In these mornings we're thinking about challenges that Christians face. Today my topic is conflict. How should Christians behave in situations of conflict? There is a great deal to challenge us in this passage from Romans. Before we get into that, let's just think for a moment about the kind of conflicts that Christians can find themselves caught up in. Take the Moluccan Islands of Indonesia. One recent report says:
"Violence between Muslims and Christians in the Indonesian islands continues to escalate. It has now spread to more islands, with news of over a thousand Jihad warriors heading for the islands of the Moluccas. During the last two months twenty out of twenty-five Christian villages have been razed to the ground and it is estimated that more than 8,000 survivors of the previous attack have been hiding in the jungles."
As so often in this kind of situation, there is a strong ethnic aspect to the violence, and a good deal of nominal Christianity as well. But certainly many believers are swept up in this violence. How would you react? How do you think they should live out their Christian discipleship in those circumstances? It may seem a somewhat remote and theoretical matter to you, but to them, it is a question that they face when they wake every morning to another danger-filled day.
If you had lost everything, what would your attitude be towards those who had destroyed it all?
Another example is the deep-seated conflict that we have to face within both the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. I've written in the Newsletter about Charles Raven, the vicar of St John's, Kidderminster, who's taking a stand against a bishop who publically rejects the Bible's teaching on sexuality and sexual behaviour. Charles has been banned from ministering in any other parish in that diocese, and is being threatened with losing his licence and his job. How should he be responding?
These are real, current situations. But the likelihood is that they don't involve you. So let me ask you this. What conflict do you find yourself embroiled in at the moment? Maybe it's a dispute at work; or a conflict within the family; or perhaps you're politically involved and things are getting hot; or you're struggling with a serious disagreement within the church. Whatever it is: how are you handling it? And what guidance can we find from God in the Scriptures?
Perhaps you're thinking to yourself: "I really can't think of any serious conflict that I'm involved in. So none of this is going to apply to me." But that's not the case. There's no room for complacency.
For one thing, who knows what's just around the corner, and we need to have thought through the basic biblical principles on handling conflict before we get embroiled and hardly have time to think. And there's another reason we shouldn't be complacent, which is this. Too often, it is true, we fight over things that we shouldn't be fighting over. But at the same time, we fail to fight over things that we should be fighting over. Being conflict-free is by no means necessarily a virtue. It might just be sign of compromised Christian faith. More on that in a minute.
What I want to do now is to draw out from this passage, Romans 12.9-21, some of the Bible's teaching that relates to how disciples of Christ should deal with conflict. What Paul is doing here is unpacking the implications of what he says there at the start of v 9: "Love must be sincere." There's no room for fake love in the heart of a Christian. It's got to be the genuine article. And if it is, then it'll show itself in all kinds of situations.
Before we go any further we should remind ourselves what the driving force behind this loving behaviour is. It's there clear as a bell at the beginning of the chapter:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed …
A believer's life should be one big, whole-hearted, 'thank-you' to God for being merciful to us. Jesus has rescued believers from death and hell. He has poured out his Holy Spirit, so we're no longer alone or helpless. We can change. And the result should be a transformed life, radically different from the lives of those among whom we live who have no knowledge of Christ. And that transformation needs to show itself, not least, in how we deal with conflict.
So, as you can see from the outline that's on the back of the service sheet, I have three headings. The first is this:
First, AS FAR AS POSSIBLE, LIVE AT PEACE WITH EVERYONE
Look down to verse 18:
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
You could put the same thing negatively in this way: don't get involved in unnecessary conflict. The implication is, of course, that we can't always avoid it, but we'll come on to that with my second heading in a moment. What conflicts should we simply avoid?
For a start, there are situations where we are in the wrong, and that brings us into conflict with non-believers. It's quite clear then what needs to happen if we're going to live at peace with them, which we should be seeking to do. We need to change. We need to apologise. We need to put right what can be put right, and undo the damage that's been done as far as possible.
Christians are by no means incapable of selfish, stupid, small-minded or spiteful behaviour that ruptures our relationships with unbelievers. That kind of conflict is ungodly. It's our fault. We need to have the grace to acknowledge it, and do all we can to put things right. The apostle Peter puts it bluntly in this way in 1 Peter 4.15-16:
If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.
Does that prick your conscience? Maybe you've got yourself in a tangle with someone, or some secular organisation, and if you're honest you'll admit that you've brought it on yourself. You need to back off, and have the grace to apologise and rebuild the relationship. Why? In view of God's mercy. Because it's your spiritual act of worship. Sometimes, though, we're clear in all honesty that the fault doesn't substantially lie with us. We have been wronged. Surely we don't have to back off in that sort of situation! What's the principle? Listen again:
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Now it is true that there's no real peace in a relationship if we simply take it lying down when we're wronged because we havn't got the backbone to do anything about it. There's nothing Christian about being spineless. We shouldn't pretend we're being godly when we're simply lacking the courage to stand up to a bully. Read the book of Acts and you'll come across example after example of Holy-Spirit-filled disciples displaying self-controlled assertiveness in situations of conflict. Fear God, and you need fear no man.
However, avoidable conflict should be avoided, and it's potentially avoidable if all that's at stake are our own interests. For the sake of peace, we should be prepared not to stand on our rights. We shouldn't pick a fight, even if at times the provocation is severe. And if all that is true of avoidable conflicts with the un-believing world, how much more true is it of avoidable conflicts with believers! The Scriptures are full of encouragement to us not to fight with each other unnecessarily. Our unity is a powerful witness to the world of the transforming effect of the gospel of Christ. The world is riven with hatred and violence. The church should be different.
