Modern aircraft have collision avoidance systems that alert pilots when another aircraft gets too close. Some modern cars have similar technology. In my experience, it’s not just cars and aircraft that avoid collisions. Churches and Christian leaders also have a tendency to avoid conflict. Sometimes that’s just the right thing to do. There are conflicts that aren’t necessary, that aren’t grounded in anything substantial, that don’t have anything to do with truth, righteousness, sin, and forgiveness.
There are, however, conflicts worth having. The very idea that we ought to be involved be in conflict contradicts a good bit of late-modern dogma. One of the orthodoxies of our age is that conflict is inherently bad. In some ways it is understandable that people should think this way. The 20th century was marked by bloody, violent, conflict that resulted in the deaths of millions. The scale of the destruction in the late modern age is almost unthinkable. We’re at the end of more than 10 years of the war on terror. There is a generation of children who have only known war, even if it’s only on television.
On top of the cultural predisposition (habitus) against conflict there is, among evangelicals, much influenced by pietism (which values subjective religious experience over objective religious truth) a strong bias against conflict, even at the expense of the truth. That evangelical ethos has influenced the conservative Reformed world more than one might think. This is not an apology for the sorts of wasteful conflicts that take up so much time and energy in Reformed churches (see above), tertiary doctrinal and practical matters—issues that have nothing to do with Scripture or our confession—but an encouragement to recognize a way in which the culture is influencing us, influences of which we might be unaware.
There is, however, clear teaching in Scripture that pushes us toward godly conflict. In 1Thessalonians 5:7 Paul says, “we urge you, brothers, admonish (νουθετειτε) the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” This is a minor confrontation: challenging the lazy. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to tell someone else to get a job. There are always rationalizations that provide plausibility for not obeying the Lord.
In Titus 1:9 Paul says an episcopos (probably an elder but for our purposes it doesn’t matter) “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke (ελεγχειν) those who contradict it.” Scripture requires us to correct morals and doctrine. An elder isn’t called to go looking for such conflict but neither is he to retreat when it finds him. He has a duty to more than his own comfort and experience of peace.
Ultimately, our opponent is not flesh and blood. 1Peter 5:8 makes this clear. Peter exhorts elders to “be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” The Evil One must be resisted, even at the cost of suffering.
Finally, we have the example of the Apostle Paul and Peter. Galatians 2:11 says “when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed (αντεστην) him to his face, because he stood condemned.” After Pentecost, after becoming an apostle, Peter had come under the influence of the Judaizers and had stopped fellowshiping with Gentile Christians. In so doing, Peter had denied the gospel. He was guilty of doctrinal, moral, and practical errors.
Paul might have turned a blind eye. It’s sure that many leaders today would have been able to find a way to counsel Paul not to confront Peter. After all, what sort of example would it be for two apostles to disagree so strongly? It would be confusing to the sheep. Arguably, it might set back the cause of the gospel and give the enemies of the church and the gospel a stick with which to damage the church.
Paul persisted anyway. Why? He knew that righteous confrontation is an act of faith. He had to trust the Lord of the church to preserve his body and to bring Peter to repentance. That is what happened. Paul trusted Christ. He confronted Peter publicly for his sin. The Spirit used that rebuke to shame Peter into true repentance. Peter stopped ignoring the Gentiles and he stopped corrupting the gospel of grace. The church, the gospel, and the mission were preserved.
Conflict is out of fashion in our time and there is clear biblical teaching to seek peace whenever possible but peace must sometimes be found in the pursuit of the truth and of righteousness even in the church. Conflict avoidance is our bias but the Spirit sometimes calls us to overcome the spirit of our age.