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Blessable Conflict

Dissension, your church and the Great Commission

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Most of us believe that valleys follow mountain tops. Who, after returning from an inspiring retreat, has not been sobered by the harsh realities of life? It’s as if the enemy plants land mines along our path, designed to undo the afterglow of the peak experience.

But what if the opposite were true? What if valleys actually prepare us for mountain top experiences? At first, the idea seems counterintuitive. But when it comes to conflict and its relationship to the local church and even missions, how we handle disputes in the valley often determines the heights of our ministry.

One of the beautiful things about the early Jerusalem church was how it handled conflict. (Yes, even the first of all churches faced conflict—from within and from without.) In fact, a curious pattern stands out: Each time the members traversed a difficult valley in a godly manner, fresh blessing poured out on their ministry.

Hostile Territory

In the opening verses of Acts, the disciples are stuck between the Great Commission and Pentecost, bearing all the responsibility of disciplemaking without the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. What a difficult position! More than that, Jesus commanded them to stay in Jerusalem of all places. With visions of the Crucifixion branded in their memories, they remained at the scene of the crime, where the perpetrators still lurked in the shadows. In the midst of that environment, Jesus told them to wait “for the promise of the Father.” For me, waiting is not a strong suit. But as someone once said, there’s only one thing worse than waiting on the Lord—wishing you had!

Fortunately, the disciples demonstrated obedience. What was their reward? They experienced the mountain top of all mountain top experiences in the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The added blessing, described in Acts 2:41, was that “about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

Threats from Without and Within

The church exploded with growth: “But many who heard the message believed and the number of men grew to about five thousand” (4:4). However, too much of a good thing caught the attention of Jewish authorities, and Peter and John received their first dose of persecution as they were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. The two apostles demonstrated faithfulness and commitment during an interrogation designed to intimidate them and squelch their message. After they returned to their people, they prayed not for the ending of persecution but for boldness in the midst of it!

What was the reward? Luke (the writer of the Book of Acts) tells us it was the first refilling of the Holy Spirit: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (4:31).

The third example of handling conflict in a godly way comes from within, when a married couple made an underhanded donation. This first attempt at political manipulation in the Body of Christ may have been as much a test for Peter as it was for Ananias and his colluding wife, Sapphira. If Peter had had his eye on the donation rather than the motive behind it, the church might have been tainted by corporate sin. If that had happened, do you think the members would have enjoyed Luke’s summary statement in Acts 5:14: “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number”? In this case, constituted authority kept the church free of infection, and the result was continued blessing of its ministry.

Acts 5 is heart-thumping stuff. Once again, church leaders found themselves under lock and key, but this time ferocity and fury awaited them in the Sanhedrin. Only through the intervention of an honored rabbi named Gamaliel did the apostles escape with their lives. They could not, however, escape the whip. Their flogging put an exclamation point on the Jewish leaders’ demand that they no longer speak “in the name of Jesus.”

But the apostles acted as if it were a privilege to suffer for their Lord. Suffering was a price they willingly paid to honor the One who suffered for them. Luke leaves no room for hesitation or second thought: “they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (v. 42). He goes on to record the continued blessing on the mission of the Early Church: “In those days the number of disciples was increasing . . .” (6:1).

Unity in the Body

But another test awaited the Early Church, one involving the sin of prejudice. In Acts 6 we find the account of a perceived disparity of treatment among cultural groups within the Body. At the heart of the problem were the least powerful people in the church, widows, who “were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (v. 1).

The apostles needed the wisdom of Solomon to sort out the controversy. And like the child’s true mother in Solomon’s court, the leaders were unwilling to divide the Body. Instead, they opted for a committee made up entirely of individuals whose names suggest they originated from the injured minority. This was not a bipartisan political move but complete trust in godly leaders from different cultural backgrounds.

No doubt the way the apostles handled the conflict strengthened the unity of the church. Minorities would not be marginalized and neither would God’s blessing on the church’s ministry. Luke lays it out in verse 7: “So the word of God spread. The numbers of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

The Final Phase

Acts chapters 1–8 represent the first three years of the Jerusalem church’s history. During the final phase of that era we find a tumultuous period that begins in chapter six and concludes with the beginning of chapter eight. Stephen’s martyrdom may be the darkest valley the Early Church faced. Did it handle this final episode in a God-honoring way that enabled Jesus to continue to bless the mission of the church?

We read that the apostles did not flee. They remained in Jerusalem at great personal risk. The first three years of the church began with the apostles waiting in Jerusalem and ends with them there, too. They proved faithful from start to finish. We read that many of the church members who did escape Jerusalem took their message with them. Luke describes the blessed results of the way the church handled their biggest conflict: “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4).

Conflict, the Church and Missions

What do we learn from the godly manner in which the Jerusalem church faced conflict?

If the first-century church failed to escape conflict, no church, denomination or Christian entity likely will. The manner in which a local church (or any Christian entity) handles conflict impacts God’s blessing on its mission.

Had the Jerusalem church gotten bogged down by cowardly leadership, internal politics or a split along cultural lines, the gospel would have certainly lost its momentum and blessing. Instead, the health of the Early Church ensured the health of its mission. Should modern-day church leaders sense a less-than-blessed outcome in their ministry, it may be time to look at their church’s history. Has anything transpired that would impede Christ’s blessing? Has unresolved sin or unhealed wounds impacted the Body? Do the aftereffects of old problems linger?

Your church’s role in fulfilling the Great Commission may hang in the balance. I’m not saying you’ll stop giving or praying or even sending out the occasional international worker. But the spiritual flame that so enlivened the Early Church will grow dim in your own. I’ve worked with too many churches where the flame of the Holy Spirit’s blessing resembles more of a smoldering wick. In all such cases the churches in question mishandled conflict. As you consider your church history, has conflict been handled in a blessable manner?

During the times in which we live, don’t allow anything to hinder the mission of your church. If events have transpired that require repentance and reconciliation, don’t put it off. Perform the hard work spiritual leadership demands. May the Lord enable your local church to be as blessable as the one that started it all!

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