I’m not a big fan of conflict, but I can’t seem to get away from it. Whether at home, at work or at church, wherever sinners are gathered together, conflict almost inevitably shows up. While there’s nothing wrong with some conflict, we need to address it in a godly way. That’s why, in If You Bite & Devour One Another, Alexander Strauch examines the Scriptures to instruct readers to handle conflict in a way that honors Christ and encourages peace and unity among believers.
Strauch breaks his study into four categories—how to act, what to control, what to pursue and what to confront. The first two deal heavily with character, which is the best place to start any book on conflict. We are completely incapable of handling conflict faithfully if we’re a train wreck in terms of character. “Every conflict reveals whether we practice what we preach . . . Every conflict reveals the genuineness of our Christian life,” he writes (p. 22). Will we act in the Spirit, displaying His fruit, or in the “ugliness of the flesh” when faced with conflict? Are we characterized by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23) or do we almost relish quarrelling, causing dissensions, divisions and rivalries? And will we not also in love and in humility?
If it’s true that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8), then we ought to show love to others, deciding beforehand how we will respond to those with whom we disagree (especially on issues of conscience). True Christian love is a self-sacrificing love. “To practice liberty-limiting love,” writes Strauch, “is to imitate Christ’s self-sacrificing love on the cross for our salvation. . . . If Christ was willing to die for the weak believer, surely we can give up some of our freedoms and rights to build up and protect such a person from stumbling into sin” (p. 35). This is an attitude that requires us to be humble and to practice what we preach and carefully examine our own motives when entering into debate with another.
Sadly, any of us could easily point to numerous examples of conflict (particularly on the firestorm of virtue that is the Internet) and quickly see numerous examples of our own hypocrisy (Lord knows I’m as guilty of it as anyone). It’s just easier to start chucking rocks at straw men than actually try to understand a position that we may disagree with, but isn’t necessarily unbiblical. While there is always a time and a place for appropriate discussion, needless conflict prevents us from actually being effective in our ministry and service to others.
Consider the ongoing debate over the so-called “Young, Restless, Reformed” crowd’s position on alcohol. While no doubt there are some who have absolutely abused their Christian liberty in this area and caused others to stumble (a grave sin to be sure), we must be careful to avoid caricaturizing them as a bunch of drunkards who flaunt excess in the name of being free in Christ. Likewise, it’s dangerous and foolish for those who would have a less reserved view of alcohol consumption (permissible, but in moderation) to broad brush those who advocate teetotalism as grumpy. To do so causes nothing but strife and division among believers and hinders our own ministries; we can become so busy chucking rocks that we forget that our goal is to glorify Jesus.
It’s no wonder then, as Strauch points out, we need to be careful to control our anger, our critical attitudes and especially our tongues. “Too often, when conflict erupts, people become angry and seem not to care what they say,” he writes. “At the very moment they need to bridle their tongue, they lose control and use words as weapons to hurt people. . . . The person who controls the tongue is truly the spiritual believer, able to handle people and conflict constructively” (p. 65).
Our words have a devastating effect on others when they’re used as weapons, something I’m sadly all too familiar with—from both the giving and receiving end. And Strauch’s (and Scripture’s) admonition to speak even harshly in love is so important. “Love and concern must be our motive whenever we must rebuke or speak pointedly to fellow believers about their stubborn waywardness or erroneous belief,” he writes (p. 76).
Again, how we handle conflict comes back to our character. We act either in love or from pride. Acting in love allows us to control our critical attitudes, to pursue genuine reconciliation (even allowing us the humility to be the first to apologize when conflict does occur) and increase our desire for and pursuit of peace.
So what do we do when there’s a genuine need for confrontation, as in the case of those teaching false doctrine or legitimate controversy over important, but ultimately “secondary” matters (what some would call in-house debates)? Strauch reminds us in the final two chapters of If You Bite & Devour One Another that these situations are handled very differently.
Using the story of Wolfgang, a fictional German missionary in India, Strauch shows how false teaching can sneak into even the most healthy church and how it must be confronted and corrected. What Strauch does exceptionally well is illustrate the pastoral heart behind this kind of confrontation. All of Wolfgang’s efforts stem from his love for the fledgling church he helped to found. He contended against false teachers not because he wanted to be right, but because he wanted to protect his brothers and sisters in Christ, which should be the motivation for all our contending.
Perhaps one of our greatest corporate sins over the last 20 plus years has been in not effectively dealing with false teachers. Rather than contending well, we became complacent—so much so that whenever concern has been raised (such as D.A. Carson in his very balanced and helpful Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church), we have either ignored it or outright rejected it. And when a New Kind of Christianity or a Love Wins type of situation happens, everyone’s left wondering what to do.
In these instances, when the false teaching cannot be avoided, our duty is not to tolerate, but to courageously contend for the faith. Sometimes this means naming names specifically. Other times it means describing the kinds of teaching and explaining why they’re antithetical to biblical Christianity. But by no means does it ever include tolerating damnable heresy within the church, not even for the sake of conversation. So those who are teaching false doctrine are to be expelled if they’re within the body and those who have become caught up in their teaching are to be corrected with gentleness and firmness.
This, too, is an area where perhaps we would benefit from some improvement. Again, looking back to the Love Wins situation, we could probably say that a good job was done of warning and contending (at least by a number of those who responded to the book)… but I’m not sure we did an adequate job correcting with gentleness. Far too often, our words (including my own) have been laced with sarcasm when they should be infused with mercy toward those who have been deceived. This is a difficult balance to strike, but it’s an area where I greatly desire to see personal growth.
When it comes to important and legitimate doctrinal divisions, however, we don’t treat those with whom we disagree as if they’re heretics. R.C. Sproul Jr. insightfully pointed this out in a recent blog post when he wrote, “Can we both agree that being wrong on baptism is not a damnable heresy, and also affirm that it is an issue that matters?” Strauch exhorts us to remember “that Bible-believing Christians all agree on the essential, foundational truths that save our souls and give us new life” (p. 153). Our disagreements matter, but not to the degree that we should lose sight of this important reality.
By way of application, this chapter has reminded me that the one of the worst places for dealing with this kind of controversy among believers is the Internet. Perhaps it is because we’ve become conditioned to read it as such, but unless a blog is very carefully worded, it almost always skews negative. None of us can adequately grasp the author’s tone and we must be very wise in responding to anything online. “Let all that we do be done in love,” Strauch again exhorts.
Conflict is, and will continue to be, unavoidable. While we can’t control whether or not we will face conflict, we can choose how we will handle it. In If You Bite & Devour One Another, Alexander Strauch has offered much-needed guidance in doing exactly that. Conflict must be handled well; let’s handle it with grace and wisdom.
Title: If You Bite & Devour One Another: Biblical Principles for Handling Conflict
Author: Alexander Strauch
Publisher: Lewis & Roth Publishers (2011)
A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review purposes by the publisher.