The Barnabas Ministry

Parenthood Lessons for Church Conflicts
The idea of God being our Father is one of the most basic Christian concepts. It is more than a metaphor, but the metaphorical aspect of this teaches us much about our relationship to God.

A parent's love for a child teaches us unconditional love, the delight parents have in their children, the gentleness of guiding children though the ups and downs of life, a "big picture" perspective, helping them to find and fulfill that which they were created for, just to name a few. These all have significant parallels to our spiritual lives. Hopefully it has enriched your spiritual life to know that God is a loving Father.

Similarly, our spiritual lives are enriched by the concept that fellow Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ. Since we share the same Father, we can enjoy a special closeness with other Christians. I've been blessed to have many relationships with other Christians that were this way.

But there is one aspect of the brother and sister relationships that Christians share doesn't get much discussion, and this is the area of conflict.

As a parent, for years I have observed the similarities between squabbling siblings and squabbling Christians. I am amazed at the profound similarities, and hope to discuss a few of these in this article.

Fighting Siblings
If you're a parent, you know the joy of seeing your children get along and support each other. Such things bring joy to your heart.

You also know the irritation and even anguish of seeing them squabble and fight, often over ridiculous things. You see how your children sometimes seem to be unable to resist the temptation to demonstrate their own superiority, take a sibling down a notch or two, or to see them battle for attention, approval, or some special privilege. You see how children sometimes want to make sure that their parents see a certain behavior or trait of a sibling, feeling the parents are oblivious.

You see how old hurts and habitual patterns of behavior create unhealthy dynamics where just a single, seemingly minor event can trigger a major conflict. In the heat of the moment, comments like these may be directed to parents:

- She always gets her way
- She's your favorite
- He never gets in trouble
- You should have seen what he did!
- She always does that and I'm sick of it!
- You just don't understand
- Why am I getting in trouble? What he did was just as bad
- If you only knew what she was like when you're not there
- You need to teach her this!

So why do siblings fight? I'm not a psychologist, family therapist or researcher, but I am a parent of three teenagers. To me there are three main reasons why siblings fight:

1- Who's superior?
2- Who's the favorite?
3- Wanting to be an independent, mature adult (as opposed to an immature child)

Let's explore these concepts a little bit.

The oldest child in a family starts out in the superior position, and younger siblings follow in order. This need not be a source of conflict, but... it is, especially if the children are relatively close in age. Superiority has its perks; these are obvious enough that I won't go into them here. But as the children get older, the position of superiority is always seemingly "up for grabs." The younger ones are after for what the oldest one has, and the oldest one makes efforts to keep what he has. So as soon as the ten year old gets to be the same age as his eleven year old brother (and "catches up"), alas, the eleven year old is now a twelve year old.

If a child, especially a younger child, can't win at the "superiority" game, there is another game to play: being the favorite. The objective here would be to compete for slightly better treatment from their parents than what the other siblings get- especially what an older one gets.

Kids may forget to pick up their rooms or take their lunch to school, but I think they have a little built-in database that remembers nearly every privilege and slight in the history of the family. They are keen to pick up on any hint of inequity. They don't mind if they are favored, but they will howl "unfair" (or store the issue in the database for future recall) if one of the siblings (especially a younger one) is favored.

Because all the children have different ages, personalities, interests and the like, there will be numerous opportunities for favoritism. Good luck to all parents keeping that straight!

The heart of a good parent cries out, "all of my kids are my favorites!" But for each child to know and feel this is not so easy. Good parents spend a lot of effort trying to make things fair, and to persuade the children that things really are fair.

But the kids are rarely content with what goes on between them and their parents, they are always comparing their treatment with that of their siblings. All kids want their parents' approval, and it's pretty natural for kids to want just a little more approval than their siblings.

Wanting to be an independent, mature adult is a good thing. God created us with an innate desire for this. He commanded man to "be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28)." It is the first Great Commission, a message of enormous vision and empowerment, not constraint or subjection. Each individual is created with the capacity (and responsibility)
to one day leave behind the constraints of childhood and be the steward of his life as an adult. Reaching this position of maturity is a process that unfolds day by day, year by year.

Good parents want their children to someday be successful, independent, productive, functional adults. They prepare their children for this very early on- providing nurture and direction, allowing them to make choices, giving them opportunities to succeed and fail, and helping them learn from success and failure. Gradually children are given more and bigger choices and responsibility/consequences to go with them, to prepare them for the independence of adulthood.

Sometimes children think they are ready for more than they are really ready for. Among other things, they have to be reminded they are part of a family and they don't have the capacity to make adult-like judgements just yet. This is particularly true in cases where one child attempts to take the role of a parent in the life of a sibling, most often correcting something. Children may be mature enough to know this or that, but they may not be mature enough to train a younger sibling in this or that.

