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Conflict Resolution in Chinese Churches
by Johan Fu
Conflict is a fact of church life. All churches are sometimes involved in conflict situations, which may lead to the regrettable consequences of animosity among Christians and of division within the church. Unity is one of the crucial factors for an effective ministry that honours the Lord Jesus. Conflict often comes to threaten this unity. How do we then respond to conflict? This is a question that every church leadership committee needs to consider.
There is a Chinese proverb that says,"If we do not pay attention to problems while they are still far off, we will be confounded by them when they are close at hand."We need to prepare for, and even expect, conflict.
In addition, Chinese culture and character bring their own peculiarities into conflict situations. Church leadership committees need to be aware of these often unstated assumptions and attitudes. It is often said that the problem with the Chinese is that, instead of combining and working together against a common adversary, Chinese attack one another. Sadly, as Paul had to say to the Cretans concerning their laziness, I think that this saying concerning the Chinese tendency for internal fighting is also often true (Titus 1:12-13). The Chinese people, and unfortunately the Chinese church, are noted for internal conflict.
However, conflict may also present opportunities for growth. God often uses difficulties, including conflict, to mold Christian character and maturity. As such conflict can have a positive effect. It may help us to understand ourselves and our church's situation better: it may prevent stagnation and stimulate creativity; it may provide opportunities for learning, producing growth in humility, grace, and wisdom. Therefore, we need to avoid the two extremes of dealing with conflict, i.e. either reacting against it with aggression or avoiding it with flight.
THE INEVITABILITY OF CONFLICT
First of all, one must recognise that conflict is a part of church ministry. We should not be surprised when conflict arises in our midst. The picture that the New Testament gives of the early Church is that there were often internal conflicts within the Christian community. Sometimes we think of the New Testament period as an ideal period in which there were no conflicts between Christians and within churches. However, this understanding of the early church is a myth.
There has never been an ideal era without some measure of internal conflict within the church. In fact, Jesus warns us to expect difficulties within God's kingdom and the church (cf. Matthew 13:36-43, 18:15-17, 31-35). In many of Jesus' parables and teachings, issues such as controversy (Luke 12:57-59), jealousy (Luke 9: 46-48: Matthew 20:1-16), anger (Luke 15:25-33), and criticism (Matthew 26:8-9, Luke 19:7) within the Christian community are prominent. We notice the disciples arguing among themselves (Mark 9:33) even before the establishment of the church at Pentecost (Acts 2). So too, the letters of the New Testament reveal the presence of many different kinds of divisions within the early church (e.g. Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 11; I Timothy 2:8; James 4:2; etc.). In other words, conflict must not take us by surprise. It has been an age-old problem within the Christian church.
However, we must not just passively accept it either. Conflict is more often than not the result of sin: and not just of the offending party's sin, but also of the lack of grace and humility on the part of the offended party (Romans 12:16-21; I Thessalonians 5:15). Paul calls contentions, jealousies, anger, selfish ambitions, and dissensions the "acts of the sinful nature" (Galatians 5:19-20). Jesus came to save us from these acts of the sinful nature. Those who belong to Jesus have crucified the sinful nature (Galatians 5:24)! Therefore Paul also gives the command that we should live by the Spirit and not provoke one another (Galatians 5:25-26).
Sinful conflict (that which is a result of our pride and arrogance) not only adversely affects our Christian life, but it also undermines the mission of the Church (John 17:21) and the witness of Christians (Galatians 5:15; I Co 6: 1-8). Therefore, conflict prevention, resolution and management are very important issues in the ministry of the church. Church leaders need to be proactive in preventing conflict and in resolving conflict.
Of course, the best solution to this problem is prevention. Often a problem has been left simmering under the surface for a long time until it builds up to such intensity that any resolution becomes impossible. How then do we prevent conflicts? We may provide four brief suggestions here of how conflict may he prevented.
1. Firstly, and most importantly, all Christians and especially church leaders must follow the example of Christ as outlined in Philippines 2:1-18. When a possible conflict situation arises we must look out for the other person's interest by humbling ourselves (Philippians 2:3-5).
In Chinese culture the desire to maintain "face" often prevents believers from expressing this kind of unreserved humility. However, as Christians, Chinese believers need to learn this lesson. This requires a lot of grace and maturity, but as Christians we are extraordinary people and, with God's help, will be able to do it. Christ placed the interests of others before his own. So too, we need to place ourselves in the other party's shoes and consider how we would like to be treated in their situation. Attitudes (not just behaviour) speak louder than words! We need to imitate the humility of Christ. Instead of maintaining our "face", we need to have the "face" of Christ.
2. Secondly, since misunderstandings are often the result of inadequate communication, there needs to be clear communication. Potential misunderstandings must be cleared up immediately. Address little things speedily, before they explode.
It is interesting to note how often Paul explains himself and how often he informs his churches about his intentions (e.g. Romans 1:1 1-13; Philippians 2:19-24, Philemon 8-19, etc.) Paul was an excellent communicator. He left little room for misunderstanding.
