When Christians Disagree

Bible Book: Selected Passages 
Subject: Disunity; Unity; Peace; Conflict; Fellowship

In the winter of 1979 the church I grew up in-The First Southern Baptist Church of Dover, Delaware-a church my father pastored for 27 years-this church that I tend to refer to as my “home church” – well, it went through a nasty split. And-it happened about the same time Sue and I decided to marry. During those months I remember feeling pulled in two directions: joyful over the fact that Sue and I were about to begin our life together while at the same time grieving over all that was going on at First Southern.

The split started when a family joined the church-and unlike your typical new member-this family immediately got active and quickly moved into leadership roles. Their eagerness was welcomed by the members of First Southern because, like most churches, they constantly struggled to find leaders and workers. Well, in a relatively short amount of time this new family ingratiated themselves to several other families and then they began to use their little “power base” as a platform to criticize my dad. They did this in an attempt to run him off. We learned later that they had done the same thing in several other churches in the Dover area.

Now, of course all this was very hard on my father. As things heated up, he was driven into a deep depression, primarily because for several weeks no one stood up to defend him. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t that Dad wasn’t loved and cherished by his church. It’s just that no one knew what to do. They weren’t used to dealing with this kind of thing. Well, after a couple months of critical anonymous notes and nasty business meetings, the two ring leaders of this group came to our home and met with dad. They told him,

“Pastor we know that what we are doing is hurting you. But we also want you to know that we are willing to cause you to have a nervous break down if that’s what it takes to get you out of this church.”

Well, their heartless threat jolted my dad out of his depression. His “Mississippi temper” was roused and he told them to have at it because he knew it was God’s will for him to remain at First Southern-so he wasn’t going anywhere. He later confessed to me that he was also stubborn enough that he was not about to let anyone CAUSE him to have a nervous breakdown. He might cause himself to have one through his own weak-faith response, but no one was going to do that to him! So dad rallied the deacons and explained the situation in detail and they stood up for him.

When everything came to a head in one final business meeting they shared a document they had signed in which they shared all that was going on and pledged to support to their pastor. They apologized to him and the church for not standing up earlier and committed themselves to do all they could to preserve their church’s unity more faithfully in the future.

And that did it. The “other side” gave up, left, and took about 50 people with them and started their own church-a “new church start” that failed and disbanded within a year. By the way, they called themselves the NEW HOPE BAPTIST CHURCH and I’ve learned over the years that this is a common name for church splits. I mean, there are a lot of NEW HOPE BAPTIST, PRESBYTERIAN, METHODIST, etc. churches where for one reason or another Christians lose hope in one church and start another.

And this brand of Christian infighting is nothing new. Thousands of churches and even entire denominations have been started down through history simply because Christians couldn’t get along. Reminds me of the story of a man who was rescued from a desert island where he had survived ALONE for 15 years. Before leaving he gave his rescuers a little tour of the buildings he had constructed as a sort of one-man town over the years. He said, “This was my house. Over there was my store. This building here was kind of a cabana and over there is where I go to church.” One of his rescuers pointed to another building next to it and asked, “What’s that building?” The man replied, “Oh-that’s where I USED to go to church.”

Well, the fact is, there is nothing humorous about church splits because people are always hurt when believers disagree to the point of fighting among themselves. And this was the case at First Southern. There was a great deal of hurt on both sides. First, all this in-fighting turned a lot of people off such that several families stopped going to any church. To my knowledge they have never returned to active membership in a local body of believers. One of them was my own sister-she hasn’t been involved in church since. And, as the battle waged those months, not much was done for the Lord at First Southern because its members stopped discipleship and ministry and evangelism to concentrate on the fight. I mean their focus was turned from OUTWARD-looking to minister to their community, to INWARD as they drew battle lines, chose sides, and then “fought” among themselves. Plus friendships-deep friendships were broken. Koinonia-Godly fellowship ceased between several people, who before the split had truly been “friends that stick closer than a brother.” And my dad was never quite himself after that. He didn’t have a breakdown but he bore emotional wounds for the rest of his ministry.