Parents Preempt Conflict, But Cannot Prevent It
Each of these three elements (superiority, favoritism, maturity) leads to conflict among siblings, though there are probably others as well. Parents spend a lot of effort and energy resolving and trying to prevent conflict. They try to treat each child in age-appropriate ways as individuals, in ways that each child thinks is right for her. They try to make this clear to all children. They try to show equal attention to all, but in the ebb and flow of life this can be difficult. Hopefully it averages out over time. They also have to reassess roles and boundaries for children on a constant basis. This helps keep the fighting down, but it doesn't eliminate it.

One of the most frustrating things about being a parent is, even after having done all of these things, the children still squabble and fight. At the end of the rope, the parent thinks (and maybe says) three things: Can't you just be content? Why can't you just love your sibling the way I do? And, if you're gonna fight-- I don't want to hear it!

At this point, I think about God and squabbling Christians. How does God feel about the conflict among Christians? Well, more about that later.

Regarding contentment-- happiness and peace without regard to the treatment or benefits of others-- has been a problem for mankind since the Garden. The scriptures are full of stories where lack of contentment gets people in trouble, and where God simply calls us to be content. Lack of contentment is a source of much strife.

Expecting them to love as you do (as a parent)-- is asking for something "way out there." How realistic is it, really? Kids can't understand parental love; if you are a parent think about how much you learned about parental love after becoming a parent. Maybe the best parents can hope for is that the kids will understand that "mom and dad really love my siblings," and treat it as a mystery of the universe they cannot comprehend just yet.

Of course, sometimes kids just like to fight, maybe it's just a ritual of monitoring who is superior. Sometimes kids are just plain selfish and sinful; they do hurtful and hateful things to their siblings. A good correction, rebuke or well-chosen discipline may help. But sometimes the kids feel deeply wronged or a deep sense of injustice and that is a big part of why they are fighting. They are fighting for Truth and Justice, and their sibling just happens to be in the way.

I'm sure there are more reasons and more issues, but the conclusion is the same-- no matter what parents do, siblings quarrel. And the questions that are at the end of sibling quarrels certainly have an application for quarreling Christians.

Parallels in the Church
So, why do Christians fight? The reasons are not that different from why siblings fight.

1- Desire to be superior.
2- Desire to be a favorite.
3- Wanting to be a spiritual adult vs. a spiritual child.

One might observe these are rather childish considerations. Paul made this observation to the Corinthians who were caught up in conflicts along these lines:

Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Cor 14:20)

This validates the comparison being made in this article, but it does not stop adult Christians from engaging in these behaviors.

Christians desire to be superior to their brothers and sisters. Who knows the most? Who is the "most spiritual?" Who is the "better Christian?" Who has a position of authority or stature that reflects their superior spirituality? Who has the most loyal followers or the best "movement?" Who does "God use the most?" This striving for superiority may be presented as striving for excellence and might lead to increased achievement in this or that area for a time, but it breeds many different forms of conflict and is generally unhealthy for the church.

Christians desire to be a favorite. They want to be praised and recognized, particularly if they are not in a position of superiority. Unwittingly, much of church life is oriented around being in the "in" group, being considered "spiritual" or special by the leaders or others who have somehow become the "official favorite recognizers." Or wanting to have "insider," close relationships with the leaders. All of these mean having something of value that other Christians do not have: being a favorite. Of course, this breeds resentment and hurt because showing favoritism is sinful and condemned in Scripture (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:21).

Healthy Christians want to be considered mature, adult believers. They will justly bristle over an
other's desire to control, judge or even possess them (a warping of the biblical concept of discipleship). Certainly, new Christians learn basics of the faith from older Christians. But at some point that process really does end. This doesn't mean they don't have things to learn from others, but it does mean that those relationships change from older/younger to peer relationships (for example, reference the "one another" passages in the New Testament). Introducing anything that robs reasonably mature Christians of their spiritual individuality and peer relationship to others is bound to cause conflict. God made us to be spiritual adults; trying to rob people of that is fighting against what God intends.

So How Does God Feel About It?
The reality is, nobody knows exactly how God feels about ongoing conflicts among Christians. But if we pay attention to the idea of God being our Father, maybe we will learn something about this. 

Each side in a conflict would like to convince you God is on their side. But given that we're dealing with fallen (albeit redeemed) human beings, it's pretty unlikely in any conflict one side is entirely right and the other side is entirely wrong. So God is probably on the side of right in various aspects of the matter. That sounds good, until you realize that we rack our brains trying to figure out what is really right in some of these conflicts. If it was that easy, we would not have the conflicts in the first place.

But ... what if God was like a human parent? What if he had a certain amount of tolerance for conflict among his children, but at a certain point just got maxed out by it all? What if he said, "Just be content?" What if he said, "Love your brother/sister as much as I do, or at least make a really good effort at it." Or, "If you're gonna fight, I don't want to hear it." Or perhaps even more crassly, "Just zip it, ok? Your conflict is ridiculous." Or maybe, "If you can't love your spiritual sibling the way I do, I don't want to hear about your conflict." We might be offended, and there may be some theological concerns with this position and God's omniscience and infinite power. But I'm beginning to think there are a lot of good reasons this might just be God's attitude.

To start with, it mimics the response of human parents. If we are to learn about God from the metaphor of the human parent/child relationship, why wouldn't this be one of the things to learn about it?