So here in verse 10:
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves.
Live in harmony with one another.
Here in Romans Paul makes it quite clear that we should bend over backwards to avoid conflict in the church even on matters of faith, when the gospel is not at stake. And that is true even when you are right and you know that you're right.
So, how are we to handle conflict? The first thing to say is that we are to avoid it as far as possible. How are we to avoid conflict? By making sure that we're not at fault. By recognising when we are at fault and changing our ways. By being gracious towards others and accommodating them as far as we can without compromising the gospel. And by praying for peace. The next thing to says is this – and this is my second heading:
Secondly, FAITHFULNESS TO CHRIST WILL INEVITABLY LEAD US INTO CONFLICT
We've already seen that verse 18 implies that despite our best efforts we will not always be able to live at peace:
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you live at peace with everyone.
It may not be possible. And the reason for that is that peace with God takes a higher priority than peace with people. Very often being at peace with God will lead to peace with others. But not always. When we have to choose between being right with God, and being on good terms with other people, then there is really no choice for the Christian to make. God wins. Romans 12 is quite clear about that. Verse 9:
Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.
Compromise with evil is not an option for the faithful believer. Compromise with evil is a sign that the fire of faith is fading in our hearts. When we find that happening, then faith needs to be rekindled; Christ needs to take first place again; evil needs to be rejected. The king of evil is Satan, and he is the implacable enemy of all believers. It is right to hate him. It is never right to be at peace with him. Our desire should be for the destruction of the devil and all his works. But our hatred should be reserved for Satan. It should not extend to people. Ephesians 6.12:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
However, even though we should never hate people, hatred of evil and love for God will lead believers into conflict with people in a number of ways. First, there will be conflict with evil-doers through the state, as the state seeks to restrain evil for the common good. And this kind of conflict can involve the use of force. That is the teaching of Romans 13.1-7. I quote:
… if you do wrong, be afraid, for [the one in authority] does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
Secondly, there will be conflict with non-believers who persecute Christians. That is the clear assumption of verse 14 in Romans 12:
Bless those who persecute you…
Paul expects that they will be persecuted. That's hardly surprising. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples (John 15.20):
If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.
Of course it's easy to avoid the conflict of persecution. We just have to distance ourselves from Jesus. It works every time. But sometimes the price of peace is too high. Don't put your relationship with Jesus in danger for the sake of a quiet life.
Thirdly, there will be conflict with false teachers within the church as we contend for the faith. That is the context of the letter of Jude, that we're studying in the evenings. Jude 3-4:
I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men… have slipped in among you. They are godless men who change the grace of God in to a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.
More on that topic from Ian this evening.
Fourthly, there will be conflict between the church and immoral Christians who do not repent. That is to say, there has to be a right kind of godly discipline in the life of the church. In 1 Corinthians Paul takes the church in Corinth to task for ducking just such an issue. Indeed they weren't just ducking it- their lack of action was tantamount to condoning gross immorality. So he says:
Expel the wicked man from among you.
Why engage in such conflictual behaviour? Paul says it is …
… so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5.5).
So in all those ways there will be conflict in the Christian life. Those of us who are inclined to be argumentative need to be reminded in the strongest possible terms to avoid unnecessary conflict. But those of us who prefer a quiet life and who shy away from conflict need to reminded in the strongest possible terms that there is a good fight that must be fought. We are to take courage, and get on with the battle, for the sake of Christ. But how should Christians fight in this spiritual warfare? The last point and my third heading is simply this:
Thirdly, FIGHT EVIL WITH GOOD
Verse 9 again:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil.
And then look at verses 19-21:
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
What does it mean to "heap burning coals" on the head of our enemies by doing good to them? It's a quotation from Proverbs. Elsewhere in the Old Testament heaping burning coals is an image of God's judgement. For instance Psalm 11.6 says this:
On the wicked [the Lord] will rain fiery coals and burning sulphur…
And in Psalm 140 King David prays:
Rescue me from evil men …Let the heads of those who surround me be covered with the trouble their lips have caused. Let burning coals fall upon them; may they be thrown into the fire, into miry pits, never to rise.
We flinch from such talk, don't we? But the truth is that it is good news that God will destroy evil. And it is also good news that God will judge evil. King David is handing the situation over to God and asking him to deal with it. We are to do the same, says Paul. There is no place for vengeance. We are to meet hatred and evil with love and goodness.
When Christians do that, then they bring into sharp focus the reality of the judgement that awaits evil. If the enemies of Christ do not yet see that, that doesn't change the fact that judgement is coming. And their persecution of Christians will be held against them on the Day of Judgement.
But our prayer should be that they will see the danger; and that then they will experience, not the fire of judgement, but a burning shame that will turn them back to God to find in Jesus the same Saviour who we have found. And then our enemies will become our friends; and we will be able to live in peace with them.
So the weapons of our warfare are not hatred, or violence, or vengeance, or slander and distortion. The weapons or our warfare are the message of Christ and the character of Christ. "The sword of the Spirit," says Paul in Ephesians 6.17, "is the word of God." We fight with the truth of the gospel. And we fight by standing firm; by Christ-like gentleness and love; by doing good to those who hate us.
That is a tall order. In fact, it's beyond us. But it's not beyond the power of God if, in view of God's mercy, we offer our bodies as living sacrifices, not conforming any longer to the pattern of this world, but being transformed.