The exposure of need in the Church by the viral confusion of a pandemic has been significant, with one of the most jarring being confrontation with the raw reality that those who have been bonded in Christ require no doctrinal disagreement to be divided. Who knew that it would only take a simple face mask to smother the life out of love? But to be surprised is to minimize the sinful pride that lurks within every heart— pride that stands tall at the center of contention, tirelessly fanning the flames of every fiery conflict.
With feet firmly planted in self, Pride sustains its very life by feeding off its own perspective from its own vantage point. Pride is a beast, and a tricky one at that. It will do anything to maintain footing, even if it has to feign humility while keeping a death grip on its own version of truth. It's the reason conflict within the Church can be particularly insidious. The Church is not only comprised of members confident that God is on their side, it's comprised of members committed to a Bible that proves it. With such a rich resource to summon for selfish glory, it's understandable why the Church's beauty causes the beast to salivate.
The great irony of conflict within the Church is how often the Word is used to defend polarizing positioning. That controversy can find each side launching identical missiles of truth across the line. Truth about light exposing darkness, about wisdom exposing worldliness, and righteousness exposing wickedness. And after every explosion, each side asking the same rhetorical question of comfort:
If God is for us, who can be against us?
Yes, ironic indeed. A Church rescued by Christ alone, yet in the midst of conflict found ever-so-spiritually launching explosive attack against each other for being in need of light, in need of wisdom, in need of righteousness. And then forging through the fog, fanning itself with the fact that if God is for us? Well, he certainly can't be for them.
It’s only the work of the Spirit that graces us with the ability to humbly work through conflict with a hard lean into love. Without that humble posture and supernatural work, by default our strategizing will lead us to levy divisive responses of either attack or retreat. Divisive because they are responses that imperceptibly replace a pursuit for lost peace with a pursuit for lost power. Responses of attack become increasingly driven by a desire to secure validation and/or vindication; and responses of retreat by a desire to secure reputation and/or preservation. The former overtly levy dissent with active aggression; the latter covertly with passive aggression. But all flow from a heart that stands proudly confident in its own understanding.
Within the Church, the grave difficulty of conflict is that both responses come cloaked in spirituality. This makes them incredibly difficult to dismantle because of the “moral self” that stands on higher ground as one (or representing one) who has been wronged, not as one who has done wrong; as one (or representing one) who is right, not as one who isn’t right. Chained to our claim on correctness, we become increasingly blind to our culpability in the growing conflict. And every foiled attempt at reconciliation serves to sink us deeper into our assurance of righteousness, desensitizing us to the fact that we've been showing up armed with determination to levy response instead of unarmed with discipline to listen to response. Like deer locking horns in a tussle, the conflict grows increasingly impossible to untangle even when one side bleeds out in surrender.
Though retreat responders don't actively pursue peace biblically, they dislike conflict enough to secretly hope it will resolve on its own. But not handling conflict is just as destructive as mishandling it. For it gives emotional energy to responders of attack to organize themselves into polarizing groups that become increasingly desirous of validation and/or vindication. Polarizing factions that function with sincerity, but that are unfortunately too fueled by an established belief system to proceed without increasing relational dysfunction. Factions that, with ever-growing desire to persuade, pursue public platforms even when the more responsible choice would be private ones.
Anyone who has involved themselves in conflict mediation will tell you that this pattern of human behavior repeats itself with surreal symmetry. Like a chess game, the maneuvering becomes intensely strategic but intricately predictable. It's this unfolding of conflict pattern that makes the role of mediation so valuable, for it allows the offering of informed warning (heeded or not) about the future outcome of a present move. Humans display a diverse array of personality traits and level of intelligence, but nothing reveals our core similarities more consistently than conflict.
