The Local Church as a City on a Hill Amidst Conflict
The Nature of the Local Church | by Pastor Adam Sinnett
Note: This post is the third in a series (1, 2) on the nature of the local church. The intent of this series is loving clarity, amidst cultural confusion. I write with gospel-forged hope, deep love for our church, co-mingled with genuine pastoral concern. This series is intended to give us a healthy set of shared understandings about the nature of the local church by which we carry out the many important conversations of this tumultuous season. We’re in this together.
As you know, 2020 is a year of conflict—partisan conflict, social conflict, racial/ethnic conflict, pandemic conflict, face mask conflict, and more. Not only do we see this on the news, but in our everyday relationships in ways big and small. While this might surprise us or cause concern, it shouldn’t. These realities are as old as the Church itself.
The New Testament shows us that Jesus’ local church is not immune to conflict. So, the question isn’t whether we will encounter relational conflict, in fact it would be odd if we didn’t, but how we will faithfully navigate it without being divided by it. How do we genuinely love amidst our genuine differences? How do we show the world the kind of relationships that the gospel forges between vastly different people without being divided by those differences?
Jesus calls us to be a people that show the world we belong to him by how we go about our shared lives together—not only when we agree but also when we disagree. We are a community of God’s redeemed people, a city set on a hill, who are to place love for one another over perfect alignment with one another.
So, how do we faithfully navigate this conflict-ridden cultural moment without being divided by it? That’s what this post is about. For us to love one another we need to work at defining our terms, assuming the best, listening well, asking for clarification, suspending judgment, and promoting genuine conversation amidst a cultural moment that militates against each of those.
Jesus’ Church Is Not Immune to Conflict
Jesus’ local church is not immune to conflict. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament reveals that the local church experienced conflict from the start. This is not new, but ancient. Recognizing this helps create realistic expectations so that (1) we’re not surprised when conflict arises and (2) we’re prepared to charitably pursue understanding with those we disagree with.
Here are some examples of issues that created conflict and division within the early church. This is a long list, but it is worth processing. It is striking how contemporary this reads:
Immaturity (1 Cor. 3:1; 14:20)
Divisive loyalty to different leaders (1 Cor. 3:4-5)
Ethnic favoritism (Acts 6:1-2)
Pride (1 Cor. 4:8)
Sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Rev. 2:20-21)
Lawsuits (1 Cor. 6:1-11)
Differences in conscience (1 Cor. 8-9)
Idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7)
Differences in cultural practices (1 Cor. 11:2-16)
Selfishness (1 Cor. 11:21)
Mishandling of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34)
Overemphasis on spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14)
Underemphasis on mutual love (1 Cor. 13)
Overemphasis on things other than Jesus (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Cor. 15:3)
Disorderly worship (1 Cor. 14:26-40)
False teaching and teachers (2 Cor. 11:4; 12:11; Gal. 1:6f; 1 Tim. 1:3)
Undermining of apostolic authority (2 Cor. 11:12-15)
Quarreling, jealousy, anger, slander, gossip (2 Cor. 12:20)
Living out of step with the gospel (even amongst apostles!) (Gal. 2:14; 5:7)
Grumbling and questioning (Phil. 2:14; Jas. 5:9)
Passing judgment on others on non-gospel issues (Col. 2:16f)
Idleness and busybodies (2 Thess. 3:6,11; 1 Tim. 5:13)
Devotion to speculations, vain discussion, misunderstandings (1 Tim. 1:4,7)
Self-indulgence (1 Tim. 5:6)
Unhealthy craving for controversy, envy, dissension, evil suspicions, friction (1 Tim. 6:4-5)
Falling into harmful desires and wandering away from the truth (1 Tim. 6:9)
Quarrels about words, irreverent babble, foolish controversies that breed quarrels (2 Tim. 2:14,16,23; Jas. 4:1f)
Accumulating teachers to suit our own passions (2 Tim. 4:3)
Wandering away from the truth and into myths (2 Tim. 4:4)
Sinful anger (Jas. 1:20-21)
Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition (Jas. 3:14)
Hate (1 Jn. 1:9-11)
Love of the world, desires of the flesh, pride in possessions (1 Jn. 2:15-16)
Abandoning of Jesus as our first love (Rev. 2:4)
Religious formalism and lukewarmness (Rev. 3:1-2; 15-17)
Keep in mind that this is describing issues in the local church, not the unbelieving world. What do you think about this list? Are you surprised? If this level of conflict and division was present from the beginning of Jesus’ local church, should we expect any different? This was recorded so that we would take note and learn from those who have gone before us (1 Cor. 10:11). So, what is there for us to learn here?