Contentment is a spiritual virtue. The lesson is particularly Christian, being taught to Peter (John 21:22), leaders (1 Timothy 6:8-10)  and entire churches (Phil 4:11-12, Hebrews 13:5). Some of these passages apply to material contentment, but others apply to spiritual contentment as well.  Christians need to learn to be content in their circumstances without comparison to others. Comparing ourselves to others is a recipe for misery and strife.

Further, all of our righteousness is by grace. Our righteous acts are done by grace. God has shown grace to teach us what is right and to direct us to what is right. So if we should happen to do that which is right, on what basis does anyone boast about it? On what basis might one Christian consider one superior or inferior to another due to it?

t is interesting that Jesus commanded the disciples to love one another as he had loved them (John 13:34). Frequently, sermons or teachings addressing this point draw the cross as the standard of love for other Christians. But Jesus had not yet died on the cross at this time, and no Christian actually needs to die on a cross to redeem another Christian. Maybe Jesus had something different in mind about how he "had loved them."

That verb "as I have loved" is a Greek aorist tense, suggesting a particular act of love. The most obvious instance of love I can see from this context is Jesus calling them to be apostles. Maybe he overlooked a lot of faults because he knew the "big picture" and a particular purpose for them. Maybe the journey rather than the destination was the objective. As one scholar comments:

Jesus knew that the spirit of rivalry would disrupt their fellowship before they could accomplish his commission to them. The attitude of love would be the bond that would keep them united and would be the convincing demonstration that they had partaken of his own spirit and purpose. He had loved them without reservation and without limit (ref Jn 13:1-5) and expected them to do the same. (Merrill C. Tenney, Expositor's Bible Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI. 9:142)

To be sure, we have a hard time getting our brains around Jesus' love for the disciples. This means we'll have an equally hard time getting our brains around loving one another as Jesus did. But Jesus knew that was at least part of the answer. Does it make sense for him to tell the apostles to do something that was too far "out there?" Maybe if we understood his instruction in this regard more consistent with the context (that is, regarding acceptance instead of "dying on the cross" for others), it would make more sense to us, and perhaps we'd be more likely to obey what he said.

In regards to the "I don't want to hear it" answer-- do we damage God's family by engaging in squabbles and fights with other Christians? Consider just a few passages:

I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. (1 Timothy 1:8)

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.
(Romans 14:22)

Maybe God has less tolerance for our conflicts, particularly when we are gathered as a family, than we think.

How do our conflicts and issues stack up compared to the family of God? Whose family is it?

Even in cases of mistreatment or abuse, it's not that one hasn't been wronged or hurt. And it certainly doesn't mean that the one guilty of mistreatment now gets off the hook (God is certainly big enough to watch out for justice and doesn't like one of his kids being mistreated). The point is this: the family is more important than the conflict. The Father is more important than the conflict.

A Better Church
If the universal church is regarded as God's family, and God as the Father of that family, maybe it will change our perspectives on conflicts within it.

How different the church could be if there was contentment instead of striving for superiority or favoritism. If there was respect for all members as spiritual adults? I am not saying don't strive for excellence, but I am saying don't strive for excellence as a means or reason to put your spiritual sibling down.

Jesus did not use his status to put others down, but rather to elevate others. And if we take the New Testament message seriously, early Christian leaders considered themselves servants, the least of their brothers. Not just in name, but in reality. Humility continues to be a mark of a true leader, though humans tend to be distracted by performance, knowledge, charisma, eloquence and flattery.

The church is full of humans. A church with humans is going to have conflicts just as families with children will have conflict. However, the church can recognize that many of these conflicts come down to rather childish and immature behaviors. Unfortunately, the chief promulgators of these inclinations in the church tend to be leaders-- those that the members tend to regard as the most mature and who have the most influence in the church. In this case, those who really are mature- both leaders and non-leaders, need to avoid getting into these traps.

Lastly, maybe we just need to shut up about our conflicts out of respect for the Father and not let them overshadow the Father's family (the church). Some Christians in the Bible even agreed to go separate ways to avoid persistent conflict (e.g. Acts 15:36-41). They were at least mature enough to know that the other guy was not sinning just because of this disagreement and that God was the head of the family. The Father can figure out who is righteous without the children arguing their case. The Father appreciates it when children show restraint and value the family more than their position with respect to their siblings. The Father also knows that there is a time when siblings sometimes need to move on from immature spiritual relationships with their siblings and fulfill their purposes as adults. If they can avoid damaging the family through immature conflict, the family will ultimately be enriched. This maintains true unity and expands the Kingdom far more than subjecting the siblings to maturity-thwarting control and domination under the guise of "unity" or "discipleship." The church can have unity without every issue being settled with a winner and a loser.

How could we know this about the Father? I just know when I go out to dinner with my family, I want to enjoy my family in a conflict-free zone, at least for a time. I know there are conflicts and issues, but they aren't more important than my family. Maybe, just maybe, our Heavenly Father is the same way.

How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! Psalms 133:1

Copyright © 2011 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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