To paraphrase Jesus: conflict you will always have with you. Anyone who’s been married for even a few years knows that there is no such thing as a conflict-free marriage. No one who’s raised children has done it without conflict. No congregation has ever been conflict-free, going back to Acts 5-6.
The question for Christians isn’t how to avoid conflict. Conflict doesn’t go away because we ignore it. Instead, the conflict gets shoved underground or swept under our numerous rugs, and (to paraphrase the Lord again) the state of that house is worse than at first.
We know these things intellectually, but they are far harder to put into practice. The Spirit wills it, but our sinful flesh is weak.
But conflict, like marriage and child-raising, should be a school that teaches us how to live with one another in repentance, Christian love, and unity. We are warned by the Eighth Commandment that we must not bear false witness against each other. “For honor and good name are easily taken away but not easily restored.” It is very easy to pretend that the circumstances of a particular conflict free us to act sinfully against another person. We put the worst construction on their words and actions, and we assume the worst about their motives for saying or acting how they did.
Luther writes in the Large Catechism:
The third aspect of this commandment, which applies to all of us, forbids all sins of the tongue by which we may injure or offend our neighbor. “Bearing false witness” is nothing but a work of the tongue. God wants to hold in check whatever is done with the tongue against a neighbor. This applies to false preachers with their blasphemous teaching, to false judges and witnesses with their rulings in court and their lying and malicious talk outside of court. It applies especially to the detestable, shameless vice of backbiting or slander by which the devil rides us.
In fact, the Greek word for devil, diabolos, means slanderer. Speaking evil of others, regardless of the circumstances, comes from the devil. How much more damaging and cancerous it is in the Church when people refuse to bring their problems to the person against whom they hold those things. Our mothers knew what they were talking about when they told us that if we couldn’t say anything nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all. “Therefore, God forbids you to speak evil about another, even though, to your certain knowledge, that person is guilty. Even less may you do so if you are not really sure and have it only from hearsay.”
Much of the reason for intractable conflict comes from a lack of understanding. We assume far more often than we ask. Perhaps you know what happens when we ass-u-me. As sure as we are that we know why someone has said or done something, it is far better to exercise some humility and ask first anyway.
The only assumption Christians should be making about each other is that we are, each and all, baptized members of the Body of Jesus Christ. Beyond that, we daily sin much. Since our sinful flesh is not fully dead and buried, we can always find room to repent. None of us does everything that we should, nor do we refrain from doing everything we should not. When we approach conflict with another Christian, we do so knowing that Christ has covered all our sin. Therefore, because we are forgiven much more than anyone knows, we forgive what little we know of the other person’s sin. Begin with your sin, and Christ’s forgiveness of you, and you are much more likely to approach another person in that light and with that grace.
Pastor Luther teaches us how to pray the Eighth Commandment:
[We recognize that this] teaches us, first of all, to be truthful to each other, to shun lies and calumnies, to be glad to speak well of each other, and to delight in hearing what is good about others. Thus a wall has been built around our good reputation and integrity to protect it against malicious gossip and deceitful tongues; God will not let that go unpunished, as he has said in the other commandments.
We owe him thanks both for the teachings and the protection which hea has graciously provided for us.
Third, we confess and ask forgiveness that we have spent our lives in ingratitude and sin and have maligned our neighbor with false and wicked talk, though we owe him the same preservation of honor and integrity which we desire for ourselves.
Fourth, we ask for help from now on to keep the commandment and for a healing tongue, etc. [“A Simple Way to Pray,” LW 43:208]
May God grant it to us for Jesus’ sake.
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”