William Willimon recounts an occasion when a church member on their way out of worship said, “I know that you would not intentionally hurt anyone, but I was hurt by what you said today in your sermon.” Willimon thought to himself, “Where would you get the notion that I didn’t want to hurt you? I’m a preacher!”1And yet most of us – preacher and layperson alike – follow Jesus with the assumption that our primary goal as Christians is to be nice, pleasant, harmless, and to avoid conflict at all costs. But even a cursory look at the life and ministry of Jesus should quickly disabuse us of such a notion. Jesus was always running into conflict and even inciting it himself, always embracing the opportunity it provided.
Jesus’ entire life was bookended by conflict – Herod’s murderous rampage on one end, Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion on the other – and he spent a great deal of his ministry inciting conflict by turning over tables, dismantling social boundaries, speaking truth to those in power, and loving the unlovable. Such actions left him with no shortage of opponents: Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, the Sanhedrin, the chief priests, Roman authorities, the disciples, and even his family at times! His encounters with these various opponents were frequently fraught with conflict, and Jesus responds to each conflict head on with wisdom and intentionality, carefully crafting his response to the particulars of each situation. Sometimes Jesus’ response was blunt: “Woe to you!” he says to those exhibiting blatant forms of hypocrisy. Other times, Jesus responded with a parable or series of questions, especially when the Pharisees or Sadducees attempted to stump Jesus or trap him in his own words. In such instances, Jesus’ stories and questions would in effect guide his opponents to seeing the error of their own assumptions and the flawed nature of their rebukes. When his disciples argue about who is the greatest, Jesus undermines their entire premise, explaining, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” In the presence of Herod, Jesus deliberately responds in silence.
One key takeaway from these examples (and many others throughout the gospels) is that, far from avoiding conflict, Jesus frequently embraces and uses conflict to advance the kingdom of God. His way of doing so offers several instructive guidelines for how we deal with conflict in our own lives and ministry. As we encounter conflict, we might take a step back and prayerfully ask the following questions:
- What is the nature of this conflict? What’s really going on here? What are the underlying issues? What’s the elephant in the room that no one is talking about?
- How can this conflict provide a teachable or prophetic moment that will advance the kingdom of God?
- What is the truth that needs to be told in this midst of this conflict?
- And perhaps most importantly, how should the truth be told in the midst of this conflict?
In what is surely one of the most troubling passages to our conflict-averse sensibilities, Jesus says,
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’(Matthew 10:34-36)
Jesus was fully aware that his prophetic ministry and the coming kingdom of God would inevitably cause conflict, disrupt the status quo, and divide people against one another. This is what telling the truth tends to do. Telling the truth about God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s kingdom often ushers in conflict and division in the short-term, complicating our lives and relationships, even as the spirt works to reconcile all things and make peace in the end. This is absolutely not an excuse for us to incite division and hostility – Far from it! Rather, it is a reminder that when conflict does emerge, we don’t have to fear it. We can address it with confidence, both by drawing upon Jesus model for embracing conflict and by resting assured that God uses conflict to further the good news of the kingdom.
1. William H. Willimon, “Why Leaders are a Pain,” Christian Century, Feb 8, 2016.