We read Genesis chapter 1 with jaw-dropping awe, scratching our heads at the intricacy and vastness of our universe and searching for a vocabulary to express our wonder. When words fail us, God provides the words of an inspired writer (Moses) to put creation’s super-miracles into perspective. Like the peal of a cosmic bell, Moses repeats the same proclamation seven times within the space of 31 verses: It is good, good, good, good, good, good; it is all very good. Then, like a lightning bolt that startles the night sky, two words trump everything that has been reported so far: Something is not good (Genesis 2:18).
Don’t despair! The Maker hasn’t suddenly detected a flaw. The story line is about to take an exciting new direction. The unexpected not good introduces an even more wonderful dimension of the Godhead. We are about to learn that the Maker’s heart beats to the rhythm of a boundless love for his own dear, image-bearing creature.
So what is this not good thing that demands our undivided attention? It is the state of complete and utter aloneness. It is not good for the human being to be alone. This is God conversing with God, committing himself to a fundamental concept—one that reveals a vital truth about his most intimate personal being; humankind will be a relational creature because our three-in-one God is a relational being. The human heart is (more properly, was) like the heart of its Maker. Even in our imperfect state we love because our Creator loves. It would not be good if a person could not love his friends, parents, children, spouse, and colleagues. That would be hell. So God fashioned the first human relationship. Before Adam and Eve were the first society, the first family, the first marriage, or even the first church, they represented the first human relationship. Ever since, the human experience has been inexorably bound to the relationships we have with one another. Remarkable, is it not? Our relationships—what a wonderful gift!
On the other hand, if you’re naïve enough to believe that we will consider every relationship to be a wonderful gift, then you haven’t heard about some of my relationships. Or perhaps you’ve forgotten about some of your own.
In a world that no longer resembles Eden’s tranquility, too many of our God-given relationships have ended up on the dung heap of heartache and disappointment. No wonder the notion of living on some tiny, deserted island in the Pacific is so appealing! We are like the traveling salesman who observes that the town he is visiting would be a veritable paradise, if only it were not for the wretched people living in it. Truth is, our relationships have been so badly distorted by sin that their wonderful qualities as divine gifts are barely recognizable. We may even tend to think of at least some of our relationships as more of a curse. Yet you and I have very little choice in the matter. Having relationships with other people is not an option; we are created to be relational beings.
That said, the disappointments we may have regarding some of our personal relationships could probably use some sanctified tempering. God still chooses people—flawed, cracked, and broken vessels that we are—to carry living water to those who are dying in unbelief.
That doesn’t happen without relationships. He uses our relationships to plant seeds, train the young, correct the straying, and lift up the weak. How dare we disdain his gift? How dare we fail as stewards of this precious gift by allowing peace and unity to deteriorate into hatred and enmity?
As out of sync with truth this disdain and failure may seem, our lives are marred by the evidence of their presence. And the evidence is often all too fresh. The story of an imaginary conflict in an imaginary church will remind us that we can’t claim innocence. It will remind us of just how real and dangerous our failures are.
Welcome to Peace Lutheran church
Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church is a congregation of about 450 souls. Its history stretches back to the 1880s. Every member knows the story of the night in 1967 when lightning struck the bell tower of the original building. The 65-year-old frame structure burned to the ground in less than an hour. Bitter infighting followed. Half the congregation wanted to rebuild on the site where the old church once stood. The other half thought it more prudent to relocate near the new highway at the edge of town. The first group carried the day by a single vote. Old-timers privately have their own suspicions about how that vote went down.
For almost a century, Peace has owned and operated its own elementary school. In years past, enrollment always hovered somewhere between 100 and 120 children. Then, about ten years ago, enrollment began to decline steadily.
To shore up the ministry program, Peace added a child care program. This program has had limited success in reaching out to the community. Some members consider the child care program a financial burden. For the last few years, it has been necessary to dip into an endowment fund to keep the program afloat. The detractors are quick to point out that this cannot go on indefinitely.
Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church is located in Mount Powell, an amiable midwestern town of almost 40,000 people. A mix of small industry, small businesses, and two large insurance companies headquartered outside of town contribute to a stable economy. In spite of Mount Powell’s prosperity, many of the older homes in the church’s immediate neighborhood have fallen into disrepair, and a demographic change is taking place. Yet this shift is not reflected in the church’s mission-vision plan.
Church attendance could be better. Bible class attendance has fallen off. The Sunday school program is nearly defunct. Teen programs come and go. Outreach projects are generally ill conceived and poorly organized. Follow-up is spotty at best.
The graying of the congregation is another growing concern. The school manages to attract enough new families to provide some hope for the future. In spite of its declining enrollment, many members see the school as the congregation’s only hope for survival. Others quietly wonder if the congregation should consider new directions that will not depend so heavily on the costly venture of operating a parochial school.
Two years ago a handful of members proposed closing the school. The idea never generated much traction. But it did raise a few eyebrows. Undaunted, the group refined their rationale and ramped up the rhetoric. A few individuals got carried away and said some things that should not have been said. Soon the battle lines were drawn, and folks on both sides became guilty of loveless words and hurtful behaviors.
Several families transferred to another congregation across town. Their reason for making such a move was the discordant atmosphere at Peace. But they were careful with whom they shared that perspective and with what they said. A few others quietly hinted that they would be curtailing their financial support for the school. Still others argued that the child care program should be abandoned. The mission of carrying out a gospel ministry at Peace Lutheran Church came to a virtual standstill. Church meetings centered on the obvious impasse; without any hope for resolution, dialog became gridlocked with poor information and faulty logic. Outside of church, members talked or argued about church issues and church politics. Peace Lutheran Church was steadily slipping into a cold war.
Most organizations—including businesses, schools, churches, and families—can become a stew pot of simmering issues. There’s a good explanation for this: Conflict is all about people and their relationships. It sounds silly to say it in this way; of course conflict is about people. Still, it’s an important fact to acknowledge . . . and to keep on acknowledging. We tend to forget: While circumstances may have a lot to do with increased tensions, it is people who make choices about how they will respond. A budgetary shortfall doesn’t become a major issue until people get the notion that there’s a problem with someone else’s calculations, giving habits, or fiscal integrity. A school can’t cause a turf war unless people begin to have different views about its value, its purpose, or how it can be managed more efficiently. Even the strong opinions people have about how their offerings will be spent cannot disrupt the peace until the people begin to act on those opinions in a way that threatens or demeans the opinions of others. It’s people who obsess over what they want. It’s people who distort the truth to suit their own self-serving purposes. It’s people who judge one another. And it’s people—sinful people—who take it upon themselves to punish others with hateful words and mean-spirited behaviors. Human conflict could not exist without people. Knowing what drives people into conflict is paramount.
Differences of Opinion
Ned Constantino is the chairman of the Spiritual Growth Committee at Peace. He is not afraid to speak his mind but generally embraces the iron-sharpens-iron principle. For Ned it is not a bad thing for people to disagree. Like a lumberjack grinding the edges of two iron axe heads together, he believes that two conflicting ideas can eventually sharpen each other and lead to a much-improved solution. Ned recognizes that there are many matters in which God has given us the freedom to make a choice.
We may not always agree, but when we are careful to listen to those who disagree with us, we learn. We begin to see our options from a new angle. We get to know one another. We relate. And because we are followers of our Lord Jesus, we relate to one another in ways that will lovingly build one another up in the faith.
But differences of opinion do not always lead to a stronger consensus or a deeper unity. Some differences lead to conflict, especially if they are accompanied by attitudes that refuse to listen to the perspectives of others. The members of Peace Lutheran Church know one another well. But their differing views seem to be tearing the congregation apart. That’s a strong indication that many of them have already become entrenched in their positions.
Trust and Mistrust
Mark Eastman, the chairman of the Christian Education Committee at Peace, isn’t so sure that iron always sharpens iron. Mark and his erstwhile business partner, Stan Moralis, who is also a member of Peace and currently the president of the congregation, have been bitter enemies for several years.
