If you are a Christian then you love the church because you love what Jesus loves. Jesus died for her (Eph 5.2, 25) and it’s Christian to love those for whom Jesus died. But Christ’s bride is one messed-up group of people because you and I are some messed-up folk.
Jesus did not give himself up for the church because of who she was but because of who he would make her to be. Jesus knew full well his church would never be perfect in this life. He would sanctify her until the last day when he raises her anew as a gift to his Father (Eph 5.26-27). We serve an illusion if we think our churches will be spotless, wrinkle-free, holy and blameless before the day Jesus presents her on that day. Jesus never intended to create the perfect church in this age. He would preserve a faithful people who ride together the ups-and-downs of sin, pain, sorrow and joy by faith until he comes again.
Meanwhile, we are one motley group of weak people running a very difficult race of faith.
The true marks of a church, according to the Reformers, are the right preaching of God’s word, the right administration of the sacraments/ordinances and the exercise of church discipline. Any church aiming at those marks will go through some very painful circumstances. It’s nosy business we welcomed when we were baptized. When Jesus came on the Galilean scene demons came out of nowhere to go toe-to-toe with the one they knew would destroy them. Likewise, striving for and maintaining healthy churches means meeting sin and Satan in the dark alleys of human hearts. And no one comes away without scars in that fight.
Have you considered the reason why we have thirteen New Testament letters? They’re all, in one sense or another, responses to church conflicts. Be it sneaky false teachers or plain old infighting, local churches suffered grievous internal conflict. There were no perfect churches in the NT. In fact, we’re surprised to see some groups of believers still considered part of the church! Jesus’ seven letters in Revelation 2-3 were to confront imperfect churches. Until the end of time, Christ’s church will not be what she will be when Christ gets done with her on the last day.
The ministry of Jesus invited conflict. Therefore, true gospel ministry invites conflict in the “best” of churches. We don’t relish the conflict, but we’re not surprised or excessively despaired by it. Conflict is often the means of testing faithfulness (2 Cor 2.9) and reminding us that we’re not There yet and therefore must keep each other’s eyes fixed on Christ.
We can ignore conflict by avoiding the hard work of communal accountability to the gospel. Offenders and offended simply slip out the side-door so as to avoid any confrontation and stain of scandal.
We can exaggerate conflict by assuming Satan is successfully destroying the church. Satan only has as much leash as God allows, though. Let’s be careful of ascribing to Satan what are really our own selfish, prideful desires. No offense is unresolvable. Either by humble reconciliation or loving church discipline, Jesus has made a way to deal with church conflict.
We can understate conflict by publicly ignoring it but privately gossiping about it until the cancer takes over major organs. Jesus gives courage to elders to confront conflict early so no bitter fruit blossoms (Heb 12.14). Otherwise, what are probably minor offenses explode into major rifts.
We can fear conflict by running from it so we soon have a church with people exactly like us.
Or, we can consider conflict biblically. Conflict will happen in the best of churches. That’s why we have most of the New Testament. Therefore, we should be honest about conflict. The world doesn’t need to see a billboard of superficial, smiling suburbanites. The world needs to see a community of sinners who have found Living Hope in the gospel and pursue peace with each other.
We should consider conflict as a means by which God exposes our own sin. He tests our love so we will enjoy even more of Christ’s power and provision. He will allow conflict to show the world the precious value of Jesus over indwelling sin and personal hatred.
We shouldn’t be surprised by conflict if we’re striving to be healthy churches. Satan has declared war on the church (Rev 12.17) and when we poke him he snarls.
We should see conflict in light of the big picture rather than our infinitesimally small world. Christ is sanctifying a global community and we’re barely a sliver of it. Whatever conflict we face in the American church should be seen in light of the persecution of Christians in most of the rest of the world.
We should consider conflict part of God’s means of sanctifying his people. We still need Christ to redeem, repent and restore.
We shouldn’t consider a healthy church the one without any conflict. There is such a thing as false peace. The healthy church is one who deals with conflict in a Christ-exalting, saint-loving, purity-protecting way.
While conflict shouldn’t dominate a church’s life, it will be a regular condition in the life of the church. Such is life in the age of groaning (Rom 8.22-24). There will always be someone(s) giving into temptation, incubating wicked thoughts, hiding secret sins, etc. The joy of Christian ministry is not making sure everyone looks perfect but in making sure everyone is hoping in Christ and his perfections.
We live in the age of the hope of glory (Rom 5.2; Col 1.27), knowing the day is coming soon when we will finally, and in reality, be the glorious people for whom Christ died. Until then “with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Rom 8.25). So, relax, your church is a mess. But not for too much longer.