Mature, spirit-filled Christians don’t have conflict. Hah! You are deceived and living in Wonderland if you believe that. All people have conflict from one degree to another. That is clear in the Bible, in history, and in our present reality. Consider these famous saints from biblical history: Noah’s sons had conflict (Gen 9:18-27). Sarah and Abraham argued (Gen 16:5). Jacob got perturbed at his son Joseph (Gen 37:10). Job called his wife “foolish” right to her face (Job 2:10). Aaron and Miriam criticized Moses because of his wife (Num 12:1). David’s wife despised him (2 Sam 6:16). Even Jesus’ own grown siblings taunted Him publicly (John 7:2-9).
Conflict between believers is real, and even inevitable. Therefore, we need to be honest about it, address it, and deal with it. It isn’t just carnal, immature, ignorant Christians who have problems in this area; on the contrary, even mature believers squabble, or at least can be challenged by personal grievances every once in a while. In this life, you are going to have conflict with people. That being the case, the Bible says we need to deal with conflict. Dealing with conflict between believers often requires some form of confrontation to bring about a solution. Engaging in confrontation is not fun and few people want to do it. But it is necessary in order to manage the ongoing conflict that is a part of daily living.
If you’re married, you’re going to have conflict with your spouse. If you have children, you’re going to have conflict with them. If you have siblings, you’re going to have conflict with your brothers and sisters. You will butt heads with other believers in your local church. Church staff members and church leaders will squabble, grapple, lock horns and have conflict. Like death and taxes, conflict will always be with us in this life.
Use a Biblical Standard
The first step in properly dealing with conflict is owning up to it. In other words, don’t be in denial about it, or minimize it, or ignore it. A common pitfall is when Christians use false standards by which to gauge reality in their own lives. Many times that comes in the form of the “greener-grass syndrome.” That’s when believers look at others from a distance and make an ill-informed and shallow assessment of other peoples’ lives, people who have “greener grass” across the street, and conclude, “How come we can’t be like that married couple? They never have conflict! They always get along.” Or it may sound like, “Why can’t our teenagers be like their teenagers? Their teenagers are so exemplary and mature and selfless and obedient and ideal…and I think I have even seen them walk on water before.” Or, “Why is there conflict in our church? Why can’t our church be like her church? Her church is perfect. They don’t have any sinners in her church—she told me so.”
I exaggerate just a tad, but too much wrong-headed analysis goes on among Christians in this area. The Apostle Paul knew this and as a pastor he addressed it pointedly. To the conflict-riddled congregation in Corinth, Pastor Paul exhorted the believers there to stop making false comparisons. He wrote, “we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding” (2 Cor 10:12). Paul is simply saying here, “Quit comparing yourselves with other people. Other lowly, pathetic sinners are not the standard. God’s Word is the only proper measuring rod. Whoever uses other people to make comparisons is foolish.” When you compare yourself with another person you lower the standard…and you distort reality. Compare yourself to Jesus and God’s perfect Word, then you will see the situation for what it actually is. This is true when it comes to assessing conflict in your own life.
Abraham and Sarah
Looking at the only perfect standard of measurement for human behavior and what God expects—the Bible—we will now illustrate that even the godliest of people have conflict with others. For example, the Bible commends Abraham and Sarah for being people of faith and for having a model marriage…despite all their mistakes and sins. Hebrews 11 extols Abraham as a man of faith, and as an example for all, as he was obedient to the call of God (vv. 8-10). He is one of the few people in history who “was called the friend of God” (James 2:23). God’s summary assessment of him is as follows: “Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws” (Gen 26:5). As such, “the Lord had blessed Abraham in every way” (Gen 24:1). Likewise, Sarah is commended for her faith as she believed in God to do the impossible (Heb 11:11-12). Scripture also concludes that Sarah was a “holy” woman who was modest, feared God and respected her husband. She “pleased” God (1 Pet 3:4-6).
Despite their believing and godly status, Abraham and Sarah had some wing-dingers! The Bible highlights one big marital blow-out between the famous couple that happened when Abraham was eighty-five years old (Gen 16:3). Sarah was discouraged because she was barren at age seventy-five—she was shamed for being childless. So, Abraham had a son with Sarah’s maid, Hagar, with Sarah’s consent! Then when Hagar’s baby was born, Sarah became outraged with jealousy, yelled at her husband, and treated Hagar “harshly” before chasing her and her newborn out of town (Gen 16:3-16). God graciously intervened and allowed Hagar and her baby to return.
Fast-forward fifteen years and Scripture notes another major conflict between Abraham and his bride Sarah—another “holy head-lock” in their holy wedlock. God enabled Sarah to conceive and give birth to a son when she was ninety—a genuine miracle. At that time, Hagar’s son, who was now a teenager, mocked Sarah’s new son. Sarah became infuriated once again at Hagar and then took it out on Abraham, ordering him: “Drive out this maid and her son” (Gen 21:10)! As a result, “the matter distressed Abraham greatly” (v. 11). The level of distress in the marriage relationship reached a fever-pitch, probably for decades, as a result of Abraham’s adultery years before. There is no greater conflict between humans than between a married couple when infidelity is involved. Vows are shattered. Trust is undermined. Affection is smothered. Indelible wounds are inflicted. Memories persist. Full recovery is rare. But somehow, by the grace of God, Abraham and Sarah’s marriage persevered through these challenges and they survived the conflict. Real believers fight and argue.