In the early 1990s, Mark and Stan built a successful travel agency together. When the travel industry took a left turn, some bad business decisions were made. Mark and Stan declared bankruptcy. They still blame each other, taking turns at charging each other with bad-faith deals and dishonest business practices. They both believe the other is dishonest. Stan actually filed suit against Mark about a year ago. He dropped the suit only because he didn’t think he could prove his claim in a court of law.
Mark would prefer to put the painful rift with Stan in the past, but he has difficulties with the way Stan carries out his duties as president of the congregation. From Mark’s perspective, there are just too many secret meetings and unreported decisions at church. He is convinced that Stan intentionally misleads and deceives other men on the church council and the members in general. He suspects that Stan isn’t being entirely forthright in telling members what’s going on behind the scenes. Mark is pretty sure that Stan has a hidden agenda—one that seeks the closing of both the school and the child care center. He bluntly refers to Stan’s approach as dirty church politics.
Mistrust ignites more conflict than any other cause. Even when there are other mitigating origins for a conflict, suspicion is frequently hiding in the background. At some level, all serious conflict is about the truth and how people interpret it. And as a general rule of thumb, most individuals assume their enemies are completely lacking in integrity.
The three-legged stool of the Lutheran Reformation bases all of the church’s teachings on three fundamental assertions: sola fide (Latin for “by faith alone”), sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), and sola gratia (“by grace alone”).
Our faith in God and his ever-abiding promises to redeem us rests on the assumption that God is telling us the truth in his revealed Word. Without that, you and I have no hope. Our relationship with God has value only if (1) he is telling us the truth and (2) we believe what he says. Given the importance of truth, then, we shouldn’t be too surprised to find that Scripture is bursting with references to honesty and integrity—both God’s and ours.
If our relationship with God rests entirely on whether he is telling us the truth, we can also conclude that our relationships with others will likewise need to be anchored in the confidence that others place in our words. Even in the secular world of business and commerce, no one would be able to function without an element of trust (at the very least, trust in a signed contract). One would hope that the Christian community would at least rise above the standards set by secular enterprise. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
The apostle Paul addresses the matter of truth and trust by pointing out that the things we say to others (or write to others) should be a reflection of our Savior’s truthfulness and integrity. He starts, then, at the very highest level of communication, citing the gospel as the ultimate truth-message that anyone could ever convey. This divine truth is itself living; and it gives life to all who believe it.
The eternal futures of souls, purchased and won with holy blood, depend on the integrity of God’s Word and how it is shared among us. God’s people—the church—cannot allow false teachings to stand among us unchallenged because false teachings (and the false teachers who promote false teachings) put people’s faith at risk. At the same time, our personal lives must rise above the world’s standards for integrity.20 For Christians, it is not enough to be honest up to a point; God wants us to be honest to a fault. Deception of any kind can undermine the confidence people have in the things we say to them about Jesus and his love for them. Manipulation of either the facts or of people is dishonest. Spin is wrong because its intent is to make something appear to be what it is not. Spreading false rumors about others is sin. But it is just as wrong to denigrate the reputations of others with innuendo. Withholding information from someone who has a right to know destroys trust. It is wrong to knowingly do so, but so is misleading people into believing something you know to be untrue. Cheating on taxes or while taking tests is not only unethical, it is immoral. For Christians, truth must be understood as an uncompromisable core value. When it comes to matters of truth and trust, we have an obligation to hold one another to a high standard of Christian integrity.
The apostle Paul wrote:
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
The Communication Factor
Stan Moralis and his wife, Emily, decided to send their children to Peace Lutheran School. This was not an easy decision. Both Stan and Emily are products of public education. And Emily teaches English at Mount Powell’s public high school. The high cost of parochial education has made them both wonder if the money annually spent for the operation of the school and the child care center could be used in a better way.
While they have questions about the value of Peace Lutheran operating a parochial school, Stan and Emily have grown close to several of the teachers on the school’s faculty, especially Steve and Jill Spiriak. Steve is the school’s principal. Jill administers the child care.
