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Resistance to Acknowledging Conflict

Part 1 of 7 from ‘A Short Theology of Conflict in Churches’ by Olof H. de Vries and translated by Pieter Lalleman

Unfortunately, the reality of conflicts in the Church of Jesus Christ cannot be denied. Conflicts do exist in the community of born-again children of God! Personal conflicts. Conflicts between visions and beliefs. They have always been there. As Christians, we struggle to take seriously the role of conflict in the Church. As Baptists, we have that trouble squared. It has to do with our spiritual pretensions. Unlike the national churches, our congregations are made up of members who have personally confessed that they died and rose with Christ. It is understandable that churches which are receptacles of the spiritually good and the bad, of believers and non-believers, have conflicts. They almost have to! 

But in a church of the born again, who know the new life, that is unthinkable, isn’t it? In addition, other churches often seek their unity in adherence to confessions of faith. And such confessions are human doctrine and almost by definition evoke doctrinal conflicts! As Baptists, we sometimes boast that we do not need confessions and creeds for our unity. We recognise each other as children of God, all of whom have received the Spirit of sonship. That is our unity: Spirit recognises Spirit! Surely there can be no conflict in such a community? We feel a strong reluctance to acknowledge conflicts in our congregations. 

In the course of writing, I have already identified one of the causes of this resistance: the pretence that we are of course ‘different’ from the churches with doctrinal disputes, political quarrels and squabbles about all kinds of ecclesiastical issues. I would now like to point out a further cause of this resistance. It is not in the realm of Baptist self-consciousness. It has to do with our understanding of Scripture, when it comes to ‘Church’ and ‘the new life’.

The ideal of the new life

We often read the New Testament accounts of the earliest churches as stories about ‘the ideal church’. This ideal church existed, shortly after Pentecost, when everything was still beautiful and good, in the time of first love… And just as ideal as things were then, they can be again. That is, if we… And then the idealists sum up their conditions. 

There are New Testament passages that can be read idealistically. In fact, the idealistic reading imposes itself on you almost automatically. Take the account of life in the early church in Jerusalem in Acts 4:32-35. It’s a story that makes us envious. The members of that congregation are said to have ‘had everything in common’. The rich sold their possessions and ‘laid the proceeds of the sale at the feet of the apostles’. The result was that ‘there was not one needy among them’. So that is how it can be in a Christian congregation! Conflict-free unity! Throughout the centuries, this image of the ideal primitive church has been in the minds of Christians as they hoped, prayed and worked for improvement of their own miserable church. 

Or take that beautiful picture in 1 Corinthians 12 of the church as a body with many members, held together by the Spirit. Ample attention is given to the diversity and pluralism of the church: ‘There is diversity in gifts, in ministries, in operations’ (vv. 4-6). But this diversity has the quality of the richness of the one Spirit, the one Lord and his one Body. Surely such diversity and pluralism cannot degenerate into polarisation and conflict? Surely we can assume that together we can form a church as Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 12?

The contrast

The New Testament writers themselves do their best to keep us from an idealistic reading of their accounts of the early churches. The ink of Acts 4:32-35 has barely dried when Luke has to write about the sin of Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5). Was the deception of these two people something like ‘the Fall of the Church’? Or should we say: in the church, the wonderful ‘all who owned land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds to the feet of the apostles’ only shines against the contrast of the greedy deceit of Ananias and Saphira? I think that not only our own local church practice, but also the New Testament forces us to stick to the latter answer. In the local church, the very high is just the opposite of the very crude! Crude self-interest right next to Christian community! 

The sin of Ananias and Saphira was not an incident in the ideal church. In the next chapter, Acts 6, mention is made of the appointment of seven men with special assignments. They were to give special attention to the Greek-speaking Christians in this congregation of Hebrews, ‘because their widows were neglected in the daily care’ (v. 1). This neglect was possible in the same congregation where the members’ had all things in common’ (Acts 4:32)! To which congregation did Paul write the high-minded chapter about the congregation as a body with many members who all ‘care for one another in common’ (1 Cor 12:25)? To a congregation divided into parties (1:10-17 and 3:3, 4)! To a congregation in which the members only had their own interests at heart during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (11:17-22)! Did Paul write that wonderful chapter on the unity of the church to that self-torn congregation to teach it a lesson? We just have to realise that the unity of the church exists only against the contrast of division! One thing can easily turn into the other. The very spiritual and the very carnal can even coexist in the church. The Corinthian church was rich in spiritual gifts and at the same time poor in love for one another. The ‘ideal church’ does not exist without the contrast of the crude human reality in the church. This crudity cannot be defused as a sinful incident in the congregation. We can’t get rid of it that easily! The contrast of the church exists in the realistic background of the new community in Christ.

We are not allowed to escape the harsh reality by dreaming away in images of an ‘ideal church’. There is no such thing as the ideal Church or the ideal Christian. Christians are new people who spend a lifetime trying to become truly new. The Church is the new community in Christ that is in the process of becoming truly new until the Second Coming.

Acknowledging conflict

We must be willing to give the reality of conflict a place on the path that the Church takes to become what it is in Christ. To look at conflict is to look at our own incompleteness. We can learn from a conflict. Become wiser in self-knowledge and wiser in knowledge of grace. If we dare to turn over the shiny polished medal of our Christian life.

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.

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