Conflict Resolution in the Shadow of the Cross (Part 7)


In his truly fascinating book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider describes a practice that was widespread in the early church, the “kiss of peace.” Kreider writes:

After the believers have concluded the prayers, according to Tertullian “they shall give the kiss of peace.” Tertullian is the inventor of the term “the kiss of peace.”…When Tertullian wrote, peacemaking in worship already had a considerable history. From a very early date, both the author of the Didache and Hermas saw reconciliation as a precondition for the community to celebrate the Lord’s Supper; and in the mid-second century, in the early stages of the morning service tradition, Justin Martyr reported that in his Roman house church “we greet each other with a kiss” after the common prayers, evidently as a means of preparing relationships for the Eucharist that followed immediately. In the morning service tradition, the peace greeting occupied a sensitive, crucial position between these central actions of early Christian worship, the prayers and the Lord’s Supper. The kiss of peace formed a ritual bridge between them that had its own significance. At the heart of Christian worship was a community whose habitus both celebrated and made peace.[1]

Christians early on exchanged a “kiss of peace” as a sign that their relationships had been transformed in and through Christ Jesus. The practice came from Romans 16:16a, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” It was act that had to be monitored, of course, for it could give way to abuses. So you find in the early church warnings about keeping the “kiss of peace” chaste and appropriate and worshipful. This practice has continued into our own day in some churches literally and in many other churches verbally through the “passing of the peace.” In these churches there is a time in the service in which the congregants go to one another and say something like, “The peace of God with you” and you are to respond, “And also with you.” This is one modern continuation of the “kiss of peace” without the awkwardness (for modern Americans) of an actual kiss. And, perhaps more familiar to us, the tradition has continued on in many churches in the form of the handshake and hug that happens in our worship services. These are all varied modern expressions of the ancient Christian “kiss of peace.”

Now, I am not in favor of bringing back a literal kiss of peace. There is too wide a cultural disconnect and I can frankly think of few things more horrific in modern North American churches than asking everybody to start kissing one another! But what intrigues me is the fact that this practice was so ubiquitous in the early church. In his book Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church Michael Philip Penn calls the “kiss of peace” “one of the most prevalent features of early Christianity.”[2]

In fact, intentional efforts at fostering peace in the body of Christ are evident in numerous ways in the history of the early church, be they symbolic or more literal. Kreider quotes the early Christian Clement in this regard:

Throughout his writings, Clement described these nonkilling, nonadulterous people as people of peace who are formed in catechesis. God has created humans to be peaceable: “man is an instrument made for peace.” But humans have been stunted by sin. The catechumenate is a time to “cut out sins like parasitic growths.” In the course of their catechesis, God’s people “are educated not for war but for peace.” Clement comments: “We do not train our women like Amazons to manliness in war; since we wish the men even to be peaceable.” In their catechesis Christians become “a peaceful people,” “soldiers of peace” in God’s “bloodless army” who wear “the armor of peace.” Marshaled by God in “the ranks of peace,” they “stand in array against the evil one.” The peaceableness of the Christians’ culture is expressed by telltale things, such as the signet rings Christians buy in the markets to authenticate documents. What images should there be on these rings? According to Clement, the rings may have an intaglio of “a fish or ship in full sail . . . or a ship’s anchor” but not of “a sword or bow, for we cultivate peace.”[3]

When I hear all of this I am left with an obvious question: if peacemaking and peacekeeping was such a fundamental value in the life of the beleaguered early church, why is it not so in our own day? If the early Christians fought so hard for peace, why do we simply assume that peace just happens, on its own, as it were?

No, peace does not just happen. Peace is cultivated and fostered and fought for in churches of peace. And this happens especially in times of conflict and community distress. This raises another interesting and important question: what exactly should the church do when conflict arises in her midst? What is our job, the job of the community of Christ, the wider church, when members in her midst begin to clash?

Let us plant the cross of peace wherever conflict threatens the unity of the church.

The first and most obvious response of the church when people in her midst are conflicting should be to speak peace into the midst of the conflict. We should plant the cross of peace wherever conflict threatens the unity of the church.