Emily and Jill have made a point of having lunch together the first Tuesday of every month. They enjoy each other’s company and value their friendship. They come from similar backgrounds, have the same likes and dislikes, see life from the same perspective, and lean on each other for encouragement and support. Imagine, then, how the Spiriaks felt when they heard that Stan Moralis had presented a plan to the Church Council to close the child care center and reduce the school staff by two teachers over the next two years.
Of course, that’s not exactly what happened. To begin, Stan had not submitted a proposal. He had merely raised a question about how the school fit into the congregation’s long-term future ministry plan. The conversation with the Church Council was meant to be confidential. The issues were discussed in good faith and with the congregation’s best interests at heart. But somehow the conversation became public information and grist for the rumor mill. As the story spread, people embellished the facts. Soon Stan found himself carrying around the label of being against Christian education.
Communication plays a major role in conflict, both during the gathering storm and in the strategic approaches to finding resolution and restoring peace. Thankfully, the Bible has much to say about godly communication. Clearly, Scripture’s primary message is that life eternal is ours through faith in Christ Jesus. But, in love, our heavenly Father has also established some valuable principles that govern communication and interaction among Christians. Conflict erects a stumbling block that interferes with the communication of God’s primary message. God wants to help us avoid conflict. And when conflicts flare up (and they will), he wants us to have the communication tools needed to intervene so that the gospel can continue to flourish and accomplish its saving work unabated.
Jill Spiriak was not responsible for starting the rumors that made Stan Moralis appear disloyal. But she did listen. Worse, she believed what she heard without making any attempt to verify the facts with Stan. As a result, she intentionally began to avoid Emily. She even stopped going to lunch with her friend on the first Tuesday of each month, claiming she was busy with family matters. Jill could not get past the feeling that she and Steve were being betrayed by Stan. Bitterness and resentment festered in her heart.
Relational breakdown occurs when one person, rightly or wrongly, comes to the conclusion that a dearly loved individual no longer shares the same feelings in return. Imagine the pain that accompanies such a revelation! Often the human response to this kind of news is, “Then I will treat you in the same unloving way.”
The called staff at Peace Lutheran School and the workers at the child care center tried to rally. Steve made every effort to hold his faculty together. The teachers on his staff tried to remain positive. But it wasn’t long before the threat to downsize began to take its toll.
Steve didn’t want to believe these rumors. He was more inclined to blame Pastor Teschendorf for the arguing and hard feelings that were spreading throughout the congregation. Convinced that Pastor Teschendorf was pulling the strings, Steve began to publicly voice his doubt in Tim Teschendorf’s commitment to the school and child care ministries. Pastor Teschendorf took this as a challenge to his authority.
Each teacher now began to wonder about his or her future at Peace Lutheran School. Faculty meetings became ordeals as individuals fought for shares of the school turf. Job security replaced humble service. Everyman-for-himself individualism replaced team attitudes.
Tensions also increased between the child care people and the school faculty. They soon stopped working together. Things got so bad that Steve and Jill were at times unable to discuss their situation without getting in each other’s faces.
Turf battles and boundary issues can also cause bitter personal conflicts. Whenever Christians find themselves contending with coworkers for control over a definable area of the work, sin is much nearer than one may think.
Authority Issues and Competition for Control
For Pastor Teschendorf, the growing divisions at Peace Lutheran Church were very painful. During the past 17 years, Tim Teschendorf’s last conscious thoughts before going to sleep were for the people of his congregation, whom he loved dearly. And his members loved him. But Tim’s approach to leading was more along the lines of driving his flock: exerting strategic pressure in the right places, manipulating people, and maintaining control. As the congregation’s spiritual leader, Tim saw himself as the final authority. And he jealously guarded that authority by making sure that he had his hand in virtually every decision. His underlying objective at most of the meetings he attended (and he attended them all) was to squelch criticism aimed at himself.