Peter and Paul
The next example is from the New Testament. No one can think of two greater Christian leaders than the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul. Peter’s spiritual life was revolutionized after Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit was sent to indwell the first disciples of the church at Pentecost. As a Spirit-led Apostle, from Pentecost until his death thirty years later, Peter was a model of unwavering faith (Acts 5:27-32), trusted leadership (Acts 9-10), powerful and gospel-centered preaching (Acts 2:22-39), bold confrontation (Acts 4:8-20) and humble shepherding (1 Pet 5:1-5). Peter was the designated and respected leader of the first church in Jerusalem, entrusted by God to help lay the foundation of the church by his life, preaching, teaching and writing. Paul duly noted that Peter was indeed a “pillar” in the church (Gal 2:9).
And like Peter, Paul was an exemplary leader in the early church. After Jesus confronted him and transformed him from being a designated Christian-killer (Acts 9:4), Paul became “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 11:13). He became a conduit of direct revelation from God, revealing mysteries never heard before (1 Cor 4:1), writing thirteen New Testament epistles (2 Pet 3:15-16). Over three decades he travelled thousands of miles, ceaselessly putting his life on the line for the love of sinners and the glory of God. He planted dozens of churches, discipled countless saints, raised up the next generation of church leaders, and made a permanent mark on history. The significant impact of these two men together is best illustrated by the fact that the whole Book of Acts can be divided in two based on the ministries of Peter and Paul. Chapters one through twelve showcase Peter’s influence and chapters thirteen through twenty-eight highlight Paul’s work.
Yet these two inimitable men of God had lives riddled with conflict, even while they served as apostles of the Church. Peter had ongoing, life-threatening, open conflict with the Jewish religious leaders of his day (Acts 4:1-18; 5:17-33). He clashed with two professing believers, Ananias and Saphira, questioning them with an open, public rebuke: “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit…?” (Acts 5:3). Peter also got ensnared in conflict with Simon the magician, cursing the neophyte soon after he “believed” and “was baptized,” shouting, “May your silver perish with you” (Acts 8:20)!
Likewise, Paul found himself bound up in conflict with people everywhere he ministered—and not just with hostile unbelievers. Paul had conflict with fellow believers, including members of his own mission team. The infamous example of conflict with fellow ministers was during his first missionary journey when half way through the arduous trip, his young assistant, John Mark, bailed on the team and left Paul and the others at-risk (Acts 13:13). Paul was so infuriated that later he had a “sharp disagreement” with Barnabas (Acts 15:39), his missionary companion, over the fate of John Mark. Barnabas wanted to give John Mark another chance by taking him on the second missionary journey. Paul said, “No way!” and severed relations with his former partner and friend, Barnabas. The consequences of this rift were significant, doing great damage to personal relationships and decimating the first missionary team.
Not only did Peter and Paul have conflict with other people—they had a major conflict with each other as leading apostles in the early church…in public for all to see! Paul recorded the incident in the second chapter of Galatians. Paul was serving as a co-pastor in Syrian Antioch (Acts 13:1), a significant city that was about 300 miles north of Jerusalem. Antioch was the hub of the first Gentile church as well as the base of world missions in Paul’s day. At some point Peter came to visit the church in Antioch to assess the nature of the ministry as he heard many Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ.
When Peter arrived in Antioch he affirmed the Gentiles as members of Christ’s church and even joined them in fellowship and ongoing meals. But when Jewish legalists arrived in Antioch, they poisoned Peter against the Gentile Christians until he succumbed to the prejudiced gossip of the Jews and began to distance himself from the Gentile Christians. He ended up turning his back on them altogether in favor of the party of the circumcision. It was a public disgrace, undermining the unity of the Body of Christ. Paul was there and witnessed it all. Angered with a righteous indignation over Peter’s overt hypocrisy, Paul laid into Peter like a whirlwind, exposing his compromise. Paul recounts the confrontational incident in Galatians:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”Galatians 2:11-14
Fortunately, Peter came to his senses and realized his sin. He went on public record at the Council of Jerusalem to reaffirm the Gentiles’ equal status with believing Jews in the Body of Christ (Acts 15:6-11). Nevertheless, the public conflict he had with Paul was scandalous and created great disunity for a time among the early church.
We have seen from the above scenarios that the Bible is very honest in its portrayal of the saints through the ages who had to deal with conflict. We need to be realistic about conflict. The greatest people of faith had conflict—Abraham with Sarah; Paul with Peter. None of us will be exempt from conflict. But the Bible goes a step further. It tells us how to resolve conflict in our relationships, and such resolution comes through biblical confrontation, which we will explore in the next article in this series.
You can read more on this topic in Cliff’s book, What the Bible Says About Confrontation.