I’ve seen the same “fruit” in other pastors who have been deeply wounded by church conflict. So-a lot of bad-came from this particular instance of Christians fighting among themselves-and that’s the way it always is whenever Christians can’t get along.

Now, the sad fact is, I imagine the vast majority of you understand what I’m talking about because you’ve been a part of a painful split-or some other form of church infighting. You may have had a falling out with another Christian and your relationship has never been the same or your feelings were hurt in a business meeting and you’ve withdrawn from active ministry. I mean, unfortunately, all of us have been wounded in some way-all of us know how painful it is when two or more Christians allow their disagreement to hurt their fellowship. Now, I bring all this up-because in the next portion of our study of the book of Acts, there are two examples of Christians disputes. And, I think our study of these disagreements and how they were handled will help us to understand how important it is that we get along as believers. In fact, I’d like to go a step further and supplement our study of this section of Acts with a portion of the Gospel of Matthew, where our Lord gives us principles we must embrace in order to restore broken fellowship.

Okay, let’s get to it. Take your Bibles now and turn to Acts chapter 15. The first example of conflict we find there is recorded in verses 1-35. We don’t have time to read the entire text but verses 1-2 explain what this first dispute was all about.

Acts 15:1 – Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses you cannot be saved.” 2 – This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.

Now our previous study of the book of Acts has taught us that this first conflict wasn’t new. I mean, from almost the beginning Jewish believers had trouble accepting Gentiles. Only a few chapters back we read about how hard it was for Peter to believe that a Gentile named Cornelius could actually become a Christian. Remember? God had to repeat his “vision-lesson” three times before Peter began to understand. And, Peter wasn’t alone in his convictions. All Jews back then had a prejudiced opinion of Gentiles. In fact a Jew in that day might have reacted to Jesus’ last words before His ascension like this:

JESUS : You shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem…” JEW: Great! Let’s go!
JESUS : You shall be My witnesses in all Judea… JEW: Good idea! I have family in Judea.
JESUS : You shall be My witnesses in Samaria…JEW: S-S-S-Samaria? We don’t talk much to those half-breeds!
JESUS : You shall be my witnesses even to the remotest part of the earth. JEW: Now wait just one minute! There are Gentiles out there!

Jews felt this way because from childhood, they were taught to shun the “morally unclean” Gentiles. Even their culture was off-limits. For example, Greek theater or sports, Roman fashions or music-all was forbidden because it was seen as being unclean. Well, Jews like Peter who became Christians carried this separatist attitude into their faith and this made it hard for them to conceive of a Gentile believer. It was a very difficult thing for them to accept. Now, one or two Gentiles becoming Christians-like Cornelius and that Ethiopian eunuch fella-well that was at least tolerable for the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. But, in their opinion, things got out of hand when Paul and Barnabas returned from the first ever mission trip and told how God had “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles…” To them, this was simply too much. It incensed many Jewish believers, especially those who had been Pharisees-the guardians of the law. Something had to be done. So they sent emissaries to Antioch saying that enough was enough. If a Gentile was to become a Christian, he must first become a Jew and be circumcised. Lloyd John Ogilvie helps us to understand their struggle. In his book Drumbeat of Love he writes:

“These converted Pharisees and their followers were not bad people; their problem was that they stood with one foot in Moses’ Law and one foot in Christ’s love. And now the ground was separating beneath them.”

This is a good word picture for us to use because these Pharisees were saying that becoming a Christian was a “both-and” thing. They were saying, “You had to have both faith in God’s amazing grace AND you had to be circumcised!” And you know, unfortunately these days many Christians make the same sort of mistake. They say the grace of God is not enough-that to be a Christian…to be saved…there is something “extra” a person must do: For example they say you have to put your faith in Jesus but you also have to be baptized, or do good works, or speak in unknown tongues, or attend a particular Christian church, etc. But this is wrong. God’s Word teaches that we are saved by grace through faith ALONE. In his commentary on this passage R. C. H. Lenski refers to this and writes,

“To add anything to Christ as being necessary to salvation, say circumcision or any human work of any kind, is to deny that Christ is the COMPLETE Savior. It is to put something human on a par with Him, yea to make it the crowning point. That is fatal. You see, a bridge that is build of 99/100 of Christ and even only 1/100 of anything human breaks down at the joint and ceases to be a bridge.”

