“Fighting Christians” used to be the mascot of one church-related college.
This came to mind after reading an editorial recently that suggested we can expect more conflicts in churches as we emerge post-COVID-19.
We should not be surprised if (and when) church members project onto church leaders the grief, anger and anxiety that they feel about other parts of life than church.
If that commentator is right, then we may be heading for some ugly fights. Fighting Christians, indeed.
Even though watching Christians fight might serve as a morbid form of entertainment, I have always thought that it was a bad witness for Christians to fight.
But does it have to be?
Looking to scripture for examples and instruction, we find many stories of people fighting with God.
Two prominent examples are Abraham trying to convince God not to obliterate Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses more than once trying to convince God not to wipe out the whining Israelites in the wilderness.
We also find stories of people arguing and fighting with each other, such as Jacob and Esau, or the disciples arguing over who is greatest.
Most of Paul’s letters would not have been written had he not been addressing conflicts in churches around the Mediterranean.
So far, the news does not sound very good. The texts witness to the fact that we have always been an argumentative people. Maybe they should teach us what we should not do.
But there is good news here, too, for we find numerous examples and instructions on better ways to handle conflict.
Abraham may not have changed God’s mind on Sodom and Gomorrah, but Moses was successful. God listened and so can we.
We can, therefore, attempt to see things from another’s perspective. We may not, in the end, agree, but we can listen and learn.
Paul offers another strategy to the church at Philippi, where there was apparently conflict between two leaders.
He opens the letter by praying that the congregation would discern “what is best” (Philippians 1:10).
One person paraphrases that statement as, “I pray you will have a sense of the things that really matter.”
Put differently, Paul tells the church to get a grip. He suggests that what they are fighting for isn’t worth it.
Someone once quipped that faculty fights are so vicious because there is so little at stake. The same is true of churches.
We have fought over whether to have music in worship. We have fought over what kind of music. We have fought over décor.
When I was an interim pastor, some people complained about a change in the font used in the bulletin.
We need to get a grip and develop a sense of what really matters: loving neighbor and God with our whole being so as to provide glimpses of the rule of God here and now.
Yet another strategy can be found in Matthew’s Gospel, a book that contains some quite blunt instruction on how to deal with conflict (Matthew 18:15-18).
The text tells us to go to the person with whom we have problems.
Contrast that instruction with what we usually do, which is go to others to complain about someone else. Instead, we are to try to be reconciled one on one.
If that doesn’t work, the Gospel tells us to get a couple of people to go with us to settle things. If that doesn’t work, the church is to take disciplinary action.
The latter step sounds especially harsh to contemporary ears, but the reality is that unaddressed conflicts simmer and fester, only to erupt more destructively later.
While I used to think that fighting Christians were a bad witness, I have now changed my mind.
The problem is not that Christians fight. The problem is the way we fight, for we don’t fight like Christians.
If we fight like Christians, then we will be open to changing our minds.
If we fight like Christians, then we will fight only about those things that really matter.
If we fight like Christians, then we will try to resolve the problem at the ground level before it escalates. But we will not be afraid to take decisive action when needed.
Eventually, that college I mentioned above changed their mascot from “Fighting Christians” to “the Phoenix.”
I do think it’s a better name for a mascot, but I wonder if they weren’t on to something with the original.
Maybe they should have changed it to “Fighting Like Christians.”
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible (Nurturing Faith Books, 2017) and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.