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Denial of Conflict

Part 2 of 7 from ‘A Short Theology of Conflict’ by Olof H. de Vries and translated by Pieter Lalleman

A traditional Roman Catholic priest celebrates mass. Dressed in a priestly robe, he solemnly pronounces Latin formulas and performs ancient ritual acts with ceremonial gestures. In this celebration what no eye can see becomes reality: bread becomes the body of Christ and wine becomes the blood of Christ. 

Baptists celebrate differently than Catholics. No ecclesiastical vestments, Latin formulas and ceremonial gestures. Although…? Doesn’t the jovial slap on the shoulder and the use of the term ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ during tense meetings function in a similar way? We also have our ceremonies and formulas to perform what no eye can see! We interrupt the discussions at a difficult church meeting by having the congregation sing a ‘nice song’ while the leaders withdraw for further deliberation. As I write this, I ask myself: As a chair, how many times have I opened a meeting with a difficult agenda by saying a warm prayer about the unity we have in Christ? Doesn’t prayer sometimes turn into spell unnoticed? When there is conflict in our community, we have our cordial joviality, our songs, prayers and moving speeches to celebrate unity and mask the conflict.

Explanations

You can also deny the reality of conflict by explaining the conflict. For example, a traditionalist Baptist says: ‘Nowadays there is occasional disagreement in the church. It used to be very different! But what do you want? In recent years, so many members from all kinds of other churches and chapels have come to us! They all bring their own background and that creates tensions!’ A deacon complains: ‘Since brother X has been our minister and chair of the deacons, we are having problems all the time. The man is such a weak leader!’ Another member of the congregation states: ‘It is all due to changes in society. Everything is thrown open and has to be discussed: unmarried cohabitation, the position of women in the church, the question of homosexuality, etc. That’s what destroys the congregation.’

When a religious community has explained its conflicts, these conflicts have become a little more innocent. It is due to the ‘imports’, members who have come in from outside, to a weak chair, to changes in society! And with that, it has been made clear that it is not due to the nature of a Baptist church, its members and the way in which they treat each other. In any case, this statement ensures that the conflict is an external incident which has nothing to do with the new life we have in Christ. In this way, we defuse conflicts in the religious community. And that is exactly how it really harms us!

Sin

There is also a very pious way of denying the reality of conflict: quickly labelling it as a ‘sin’. At a Bible study evening on the subject of love, the pastor asked, ‘Could it be that church members dislike each other?’ There was a long silence in the group. Finally someone said, ‘But that is sin, isn’t it, pastor?’ The pastor bravely persisted: ‘Of course it is not justifiable if believers dislike each other, but that can happen in the church, can’t it?’ Sometimes you shouldn’t be too quick to call the difficult things ‘sin’. Because sin is of course completely wrong, we don’t have to look at it any further. And so we avoid a confrontation that could be very beneficial. 

Conflict as a way

Undeniably, a conflict has sinful aspects. This is so clear that a quotation from Scripture will suffice. ‘It is evident what the works of the flesh are … feuds, strife, outbursts of anger, dissensions, factions.’ (Gal 5:20-21). Yet there is another side to conflict, which you only discover when you are not too quick to call the conflict ‘sin’. I will give two examples from the New Testament. 

In Acts 10 Peter had to go through an inner conflict before he dared to enter the house of the pagan centurion Cornelius. God himself provoked this conflict by showing Peter in a vision a sheet full of animals that were unclean to Jews, and then inviting him: ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat’ (Acts 10:13). And Peter entered into the conflict: ‘By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is unholy or unclean’ (v. 14). This conflict with God and with himself was the way by which Peter finally entered the house of Cornelius as an apostle.

Acts 15 describes how a conflict between Paul and the leaders in Jerusalem was taken seriously by both sides. The conflict concerned the question of whether Gentiles who had come to faith in Christ should be circumcised and keep the laws of Moses. Paul did not think so. The apostles in Jerusalem firmly believed that this had to be done. The first church had to go through this conflict to become a mission-driven church. The open road to the Gentiles was through this conflict. Conflict as a way forward. Conflict in the church also has a lot to do with our Christian provisionality. In the conflict with each other, we come up against the imperfections of our own knowledge (see 1 Cor 13:9). We will only make progress in our provisionality if we dare to take conflict seriously as a local church reality. 

Olof de Vries (1941-2014) was a lecturer at the Baptist Seminary from 1981-2009 and a special professor of ‘History and Doctrines of Baptistism’ at Utrecht University from 1991-2009. He had his own characteristic way of teaching and theologizing and inspired and trained countless pastors and congregants through his lectures, sermons and articles. His consistent view of church and theology from the perspective of history is typical: how people follow their faith in time and culture. The relationship between tradition and innovation was his lasting interest, based on the conviction that tradition always contains the possibility of innovation.

https://unie-abc.nl/seminarium/archieven/olof-de-vries

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