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Then church had called a new pastor, and they had a problem. It was the oldest church in its area, and it had once been a significant church. But now it had declined. It was full of power brokers who controlled how things operated. And now the church was facing a significant theological issue which the pastor wanted to address carefully. How would they respond?

Well, the pastor presented a paper to leaders at a meeting. It was one of the worst meetings he ever attended. It soon became clear how divided the church was. This began a long, two-year period of conflict in the church. It eventually led to a meeting of the church that the pastor calls “Shootout at the O.K. Corral” filled with people who didn’t even go to that church. The pastor lost the vote. People expected him to resign. A lawyer threatened to sue him. It was a mess.

This, sometimes, is what happens in the church.

Friends, the church is God’s idea. We don’t have a choice about whether or not to be part of a church. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, then God commands and expects you to commit to a local body of believers. Jesus loves the church, and so should we. The Bible calls the church the bride of Christ. He loves the church lavishly. We have no right to disparage Christ’s love. We must hold the church highly.

And yet at the same time we must acknowledge that church is hard. I love the honesty of the Bible. Listen to how it says we should relate to each other in the church:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love… (Ephesians 4:1-2)

I love that. To bear with means to endure, to put up with, to be patient with. The church is glorious, but sometimes the glory shows up in putting up with each other and paying the cost of relationship with people who are hard to love, people with whom we’re in conflict.

And that’s what I want to talk about. How should we respond to conflict within the church? It’s an important topic, because it’s inevitable. If you hang around here long enough, you will face both the glory of the church as well as the need to put up with each other.

To answer the question of how to deal with conflict, I want to turn to Paul, who knew a thing or two about this topic.

Conflict in Corinth

Today we get to one of the main issues why Paul wrote the book. He wanted to clear up a misunderstanding that had taken place between him and the church in Corinth.

To begin with, Paul’s relationship with the church in Corinth was complicated. Paul had actually started the church before leaving to start other churches. Sometime later, he got news of some problems within the Corinthian church. That’s when he wrote the letter we call 1 Corinthians. If you read it, you know that it’s full of loving confrontation. Paul loved the church so much that he wanted to deal with the issues that were causing them problems.

When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, he said:

I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. (1 Corinthians 16:5-7)

But that long visit never happened. Instead, he visited them for only a short time, and it didn’t go well. In 2 Corinthians 2:1, Paul calls it a painful visit. Apparently, things did not go well, and Paul did not make a good impression. He faced public criticism from an outspoken member of the congregation. And so he left and wrote them another letter which we don’t have, but we read about it in this passage:

For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. (2 Corinthians 2:4)

That letter was sharp, but it seemed to have worked. But some people were still ticked at Paul. The fact that Paul had changed his plans made some question Paul’s character. God is unchanging, and he never changes his mind. Clearly Paul was not like God, because he changed his mind. Maybe Paul couldn’t be trusted. Maybe Paul was just out to look after himself, to line his own pockets. Maybe Paul was a deceptive, double-speaking leader who lacked character. Paul wrote this letter in part to deal with this distrust.

How to Handle Conflict

So how do you respond to conflict? I think we can benefit by looking at what Paul does. Here are three steps we can take when we face this kind of conflict within the church.

Examine Yourself (1:12-14)

Why do we face so much conflict? According to a book called Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me):

The vast majority of couples who drift apart do so slowly, over time, in a snowballing pattern of blame and self-justification. Each partner focuses on what the other one is doing wrong, while justifying his or her own preferences, attitudes, and ways of doing things. … From our standpoint, therefore, misunderstandings, conflicts, personality differences, and even angry quarrels are not the assassins of love; self-justification is.

Often in conflict, the problem is that we are blind to our own contribution to the conflict.