In Philippians 4 we find a fascinating couple of verses in which Paul mentions two ladies in the church of Philippi who are at odds, who were conflicting. Paul thinks highly of these ladies. They are good Christian ladies. But they had gotten their wires crossed and were at odds over something. What Paul says about them, and, specifically, what Paul says to the church who is clearly aware of the rift between them, is fascinating.

I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

To the two ladies, Paul says they should “agree in the Lord.” That is, they should bring their conflict to the Lord and reach resolution on it. To the church surrounding them he says “help these women.”

There is something so very touching and powerful about this: “help these women.” It is as if Paul is saying, “Can you not see that they are conflicting? Can you not see that their relationship is in trouble? Can you not see that this conflict has the potential to become a greater conflict in the life of the church? You must do something! You must help! Help these women! Help them to resolve this. Help them to restore peace. Be peacemakers. Do not just stand idly by. Help!”

It goes without saying that the third option to doing nothing and fighting for peace is absolutely ruled out by Paul: taking sides and exasperating the conflict. Paul’s words do not suggest that the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche is a moral or ethical one, one in which there is a clear right or wrong. In such a case, of course, we must side with the right. No, they are simply disagreeing over something and it is something that they should be able to resolve. In such cases we must never take sides. Rather, we must “help” by planting the cross of peace.

You will have many opportunities in your life as a follower of Jesus to either (1) exasperate, (2) ignore, or (3) help resolve conflict. What scripture calls for is number 3. We should help resolve conflict and move it toward peace. To ignore legitimate conflict when you are in a position to help resolve it is to, in effect, exasperate it. To do nothing is to do something after all. In Matthew 5, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

This is what sons and daughters of God do: they make peace, they fight for peace!

Help those in conflict! Plant the cross of peace.

Let us lovingly confront those who foster conflict when it is clear who is doing so.

At times, fighting for peace will require confronting a person who is clearly creating conflict. There are occasions in which conflicts arise in the church because a person or persons are simply prone to creating conflicts. Some people like conflict! It is all they have known. It is all they know to do. Many of you will be familiar with the line “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” It has become something of a meme. It is from the Batman movie “The Dark Knight.” In the scene Alfred is trying to get Bruce Wayne to understand that the Joker is a different kind of villain. Alfred says:

“…some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

It is a dramatic statement, but, relationally, there is some truth in it. Some people just want to watch things burn. Some people love conflict. Some people may not love it but they do not know how to function without it. For some people, this inability to function without conflict was put on them by parents or guardians. Some people grow up in families in which conflict is the only thing they ever see. Thus, it is the only approach they know.

It is helpful to remember that every person you encounter has two ages: a biological age and an emotional age. Ideally, the two keep up with each other. A grown person has the emotional maturity of a grown person. A child has the emotional maturity of a child. But sometimes grown people have the emotional maturity of children. Again, these people may have been deeply wounded or stunted emotionally as children. They may the victims of abuse. Abusers sometimes abuse. Hurt people, as the saying goes, hurt people.

We must understand this. If we do not understand this and seek to understand where each person we encounter is we will respond the same to all people and that can be disastrous. Some people will need to be taught that war should not be our first response. So people will have to be taught not to take the gloves off at the first sign of disagreement.

However, those who love conflict and agitate for it must be stopped. This is the job of the church: to fight for peace by confronting those who create conflict. In Proverbs 22 we read:

10 Drive out a scoffer, and strife will go out, and quarreling and abuse will cease.

Those are hard words, and they must be nuanced by the wider voice of scripture concerning gentleness, concerning how we respond to those who are wrong. Even so, the verse stands: if you deal with the lover of conflict you will cause conflict to cease. “Quarreling and abuse will cease.”

I once pastored a church in which an elderly couple began to visit. I did not know the couple but the people of the church did. Their visiting the church came up in a deacon’s meeting. One of the deacons expressed concern. He said that this man, who he knew well, had worked his way through most of the churches in the community and that wherever he went conflict followed. A few other men spoke up in agreement. The deacons then decided to do something I had never seen before. They decided that two deacons would go and speak to this man before he presented himself for membership. They would tell him that they were happy that he and his wife were visiting, that they were welcome to join, but that it was very important that he understood that our church had peace and unity and that this peace and unity must not be disturbed by conflict.

