Jordan sat in her Camry, hesitating to go inside the house where her small group met. While she enjoyed getting to know people from her church, she had been feeling pressured to reveal personal details she didn’t feel comfortable sharing. That night they were to confess their sin struggles.
She got out of her car and slipped into the bustling living room. After a few minutes of small talk, the group moved to their chairs to begin the meeting. Amy led the group in prayer, and they began going around the circle sharing their toughest temptations. When the circle came to Jordan, she slouched in her chair, staring at the floor.
“Go ahead, Jordan,” Amy encouraged. “This is a safe place for you to be honest.”
Jordan straightened up. “You know….” She bit her lower lip.
“Really, being honest with others helps you.” Amy turned to the rest of the group and said, “Isn’t that right?” The others invited her to open up.
“Okay, here it goes.” Jordan took a deep breath. “Honestly, I’m not sure that we should share all these things in this group at all. I know you say it’s safe, but I’ve only been coming here for a few months, and I really don’t know each of you well enough to tell you the kind of stuff you’ve all laid out tonight.”
Amy stiffened. “You don’t think we’re going to gossip, do you?” Her voice had a defensive edge to it. “We’re only trying to help each other. Besides, what safer place could there be than this group of believers committed to Christ? You can trust us.”
Jordan dropped her head. “I … I just don’t … it doesn’t feel right to me.” She looked up. “Doesn’t anyone else feel that way?”
There was an awkward silence. The others only looked around to see if anyone concurred. Then Amy leaned forward. “Jordan, you’ve sat and listened to us, and I think you should be willing enough to talk with us so we can strengthen our community.”
A wave crashed in Jordan’s stomach. “No, I … I just can’t be part of this.” She stood up and headed for the door.
“Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” Amy called after her.
“I’m sorry, I just can’t do this.” Jordan hurried out of the house and ran to her car. Sobs overcame her as she tumbled inside her Camry and drove off.
A Conflicted Church
Do disagreements and arguments amongst believers take us off guard? Are we surprised that Christians fight? Perhaps they manifest themselves more subtly than Jordan and Amy’s awkward fallout. But the fact is that Christians are still fallen humans on this side of glory, and anytime you mix one fallen creature with another, you’re creating a recipe for conflict.
Division shows up in all kinds of ways in the church today — fights within small groups, youth groups versus Boomers, contemporary praise advocates against hymn holders, young married couples versus singles, and even disagreements among staff members. Some churches in the U.S. have suffered division to the point of splitting, all because each side thinks they’re right.
Even though it’s everywhere, we don’t like conflict. Many people would rather bury it or at least deny their own guilt in a disagreement. But the church’s problem is not that we have conflict; we will never escape disagreements as long as Christians are fallen. The issue for the church is how it deals with conflict when it inevitably arises.
The Trinity and Conflict Management
The doctrine of the Trinity provides a Christian pattern for pursuing unity in a church made up of all different sorts of people. Yes, I did say “the doctrine of the Trinity.” As followers of Christ we want to provide a distinctively Christian response to the problem of diversity in our world. We are not merely theists — even Jews and Muslims are theists. What distinguishes Christians is our confession of the Trinity: God is three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — in one essence.
To explicate the mystery of the Trinity lies beyond the space of this article. But to see how what we believe about our Creator, that He is one God existing eternally in three Persons, shapes our very lives — that is what we seek to discuss in this short time. For what we believe shapes who we are.
Who do we want to be? Christians who are godly. The apostle Paul commands us to pursue godliness: “discipline yourselves for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things” (1 Tim 4:7-8). What is godliness but being like God in His character? To become like God, then, we must endeavor to reflect His character, even His character as revealed in the doctrine of the Trinity.
The church reflects God, then, when it upholds unity in a body filled with diversity. The Triune God balances unity and diversity in perfection, and the nature of the Godhead changes how we understand the makeup of the church. God is never separated; in a way we cannot explain, He is perfect unity. Three distinct Persons who are one. And when God redeems a people for Himself, He makes them like Himself, bringing together diversity and unity.
Granted, we are not God, and therefore we will never attain perfect unity in our fallen state. But as Christians who have the Spirit, we can pursue unity that reflects our Creator and Redeemer. The apostle Paul calls us to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” since in reality we are “one body” (Eph 4:1-6; see also 1 Cor 12:12-13). Our spiritual nature as the church is unity in one body, a reflection of the Trinity, and we ought to make our unity visible.
But God is not only perfect unity; He is also perfect diversity. This means that while the church experiences conflict, since it is imperfect, God differs from us in that conflict is totally absent from the three members of the Godhead.
However, it also means that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not identical, but distinct. Similarly we in the church are “many members” (1 Cor 12:12). We are not identical, nor does God want a church of clones. He created a unified body of many members, like a symphony that blends a diversity of tones and pitches to create one unified sound.
If in the church, then, it is our goal to become more like God, to reflect Him in His mystery as Trinity, that means when conflict arises we do not run away from each other and nurse wounds of bitterness. Nor do we pretend that our differences don’t exist. Instead, we embrace each other and our differences, and when we disagree, we continue to love each other anyway. We work through differences in a spirit of love, to build up each member of the church to maturity so that together we become a unified whole that glorifies our God (Eph 4:1-16).
By working through differences and maintaining unity, we honor God and reflect the unity and diversity of the Godhead. The church today is filled with diversity, which often breeds conflict, but we can attain peaceful unity when we seek, with the Spirit’s assistance, to reflect the Trinity in our daily lives. As God is three Persons in one essence, we too can join together as distinct persons united as one by the Spirit of God.
Imaging the Mystery of Our God
In Jordan and Amy’s conflict, the issue was not who was right. Both of them had valuable input to consider in small group dynamics, yet both also contributed to the disagreement. The issue was their reflection of God, first in the moment of conflict and then in the days afterwards.
After the disagreement, though, they pursued peace, talked together about their differences, and learned from each other about appropriate levels of sharing and about loving people without getting defensive. They reflected God’s mystery of unity and diversity in their small corner of the church.
Church conflict is inevitable as long as there are fallen humans in our sanctuaries. And because some people refuse to reconcile, there will be times when unity cannot be maintained.
But when we understand that the church reflects the Triune God to the world, we work through conflict and differences to uphold the unity of the body, thus imaging — in veiled form — the mystery of our God.
Copyright 2006 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.