Three Surprising Observations about Conflict
While there is much that could be said, I’ll make three simple observations.
First, Jesus’ church has always been messy. That’s obvious enough, but it is helpful to see, isn’t it? The local church has never been conflict-free because it has never been sin-free, so we should not be surprised when it appears. This also should remove any idyllic notion we may have of the local church, past or present or future. The hunt for the perfect, conflict-free church where everyone-agrees-with-me will lead to a dead end 100% of the time. Even one of Jesus’ closest, hand-chosen followers betrayed him.
Second, this internal conflict was taking place amidst tremendous external political turmoil, cultural volatility, and persecution. Things were hard on the inside and the outside, not unlike what we’re experiencing right now. While this cultural moment is unique in the details, it is not unique in its essence. This means history has a lot to teach us in times like these. As “unprecedented” as 2020 is in some ways, in the scope of human history it is quite tame and sadly business-as-usual in a world under the siege of sin.
Third—and you may misunderstand this so please bear with me—not once does an apostle recommend an individual Christian leave a church to go to another. Not once. Of course, this could be because there was only one church in most cities. But, I believe it has more to do with the nature and implications of the gospel itself which has reconciliation at its heart (2 Cor. 5:18-19).
For example, in the case of false teaching in the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:6-9), the apostle Paul doesn’t tell the early Christians to find another church. Instead he tells them to get rid of the false teachers so that the churches can move forward in gospel health(!) This meant believers in these small-ish early churches had to work through their differences, seek understanding, and walk-out repentance together. They couldn’t avoid one another by attending a different gathering, or transferring communities, or changing service schedules, or finding a church that aligned more with their personal convictions on tertiary issues.
Instead, the apostles called those in sin to repent (Rom. 2:4), for the mature to bear with the immature (Rom. 15:1), for individuals to not judge one another in areas of Christian freedom (Rom. 14:3-4), to have mercy on those who doubt (Jude 1:22), and for the stubbornly unrepentant to be removed from the church (1 Cor. 5:2; Mt. 18:17). But, amidst all of this, Jesus’ people are also called to:
“Pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Rom. 14:19)
“Love one another with brotherly affection.” (Rom. 12:10)
“Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Rom. 12:10)
“Live in harmony with one another.” (Rom. 12:16)
“Not be haughty…[and] never be wise in your own sight.” (Rom. 12:16)
“Not repay evil for evil.” (Rom. 12:17)
“Do what is honorable in the sight of all.” (Rom. 12:17)
“So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Rom. 12:18)
“Never avenge ourselves.” (Rom. 12:19)
“Not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:21)
Again, remember that these commands were not given to a like-minded community for whom such things were easy or came naturally or among those with the same Enneagram score. These people were the same people that experienced the conflict recounted in the section above. The Apostles called Jesus’ people to mutual love amidst their very real differences because that is the kind of community the gospel creates.
But, please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying there aren’t valid reasons for leaving a church in our day. Nor am I saying you are unfaithful if you do transition churches (Or already have! We love you). There are good, valid reasons for transitioning to another church. But, that’s for another post. My aim here is more simple: to show how the New Testament is simultaneously realistic about conflict within the church while calling Jesus’ people to a repentant loving unity amidst it. The gospel should cause us to lean-in, not out.
Where Does This Conflict Come From?
It might help to include some of the ways the New Testament describes the origin of this conflict. Division, discord, and disunity don’t appear out of nowhere. Conflict has a complicated cocktail of sources. What are they? Here are a handful:
Spiritual warfare: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against…spiritual forces of evil.” (Eph. 6:12) The evil one is at work in conflict through lies and deception in order to cultivate conflict. He loves to sow bitterness, fear, unbelief, and suspicion in the human heart in order to reap a harvest of disunity.
Passions of the flesh: What causes quarrels and fights? James answers, “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (Jas. 2:11) Another source of conflict are powerful internal, sinful desires that remain at work within Christians. These passions of the flesh lead us to be impatient, unloving, critical, self-righteous, arrogant, slanderous and dishonoring. When given vent, the passions of the flesh lead to conflict.
False philosophies and principles of the world: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Col. 2:8). The apostles regularly warn us about the role of ideas in our lives and their source. Ideas matter. Misleading ideas, or half-truths, often lead to conflict.
Conscience: “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9). Paul’s point in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 is that Christian consciences are not all calibrated in the same way. Some are “strong” (mature) and some are “weak” (immature). There are areas of Christian freedom in which we are genuinely free, but in which others feel more bound. These differences in conscience can also lead to conflict.