Well Paul and Barnabas were mature enough spiritually to understand this foundational principle of our faith. They realized that this issue was something that needed to be dealt with. So with the blessing of the other leaders of the church in Antioch they went to Jerusalem to meet with the Peter and the apostles and these Pharisee Christians who had complained. The series of meetings that followed has been called THE JERUSALEM COUNCIL. And if you were to read the rest of this text you’d see that the members of that council resolved this conflict by affirming two basic things: First, ANYONE, Jew or Gentile can be saved. They realized that as the old hymn text puts it, “Whosoever will may come.” This reminds me of the story of a pastor who once explained to a group of children, how the veil in the temple that separated the outer area from the holy of holies was split as Christ hung on the cross. One little boy asked, “Pastor, how BIG was the hole in that veil when it split?” The pastor responded, “Big enough for ANYONE to get through.” And it was that big-ANYONE, male, female, Jew, Gentile…ANYONE can become a Christian.

The second thing The Jerusalem Council affirmed was that Jesus ALONE can save-not Jesus plus baptism or Jesus plus circumcision or Jesus plus a holy life-not Jesus plus anything-we are saved through faith in JESUS ALONE! Now-I think this is a good time for me to point out that sometimes conflict is necessary. True…Some things are NOT worth fighting about. I mean, a lot of Christians fight about some pretty foolish stuff. For example…the only time I attended the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting was about 11 years ago and I still remember some of the things that the delegates argued about. For example, we spent time debating whether or not Christians should use the Elvis stamp. Next on the agenda was an argument over whether or not women should wear sequins in worship. At that point, I decided I was wasting my time, left the convention and headed for the book store. Well, these kind of things are just NOT worth fighting about-but as I said, the opposite is also true. Some conflicts are absolutely necessary! After all, our unity as Christians, our unity as a local church, is based on our mutual acceptance of the essentials-those non-negotiable doctrinal beliefs that are grounded in Scripture. And sometimes constructive conflict is the only way to correct erroneous human thinking-as was the case here. Okay let’s move on. The second conflict we find in this chapter is in verses 36 – 39. Follow along as I read.

Acts 15:36 – Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 – Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 – but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 – They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.

Now, this is indeed a sad little chapter in the history of the church-but you know, I think the fact that God prompted Luke to record it here is good because it reminds us that the Bible never flatters its heroes. I mean, one moment we read about David bravely slinging a stone at Goliath and the next we see him casting a lustful glance at Bathsheeba. We admire Peter as we read about him leaving his nets to follow Jesus but we shake our heads when he denies our Lord on the eve of His crucifixion. And, we all look up to Paul for His mission fervor and Barnabas for his skills of encouragement but to be honest we’re also embarrassed a bit to read about their behavior here. They argued so severely that they split. These two “giants of the faith” parted company! And as far as we know, they never worked together again. Well, as I said this is just another example of the fact that Scripture paints the saints REALISTICALLY, showing us that they were fallible men with headstrong opinions that sometimes clashed. G. Campbell Morgan writes, “I am greatly comforted whenever I read this. I’m thankful for the revelation of the humanity of these men. If I had never read that Paul and Barnabas had a contention, I should have been afraid. These men were not angels. They were men.”

And I agree. Reading this account in God’s book is good news. I too am comforted…for two reasons-first because it shows this is not some made up book but rather it is truth! And second because it makes it possible for us to relate to the people we read about in these pages. We see that they are just like us and if God can use them, He can use us as well.