This proposal was put to the deacon body for a vote. Every deacon voted in the affirmative except for one, the man’s friend, who rebuked the body and walked out of the meeting. Again, I did not know the man who was visiting from Adam, but I was impressed by this. I was impressed that genuinely concerned leaders would carefully and but clearly seek to guard the peace and head off conflict.

Perhaps in your personal life you have a friend who tends to stir up conflict. If you are honest, you know that your friend causes you to feel agitated towards people. Perhaps it is time to say to him or to her, “Listen, I want to keep being your friend, but, honestly, I feel that you try to pull me into taking sides against this or that person. I feel like you are prone to conflict. It is important to me that we be people of peace.”

So too in the church. What should you do when there is conflict and it becomes reasonably clear who is causing it? You should lovingly and carefully address the issue with the person. We must not allow those who agitate for conflict to go unaddressed.

Let us create a culture of worship in which conflict becomes an aberration.

There is something else however, something more foundational that the church can do to address conflict. Coaches talk a lot about creating a culture of winning. By that they mean creating an expectation for victory through the establishment of good habits, good mindsets, and even unspoken assumptions that will make the team expect and desire to win! All groups have a culture. Some are good and some are poisonous. Churches are no different.

I have a friend who went to pastor a church some years ago. After a number of months I asked him how the new pastorate was going. He told me that it was a struggle. When I asked him why he said it was a struggle because conflict was in the DNA of the church. Fighting and clashing was apparently all they knew. He said that any move that he or others tried to make inevitably ended in people being at odds with each other, with people dividing into pockets of opposition. He told me that conflict was almost in the air.

I will never forget my friend telling me that one person in the church had left, angry. My friend shared that some weeks after the person left he, my friend, pulled up to a four-way stop sign and there at one of the other stops was the man who had left. Their eyes met. Then the man who had left lifted up his hand and gave my friend an infamous obscene gesture and then drove on through. My friend was shocked but, by this point, not overly surprised.

How does this happen? It happens because churches stop having a posture of upward focus and develop instead a posture of outward critique. There is a simple premise at work here: when the important things become unimportant then the unimportant things become important. When God and His glory recede then man and our desires emerge. This is what paves the way for a culture of conflict.

But churches can develop a culture of worship in which conflict becomes an aberration, in which conflict does not easily fit. I believe this is what Paul is doing in Ephesians 5:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Notice that Paul frames what he is about to say in terms of the church walking carefully, being wise, and “making the best use of the time.” In other words, this is how the church is to conduct itself in a way that is honorable and good and God-honoring. After telling them to avoid drunkenness, he lays out the positive steps:

  • be filled with the Spirit;
  • address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs;
  • sing and melody to the Lord with your heart;
  • give thanks always to God;
  • submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

This is Paul’s recipe for creating a culture of worship in which conflict does not easily fit. You fill the church with such praise for the goodness of God that the ugliness of conflict can find no home there. Paul’s picture is of a Spirit-filled body of worship. Tellingly, worship of God is to permeate even our relationships one with another: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”

We give worship only to God (“singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”) but such is the nature of worship and praise that it colors even how we address one another. Our speech is baptized in praise and its trajectory is ever Godward! This does not mean we must literally sing at each other like some sort of weird ecclesial Broadway production. Rather, it simply means that our relationships grow in the context of worship and praise and that our interactions increasingly take on the flavor of a joyous hallelujah!

How can conflict ever take root in soil so permeated with worship? It cannot. Yes, it will appear, but, in such a church, it will be an aberration, an exception to the rule, and will be quickly dealt with. In such a church there will be no culture in which it can spread, for such a church culture is a culture of light and openness and transparency. It is a culture of the Spirit and love and unity!

Let us love God and one another in such a way that we see conflict, when it arises, as a threat to something beautiful, something sacred, something joyous! Let us love God in such a way that we instinctively rush to plant the cross of peace, to reestablish love, and to plant seeds of harmony and joy.

Such is the way of the peaceful people of God. May our only enemy be the devil! May our only desire be the furtherance of God’s glory!

May we, church, love as we are loved.

May we reside in the shadow of the cross.


[1] Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (p. 214). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (p. 51). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (pp. 159-160). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


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