And that’s why Paul begins by taking an honest look at himself. As we’re going to see, Paul is not above humbling himself. But he examines his conscience and begins there. Listen to what he writes:

For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you. For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand and I hope you will fully understand— just as you did partially understand us—that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you. (2 Corinthians 1:12-14)

You can see a bit of the awkwardness here. Paul says, “Our boast is this…” Boasting is not generally a good thing. We’re going to see in 2 Corinthians that Paul is not big into boasting about himself. He’s rightfully wary of bragging about himself. Every time Paul uses the word in a positive sense — and he does so six times in this letter — he’s boasting about something that God has done. We must be careful that we never boast or glorify ourselves, but give all the glory and credit to God.

And here’s what Paul can boast about: that his ministry is characterized by “simplicity and godly sincerity.” What you see is what you get. Paul doesn’t play games. Paul appeals to them: they know him. They know his pattern of behavior. He wants them to understand because they know him.

Paul appeals to them. He wants them to understand him. He wants them to embrace his ministry so that he can be proud of them on the day of Jesus Christ.

In conflict, the place to begin is always by looking at ourselves. Can we say that we are acting with simplicity and godly sincerity? Always begin there.

But Paul does something else.

Apply the Gospel (1:15-24)

At one level, Paul begins to explain himself. People had misunderstood why he didn’t come when they expected. He explains in verses 23 and on:

But I call God to witness against me-it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. (2 Corinthians 1:23—2:1)

The reason Paul didn’t come is not because of a lack of love for them. It’s because of his love for them. Paul was trying to find the most tactful way to deal with the conflict without inflaming tensions more than necessary. The Corinthians couldn’t have known that, and so Paul explains himself.

But Paul does something else that’s surprising. He spends most of his time talking about the gospel and applying it to this situation. In verses 15 to 22, he explains how God’s faithfulness has shaped his ministry. It’s an incredible passage. Paul unpacks God’s faithfulness. He says that God is faithful. The greatest evidence of this is Jesus. All of God’s promises, he says, have been kept faithfully by God through Jesus. All of God’s covenant promises crescendo with Jesus. Most powerfully, look at what God has done through Jesus:

And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22)

Why does Paul go there? Ray Ortlund talks about the fact that many churches hold gospel doctrine. The problem: many churches that hold gospel doctrine don’t have a gospel culture. Here, Paul says that gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture in his ministry and the church. Because God is faithful, we’re called to be faithful. As the gospel goes deeper in our hearts, we will be shaped more and more by who God is and what he’s done.

Don’t just know the gospel Apply it, especially in conflict. Examine yourself, and then look for how the gospel affects what’s going on. But Paul takes one final action in this section.

Reaffirm Your Love (2:1-13)

What Paul does next is extraordinary. So far a critic could say that Paul is being self-righteous. He’s claimed to have a clean conscience, and he’s justified his actions. Is Paul just thinking of himself?

No, because look at how Paul expresses his love.

For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. (2 Corinthians 2:4)

In verses 5 to 13, he expresses his love in a very practical way. The person who had led the rebellion against Paul? Paul tells them to forgive him.

For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. (2 Corinthians 2:6-8)

Look for ways to love — especially those who have wronged you and repented.

Paul reminds me of what Alfred Lord Tennyson said of Archbishop Cranmer: “To do him a hurt was to beget a kindness from him. His heart was made of such fine soil that if you planted in it the seeds of hate they blossomed love.”

In his first book, Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien describes the camaraderie of a diverse group, banded together by a common cause. Called “the fellowship of the ring,” their quest is to destroy the power of the Dark Lord lodged in his ring. Though they differ in nearly every way— racially, physically, temperamentally— they are united in their opposition of the Dark Lord. In a section omitted in the movie, a heated conflict breaks out among the crusaders. Axes are drawn. Bows are bent. Harsh words are spoken. Disaster nearly strikes the small band. When peace at last prevails, a wise counselor observes, “Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.”

Today, the Dark Lord— Satan— shows his power when there is discord among believers.

How do we handle conflict? By evaluating yourself, applying the gospel, and expressing love.

Small Group Questions

  • Paul addresses conflict in this passage. What do you learn about handling conflict from Paul’s example? (1:12-2:13)
  • Why does Paul spend so much time talking about Jesus in the middle of discussing conflict? (1:18-22)
  • What lessons can you apply in your life from this passage the next time that you experience conflict?