In 1633, George Herbert poetically bemoaned Church conflict and schisms. While older English like this can be a challenge, Herbert’s point is worth the effort it takes to read this.
Brave rose, (alas!) where art thou? in the chair
Where thou didst lately so triumph and shine,
A worm doth sit, whose many feet and hair
Are the more foul, the more thou wert divine.
This, this hath done it, this did bite the root
And bottome of the leaves: which when the winde
Did once perceive, it blew them under foot,
Where rude unhallow’d steps do crush and grinde
Their beauteous glories. Onely shreds of thee,
And those all bitten, in thy chair I see.
Why doth my Mother blush? is she the rose,
And shows it so? Indeed Christs precious bloud
Gave you a colour once; which when your foes
Thought to let out, the bleeding did you good,
And made you look much fresher then before.
But when debates and fretting jealousies
Did worm and work within you more and more,
Your colour faded, and calamities
Turned your ruddie into pale and bleak:
Your health and beautie both began to break.
Then did your sev’rall parts unloose and start:
Which when your neighbours saw, like a north-winde,
They rushed in, and cast them in the dirt
Where Pagans tread. O Mother deare and kinde,
Where shall I get me eyes enough to weep,
As many eyes as starres? since it is night,
And much of Asia and Europe fast asleep,
And ev’n all Africk; would at least I might
With these two poore ones lick up all the dew,
Which falls by night, and poure it out for you!
Herbert employs a number of startling and effective images in this poem. The most jarring, however, is that of the rose and the worm. The church is supposed to be a rose but it has become, Herbert argues, a worm. Why? Because of conflict. Because of “debates and fretting jealousies” that “did worm and work within you more and more.” As a result, the beauty of the church faded, the church was weakened, the church fractured, and the enemies of God “rushed in” to take advantage of the church’s splintered state. And what does this do to Herbert? It causes him to weep as if his very eyes had licked up the dew and “poure[d] it out for you.”
Man! What a poem! What an image! What a heartbreaking thought!
Yes, conflict, if not managed well, can wreak havoc in the church of the living God. It can decimate our health and our witness. Conflict carries within itself the potential for great degradation. For this reason, and for the honor and cause of Christ, the church must not allow conflict to tear her apart.
We now approach the practical steps of conflict resolution. This morning, I would like to give five warnings. The next couple of weeks I will give a number of positive steps. But first, let us consider our all-too-common reactions to conflicts and the ways that these reactions serve to exacerbate the problem. I would like to do this in this way: I would like to give you five steps to take if you want to make conflict worse and wreak ungodly havoc in the church. In other words, if you want to maximize conflict, increase disunity, and make yourself and everybody else around you utterly miserable, these are the steps you should take.
Step #1: Be sure to talk lots and lots about it.
The first step to take if you want to make your conflicts or the conflicts of other worse is to talk lots and lots about it. The worst thing you can do if you are wanting to destroy lots of relationships, is simply be silent and address your concerns with love and charity directly to the person with whom you are conflicting. But if you want to really amp up the devastation, be sure to talk and talk and talk. You will want to talk with your friends, with your friends’ friends, and, whenever you sense a door is open, with pretty much anybody who will listen.
Your phone and the internet can be your friend if you want to make sure that conflict just keeps going on and on and on. Here would be the order from least effective to most effective uses of your phone and the internet in terms of stoking the flames of strife and discord:
- Texting others about why the other person is wrong and possibly evil.
- Sending direct messages via social media about why the other person is wrong and possibly evil.
- Posting thinly-veiled passive aggressive messages on social media that are vague enough that nobody can prove you are talking about the other person but that are clear enough that really everybody knows you are talking about the other person.
- Outright attacking another on social media for all to see.
If what you are wanting is maximal relational carnage, follow those steps. But, whatever you do, do not put your hand over your mouth, cry out to God for peace and healing and unity, and go to the person privately and quietly.
Proverbs 26 shows us the results of much talking about conflicts:
20 For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.
R.B.Y. Scott writes that “the rhyme and structure of the second line suggests that it is a popular proverb of the type: No-this, No-that.” In other words: no-wood, no-fire and no-whispering, no-conflict.
