Not long ago, I read about how two high-profile Christians had parted ways. Based on their official statements, the separation was cordial. But reading between the lines, and judging by some of the fallout, you knew there had to be more to the story.
After the news broke on an online Christian news source, someone left an angry comment, complaining that we (the public) weren’t being told everything. Surely someone had been wronged here, he implied. Still, the story stood. Even though both individuals claimed to still respect one another, something had clearly happened to cause them to separate. And even if it was none of my business (which I suspect it was not), the public story seemed a bit disingenuous.
Around the same time, I witnessed some other disagreements between believers that were a lot messier. Accusations were hurled. People took sides. Things got ugly. It got me thinking about how Christians should handle conflict, confrontation and even the parting of ways.
For a long time I’ve been intrigued by the story of Paul and Barnabas. As far as early church missions goes, this pair seemed to be the “crack team” of the Great Commission. They preached the Gospel, did miracles, faced persecution and won converts as they traveled together through the Roman Empire on what is referred to as Paul’s First Missionary Journey.
And yet they are also known for something else: their disagreement and subsequent split (recounted in Acts 15:36-40). Just as the duo is gearing up to revisit some of the cities they’ve already traveled to, Barnabas suggests taking along John Mark, a young man who had bailed during their original journey. Paul doesn’t like the idea.
And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
The first time I really gave this story thought, I remember being surprised that two godly men could have a sharp disagreement, part ways and continue on in ministry, without any apparent sin being involved. Both men continued to spread the Gospel (and were arguably even more effective apart than together) and Paul, at least, went on in the “grace of the Lord.”
Barnabas (whose name literally means “son of encouragement”) clearly had a heart for mentoring young leaders, first training Paul and later training John Mark. Paul didn’t feel he could take the risk on a flaky young companion. Their disagreement was valid and an issue they simply couldn’t get past.
I wish the Scripture offered more details about how Paul and Barnabas “broke up.” All we know is that the parting was quick and simple, and neither man seems to have slandered the other’s ministry. (In fact, in an act of “let bygones be bygones” Paul later includes John Mark in his missionary work.)
How to Fight Right
It was a real breakthrough for me when I realized it was OK for Christians to have conflict. We aren’t always going to agree or be able to work together in total harmony. But when the time comes for parting ways, how do we do it well? Here are five suggestions:
1. We don’t have to be “nice.” Nice seems to have become a Christian virtue, but we don’t even find the word in Scripture. We do find love, patience, kindness and forgiveness. These should be our guiding values as we navigate conflicts with others.
Remember that it’s possible to be “nice” — which is really all about presentation — without having the right heart attitude. Seeking to be nice while avoiding other biblical truths relating to conflict can lead to “faking it” instead of using appropriate confrontation and conflict resolution to strengthen the body.
2. Be discerning. Not long ago, a friend of mine was upset about something I had done that impacted her negatively. She wasn’t sure if I had intended to hurt her through my actions (I hadn’t), but a few of her trusted friends who were aware of the situation (but did not know me) questioned my motives.
Instead of confronting me right then, she decided to pray about the situation. “Every time I prayed about it,” she told me later, “the Holy Spirit came to your defense and reminded me of your character.” She decided to drop the whole issue, and I didn’t hear about it until months later.
Through prayer, my friend realized that it wasn’t the right time for confrontation. Unbeknownst to her, at the moment she was thinking of bringing up her grievance, I was already experiencing discouragement in the midst of an important project. Had my friend questioned my character in that moment, it might have been a final blow to the work I was doing. We were both thankful that God stayed her heart — and words.
3. Make peace your goal. Paul wrote, “So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Conflict should be the exception not the rule. As Christians, dissention is something we are told to avoid, not seek out. In fact, getting along is kind of a Christian super-power (with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course). This is probably where our mistaken notion that Christians should always agree came from. The thing is, because of sin and legitimate differences of opinion, conflict is inevitable.
I recently saw a meme that said, “You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” In my 10 years of blogging, I’ve been surprised by how many Christians seem to just be out for a fight. We’re clearly told that our speech should edify believers, yet in an online forum people seem to feel justified to pick a fight, even when their contribution is unhelpful or divisive.
Like I said earlier, we need to be discerning about the conflicts in which we engage. When someone offends us, does it fall under the “love covers a multitude of sins” category — where we simply need to forgive and forget? Or does it need to be lovingly addressed for the sake of unity with our fellow Christian? Whichever answer leads to peace is the correct one.
4. Separate when necessary. Obviously I’m not talking about married couples who have made a covenant before God to stay together. But in ministry or work settings, a time may come when your working relationship has become unhealthy and unproductive.
When this happens, parting ways (with as little drama as possible) may be the best option — and the one that is most edifying to the body. Disagreements and impasses happen, and occasionally the healthiest option is to end the partnership and pursue other avenues.
5. Everyone doesn’t need to know. Going back to the story of Paul and Barnabas, the pair parted simply without much explanation (to us). There wasn’t moral failure. There wasn’t a huge character flaw. The duo simply decided to go separate ways. Was the friendship damaged? Possibly. Was the work of the Lord damaged? No.
We live in a world that craves “full disclosure.” But when it comes to conflict, sometimes it’s best to keep the details between the parties involved. The more information one makes available, the more ammunition he or she gives others to take sides and fight battles that hinder the Lord’s work rather than advancing it.
Paul and Barnabas went on in separate ministries to have a significant and widespread impact on the foundation of Christianity. A disagreement didn’t derail their passion for the Gospel. By their example, we see that some of God’s greatest victories can occur when Christians fight well.
Copyright 2014 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.