Here again our Chinese character needs reformation. A feature of the Chinese character is the use of ambiguity and the reluctance to express one's true viewpoint in order to avoid public debate with those who may have different point of view. We need to learn to express what we think clearly in a gentle and gracious way. Ambiguity often results in frustration, misunderstanding, and conflict.
3. Thirdly, we must often overlook and forgive offenses. The Bible says, "Love covers over all wrongs." (Proverbs 10:12) and "He who covers over an offense promotes love." (Proverbs 17:9)
I Corinthians 13: 4-5 says "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs." No wonder, then, that Paul often commands us to pursue love (I Cor 14:1) and to serve one another in love (Gal 5:13).
Furthermore, we must always be able to forgive a brother or a sister for a wrong suffered (Mt 18:21-35). In cases when we are not able to overlook an offense (in view of its seriousness), we must follow Jesus' instructions in Matthew 18:15-20 for dealing with offenses.
4. Finally, we must underscore the importance of encouraging one another. Encouragement is one of the best precautionary medicines. Encouraging brothers and sisters is the responsibility of every Christian (I Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:24-25). In addition, some have the gift of encouragement (Romans 12:8). We criticise too much, and encourage too little.
There is another Chinese proverb that says, "Frequent reproofs make friendship distant" (Analects IV.26). So too, we need to avoid gossip and speaking ill of others behind their backs. This behaviour soon ignites a fire that will burn the church (Jas 3:5). Gossip allows the devil to creep in and sow discord among brothers and sisters (Eph 4:27). On the other hand, an environment of mutual encouragement and acceptance will surely prevent many conflicts from arising in our midst. Even though we all make mistakes, our sincerity and good intentions will be evident to all.
The early church faced many different kinds of internal conflict. Three kinds of conflict particularly appear in the Book of Acts. These represent the three major areas in which conflicts generally arise within the church. A look at these conflict situations will be very revealing for us in understanding conflict and also in managing and resolving conflict.
I. Administrative Conflict
The first major intra-church conflict that we find in Acts is reported in chapter 6 where a conflict arose between the Hebrews and the Hellenists concerning the daily distribution of care. The widows of the Hellenists were being neglected. This problem primarily related to a gap in administration.
This administrative responsibility was in the hands of the Hebrew apostles (Acts 4:34-35). However, due to their increasing ministry load as the church grew and a cultural factor introduced with the conversion of many Hellenists, the apostles were not able to manage this task well anymore. Also notice this administrative problem arose because "the number of disciples was increasing." (Acts 6: 1) In other words, one result of church growth is an increase in administrative types of problems. The response of the apostles to this problem is very enlightening.
1. Firstly, they dealt with the problem. They did not ignore the problem by sweeping it under the carpet. When a complaint was leveled against them they did not adopt a reactive approach but a proactive approach. They acknowledged that there was a problem and they faced it squarely. This evidenced both humility and maturity on the part of the apostles. As someone has said, "The best way to escape from a problem is to solve it."
Chinese church leaders often do not deal with conflict until it is too late. The Chinese character tries to avoid face to face confrontation, not wanting to cause offense. This approach, however, may make matters worse in the long run. Problems, or potential problems, need to be dealt with immediately.
2. Secondly, the apostles presented a solution by suggesting appointing people to take over the responsibility of caring for the widows. We notice here an important key to solving administrative problems. The solution was not a new program, but rather having the right kind of people assigned to the task.
We often approach administrative problems in terms of suggesting more organisation, schedules, and programs, etc. But this sometimes only complicates matters. The apostles' solution was to appoint the appropriate people to the task "seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom." (Acts 6:3) They followed Jesus' approach when it came to problem solving.
When Jesus saw the needs of the world he did not first of all set up a program or organisation to meet it, but rather he commanded his disciples to pray for workers (Matthew 9:36-38). The problem was that there were not enough workers for the mission fields. Today we need again to recognise this need for workers, i.e. having the right kind of people.
Never in the history of the Chinese church did we have so many different kinds of programs, ideas, and strategies in all areas of ministry. Yet, also perhaps, never in the history of the Chinese church have we had so much conflict, need, and immaturity. There is a pastoral crisis in many Chinese churches today. The right people must be appointed to the task, i.e. people with the right gifts, the right attitudes, and the right motivation.
3. Thirdly, the apostles established a consensus before they went ahead with their suggestion. Their suggestion "pleased the whole group" (Acts 6:5). The apostles did not impose their proposal upon the church. They carefully and sensitively consulted with the church and only when the church as a whole approved of the suggestion did they go ahead to appoint the seven men.
Similarly today, church leadership needs to work with, not over or against, the congregation. Leadership needs to keep in step with the brothers and sisters of the church. When the leadership committee runs too far ahead of the congregation, or begins to manipulate the congregation for its own agenda, conflict will ensue.
