Conﬂict is a given in the life of the church. Just as the devil had a vested interest in disrupting and dividing the order and the beauty of God’s original creation when he stirred unrest in Eden, so he continues to do so in God’s new creation, in the shared life of his people in the church.
That does not mean that conflict should be condoned in the life of the church, or that pastors and their people should be complacent about it. Quite the opposite; when we step back and see the dynamics of conflict in broader perspective, it not only gives us our bearings on how to handle such situations, but it provides the ability to prevent church conflicts turning into church crises. This book sets out to provide that perspective.
Its authors write, not from the detachment of armchair theorists, but as those who have experienced the pain of conflict in their own church family. More than that, as they faced the challenge of working through that conflict with the different factions caught up in it, they went on to discover the joy of conflict resolution. That background injects its own unique flavour, not only into what they write, but in their entire approach to writing. They have carefully and deliberately crafted their book in a way that draws their readers in and persuasively engages their hearts and minds as they work these issues through.
The book’s format is quite distinctive, almost like a tapestry with different threads thoughtfully woven together from beginning to end. One of the main threads is the retelling of the story of church division that made such an impact on its authors. The church in question is discreetly given a fictitious name, but the contours of the disagreement it faced, the way they approached it and their use of Scripture to guide them to a more than happy conclusion are clearly mapped out. The authors break the story up into six segments through the book as a whole. Turning this narrative into a motif in this way provides a great incentive to keep reading to the next installment.
The key thought, however, around which the entire book is structured and which ties in to the conflict situation out of which it was originally born, is the role of Acts 15 as a biblical model for dealing with church divisions. Chapter by chapter we are taken almost verse by verse through this passage, seeing it not merely as a paradigm for how a potentially disastrous dispute was handled by the early church; but also how it provides us with a very real theology of conflict management. Many of these chapters are rounded off with an ‘Apply this to your Church Conflict’ section.
There are other little recurring features in the way the authors develop this model of dealing with difficulties. One of them is the many ‘Mini Case Studies’ that are included. These reality sound bites are engaging and provide a vivid glimpse of how the principles articulated in the book have been tried and tested as they are worked out in practice.
The kind of issues addressed in the pages of this book are all too common and their fallout all too painful, both for churches and for the people who belong to them. All too often conflict wins in church life because those embroiled in it have not stepped back to see it from a more sane and balanced point of view. This book provides such a viewpoint and is the kind of book that should be read before the clouds of conflict start to gather. But, even if that point has been passed, here is a book that is well worth reaching for in the storm!
Mark G. Johnston, Northern Ireland