Youthfulness: “Flee youthful passions…” (2 Tim. 2:22). In context, Paul is not speaking of sexual immorality, as is often thought, but the youthful passion of winning an argument. While this may be more common in those who are younger, even the old can give into “youthful passions.” These passions almost always lead to conflict, controversy and quarreling (2 Tim. 2:23) which is why Paul warns us of them.
Personal preferences: The church in Corinth experienced conflict due to personal preferences for particular teachers. Paul pointed out, “When one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” Of course, it is not wrong to have personal preferences, but it is wrong for those preferences to go on to cause division and disunity within the church.
This shows us that our beliefs, convictions, and preferences are not always pure. They are often complex in their origins, which should give us pause amidst conflict. While others may be in the wrong, or partially so, we must first begin with ourselves. It is fitting to ask: Are lies of the enemy at work here? Am I examining myself first? Is this issue more about my sinful passions than my love for others? Am I being mainly led by the Scripture or by worldly ideas? Is this a central issue or an area of Christian freedom? Do I suspect this is coming from my immaturity or personal preferences?
How Will the World Know We Belong to Jesus?
Only against this sobering backdrop of conflict-ridden churches do we see the truly shocking nature of Jesus’ words in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is a familiar verse, but the radical counter-cultural nature of it is often missed.
Jesus said this fully knowing that his people wouldn’t always agree. So, this “love for one another” is not something that only happens in optimal environments, under perfect conditions, or with a particular set of like-minded people. This “love for one another” is to happen no matter the environment, conditions, or people.
In other words, and this is really important, Jesus places love for another over alignment with one another. Jesus didn’t say the world would know we are his by our shared convictions, shared political platform, or shared philosophy of social justice, or shared face-mask practices. Jesus said the world would know we are his by our love for one another amidst these differences.
Do you see how different this is? This kind of love is attention grabbing.
The Church as a City Set on Hill Amidst Conflict
Jesus used a memorable metaphor to describe his local church in his Sermon on the Mount. He called the church a “city set on a hill” (Mt. 5:14-16):
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Here Jesus gives us a picture of the church as an elevated city, late at night, whose light is seen for miles around in the dark. This is before electricity. The darkness is complete. If you got lost after sundown, you were really lost—until you round the bend and see the city on a hill. That well-lit city on a hill becomes a beacon of hope and help, even life. Jesus was saying that his local church should be like that.
How we go about our shared life together is meant to serve as a beacon of light in a dark world that communicates hope and life to the watching world. Every one of Jesus’ local churches is meant to be an imperfect model community of God, a picture of the new humanity that God is redeeming in Jesus, through our shared life together. That shared life, including how we handle disagreement, is meant to have an attractive quality that draws people in and brings glory to God.
Are we living as a city set on a hill amidst conflict?
Our unity in Christ does not mean uniformity in life. Our unity is not based on thinking the same, voting the same, or viewing social issues the same. Our unity is in Jesus amidst our beautiful God-given diversity. You can be a genuine, intelligent Christian with good intent yet not agree with others on every issue while still continuing to love them, respect them, and share the Lord’s supper with them. Do we believe that? That relational dynamic is only possible because we are united around Someone that transcends the divisions of the world.
So, let’s not be surprised when we discover differences among us, even conflict. Instead, let’s see it as an opportunity. As uncomfortable as tension, division, and discord can be—and as much as we want to avoid them—they give us an opportunity to show the world that we belong to Jesus together.
Let’s ask ourselves: Are we living and loving Godward (1 Cor. 10:31)? Do we have a radical posture of love towards each other, as Jesus has loved us (1 Jn. 4:11)? Are we forgiving one another, as Jesus has forgiven us (Col. 3:13)? Are we assuming the best of those who are different than us (Eph. 4:2)? Are we helping carry one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2)? Are we not only on guard for wrong, but charitable in our judgments of those who do it (Eph. 4:32)? Is there anyone you need to ask forgiveness of (Mt. 5:23f)? Do you need to reach out to someone for clarity (Phil. 2:14)?
Brothers and sisters, let’s make sure Seattle knows who we belong to in this season—not merely by our political affiliations, nor social statements, nor face-mask philosophies, nor social media posts—but by how we love one another as Jesus’ people amidst our differences. It takes humility. It takes work. It takes patience. It requires suspending judgment until all the facts are in. It takes pushing into areas that are uncomfortable. It takes grace. It takes genuine love. Most of all, it takes a heart captured by Jesus and all he is for us. Only Jesus could create a people like that—and that, my friends, is the point.
“To the King of kings and the Lord of lords…be honor and eternal dominion. Amen” (1 Tim. 6:3).
Christ is all,