On October 31 we celebrate something that we usually go out of our way to avoid in the church. I’m not talking about Halloween or All Saints day. I am speaking of the reformation. Some groups recognize reformation day every year sometimes having a reformation day party as a Halloween party substitute, but it is getting a lot more attention this year as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation. It was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther posted the 95 Thesis on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. While there had been conflict in the church for some time, that action ignited a conflict that would change Christendom. It began a great conflict that would have repercussions right up to our current day.
As Protestants we celebrate that conflict because we view it as a necessary correction. The church had lost sight of the true gospel of Christ. The message of salvation by grace alone through Christ alone by faith alone needed to be declared afresh. The overarching authority of scripture alone needed to be re-established all for the glory of God alone. It was and is a good thing. We rejoice in the courage of those who fought in that conflict, and yet we often go to great lengths to avoid conflict in our own day.
There are some legitimate reasons to avoid conflict. Jesus commanded our unity in John 15 and prayed for it in John 17. In Proverbs 10:12 we read: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” And of course Peter refers to that as well. We know the danger of divisive people who can destroy a local church. Certainly most of us don’t want to be bitter, angry, and hyper-critical. We take serious ly what Paul wrote to Titus; “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him,” (Titus 3:9-10 ESV).
All that being said; there is a proper place and an important role for controversy. There are at least three positive aspects of conflict referenced in scripture. The first is that it is a means of personal growth. Proverbs 27:17 states; “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” My understanding is improved when I am challenged by someone who disagrees with me. I am forced to examine my beliefs and defend them. I grow because sometimes I have needed to adjust my thinking and other times I have thought though issues on a deeper level. There is value in reading and conversing with those who challenge me.
A second reason that conflict can be good is that it can correct not only wrong thinking, but wrong behavior. In Matthew 18:15-17 we are given a pattern to follow when we have a brother or sister who is living in unrepentant sin. Too often we are unwilling to get involved and to challenge them to consider their sin, and yet the instructions are crystal clear. We are to go to them to personally (and lovingly) help them to see their error and correct their behavior. If that fails we are to enlist the help of someone else, and as a last resort, to involve the church as a whole. It is clear that if we don’t follow that practice as individuals and as a church, we are not caring for each other as we should.
The third area in which conflict is essential is when we are dealing with false teachers. When we refuse to point out the serious error of false doctrine we harm the church. It is unpopular to identify someone by name as being a false teacher, but scripture is clear that if we do not, the church can suffer great harm (2Pet. 2:1; 1Tim. 4:1; Jude 4). We have a responsibility to point out serious error and to separate from it. That is exactly what happened in the Reformation.
I appreciate the desire to get along and I certainly treasure unity. But let us be careful not to let our desire for peace to keep us from necessary conflict. Sometimes that is what the church needs!