What Happens When the People of God Fight Each Other?
The 2016 presidential election highlighted the intense division that racks the United States of America. (Note united in our national name.) Two political parties with different worldviews vie for the majority of voters so that they can make their platform mainstream, while inside this struggle of worldviews resides two radically different viewpoints of Christianity, usually distinguished as either conservative or liberal. Both groups see themselves as the people of God, followers of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless they violently disagree about who should lead the government and what the governing philosophy should be.
Disagreement is not itself a problem. Everywhere there are groups of people there are disagreements about almost everything. As the most diverse nation on earth, the United States seems to have as much disagreement as alphabet soup has letters. This nation has survived and thrived because compromise and collaboration won out over conflict, but the question is will the citizens of this nation continue to coexist, and what will be the role of the Church?
One might think that when religious beliefs are similar or the same there would be little disagreement, but such is not nor ever has been the case. Some even insist that religion is a cause of conflict and cite the many historic examples in which religious differences have led to war. The Bible does not hide the faults and failures of the people of God. In the next Blog post, I will share a biblical story that involved conflict between two groups of the people of God, conflict that developed not only into violence and bloodshed but the near annihilation of one of the groups. Of course, none of this reflected God’s intentions.
Next: The War Between the People of God Recorded in the Bible
The War Between the People of God in the Bible
The book of Judges Chapters 19-21 tell about an episode early in Israel’s history after they conquered the Promised Land. The first sixteen chapters of the book mostly are presented in chronological order, but Chapter seventeen through the end of the book are appendices, relating events of earlier times as side stories that set the stage for the eventual change in Israelite government from Theocracy to Monarchy.
The Judges served Israel’s God in administering justice and providing human leadership during the several hundred years between the conquest and Saul, the first king. Chapter 19:1 begins the story with, “In those days Israel had no king.” There was only a loosely-organized governmental structure, so the crime that was committed against two people, described in 19:1-26 escalated to a national incident as v. 27-30 explain. One of the leaders was Phinehas the High Priest (20:28), who had shown himself to be a decisive and zealous servant of God during the latter part of Israel’s 40-year journey through the desert (Numbers 25:7-13). As he had not idly stood by during a previous time of national moral failure, he was part of the national leadership that weighed in on this latest criminal act (Judges 20:1-3). Clearly a horrible moral evil had taken place for which Yahweh would hold the nation responsible (Numbers 35:33-34; Deuteronomy 21:8-9), but exactly what was this evil seemed to have been heavily shaped by the cunning dramatization of the religious figure who portrayed himself as the victim (Judges 19:27-29). Without fully understanding the matter, the leaders, pressured by the alleged victim’s effective depiction of the outrageous nature of the crime, considered themselves responsible for bringing about justice (20:3, 6-7).
Who was right in this matter: the criminals or the outraged nation? Obviously, the nation was right, even if they had been skillfully manipulated by an angry and astute victim. Whose side was God on? That question does not have a simple answer. The Israelites were God’s covenant people to whom He had given the Promised Land. Because God told them to remove its previous inhabitants, the Israelites erroneously assumed that they were morally better, but Moses reminded them that it was not their moral purity that won the inheritance for them; no, they were themselves “a stiff-necked people” (Deuteronomy 9:4-6).
Next: Whose side was God on?
Whose Side Was God On?
Several decades before the incident we have been discussing recorded at the end of the book of Judges, as Israel prepared to invade, a divine Commander had surprised Joshua with his answer to the question, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” His answer was “Neither” (Joshua 5:13-15). The Commander was for Yahweh.
Many times, God’s people get mixed up about such matters. Because they perceive that they are right about an issue, they assume that God is on their side. In some cases wars have been fought, and in others political debates have raged over issues of right and wrong. The problem for us humans is that all of us are wrong about something. To assume that God is on our side is often presumptuous. Indeed wars have been fought with soldiers in opposing trenches praying to the same God for victory.
