Conflict Resolution in Chinese Churches
By Johan Fu
Chinese Around The World, March 2001, pages 6-11
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
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
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
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
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
3. Thirdly, we must often overlook and forgive offenses. The Bible says,
"Love covers over all wrongs." (Pr 10:12) and "He who covers over an
offense promotes love." (Pr 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 Co 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
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
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
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" (Ac 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
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 (Ac
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 (Ac 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
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
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
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
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.
CHINESE AROUND THE WORLD
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