These patterns of conflict are what can make running hard after peace a perilous pursuit. But it's a holy pursuit, and there is desperate need for those willing to come to the table of impartiality and enter relational conflict (marital, missional, organizational or otherwise) with enough courage to lay their lives on the line. Lovers of the Church, grounded in sound doctrine, who are willing to remain tactically centered with a mind to listen, a heart to love, and a spirit to hold out grace to all— a stance that can be difficult for players on the field to process because of it feeling more like betrayal than support. But that's a devilish lie of the beast. A lie that falsely tells us that the upholding of our own personal vantage point is essential to our experienced peace and essential to the enactment of justice.
Paul Miller's excellent book A Loving Life: In A World of Broken Relationships beautifully honors this stance of love that embraces nuance without need to mentally create competing sides of opposing worth:
Ambiguity. We recoil from its discomfort, and we retreat from its demand that we surrender to the limitations of humanity. We are by nature rebels who resist bowing the knee to our inability to decipher another's motivation, determine their mind, or dissect their heart. Neuroscience research consistently demonstrates that our hunger for exerting judgment (especially in emotionally-laden situations) is powerful enough for our minds to create clarity where it doesn't exist. Part of humbly surrendering to our humanity is acknowledging our susceptibility to confirmation bias that interprets facts in a way that supports our own presupposition. That once we lock into a narrative about someone (positively or negatively), our ability to process incoming data with sound reasoning is severely compromised.
Conversations in conflict readily expose when we've reactively taken a side instead of responsibly taken time, for the subsequent lack of objectivity makes us strongly resistant to opposing input. Instead of a thoughtful lean to listen and learn, the suggestion that our narrative could use revision is met with bristled defense. Taking a side involves taking a stance that becomes part of our very identity, leading us to interpret opposition as personal insult. Even our lowly claims to holding an "agree to disagree" position are contradicted by our highly disagreeable disposition.
Finding comfort in the tribe of people who stand with us, instead of seeking input from those with differing perspective, we gather to our side those who support our own. Securing stance on a singular stage, shared storytelling serves to set our narrative in stone. It's a stage that distorts vision, one that inevitably leaves us believing we stand in possession of the broadest and the best perspective. That we are the ones with more facts; that we are the ones with more information. But it's only an illusion, for the blinding lights of the stage always leave us missing what we would have otherwise found. They also blind us to the sin of those who support our storyline with input— information often secured through betrayals of private communication that bypass confrontation and through breaches of confidentiality that blatantly break vows of loyalty. Sin that we would never excuse if we were ones bearing the brunt of the betrayal or breach of confidence.
Daniel Shapiro, the Founder and Director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, does a masterful job deconstructing this human response of taking a stage. Coining the term Tribes Effect, in his excellent book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How To Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts Shapiro offers the following insight:
When it comes to controversy surrounding accusation of sexual impropriety within the Church, it is particularly crucial that the process of truth-seeking not be circumvented by tribal leaning. Untold damage has been done by those who have righteously declared an accused's innocence just as much as from those who have recklessly declared their guilt. These volatile situations come with consequences far too severe to have the process tainted. A tragic history of "circling the wagons" has created a culture that drips with anger against accusation being met with shame, enough to make it critical that steps of circumspection be as diligently taken with accusers as with the accused.
Whether we like it or not, too many whistleblowers of abuse have been tragically mistreated for there to be any space left to enter without thoughtful objectivity that lends ear to what has been said regardless of how it's been said and to whom it's been said. Too many people have righteously upheld the innocence of the accused only to discover that indeed there was guilt. It should be a lesson to us all, but we always see ourselves as the exception. Unlike others, we know truth is on our side.
We know our family. We know our friends. We know they would never do this.
There's a vital difference between declaring an accusation is out of character from all we know of someone, and declaring that an accusation is untrue. For the health and safety of all—both the innocent and guilty alike— it is imperative that we understand this vital difference. It's imperative that the older guide the younger in this wisdom; that the mature help the immature to grow in this understanding. Not because we fear suffering the betrayal of an unfaithful heart, but because we favor shining the perfect beauty of God's faithful one.
