Don’t fear the fight

September 14, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 18
Phil Wagler |

I once endured the excruciatingly dreary annual meeting of a non-profit organization. The endless evening reaffirmed my conviction that there is a hell.

When the floor opened for questions, the gentlemen next to me stood and raised the insignificant matter of the meeting’s location. “That’s the least of this meeting’s concerns,” I thought. This pressing issue off his chest, the man sat down satisfied, leaned over and whispered, “I don’t really care where they have the meeting, I just wanted to see if there was a pulse in the room.”

Conflict is not necessarily bad and it is unavoidable. In fact, it is sometimes the best thing that can happen to a family, organization or church. It strengthens resolve, rattles the rust, galvanizes conviction and clears the air.

But most churches are very uncomfortable with conflict. Our desire for peace—or maybe it’s really comfort—trumps all, including the waging of necessary battles. But when you’re not waging necessary battles, it probably means you’ve stopped doing anything of ultimate importance.

In Mennonite fellowships, this is perhaps the result of an unbiblical reading of what it means to reject the use of the sword. Has pacifism led to our pacification? Has it led to an inability to differentiate between the sinful, fleshly use of the sword that Jesus turns us from, and the proper place of healthy conflict for the sake of Christ-centred unity, faithfulness to God’s truth and commitment to God’s mission?

This reality leaps off the pages of the Book of Acts. The early church is in conflict with political and religious powers everywhere she is led by the Holy Spirit. This conflict is not against flesh and blood, and in this battle zone the church rightly practises Christ-centred non-resistance. Trusting God while living the resurrected life together, they endure suffering to proclaim God’s good news and obey God rather than human authority. If our churches are not feeling spiritual conflict, perhaps we’re missing the mark?

Conflict in Acts, however, is also an internal reality. Ananias and Sapphira were fearfully confronted, and the result was not an “aw shucks” shoulder shrug, but a situation that still strikes wonder all these centuries later. The integrity of the church and her practice could not be air-brushed.

In Acts 6, there is conflict over the care of the socially vulnerable. The result is clarified purpose, mission and the raising up of new Spirit-filled leadership.

Theological conflict needing head-on engagement emerges in Acts 15. The content of the gospel, and the nature of grace and salvation, were at stake. They navigated the cultural, scriptural and experiential maze to discern vital truth, knowing that drawing a line in the sand would mean future conflict.

Healthy conflict will result in right decisions not everyone likes. Good decisions made in the heat of conflict will not eliminate future variance, but simply open up a different front in the battle. The question is: Are we fighting the right battles?

And then there is that strange endnote to Acts 15, where Paul and Barnabas, seemingly joined at the hip, disagree and part ways. The issue is the inclusion of John Mark, who had failed miserably as a team member. The conflict leads not to disunity, but disagreement—there is a huge difference—and the mission of God benefits in the long run.

Even intending good produces conflict, which is often what happens in our churches. We would do well to not fear the fight. It’ll show we have a pulse that beats with heaven.

Phil Wagler is the author of Kingdom Culture and continues to learn the value of healthy conflict. Duke it out with him at

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