Church conflict is an ugly, Spirit-quenching, gospel-obscuring tragedy. Aside from the times where it may be necessary as matters of theology and holiness are at stake, conflict is the result of far more trivial concerns being elevated to crusade-worthy status. When that happens, Christ’s prayer for his church in John 17:21 (“that they may all be one”) goes unrealized in our particular corner of the kingdom.
An interesting dynamic occurs in these kinds of church conflict. Both sides will convince themselves that they are more than just right; they will convince themselves that God is on their side. When the inevitable resolution comes, the “winners” will rejoice in God’s vindication. Meanwhile, the “losers” will consider themselves martyrs who will one day experience God’s eschatological vindication. Thus, in victory or defeat, both sides refuse to give up their claim God that was on their side.
But what if they are both wrong? What if God wasn’t “on” either side?
When Abraham Lincoln took his second oath of office, America was at the end of a bloody civil war that had resulted in the deaths of 620,000 Americans. The Union crowds who gathered to hear the second inaugural address were angry and they were eager to hear their leader give voice to their anger. What they got was much different: a call to unite as a nation and as brothers from a president whose entire view of the war had been shaped by his understanding of God’s Providence and its role in the events of human history.
A few years earlier, in 1862, Lincoln wrote down seven sentences on a scrap of paper; a scrap of paper found in his desk drawer after his death by one of his aides:
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party -- and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true -- that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.
Lincoln was coming to the conclusion that God was willing the war to continue in order to carry out some purpose which Lincoln himself could not yet see; a purpose that stood outside of man’s purposes for the conflict. On that scrap of paper, he offered no hint that he knew what that divine purpose might be. But it became clear by his second inaugural address that he had reached a settled conclusion on the matter.
The crowds gathered to hear Lincoln had conditioned themselves to believe that God had been on their side in the conflict. Yet Lincoln pointed out that Southerners held to the opposite conviction; they believed God was on their side. In his address, he reminded his listeners of this fact when he said:
“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.”
Obviously, both could not be right. God could not be on the side of both parties. But in what was no doubt a shock to Union partisans, Lincoln’s conclusion was that neither side had been on God’s side. Instead, the war had been fought in order for God to chasten the entire nation.
Northerners believed slavery was the Great Sin of the South and that the Confederacy’s impending defeat was God’s judgment for it. However, in his address, Lincoln called slavery an American issue; a national sin. He reminded his audience that slavery had been woven into the fabric of the nation since adventurers began to settle the continent 250 years before. He reminded them that the economic enterprise of the entire nation had benefited from slave labor. Thus he concluded:
“…if God wills that (the war) continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”
Lincoln understood that the Civil War was a conflict in which no one had won and all had lost. He understood that, as in all things, God had a purpose for it. And now, the only possible hope for national healing after a catastrophic civil war was for a nation to understand that they had all lost and come together chastened before God. He concluded:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
There is a lesson here for church conflict.
I have participated in more than my fair share of church conflicts; conflicts in which I believed that God was on my side and others thought that He was on theirs. In those times, it never occurred to me that the battle itself was the result of God’s judgment of sin in us both; at least not at first. As I’ve had many years to reflect on a season of extended conflict earlier in my ministry, I’ve come to see that it’s purpose was to bring about some much needed humility in both my life and the life of those I was leading.
Sadly, that humility didn’t come quickly enough to preserve relationships. Outright hostility ceased, but the estrangement continued. Healing can’t come when only one side feels the need to repent.
What Lincoln understood about healing the Union is what we need to grasp in our churches and in our relationships and in our homes. When conflict comes, we would do well to understand that “the Almighty has his own purposes;” purposes that may include my own chastening of which this conflict is a part. Only by approaching conflict with understanding that both parties are sinners can we emerge from it with “malice toward none; charity for all” and realize the peace with other believers God has called us cherish and guard.