Think about that. Scripture says that refusing to whisper and chatter and talk about your conflicts goes a long way toward removing the fuel that conflicts need to keep themselves white-hot. And why does talk about conflict create such a fire? Because talk is highly contagious and is a phenomenal way to spread relational disease. Paul says this in 2 Timothy 2:
16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus
Do you see? If you are silent about your conflicts you will not be able to infect others with your conflicts and the conflict will be contained. Silence and being slow to speak is the enemy of conflict. So, yes, if you want to increase and expand your conflict, talk it up! Whisper and talk and keep fueling the flame. And talking about our conflict is a lot of fun, right? Talking about our conflicts allows us to (a) control the narrative, (b) magnify the other person’s fault while downplaying our own, (c) build a bigger and bigger coalition of friends and sympathizers against your enemy, and (d) convince yourself through the echo-chamber of your own mind that you really are right after all!
If you want to kill conflict, be silent about it with everybody except those who simply must be addressed. But if you want to maximize conflict, talk lots and lots about it.
Step #2: Meddle in Conflicts not Your own
Another good way to amplify conflict and help it spread is to meddle in conflicts not your own. Yes, it is true, we teach children to mind their own business and yes, it is true, we do not like with other people meddle in ours. But there really is something delicious about sticking your nose in where it does not belong. We call such people instigators. They are the ones who keep things stirred up.
Yes, it is true, Jesus did say “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” in Matthew 5:9. And, yes, if peacemakers are blessed then peace-destroyers are cursed. But if conflict is on the menu of your own heart and if you just must have it and if you want to hurt yourself and your family and your friends and your church and your workplace and your classroom and your online community, then, by all means, meddle meddle meddle!
To keep conflict going, by all means listen to your ego when it tells you that you should be involved. Do you have to be involved? Of course not. You could, after all, cry out to God in prayer for peace and work for those who are involved to forgive each other and love each other. But where is the fun in that when what you want is a good old fashioned fight?
Of course, it is a dangerous business meddling in conflicts. In Proverbs 26, we see such meddling condemned with a very vivid image:
17 Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.
Well! That does give one pause! To meddle in another person’s quarrel is like grabbing the ear of a dog walking by! Now, to get this, you cannot think of a Pomeranian, though some of them are scary enough! Rather, you need to think of a nice sized angry dog who does not want to be messed with. “This simile has a special edge,” writes Robert Alter, “because dogs were not domesticated in ancient Israel but rather wandered outside as semiferal scavengers. The vivid implication is that a person who mixes into someone else’s quarrel is liable to get badly bitten.”
Yes, you can get bit meddling. You can get pulled in and somehow lessened by the conflict you felt the need to engage. You can get pulled beneath the tide of strife and find yourself gasping for air in intermittent trips to the stormy surface. Conflict, after all, when not dealt with rightly, deals with us harshly.
Charles Bridges wrote the following in the 19th century:
There is a world of difference between suffering as a Christian and suffering as a busybody. Even with Christian intentions, many of us are too fond of meddling in other peoples’ affairs. Uninvited interference seldom avails with the contending parties. The true peacemaker, while he deplores quarrels, knows that interference at the moment of irritation will kindle rather than extinguish the fire.
Bridges is right: meddling seldom fixes anything and usually makes things worse. But, if it is conflict you want, meddling is a sure-fire way to get it.
Step #3: Go Personal as Quickly as Possible
Another step toward keeping strife going and toward keeping peace far away is to go personal on the other person as quickly as possible. By “going personal” I am referring to what is called the ad hominem, the “to the person,” the personal attack.
You must understand that if you refuse to attack the person himself or herself and restrict your limited comments to the issue at hand, you defuse the situation and allow peace and grace to come in. So if you want a fight and if you want discord, you must avoid such avoidance and, as quickly as possible, try to insult the other: their person, their character, their appearance, their family, their reputation, etc. etc.
This is effective because the more personal you can make your attacks the more unlikely you will make the other person actually hearing you. They will be so caught up in their rage and defensiveness that, amazingly, you can keep the conflict going while moving it further and further away from its actual cause! You just hop from one insult to another and leave the original grievance behind and, in effect, go for blood. Discord and strife feed on personal attacks, on overly-charged language, on hyperbole and exaggeration, and on a refusal to deal simply and only with the actual issue.
In Proverbs 18 we read about the effects of personal attacks on the other person:
19 A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle.
Alter sees “the most likely meaning” as, “if you wrong someone close to you, he becomes bristlingly defensive, shutting himself off from you like a fortified city.” That is a helpful explanation.
Personal attacks push peace further and further to the periphery and, eventually, you cannot even see peace anymore. Personal attacks are easy because they are how we “go for the jugular” and satiate our own egos. Personal attacks are simply naked assertions of our own raw superiority to the other. They are the way that we say to another, “Honestly, I am not even concerned about the issue. I just want you to know that I am better than you and you are lesser than me.”