In the story at the end of the book of Judges, it was God’s people (Israel) against God’s people (some Benjamite residents of Gibeah). God was not for one against the other, but He did want them as one nation to work out their differences and bring about justice. But instead of humbly working together to solve the problem, they went to war. The tragic result, as recorded in Chapters 20-21, was the loss of over 65,000 lives—nearly two thirds on the side that considered itself morally right—and the virtual annihilation of one of the tribes of Israel, all because of a crime against two people.
When Israel’s angry factions squared off against each other, God did not intervene. Why? They did not want His intervention. Their minds were made up to “give them what they deserve for all this vileness in Israel” (20:10). When they approached God in prayer, it was not to ask what to do but to decide which troops should lead the way in the war (20:18). War is what they got. What was God trying to teach Israel in this episode?
Next: Christians at War with Each Other?
Christians at War With Each Other?
James, the half brother of Jesus and writer of a New Testament Epistle, wrote in James 4:1, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” According to his words in James 2:1, his audience was “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ,” so his question was not to nations or secular individuals. Quoting the law of love, he had said to these same people, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8). What an irony that later he would have to address infighting among them.
James directly charged these believers in Christ with acting upon their lusts for things (4:2). What was going on? History doesn’t fill in the details, but considering James’ comments we get a picture of a culture that was struggling. Both sides of the conflict, and if there were other sides, thought they were right. They prayed about the issue (v.3), but it was not resolved. Why? Under the Spirit’s inspiration, James said that their motives were selfish.
Because these conflicts were part of the culture, and the Christians in the culture were part of the conflict, James called them adulteresses—the bride of Christ in bed politically with the world (v.4).
James had encountered similar situations in his past, and he had experienced the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church through the issues so that the Church did not take on the conflicts of the culture but, instead, set an example to the culture of how to live through them as Christians. We can read about James’ experience in Acts 15. There we read that when a conflict—intrinsic in the clash of cultures in the Roman-dominated world—erupted between Christians, the Church leaders agreed to meet together in council to discuss and resolve the issues (v.1-2). The meeting was contentious, but the leaders yielded to the Spirit to gain a good resolution (v.6-11, 13-19, 28). James knew that it worked, so he urged Christians elsewhere to use the same process.
In the next Blog, I will suggest how this process could work in the Church today.
The Church in Council, Working Through its Disagreements
Less than 20 years after the Church began in Jerusalem on Pentecost, 10 days after Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, the still-new church, having spread outside of Jewish lands into major Roman cities, faced a crisis of conflict that threatened its existence. In the previous Blog, I mentioned this conflict, recorded in Acts 15, and I elaborated that Holy Spirit led the Church to resolve this conflict. Can the Church today rediscover the value of councils as a means of encouraging and strengthening oneness? One of my professors, Dr. Dan Rogers of Grace Communion Seminary, once commented: “Also instructive is the process Luke lays out in Acts 15 for resolving the greatest divisive controversy in the history of the Church. It may be viewed as a paradigm for the Church striving for oneness. And that paradigm can be incredibly useful in dealing with disagreements/divisions in a local congregation (or in a denomination): 1) disagreement 2) open discussion 3) discerning God’s will 4) responding to God’s will 5) participating with God in his will through action steps resulting in unity/consensus.”
Although leadership in a local congregation or denomination can do much to facilitate a council, I believe the process Dr. Rogers listed can work at all levels in the Church if the combatants are willing to humbly accept the Spirit’s lead. Councils were effective in early Church history. Why couldn’t American Church leaders who hold different viewpoints on matters such as abortion, contraception, marriage, guns, and any other issue that divides not only the nation but also Christians, meet together and humbly seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit toward unified Church positions? Such an open forum may include an examination of core beliefs that hinder unity as the Church leaders did in the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15.
Definitely, it would not be easy, but is anything impossible to those who will trust in Jesus and try to do things His way? What might happen if leaders start to pray for, instead of against, each other? How about talking to, instead about or against, each other? Politicians may be selfishly motivated, but Christians have a far better and shared motivation in Jesus Christ to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).