3 Dynamics of Conflict Every Church Should Know

Dr. John B. MacDonald
July 08 2024

 

Conflict happens— it is an inevitable part of life. This holds true in our personal and communal journeys. 

During a discussion about my research on congregational leadership and conflict, I encountered an older couple with a rather stark perspective— that all conflict was inherently wrong and destructive, with no place in a healthy congregation. 

In this post, I want to share a different perspective drawn from Acts 6:1-7 (NIV).

I will introduce you to three basic elements of interpersonal or intergroup conflict so you better understand some of the dynamics of such conflict. But first, I want to offer you hope— the possibility that any conflict can lead to growth in your life and relationships. 

CONFLICT: A CATALYST FOR TRANSFORMATION

Acts 6 opens with a scenario that may feel familiar to many of us. The early Christian community was growing rapidly, but within this flourishing congregation, there arose a conflict. The Grecian Jews expressed discontent because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food in favor of the Hebraic Jews. This was a classic case of interpersonal conflict, and it serves as an illuminating example of how conflict, though often viewed negatively, can lead to positive transformation.

Conflict, in its many forms, can indeed be toxic, but it can also be the crucible where growth and positive change are forged. In Acts 6, if the conflict had not been addressed wisely, it could have torn the young Christian community apart, leaving deep divisions and resentment. To truly benefit from conflict, we need to understand it better and harness its potential for positive outcomes.

Let’s begin by defining conflict. In this context, we are primarily concerned with interpersonal conflict, which involves disagreements between individuals or small groups. A preliminary definition of interpersonal conflict could be a disagreement between interdependent parties concerning an actual or perceived incompatibility of needs, ideas, beliefs, values, or goals. 

Three key elements underpin such disagreements: interdependence, incompatibility, and issues. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

ISSUES: THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Issues in conflict are the core points of contention. They encompass everything from basic needs, like food, to more abstract elements, such as beliefs and values. The conflict in Acts 6 revolved around the distribution of food to widows, a clear example of a basic need becoming a point of contention. Sometimes, issues are unclear. In such cases, delving deeper into why certain issues matter to individuals or groups can provide further insights.

In Acts 6:1, we learn about the issue:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

As a result of this inequity, the Grecian group “complained against” the Hebraic group. Another rendering is “there were rumblings of discontent” (NLT). 

INCOMPATIBILITY: THE CLASH OF NEEDS

Incompatibility arises when parties realize they cannot simultaneously fulfill their respective issues. This realization may not always be accurate, but the perception of incompatibility is enough to spark conflict.

Fortunately, in Acts 6, there is no indication that resources are insufficient. For some reason, an unequal distribution was taking place. So, I conclude the incompatibility stemmed from the perception (rather than the fact) that both Grecian and Hebraic widows could not have their needs met simultaneously. 

INTERDEPENDENCE: THE TIES THAT BIND

Interdependence refers to the nature of the relationship between individuals or groups involved in the conflict. Some relationships are close, others less so, but all carry a degree of interdependence. In the case of conflict, interdependence can be modified or even destroyed. How close or distant the relationship is can play a crucial role in how conflict is resolved.

In Acts 6, we see a high level of interdependence between the Grecian and Hebraic groups within the Christian community. This interdependence ‘in Christ’ was non-negotiable, as their shared faith and communal identity bound them together.

So, how was this conflict resolved in a way that strengthened, rather than fractured, the Christian community? 

The answer lies in acknowledging the issue at hand and intentionally addressing the dynamics causing incompatibility.

Under the leadership of the Twelve Apostles, the community recognized the need for equality in food distribution and wisely engaged seven qualified men to manage the process, ensuring fairness and unity prevailed. 

So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (6:2-6)

Based on the names of these seven men, it is worth mentioning that they were selected from among the Grecian Jews. 

SUMMING UP

The result of this conflict was a stronger community bond and a stronger presence within their society (6:7):

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

In conclusion, interpersonal conflict is a complex interplay of interdependence, incompatibility, and issues. When approached with wisdom and a commitment to maintaining and strengthening relationships, conflicts can be opportunities for growth rather than destruction. Acts 6 offers us a powerful lesson in how embracing conflict can lead to the expansion and enrichment of our communities.

After gaining some insight into the basic elements of conflict, we will also learn that some conflicts are not so readily resolved, and some antagonists are not so reasonable. More on that later.

As we continue exploring the dynamics of conflict in the coming posts, I encourage you to reflect on how these insights equip you to better understand and navigate interpersonal conflicts in your life and community. Conflict, when handled with care, can be a catalyst for positive change and unity.


This article is the first in the series When Conflict Happens by John B. MacDonald on the topic of conflict. We encourage you to continue reading the full series here: When Conflict Happens. You can also find more articles from John on his website living theology.  

*This article first appeared on the living theology website as "An Introduction to Conflict" and has been republished with permission from the author.  


Dr. John B. MacDonald has served for decades as a lawyer and pastor-teacher. He is an associate with Outreach Canada and focuses on equipping and encouraging others to become more like Jesus Christ and to live all of life with God-honoring competence and joy. 




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