A rapidly growing cohort of advocates are sounding the siren against abusers in the Church, an advocacy that is laser-focusing on the treatment of those who have levied accusation. With increasing volume, lifting a rallying cry to shine light on all who have been relegated to the shadows of shame for either stating or suggesting sexual impropriety. We need to get serious about our responses. Serious about our taking time, not taking sides. And we need lovers of the Church who embrace the gravity of faith leaders handling their relationships with the utmost wisdom and care, and who understand the gravity of the potential ramifications when they don't.
Regardless of the nature of conflict in the Church, laying one's life on the line for love can easily draw opposition from those on both sides who are emotionally tied to their story. But the Bride of Christ is worth every blood-bought drop we pour out for the glory of our Redeemer, and it is an immense privilege to walk saints through the crucible of controversy in a way that seeks to guide them into the power of the Cross. Especially in matters where there's been deep wounding, there is a need for mature Believers to remain centered with a lean into love that refuses to be deterred by personal attack or accusation.
I recently listened to a podcast about the unresolved conflict that ensued when a well-known faith leader was accused of sexual impropriety years before the documented exposure of his duplicitous life. The conversation wasn’t about his sin, it was about the relational havoc it wreaked because of the very thing I’ve just written about. Division grew between those outraged over what they rabidly believed to be the well-respected leader’s unquestionable innocence, and those outraged over what they rabidly believed to be his unquestionable guilt. Presented with the same facts, one side took stage with demands for apology and the other took stage with demands for action. Those who tried to biblically mediate were chewed alive by both sides, for the emotional momentum had each failing to keep a humble hand to the plow of peaceful pursuit.
Regardless of the exposed truth of controversies or the motivations of players in conflict, the real losers are always the very ones who need to be loved selflessly and sincerely most— the ones who often come with deep wounds that take time to heal and with complicated layers that take time to peel away. Suffering souls who, whether guilty or innocent, need us to maintain genuine desire to uncover truth from God’s perspective instead of waving a banner in confidence of our own. Precious souls who are far too valuable to be turned into mascots and martyrs we either uphold in our stories as victims or burn at the stake as villains.
I write this not mindful of just one, but of dozens of controversies within the Church that have given me sight to this surreal pattern of conflict that spans from one end of the globe to the other. A pattern I see with clarity. Enough, in fact, to judge our refusal to embrace ambiguity as an act of brutal betrayal against the Bride of Christ.
The Church is saturated with wounded Christians bleeding out in sorrow because of storylines that have been written about them that read in painful opposition to what they declare to be true. From pastors pushed out of ministry, to spouses moved out of marriage, to friends forced out of relationship— on every side we are surrounded by deeply wounded souls sorrowing over what they would say is an unjust impugnment of character that comes with no hope of revision. The point in stating this is not to suggest every narrative has been falsely written (of course not!), it is to encourage a hard lean into love that humbly acknowledges that our narratives are not penned with perfection.
One of the fallouts of our age of cynicism has been a growing confidence in our ability to "see through" others. It's a cultural phenomenon accompanied by a steady stream of social media memes and posts glorying in x-ray vision. Interestingly, in 1943 C.S. Lewis addressed this irrational thought process that destroys civility in "The Abolition of Man." It's arrogant thinking that can far too easily imprison others in the chains of our own righteous judgement, chains that rattle out the assurance of our infallibility with every attempt a prisoner makes to free themselves. Because determining we "see through" someone, it no longer matters what they say or do— it will always serve to confirm our established belief. This is not about denying discernment and dismissing a story or dodging any consequence. This is about bowing the knee to the complexities of human limitation that exist even in the face of facts.
Lord, please help us to enter every controversy with our heart, not just our head, humbled by the riches of grace found in Christ. May the Cross be our only boast— that place where no dark flattering of our superior judgments can be found in the light of the Just One. That place where our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. That place where we gladly lay our life on the line for love.