, it is evident that there existed a serious dispute which involved the questioning of Paul’s authority. This had caused divisions within the church with some making allegiance to Paul and others to Appollos or Peter (Elwell and Yarbrough 2005). But the conflict lines had expanded beyond this.

In his letter to the Church, Paul is clearly troubled by the division marked by “jealousy and strife” (1 Cor) that was occurring among the Brethren. The church had departed from his teaching; the Brethren looking instead to popular cultural ideas. The church was being affected by the immoral environment found in the city with the culture of immorality and immodesty finding its way into the church (1Co 5).  Sexual impurity and an arrogant and quarrelsome spirit had found a place in the church and a case of incest with no consequence for the offender caused Paul to urge the people to “purge the evil from among you” (1 Cor 5:13). Furthermore, rather than finding resolution among themselves, the Brethren were taking their personal problems with each other before the heathen courts (1Cor 6). Paul urges the people to be orderly and to settle their disputes internally by not making public to unbelievers the shame that is their divisions.

Other issues affecting the church included questions about marriage, divorce and celibacy (1Cor 7), meats sacrificed to idols (1Cor 8-10), women praying and prophesying with heads uncovered (1Cor 11), the use of spiritual gifts (1Cor 12-14), the resurrection from the dead (1Cor 15), and the collection for the saints in Jerusalem (1Cor 16).

With much love, Paul gives specific council on these issues and commends the Brethren for their initial embracing of the gospel, thanking God for the work He has done among them. In his absence, he tries to encourage the Brethren to unify by walking in the way of God and calls them back to Jesus Christ, the foundation of their salvation. He likens the church to a body, naming it the ‘Body of Christ’. Just like the body is one with many parts, Paul urges the Body of Christ to operate as one in the spirit of unity.

In essence, Paul gives a synopsis of the church to the believers of Corinth. He calls for spiritual maturity. He tells the believers that the church is God’s hands and feet in this world (1 Cor 12:12-27). He points out that we are to be doing the things that Jesus Christ would do if He were on earth. The church is to be Christian, Christ-like and Christ-following.

Paul’s concern is for community formation and he offers a new paradigm to positively influence relationships among the believers of Corinth through creating a new social order that transforms divergent social and cultural values systems into a unity (Ackerman 2005). According to Ackerman (2005), Paul attempts to set up a protective boundary around the church – a people of God encased in a ‘mind of Christ’ and of living a life of love and holiness.

Scripture does not tell us what happened to the Church at Corinth. One can assume that their desire to understand spiritual truths (evidenced by their seeking answers), may have led to a transformation and a growth in their spiritual maturity; though it is possible that the conflict continued and even escalated. Although we do not know what happened to the believers of Corinth at that time, research tells us that when organisational disputes become severe and unresolved, the spiritual effects can be quiet profound.

In another post we will look at:   The causes and outcomes of intra-congregational conflict.

Conflict is an inevitable part of human existence and interaction. It has existed since the beginning of time. Despite the research that claims that intra-congregational conflict has negative outcomes, there is other, more compelling, research that shows that conflict is a necessary requirement, even an asset, for one’s spiritual growth.

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