When Things Get Sideways Relationally

Jeff Church Life, Relationships

So, who has your face on their dartboard today? Is there someone’s face on yours? Let’s peel back the curtain for a moment and acknowledge that behind all the desires and commitments for Jesus-followers to honor one another, we all have a propensity to get sideways with others from time to time. A simple survey of the New Testament shows many instances of believers entering into conflicts with one another. Famously, Paul and Barnabas hit a major bump in their relational-road when Paul kicked John Mark off their missionary team (Acts 15:36-41) and ticked off Barney. The best we can tell, Paul and Barnabas never teamed-up again after that. Do you remember that time that the ten disciples crawled all over James and John for asking for the places of honor at Jesus’ right and left hand in the Kingdom (Mark 10:36-41)? I bet the next shared assignment with the twelve of them was a wee-bit awkward. One day, Paul got up in Peter’s face because Peter was catering to the legalists and acting in ways that were contrary to Gospel grace and liberty (Galatians 2:11-21). There is no call to artificial harmony in the Bible. We are called to work diligently at unity. We are commanded to act in honor towards each other. We were given by the Lord Jesus the example to wash one another’s feet in deference to each other, and to live with a servant’s posture among each other. All of these principles are at work in the Kingdom, but that does not mean we will always see eye to eye. When disagreements, conflicts and high-octane emotional moments arise between Christians, what is my responsibility? What is yours?

“So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” – Romans 14:19

Because I often think like a soldier, I love when Scripture gives me a completely clear command to obey. I love the most those verses which leave no wobble-room for understanding what the Lord is specifically requiring of me. The verse above is one of those verses. Romans 14-15 are two chapters devoted to instruction for believers who just cannot come to the same conclusions about debatable matters. As we mature, we learn that we actually do not have to agree on everything in the Kingdom. That’s actually liberating. I can love you, praise God alongside of you, even serve with you in shared assignments…and never feel threatened that you see things differently than me. Over many years of ministry, Romans 14-15 have become precious to my philosophy of ministry and my own foundation for Kingdom relationships. These chapters reveal that unity is not uniformity. We were never meant to be exactly alike in everything. You get to be the person that God created you to be. Me too. In times of conflict over objective matters, it is not that both of us can be equally correct – two mutually opposing conclusions about objective matters cannot both be legitimate. I’m not advocating a “You have your truth, I have mine” kind of wishy-washiness. What I am saying is that Scripture is clear about how I am to treat you when we disagree.

I am to pursue peace with you for the glory of Jesus

I am to pursue what is needed to build you up, not tear you down.

I am to intentionally honor you, even while I cannot agree with what you believe or say.

That is the clear teaching of Romans 14:19 above. We do not have to agree, but we do have to seek each other’s highest good.

What a different spirit we sometimes see manifesting in Christians in our day. Some break fellowship and walk away, without even so much as a final face-to-face attempt to exit the relationship on good terms. Others launch verbal grenades, moving the goalposts away from the actual issue upon which the disagreement arose, and enter into character assassination against their brother or sister in Christ. The motive becomes to wound the one with whom the disagreement or conflict arose. Honor is not even on their radar. Social media has added a new layer to the devil’s tactic of slander, gossip and accusation. Now, people who live in a spirit of offense can tuck themselves safely away at home and lob online grenades that hundreds, if not thousands, can sample. Our flesh, mine and yours included, prefers to have the final word in disagreements. Romans 14:19 can only be accomplished via the Holy Spirit. I should confess that it took me a few years of regular conflict with believers before these words worked themselves deeply into my own spiritual DNA. God has made me to be fairly skilled with words, and I am ashamed to say that, in my state of spiritual immaturity in this area in the past, I won a lot of arguments as I was simultaneously losing a lot of relationships. Eventually, several years ago, when the volume of negative things being communicated about me by others hit an excruciating mark, I stopped asking God to silence those people. My prayers transitioned to asking God to mature me. I needed so desperately to become like Jesus when people positioned themselves as my enemy. I was tired of winning fights, but feeling like I was losing God’s smile. Something had to shift.

It was not a snap of God’s finger that solved my dilemma. It was a slow-cooker process of cooperating with the Holy Spirit. The Word of God was central in this pursuit, because I knew I would give an account of how I responded to the clear commands of Scripture concerning my response to conflict with other believers. Walking in the fulness of the Holy Spirit was also essential. I spent long hours in prayer, groaning in the Spirit, weeping out that disease in my soul called self-defense and self-assertion. Eventually, I heard the whisper of God saying, “Son, you will need to learn to live with others being wrong about you. You must learn how to be misunderstood, misrepresented and even mistreated.”

So, basically, I had to learn how to die in this area.

What is encouraging is that, as soon as I willingly submitted to that call to die from the Lord, I began to see progress. He tested me on it with about another solid year of regular conflict with others. I did not get it all right at first but, eventually, I knew He had blessed me with measurable growth. I learned not to live for the rebuttal. I let others win the arguments. I found myself hurting more for them than I did myself. Over time, Holy Spirit enabled me to understand that many of those who acted spitefully toward me were bitter with other people long before I personally experienced their ways. Many of those same people were also bitter with God. In the end, I actually found myself able to pray for them, love them and even ask God to bless them in such a way that His goodness could lead them to their own specific places of repentance.

This morning, I awoke with the happy realization that I am not bitter with anyone. There is no sourness of spirit, fear of what others might be saying about me, or simmering anger that calls me to get even. I’m happy, joyful and content. I suppose that I am in conflict with a few, but I cannot do anything about it. I love them – seriously, I really feel love for them. I believe God will cause them to stand (Romans 14:4) because they are truly His. I am sobered daily by the reality that I will stand before Jesus one day and give an account only for myself – not them (Romans 14:10-12). They will give an account for their words, their personal response to these moments of conflict, and their level of obedience to what is prescribed in the Bible for those who find themselves sideways with other Christians. I am believing that God will lead them in this area the same way He has led me. I am believing Him for their victory. In glory, we will all be best friends for eternity.

I want them to stand before Jesus on that coming evaluation day with no regrets. So, today, I plan on pursuing that very same thing for myself.