Now with these examples in mind I want us to look once again at the “owner’s manual” because not only does it record examples of Christian conflict it also tells us how we are to respond to conflict and disagreements so that precious Christian fellowship is preserved. Look with me now at Matthew 18:15-16 where Jesus addresses this issue by saying…

Matthew 18:15 – “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 – But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

Now, before we look at this text-before we study what Jesus says here about how to deal with conflict-we must first understand how important Christian unity is to our Lord. I mean, we need to get on the same sheet of music here with Jesus. And that means we need to look at quarreling and gossiping and slander-we need to look at anything that damages our unity as believers as a totally SCANDALOUS thing. You see the truth is we are upset by MORAL failures on the part of believers but most of us just don’t care enough about FELLOWSHIP failures. We are NOT scandalized by a lack of love-BUT JESUS IS! Love was and is His supreme value and if He is truly LORD, it must be our supreme value as well. Remember? Jesus’ summation of the TOTAL teaching of Divine revelation is captured in that single word: LOVE-for God and LOVE-for people. So, the greatest crimes against the Kingdom of God then, are crimes against LOVE. To slander another human being, to carry a grudge against someone who I think has hurt me, to gossip about someone I have not even confronted…we must understand that these are all direct violations of Jesus’ most fundamental command.

Do you remember His prayer in the garden the night of His arrest? He prayed, “As You, Father, 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.” John Ortberg writes, “When we allow conflict to lead us to violate oneness, when we contribute to relational brokenness, it doesn’t just affect us. It doesn’t just affect the other person. [When we do this] we are contributing to the destruction of that which is most prized by God and was purchased by Him at the greatest cost-the oneness of the Trinitarian community. We are in a real sense, committing treason against the Trinity.”

Okay-with that in mind look now with me at Matthew 18 where Jesus has given us several basic principles to deal with conflict. We went over these principles in a recent Deacon Meeting-a training session that I based on a chapter from Ortberg’s newest book, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them.

I. Acknowledge the Fact of Conflict

And the first principle we find here is this. We must ACKNOWLEDGE the fact that conflict happens. That’s part of what Jesus was getting at in verse 15 when He said, “If your brother sins against you go and show him his fault..” You see, in a fallen world-even among Christians-brothers are going to sin against each other. Conflict is going to occur. In fact, and this may sound heretical, but I think we should rephrase the first part of verse 15. I mean instead of saying, “IF your brother or sister sins against you” it should say, ”WHEN your brother sins,” because in any relationship-even between Christians-sinful conflict is inevitable. Part of living in a fallen world involves being in conflict. People disagree. People fight. Sometimes they fight a lot; sometimes a little; sometimes constructively; sometimes destructively; sometimes fairly; sometimes unfairly. Sometimes fights end well-like the one that led to the Jerusalem council. Other times they end poorly like this dispute between Paul and Barnabas. But conflict is going to happen on this side of eternity. This is important for us to understand because many of us pretend that conflict doesn’t exist. Some Christians even act as if a lack of conflict is a sign of spiritual maturity. But this is not true. Even mature Christians-like Paul and Barnabas-have disagreements. In fact, a lack of conflict COULD BE DUE to apathy-you know, Christians just not caring enough about absolute truth to defend it. They care more about peace than truth or Christians not loving a brother or sister who has fallen into sin enough to confront them and help them repent and return to living in the center of God’s will. In any case, we shouldn’t be surprised when conflict rears its ugly head in the church. There will be times when godly people disagree.

II. Own Responsibility to Resolving the Issue

The second principle we must understand when it comes to dealing with conflict is that everyone must OWN Responsibility when it comes to resolving the issue. If community is to be restored EVERYONE involved must take responsibility for resolving the situation-both the person who has done the wrong and the person who has been wronged. Here in Matthew 18 Jesus says that if a brother or sister sins against us, we should take the responsibility to go to them and explain how they have hurt us. This is what Paul and Barnabas did in verses 1-2. They went to Jerusalem to confront the Pharisees. And this is good guidance because often people hurt us without even knowing it-which means if we don’t go to them, things will never be put right.