If you want peace, refuse the temptation to attack another’s person. But if you want war, go personal as quickly and as often as you can.
Step #4: Choose Bickering Instead of Resolution
If you want more conflict and less peace, another good step is the step of bickering. Whatever you do, do not bicker if you want resolution. If you want to resolve the problem you will need to be very guarded with your words and refuse to engage in a juvenile tit-for-tat spat. But if you really want to amp up the conflict, choose to bicker.
By “bicker” I mean that phenomenon in disagreements in which you stop hearing each other because you are busy formulating your next sentence while they are saying theirs, and vice versa. To bicker is to squabble, is to have cheap and bloody verbal sparring. It is like a dysfunctional dance, and one with knives. It is a dance in which you try to step on the feet of the other.
Scripture is quite clear that bickering causes conflict and strife to continue and spread. For instance, hear Proverbs 26:
21 As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.
Once again we have an image of wood and fire. That makes sense. Conflict is like fire: it spreads quickly and destroys everything in its wake if not extinguished. Here is the parallelism of this verse:
- charcoal – hot embers
- wood – fire
- quarrelsome man – strife
Charcoal will become hot embers in time. Wood fuels fire. Quarreling creates strife. So dangerous is bickering and quarreling that Paul lists it in a list of gross sins in Romans 13. Listen to the company that quarreling keeps in this verse:
13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.
My my! Consider:
- sexual immorality
Fascinating! Many Christians like to condemn the carnal sins of others. But, according to scripture, quarreling is a carnal sin. Its place in this list also makes sense. After all, conflict appears to be quite enjoyable to many people. There is something sensual about it. It is seductive and enticing. However, like all such sins, it leaves us in ruins in the aftermath.
Do you want to maximize conflict? Then bicker! Do you want peace? Then work towards resolution. But if you want to really destroy some stuff the game of bickering is the game for you.
Step #5: Really Lean into the Conflict
Finally, if you want to keep the conflict going, really lean into it. Press down on it. Double down. Refuse to give even an inch. Up your game more and more and more. Whatever you do, do not depressurize the conflict through silence, through prayer, through acts of service, through love, through understanding, through considering that you may be at least partially wrong. No, if it is conflict you want, then you have got to up the ante! This will almost certainly result in more strife!
In Proverbs 30 we read:
32 If you have been foolish, exalting yourself, or if you have been devising evil, put your hand on your mouth. 33 For pressing milk produces curds, pressing the nose produces blood, and pressing anger produces strife.
Once again, the images are vivid and helpful. Press milk enough and you produce curds. Press or hit a nose and you will produce blood. And press your anger or the anger of another and you will have more and more conflict.
Do you know those little moments in conflicts when you realize that you could humble yourself and step back, when you could defuse or depressurize the situation? The more of those little moments you walk past in your own haughty desire to be right, to win, the harder those moments are to find. This is how the rose becomes a worm, to go back to Herbert’s poem: you press into the conflicts in your life. You tell yourself that you must not ever show weakness, that you must be strong, unyielding, hard, inflexible. That is how you lean into strife.
These are the steps to keep conflict going. And here is the really neat thing about these steps. If you do these and do them faithfully—talk, meddle, go personal, bicker, lean into your conflicts—you will find in the end that you have become almost animalistic in your behavior. Anger and conflict and ego have a way of diminishing us. So much so that Paul could say something like this to the church of Galatia in Galatians 5:
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
Ah! There it is! Commit to keeping conflict going and you will find soon enough that you have become something like one of those feral dogs whose ears you grabbed. You will, in other words, starting biting and devouring one another.
So if you want conflict, here are the steps. I can promise you that the steps end in misery and pain and loneliness, but conflict you will have.
But if, just if, on the other hand, you want peace and friendships and joy and forgiveness then whatever you do, do notdo any of these! If you want peace, then you kneel at the foot of the cross and give Jesus all the anger and ego that tempts you to the terrible steps mentioned above. If you want peace, you come to the King of Peace and He will show you his way, which is one of forgiveness, kindness, and love.
 R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. The Anchor Bible. Vol.18 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), p.160.
 Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible. vol.3 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), p.435n.17.
 Charles Bridges, Proverbs. The Crossway Classic Commentaries. Ser. Eds., Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), p.236.
 Robert Alter, p.409n19.