How to deal with church conflict


Disagreements don’t have to be destructive

By Jerry Van Marter | Presbyterians Today

People sitting at a meeting arguingThe first church conflict I remember as a kid was over “bi-part” offering envelopes — a single envelope with two separate and distinct pockets, one labeled “current expenses” and the other “benevolences.” My father railed against them, arguing that they presented church members with a false choice. He called it “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

It’s been many years since I’ve seen bi-part offering envelopes. In fact, I don’t often see offering envelopes anymore in these days of online giving. I have, though, continued to see conflict.

Since the time of the apostle Paul, Christ’s church has been riven by conflict. Sometimes the division is over theology, but more often the friction is due to carpet colors, worship music choices, the scope or cost of building plans and even the question of whether “we are too small” or “too tired” to continue. And, in recent years, we have once again seen painful schism, as churches left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), primarily over LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex) ordination and marriage.

What does our Presbyterian polity tell us about how to deal with conflict? Since conflict is inevitable in the church, here are some helpful reminders:

  • In any time of conflict, our attention must be focused on Jesus Christ. “Christ gives to the Church its faith and life, its unity and mission, its order and discipline. Scripture teaches us of Christ’s will for the Church, which is to be obeyed” (Book of Order, F-1.0203).
  • No conflict can destroy the unity of the body of Christ nor should it detract from mission. “Division obscures but does not destroy unity in Christ. To be members of the body of Christ is to be sent out to pursue the mission of God and to participate in God’s new creation” (Book of Order, F-1.0303d).
  • Faithfulness to God, not adherence to any institution, should be every Presbyterian’s goal. The church seeks “a new openness to see both the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world” (Book of Order, F-1.0404).
  • The church has biblically mandated injunctions for dealing with conflict. The Book of Order, D-1.0103, cites “the traditional biblical obligation to conciliate, mediate, and adjust differences.” And, F-3.0105 concludes: “In all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. We include confession of sin in every service of worship because we all know that we don’t always measure up. It is no accident that, of the four sections in the Book of Order, the “Rules of Discipline” is by far the longest — 62 out of 172 pages, or more than one-third of the entire book.

In 1992, the 204th General Assembly approved Guidelines for Presbyterians in Times of Disagreement, an extremely helpful resource developed by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. The guidelines, reaffirmed by the 2010 General Assembly, remind us to:

  • Treat each other with respect to build trust
  • Learn more about the topic of disagreement
  • Check to make sure we have heard others correctly
  • Be direct in sharing our concerns with individuals or groups with whom we have disagreements
  • Focus on ideas and suggestions instead of questioning other people’s motives, intelligence or integrity
  • Share our personal stories so others may better understand where we’re coming from
  • Praise the good as well as criticize the bad
  • Pray without ceasing.

And for me, as a lifelong Presbyterian who has been through 72 years of this, I would add “stay in community.” We all belong to Christ and so we all belong to each other. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ — a love we all share. May it be so.

Jerry Van Marter is the retired director of Presbyterian News Service and stated clerk for the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky. 

Learn more

For more on the Guidelines for Presbyterians in Times of Disagreement, a resource developed by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, go to


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