4. Fourthly, their decision was carried out in the context of prayer (Acts 6:6). The whole process was done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Therefore we notice that the end result of this whole process was an even greater growth in the church (Acts 6:7). In other words, the administrative problem that the church faced, that once threatened its unity, resulted in tremendous growth. This was because the apostles faced the problem and dealt with it in a humble and mature manner under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
II. Theological Conflict
We find another example of conflict in Acts chapter 15. On this occasion the issue at stake was a theological one. The church in Antioch was seeing phenomenal growth in the number of believers especially among Gentiles (Acts 11:19-26). The Antiochene church was also very active in mission; they already had sent Paul and Barnabas on a successful missionary journey (Acts 13:1ff.). It was in this period of growth and missionary endeavour that another problem arose.
Some very conservative Jewish Christians carne from Jerusalem to Antioch and demanded that Gentile Christians must be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). Circumcision was one of the treasured Jewish traditions that served, among other things, to separate Jews from Gentiles. Many Jews regarded circumcision us one of the important marks that identified the people of God. Therefore, an important theological question arose. Do Gentile Christians, in addition to believing in Jesus need to be circumcised in order to he saved and to become full members of God's people? How did the early church leaders, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, deal with this problem?
1. Firstly, the senior and experienced church leaders were called together to discuss and resolve the issue. "Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question." (Acts 15:2) In other words, this question should be resolved in consultation with the leadership of the whole church, not by the opinion of one or two individuals.
Today the church is facing a variety of theological questions. When an issue becomes pressing it is wise for the wider church leadership to be called together in order to resolve the issue and to provide clarity. In this respect churches which are part of a denominational fellowship have a huge advantage. They can call upon a whole body of mature and experienced leadership. In independent churches this body of wisdom is not as readily available. However, independent churches may still benefit from the collective wisdom of the evangelical Christian church by drawing on theological statements produced by denominations and mission organisations to address current issues of theology.
2. Secondly, we notice that the church leaders reached their conclusions in accordance with personal testimonies, the Scriptures, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Paul and Barnabas first shared their missionary experiences among the Gentiles with the council. Then some of the believing Pharisees demanded that the Gentiles should be circumcised and keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). The argument became very tense. The apostle Peter then addressed the gathering and shared his experiences in Cornelius' household with the council.
God did not make any distinction between Jews and Gentiles when He gave the gift of the Spirit to Cornelius. At last James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, spoke and used Scripture to show that Gentiles too can become full members of God's people without circumcision (Acts 15:13-21). However, the Gentiles should show sensitivity towards those issues particularly important to Jewish sensibilities (Acts 15:20), not as a matter of principle but of expediency.
3. Thirdly, the apostles again obtained a consensus: "The apostles and elders, with the whole church." (Acts 15:22)
4. The final step in the process was the formulation of a clear theological statement which was communicated to the church in Antioch (Acts 15:23-31). The freedom of the gospel was affirmed; yet diversity and different practices were recognised. The result of the council was the tremendous growth of the church in the Gentile world.
III. Personal Conflict
Finally, the third kind of conflict that we notice in Acts is what we may call personal conflict, i.e. when leaders cannot get along with one another because of different characters and opinions. This indeed is the most difficult kind of conflict to resolve. In fact, the example from Acts shows that the conflict could not be resolved but only managed.
When Paul and Barnabas decided to undertake a second missionary journey they had a dispute on whether or not to take John Mark with them (Acts 15:36-41). Barnabas, who always was the encourager and thought the best of people, wanted to take Mark with them. Paul, however, having a more robust character, was not willing because Mark had left them during their first missionary journey. Paul must have thought that Mark was not dependable and might again cause problems for the missionary party. Paul and Barnabas did not see eye to eye on the matter. As a result, the contention became so sharp that they separated from one another and formed two missions (Acts 15:39). In other words, they agreed to disagree. Their solution to the conflict was separation. However, we still note that God used this conflict for the furtherance of the gospel: whereas before there was only one mission, now there were two. The gospel continued to spread.
Probably, the most common kind of conflict in Chinese churches today relates to personal conflicts. Because people have different characters and preferences they can no longer see eye to eye.
Sometimes personal conflict can become so severe that there is no other option but for the parties to separate. Hopefully in such situations pastors and elders would not resort to unfair accusations, but would have the maturity to recognise that because of personal differences in character and understanding about practical issues of ministry, they can no longer work together in a way that would bring honour to the gospel. The best solution may be to separate rather than drain one another's energy with matters that often hamper productive ministry.
The Chinese church must take the issue of conflict prevention, resolution, and management seriously. The unity, witness and well-being of the church are at stake. In John 17:21 Jesus prays, "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." Unity is the basis for mission. Oh that the Chinese church may have this testimony before the world!
We need to remember Jesus' words that a household divided cannot stand (Matthew 12:25). Jesus expressly forbade sectarianism (Luke 9:49-50). We need to remind ourselves that sectarianism is not a virtue. Therefore, we should be fervent to guard the unity of the church for the sake of the Lord's honour and for the well-being of our brothers and sisters. Only in this way will the Chinese church be empowered for mission.
The Author: Johan Fu is a Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies, the Director of Postgraduate Studies, and Advisor of the Chinese Program at the Bible College of Queensland, Australia.
This article appeared in Chinese Around The World: The magazine of the Chinese Coordination Centre of World Evangelism., March 2001, pages 6-11. Reprinted with permission.
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