Who isn’t discouraged by conflict at church? After all, church should be as close as we get to heaven on earth, right?
Yet there are so many opportunities for disagreement at church. Conflict comes from differences of opinion, like whether church leaders were right to reduce support for the crisis pregnancy center you love. It comes from differences of conviction, like that church member whose social media feed promotes positions you find morally troubling. Sometimes it’s differences of culture or class that make you feel like an outsider in your own church. And sometimes it’s no deeper than people who rub you the wrong way.
All those disagreements and differences can really drive us crazy. Sometimes that’s the result of sin and we need to repent. Or it’s a sign of an unhealthy church and we need to leave. But very often—perhaps more often than we think—all these differences and disagreements are not a sign that things have gone tragically wrong but instead, gloriously right.
After all, a church should be centered on Christ alone, not on Christ and a bunch of secondary matters, like Christ and shared tastes in music, or Christ and shared convictions about children’s schooling options, by Christ and shared revulsion at so-and-so’s social media post. Christ alone. He is enough to keep us together despite all these differences. What’s more, uniting around him despite all these differences is part of how we show off the power of his gospel at work within us.
That’s what we see in the churches of the New Testament. Take the churches in Rome, for example. If I were creating a church-planting plan for first century Rome, I’d encourage a church for Jews in one part of the city and a church for Gentiles in another, knowing how they feel about each other, praying that over time they’d increasingly cooperate. But God’s plan was for these churches to be Jew-Gentile from the very beginning, with all the miscommunication, mistrust, and misunderstandings that no doubt implied. Do you think they ever drove each other crazy?
Yet this was how God was to get glory for himself. As Paul concludes a lengthy section in Romans 14 on how Jews and Gentiles should live together in the local church despite all their differences, he prays in Romans 15:5, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Remember God’s Goals, Mercy and Choice
Though unity in a diverse church isn’t easy—note that Paul prays to the God of endurance and encouragement—the differences that threaten to tear our churches apart are opportunities to demonstrate that being “in accord with Christ Jesus” is all we need to be in “harmony with one another.” That’s how “with one voice” we “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
If your church is about Jesus and a certain stream of politics, you rob him of glory. If your church is about Jesus and a certain philosophy of parenting, you rob him of glory. Just as God gets greater glory through redemption than through creation alone, the glory he receives in your church’s unity is greater in disagreement and difference than if everyone were in the same place to begin with.
So what do we do when the disagreements and differences at church are driving us crazy? Realistically, we often resort to our basic fight or flight instincts. We might fight, trying to take down the people we disagree with. Sometimes that’s a good decision, when the gospel’s at stake. Very often, though, all we accomplish are the “dissensions” and “divisions” Paul condemns as “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5. On the other hand, sometimes we give up on the idea of a church centered on Christ alone and avoid those difficult people—or flee to another church altogether. Sometimes that instinct is also good, when we need to leave if we’re to continue growing in Christ. But too often we’re merely exchanging the glory of Christ-centered difference for the Christ-optional comfort of similarity. And easy love rarely shows off gospel power.
Instead, we should love. If we should love even our enemies, as Jesus commanded in Luke 6, how much more the people who are driving us crazy at church? So when they’re driving you crazy, remember three things so that you might love.
First, remember God’s goals. That is, his goals for your time at church. The reason God has you at church isn’t rooted in the sense of belonging you get there, or comfortable friendships, or even most fundamentally in the missions and evangelism that your church does together. The reason God has you at church is so that through love you might, together, proclaim the excellence of who he is. As Jesus said in John 13, “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And love for those with whom you share little in common other than Christ is a particularly powerful statement. That’s one thing you need to remember when those differences are driving you crazy.
Remember God’s goal for your church—to be a demonstration that Christ can unite what the world divides.
Second, remember God’s mercy. That is, the mercy he’s shown to you. That’s, in fact, where Paul begins as he prepares these Jew-Gentile churches in Rome for the difficult task of being the church together. Romans 12:1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Present your bodies—plural—as a living sacrifice—singular. Not two sacrifices, one Jew and one Gentile. But one. How? By the mercies of God. This isn’t a kind of love you can have by white-knuckling it. After all, if you could, who would that glorify, Jesus . . . or you? Beyond that, the love that should characterize our churches, as Paul describes later in Romans 12, is genuine, zealous, and affectionate. That’s not a mind-over-matter kind of love. No, our love is powered by the immensity of the mercy we’ve received. Because forgiven sinners forgive. Loved sinners love. And the mercy we’ve received is divine power for us to show mercy. So when you’re struggling to love, look to the love of the one who loved you first.
And third, remember God’s choice. That is, his choice to put you and those people who drive you crazy into the same church at the same time. As Paul in Romans 12:4 wrote, “as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually members of one another.” But Lord, you say, couldn’t they be indispensable to someone else’s church body? No. In God’s wisdom, he’s put them with you. As such, Paul’s description of the church as Christ’s body functions not so much as a command but an invitation. It offers hope that as you continue to seek Christ together as a church, you will discover how suited you really are for each other. You are, as Paul writes, “individually members of one another.” You belong together—like a blended family that forms when mom and dad marry after being widowed or divorced. What Paul calls you to isn’t what the siblings feel on day one, when “you belong to them” means “you ought to love them.” It’s more like what you feel in year ten, if things go well, where you want to love because you belong together as a family. That’s God’s invitation for you.
So, have all the differences and disagreements with the other saints at your church caught you by surprise? Remember, that may simply be evidence that your church is not centered on Christ and some other secondary matter but on Christ alone. So remember God’s goal for your church—to be a demonstration that Christ can unite what the world divides. Remember God’s mercy, because it is divine power for you to love with joy, even where love is hard. And remember God’s choice—that he has designed your church body just as it is, and so you belong together.
As much as unity amidst great difference is costly to us, it was infinitely more costly to our Savior, wasn’t it? It is only because his body hung on a cross that we can be members of his body. And that is wonderful news. Jesus’s sacrifice is costly enough to pay the price of unity and love, no matter our differences.