Those critical voices had lately been growing more intense. The budget shortfall raised new questions about the pastor’s role. Some of his critics hinted that Tim might not be doing his job of bringing in new members. The criticism made Tim even more insecure.
Members of the school faculty and the people who worked in the child care facility wondered if Pastor Teschendorf still supported them. Sometimes it seemed as though the only thing he was interested in was protecting his own ministry turf.
The truth is that Tim Teschendorf was tired—tired of the endless meetings. He was also tired of the counseling sessions—patching up sick marriages and repairing twisted lives. He cried when Burt and Mary Ellen Grovner told him they were headed for a divorce and were no longer going to be coming in for his marriage counseling. Burt and Mary Ellen had met in Tim’s first adult confirmation class at Peace. He had officiated at their wedding. This news broke his heart. Remarkably, over the years of counseling, Pastor Tim had tried hard to get them both to see that a marriage works much better when a husband and wife are not in competition for control. At the same time, Tim himself was not able to see that he was competing for control, sometimes with Steve Spiriak and the school faculty, sometimes with Jill. And sometimes he used the authority of his office to leverage control over decisions that needed to be made by the Church Council or the Spiritual Growth Committee.
The case study here is far from complete. We’ve met only 9 of the 450 members of the Peace family. It lacks details about what was said, to whom it was said, and how it was said. Such details would be important if we were being asked to make a judgment about the moral grounds any one of these people may have for going to war with a fellow Christian. Our purpose here is to examine the generic causes for conflict, which are (1) differences of opinion, (2) mistrust, (3) misunderstandings, (4) intimacy issues, (5) boundary marking, (6) issues regarding authority, and (7) competition for control.
Each member involved in these disputes has a unique take on life at Peace Lutheran Church. Many others will eventually be drawn into the conflict. One thing is for sure: the conflicts at Peace are a tangled mess. Whatever the causes, the impacts will, without a doubt, shape the congregation’s future.
The case study hints that some behaviors at Peace were mean-spirited. Does that necessarily imply violence? Hardly. It’s more likely that the bitterest campaigns in this particular war will be fought with unkind words and icy stares. But it is still conflict. The expression cold war better suits the situation at Peace. In fact, most of the wars between individuals are of the cold war ilk. Cold wars consist more of lingering resentment, long-held grudges, and kindnesses withheld. They are a feeble attempt at walking the thin line (if there is such a thin line) between subtle expressions of lovelessness and hostile behaviors. Nevertheless, cold wars threaten to destroy the peace of our homes, schools, churches, and personal lives.
If we were to ask any of the people engaged in the conflict brewing at Peace Lutheran Church, they would probably say they had no choice; this war chose them. While there are a few situations in which we have very little choice about going to war, most of the time that is simply not true. As a rule, conflict is a conscious choice, even if we arrive at a final decision in imperceptible, incremental steps.
One final observation before we move on. If asked, a few of the people engaged in this conflict would be honest enough to admit that they have, knowingly or intentionally, hurt someone who represents the opposition. This too is common. In the heat of battle, we are able to rationalize sinful behaviors that we would otherwise condemn.
For Thought and Discussion
- Which of the seven typical causes for conflict have reared their ugly heads in your life?
- Which one of the personal conflicts at Peace Lutheran Church seems to represent the most serious threat? Give a reason for your answer.
- Why do people generally tend to believe that conflict is thrust on them?
17 Proverbs 27:17.
18 Ephesians 4:29.
19 Ephesians 4:21-25.
20 Armin J. Panning wrote, “Far from accepting false doctrine, spiritually mature Christians will rather go on the offensive against it. They will ‘[speak] the truth in love.’ . . . It is important that such speakers not only be correct (speak the truth) but also that they speak ‘in love.’ They are not to lord it over their weaker brothers. Nor are they viciously to turn on false teachers but, rather, to speak as lovingly and as winsomely as possible in the hope of winning over the proponent of an incorrect view. Then the unity will be kept, and growth in the church will be effected.” (Galatians, Ephesians, of The People’s Bible series [Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2000], p. 186.)