Let’s Get Ready to Rumble! (A Primer on How to Fight in Church)

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble! (A Primer on How to Fight in Church)

It was the worst fight I had ever been in. The irony was that I never threw a punch.

It was 7th grade and all the awkwardness that came with it. I had just moved up from a very small elementary school to the county-wide middle school, and it seemed like fights broke out every day. Some were brutal. I watched a girl slam another girl’s face into her locker so many times it looked like she was auditioning as part of a WWE tag team.

But that day, as I stood in the boys’ locker room, something snapped in one of my classmates. Whatever it was, he decided that I was the source of all his problems. He rushed me. I covered my face, and he, like George Foreman going after Muhammad Ali, went after my ribs on both sides with lefts and rights. It hurt. Like, for days afterward.

The funny thing was, I wasn’t scared of him. I was more scared of getting suspended. So I just took it. It helped that I was considerably taller and my face was beyond his reach. After what seemed like an eternity, my classmate exhausted himself and sat down. At this point, I had tears streaming down my face from the pain, but I hadn’t thrown a punch. I finished getting dressed and went out into the gym for class. To this day I have no idea why I was assaulted.

Looking back on it now, I wonder, “What was THAT?” Hormones gone awry? Had I slighted this person without knowing it? Was it a case of mistaken identity? Did I learn the wrong lessons about fighting from the Rocky movies?

I guess part of it was that I never thought I would be in a fight. I was a quiet, easy-going kid with no enemies that I knew of, so why would I ever be in a fight? But there I was.

I think that’s the way most churches think about fighting.

Having worked in churches for a long time, I’ve more than once seen the attitude of avoidance be cast as unity. Dress it up with all the spiritual language you want, but it’s still avoidance. The truth is that unity has to be fought for. What most churches are talking about when they say unity is really uniformity. And to be frank, it’s not a matter of IF your church will fight, but a question of when and how. Church is a little like middle school in that way.

Philosopher Peter Rollins puts it this way: “War is the absence of conflict.” [1]

That sounds confusing on the surface, but it’s as true a statement as there is about church life. If a church doesn’t learn conflict, if it doesn’t learn how to fight, war is the inevitable and unenviable outcome.

But where are our guides for such an endeavor? I suggest, for your reading pleasure, Acts 15.

There, in one of the most shocking and important passages of the New Testament, a group of believers overcomes deeply held traditions, hurt feelings, and cultural misunderstandings while still coming out on the other side a functioning organization. Thus, I submit we could learn much from this little chapter about how to fight in church.

1. There will always be those who major in the minors, but these things are not minor to them.

In Acts 15, the scene is set by a group called “The Judaizers.” This group of Jews, who were faithful and disciplined followers of Moses, were making a stir because they thought that all Gentile converts should be circumcised when they came to faith in Jesus. How’s that for an initiation?! Imagine hearing that in your first membership class at the church you’ve just joined. Yikes.

But the fact remains that circumcision was a deeply held belief that shaped identity. The same holds true for any church fight one might be in. The thing under the thing is always who we think we are, and not necessarily what we are doing. This chapter, however, suggests that that the identity of the church should not be in any tradition, but in the mission of God. Let’s not sell that short here. I submit that there is nothing you or I or anyone in our churches will feel as strongly about as the Judaizers felt about circumcision. But when you realize that change often requires some part of your identity to be given up, you have to be able to replace it with something bigger and better. For Acts 15, it was the mission of God to bring the gospel to the world. Anything other than that and your church will rip itself apart. Guaranteed.

2. Someone has to be humble enough to be wrong.

I think that Acts 15, and not Acts 2, is the apostle Peter’s greatest moment. Ten years removed from his encounter with bringing the gospel to the Gentile family of Cornelius, Peter slid back into old habits and started eating with only Jewish believers when the Judaizers came around. This caused Paul to confront him as we read about in Gal. 2. So for Peter to stand up and say what he does is a watershed moment of humility and grace. His finest hour. In church conflict, all parties should be ready—should assume—that they are the ones who might be holding back the mission of God. That is, unless, you feel like you’re more gifted with the Holy Spirit than Peter. If so, I suggest taking a hard look at that last sentence and immediately resigning whatever leadership post you have.

3. The best leaders in conflict listen more than they speak.

James the Just, as he would later come to be known, spends much of his time listening instead of arguing. And the Scripture he quotes from Amos is quite telling. He essentially says that God is doing things and that God has been doing things all along that we don’t understand. That’s the nature of God. To assume you know the heart of God is dangerous business, so James suggests you don’t. God is “making things known” (verses 17-18). That means that God doesn’t give you the whole book as much as the next chapter. For James to admit this and then propose writing the letter to the Gentiles that was essentially about preserving table fellowship, is fantastic leadership. It shows a flexibility that asks for all parties to meet in the middle, so to speak. But this isn’t compromise; it’s collaboration. It gives both parties a chance to grow and to bear with one another. No one “wins” here except the mission of God.

4. Sometimes things go south anyways, so plan on going north.

The end of this chapter is almost comical. After all that, Paul and Barnabas end up going their separate ways over whether or not to include John Mark in their newest endeavors. I mean, how stubborn do you have to be to not get along with a guy called “the son of encouragement”? Sometimes things just don’t end well. Sometimes personalities clash. But when the ground-level understanding is about the mission of God, there’s always something to do, somewhere to go, and someone to go with. Notice that they don’t call a meeting about this argument. They don’t call a “Jerusalem Council Part 2: Paul or Barnabas: Who Ya Got?” No, they get on with it. The mission is too big and too important to waste time on hurt egos. Churches today would do well to learn to prioritize like this. Where will we put our precious and valuable energy? Paul and Barnabas got on with it, even if they couldn’t quite get over it yet. We should do the same. Let mission color what you fight over and for how long.

Obviously, there are more lessons here. These are only a few I gleaned. Best of luck to you out there. There’s plenty to fight about. Let’s just make sure we do it for the right reasons and the right way. The fight is coming whether you are ready for it or not. I suggest you get ready to rumble.

[1] I initially heard Rollins say this on a podcast, but I now can’t recall which one. Here is an example of him sharing this idea on Twitter.

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