But please note-Jesus ALSO taught that the person who does the wrong should take responsibility. In Matthew 5:23-24 our Lord said,

“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you [for something you have done to him], leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift.”

So Jesus taught that both the sinner and the sin-ee…both the wrong-do-er and the wrong-do-ee … each side must take responsibility. He taught this because community is that important-and we show that we believe it is important in this way by taking the responsibility to deal with relational break-downs. This leads to the third principle we find her in Matthew 18

III. Approach, Don’t Avoid the Person in the Conflict

In other words Jesus says, “GO” to this person. Take action. Don’t let resentment fester. Now, we don’t usually do this do we? We tend to AVOID the people we are in conflict with. Why? Why do we have such a hard time with this? Well, one reason is it’s more fun to pout so we’d rather stay and stew. Besides if we go, things might get ugly and we don’t like to deal with ugly.

And that’s a good thing to understand up front. I mean confrontation may not go well but we shouldn’t let that stop us from dealing with it. After all, avoidance kills community. Avoidance causes resentment to fester. Now, I DO think it is best to take some time to cool our own heels and prepare-you know, to prayerfully gather our thoughts before we approach the person. As Proverbs 14:17 says, “People with hot temper do foolish things; wiser people remain calm.”

So we DO need to calm down first because ANGER causes us to behave foolishly. It causes what therapists refer to as “cognitive incapacitation.” In other words, being MAD prevents us from thinking straight. In fact anger produces what you might call, “the Jim Carrey effect.” As you get mad and madder, you get dumb and dumber. Neil Warren gives us good advice when he says, “When your inner gauge reads ‘red-hot anger,’ delay response.” But once we HAVE cooled down GO-hurry-deal with the problem. Remember? Paul said, “Be angry but do not sin-do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26) In other words, cool down but don’t wait too long. Resolve the issue. The more you wait, the worse it will get. The more you wait, the harder it will be to fix things!

IV. Allow No Third Parties to be Involved

The fourth principle Jesus gives us here can be summarized in three words: No Third Parties. In other words we are to Go-and GO DIRECTLY to ONLY the person involved and clearly explain to them the problem. Now, that’s the last person most of us want to go to. Instead of going to the person with whom we have a problem we prefer going to someone else-someone we can get on our side. It’s kind of like building a coalition of nations against Saddam. We go to other people and in this way gather allies before we attack. Why? BECAUSE WE WANT TO WIN!

I recently had a run in with a certain national department store chain. We purchased a lawn-mower there last year and the salesman convinced me to buy an extended warranty. He said it would cover anything except for normal maintenance. Sounded like a good deal so I had him sign me up and I paid for the warranty. Well a few months later I accidentally ran over a culvert while mowing and bent the blade-but I didn’t worry because I had an extended warranty! When I lugged the mower to the repair center they told me two things. First it would take two weeks to repair and you know how tall grass can grow in two weeks! And just as I was trying to deal with this bit of news they said, “Oh by the way this isn’t covered under the warranty.” Well, after I raised my voice a bit and reminding them of the promises the salesman had made they agreed to pay for most of the repair but they still took two weeks to repair it. And, when this happened I wanted to tell everyone I could. I felt like going back to the store equipped with a bull-horn and tell everyone about my experience with extended warranties. I wanted to write a scathing editorial in the paper. I wanted to call my congressman. I wanted to gather a coalition of allies against this enemy. I guess that’s kind of what I’m doing now!

But that’s the way we are when we are wronged we want to go to everyone BUT the person who has wronged us. So we get lots of people on our side and doing this is disobeying Jesus’ command. We are to go to the person and only to the person-no third parties. Remember in Philippians 4:2 when Paul said, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.” These two women were apparently disagreeing about something. We don’t know what the issue was. Perhaps it had to do with who had the goofier name. But I think it’s interesting to note what Paul DOESN’T advise. He doesn’t say, “Eudoia, talk to some other people about how unfair Syntyche is being to you. Thoroughly discuss her character flaws and neuroses so that others can pray for her more intelligently.” He doesn’t say, “Hey Syntyche, let three or four of your closest friends know how Euodia has mistreated you so they can reinforce your self-righteous sense of martyrdom.” No-he says, “I plead with you…agree WITH EACH OTHER.”

