Prepare Today for Tomorrow's Conflicts

How does taking spiritual warfare seriously enable pastors and deacons to avoid destructive conflict?

This article originally appeared in Deacon Magazine.

Jon was elated when New Hope Church called him to serve as pastor. The congregation seemed poised to make a significant impact for Christ in its community. Church members welcomed Jon and his family enthusiastically and appeared to be unified and mobilized for ministry. There was an air of excitement at the church as the congregation began to grow dramatically under Jon's leadership.

Initially all of the deacons supported Jon and his vision for the future of the congregation. Then two men began to complain about the new worship music. Another deacon grumbled about the changes brought by the new people who were joining the church. A fourth deacon questioned Jon's time management and priorities, claiming that the pastor was neglecting his responsibilities to longtime members.

Jon began to dread deacons meetings. Once the meetings had been occasions for encouraging updates and ministry planning; now they had disintegrated into pastoral interrogation sessions and a contest of wills. As the deacons' discord began to spread into the congregation, one deacon spoke openly about Jon's need to resign. His words broke Jon's heart and further divided the congregation.

Jon resigned a month later. The church struggled to continue many of its ministries, having lost a third of its members, nearly half of its leadership, and six of the original ten deacons. Hope for the future was in short supply at New Hope Church.

Take spiritual warfare seriously

Regrettably, many church leaders overlook the reality of spiritual warfare. We mistakenly believe that being attentive to Satan and his schemes is unnecessary when our congregations are flourishing. Sometimes we assume that merely thinking about spiritual warfare invites trouble.

Some congregations consider spiritual warfare an unsuitable topic. They ignore the Bible's clear call to be alert to spiritual warfare. Peter warns, "Be sober! Be on the alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. Resist him, firm in the faith . . . " (1 Peter 5:8, 9a). Paul admonishes, "Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil" (Ephesians 6:11).

How does taking spiritual warfare seriously enable pastors and deacons to avoid destructive conflict? First, we know that our true enemy is Satan and not one another. When other church leaders lash out at us, we are freed from responding in similar ways because we can discern Satan's presence in the conflict.

Second, we realize the importance of not giving the devil a "foothold" or space in our lives through unconfessed sin (see Ephesians 4:26b-27). Understanding spiritual warfare enables us to comprehend how easily we can become unwitting accomplices of Satan.

Finally using the spiritual armor and weapons that God has given us (see Ephesians 6:10-18) imbues us with Christ's power, perspective, and perseverance. We possess the confidence that comes from knowing that Satan is a vanquished adversary (see Colossians 2:15) who can prevail only if we succumb to his deceptive ways.

A very different outcome could have occurred at New Hope Church if Pastor Jon and his deacons had been prepared for spiritual warfare. Knowing that Satan seeks to destroy God's work through accusation and division, they could have chosen to remain unified and resolve their differences for God's glory and the witness of their church in their community. These choices require faith, spiritual maturity, and obedience to Christ's commands.

Rather than allowing Satan to inflame personalities and issues and escalate the conflict, the leaders of New Hope Church could have turned to Scripture to discover biblical principles for conflict resolution. In addition, they could have resisted Satan's temptation to abdicate their positions of leadership in the church, choosing to remain steadfast in their commitment to the body of Christ at New Hope Church.

Most importantly, earnest intercessory prayer - not arguments and power plays - could have ushered God's presence and power into their deacons meetings.

Conduct regular heart checks

The motives behind our actions matter to God. He cares intensely about the condition of our hearts. He searches our hearts - in places where no one else can find - and He judges our actions according to what He finds in our hearts. Our course may seem right to us, but God weighs our motives: "All the ways of a man seem right to him, but the LORD evaluates the motives" (Proverbs 21:2).

Human motives lie behind every conflict. Since motives can be divided into two types biblically - impure and pure - the conflict that arises from these motives can be described by its fruit or outcomes.

Destructive conflict involves the outward expression of sinful desires - impure motives - that break fellowship with God and other people. (See James 4:1-3.) Constructive conflict occurs as God's people, with pure motives, address issues of biblical truth, doctrinal purity, and church discipline. (See Matthew 18:15-17; Galatians 6:1.)

If Pastor Jon and the deacons of New Hope Church had held one another accountable by conducting frequent "heart checks" during the time when the church was trouble-free and growing, they would have been prepared spiritually to address the destructive conflict that erupted later. The conflict might have been avoided altogether.

Taking a "heart check" involves meeting individually with another spiritual leader to (1) honestly appraise the depth and quality of your spiritual life in light of scripture, (2) examine the fruit of your life and ministry, (3) confess any known sin, (4) seek the filling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, and (5) resolve to serve the Lord with renewed dedication.

Grow up in Christ

Most of the men who had been called to serve as deacons at New Hope Church had been selected by the congregation long before Pastor Jon came to the church. Through the years only a few of these men had demonstrated a commitment to personal discipleship.

Instead, most of the deacons had become congregational managers, using worldly wisdom and skills to oversee the activities of the congregation. No one, including Pastor Jon, had challenged and equipped them to grow spiritually. They remained "babies in Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:1). Not surprisingly, New Hope Church experienced some of the same problems that the church at Corinth had experienced two thousand years earlier: disputes, divisions, doctrinal compromise, and legalism.

One of the best ways to prevent destructive conflict from ravaging our deacon groups and congregations is to conduct ongoing, intentional discipleship for spiritual leaders. As disciples of Jesus Christ, pastors and deacons are called to be active learners of God's Word. Deacons meetings should include much more than perfunctory prayers and brief devotional readings; they should offer in-depth opportunities for spiritual growth to maturity.

Submit to one another

The Bible instructs all believers to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21, NIV). This command includes pastors and deacons. We voluntarily and joyfully submit as a natural outflow of our commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ (see Colossians 2:6) and our desire to glorify God in everything. (See 1 Corinthians 10:31.)

Much of the conflict that Pastor Jon and his deacons experienced at New Hope Church wouldn't have happened if they'd cultivated submissive attitudes toward one another. For example, they could have agreed to disagree on issues not involving biblical absolutes.

Instead of spreading dissension in the church, they could have followed the process for conflict resolution found in Matthew 18:15-17. Most importantly, their example of sacrificial servant leadership set by Jesus, would have been followed.

In Philippians 2:5 Paul instructed us, "Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus."

Prepare today for tomorrow's conflicts

Conflict - a consequence of living in an imperfect, sinful world - is inevitable, even among brothers in Christ. However, most of the conflict that pastors and deacons experience can be avoided if we take spiritual warfare seriously, regularly examine our hearts and motives, grow in our relationship with Christ, and submit to one another "out of reverence for Christ." If everything seems peaceful in your deacon body and church, now's the best time to prepare for conflict!

Dr. David Noble serves as the pastor of first Baptist Church, Harrisonville, Missouri. This article is adapted from the discipleship resource, Winning the Real Battle at Church: Safeguard Your Congregation against Destructive Conflict, by David and Diane Noble (BHC Publishing, 2008).