You see, going ONLY to the person limits the damage to just the two of you. It also reduces potential misunderstandings. In fact Jesus says that only after dealing with this one on one has not worked are we to bring in a third party.

V. Aim at Reconciliation

The last principle here is this. We are to aim at RECONCILIATION. Remember what Jesus said, “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” You see, the goal in conflict resolving situations like this is not to win or score points-it’s reconciliation. Your aim should not be to run someone off but rather to restore the relationship. When we disagree we should let our love for each other and our understanding of how precious unity is compel us to care enough to work through the issue.

You know, my little encounter with that department store over my lawn mower has a part two. A few weeks after it was repaired the first time, I hit a bump while mowing and the metal shield around the blade broke. The mower wouldn’t work because the blade kept hitting this dangling shield. Well, once again I lugged it to the repair shop and explained what had happened. They recognized me and assured me that this time the repair was covered but that it would take another two weeks to fix. I had to pay the kid next door to cut my lawn twice! Well, after two weeks they called to tell me the mower was fixed and I could pick it up. I did and the next day I filled it with gas and prepared to mow my lawn. They even thoughtfully put one of those “use only fresh gas” tags around the gas cap, which I did-but when I pulled on the cord I could tell the mower wasn’t fixed. I looked and sure enough the shield was still broken so I called the repair shop, they looked up my repair order and said, “Right-it wasn’t fixed. We decided just to replace your mower.” I said, “Well, I wish you would have told me that two weeks ago-or even when I picked it up. You said it was fixed. You even have this ‘PUT FRESH GAS IN’ tag…” He explained that he didn’t understand the mix-up but promised if I took the old mower back to the store they would replace it with a new one. So I did-loaded it back up and headed out. When I rolled it into the store, the clerk asked if there was gas in the mower. I said yes and it’s fresh-but he said, “We can’t accept it until you empty the tank. If you’ll take it to the Exxon station down the street, they’ll syphon it for you.” Well, I was tired-and angry and I didn’t feel like re-loading that mower into my van again so I lost it. I let that clerk have it. I explained in detail all the ways his company had wronged me. After a few minutes Sue was able to pull me off and I angrily rolled the mower back to the car.

Now - did I do things right according to Matthew 18? Let’s review. I acknowledged the conflict. I took responsibility for resolving the situation. I approached the person who had offended me. I showed him his fault clearly and in great detail. I didn’t bring any third parties in. So I got four out of five right-but I missed the one that mattered most. You see, I had no intent whatsoever in aiming at reconciliation. I just wanted to make that guy who represented his sorry company to feel the inconvenience and frustration I had felt. I wanted their pain-not peace. And that’s where many of us fall short. Like me and Paul and Barnabas here we don’t aim at reconciliation. We don’t work for peace. We just go to war. Well, Jesus says, no-our GOAL in situations like this must always be to “win our brother.”


You know, I am fairly sure that most of us here this morning have been or even right now are right now involved in some form of personal conflict. And if that applies to you-then I encourage you-to turn that mental mike on right now and talk to God about the situation. Commit to go to the person or persons…that spouse or parent or child or employee or boss or coach or deacon or PASTOR-and do what it takes to make peace. Resolve the conflict. I also feel led to point out that if you’re here and are not a Christian-then in a very real sense you are in conflict with God Himself.

In Romans 5:10 it refers to non-Christians as “God’s enemies” and then it goes on to say that Jesus came to die for our sins and in that way reconcile us to God. Jesus came to be our Mediator-so act on that fact-ask Jesus forgive your sins and invite Him into your heart and life. If you make that decision or any other that needs to be public, I invite you to walk forward right now as we stand and sing and share that decision with me. Won’t you come as God leads?