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Did Jesus and Paul avoid conflict?
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Do Jesus and Paul avoid conflict?

In a previous blog post, I suggested that sometimes Christians need to argue. In fact, I believe healthy teams must have productive and passionate debate about important issues. We will lose much if avoid engaging in them. But I also noted that Christian unity is very important to Jesus, and in fact is taught throughout the New Testament. So does our commitment to keeping the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3) restrain us in participating in these types of arguments? Let’s look at both Jesus and Paul and their posture toward arguments.

Jesus does not avoid arguments

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, we often find him in debate with the religious leaders of the day (e.g. Mk 8:11, 12:28). Generally, these debates were initiated by the Pharisees as they sought to trip up this young, popular teacher who was threatening their power base. But Jesus does not steer clear of controversial subjects or refuse to answer their provocative questions.

Nevertheless, when he overhears his disciples arguing about who was the greatest (Mk 9:33-34, Luk 9:46), he puts a stop to it. These were not productive debates, and reflected a completely wrong idea of what leadership entailed.

Jesus joins an argument

But I would have thought that after the dramatic events of the cross and the resurrection, Jesus would be done with the rough-and-tumble of debate and argument. Somehow I imagined that in his resurrected glory, he would not want to have anything to do with them. Then I read Luke 24. I see that in Luke, Jesus’ first resurrection appearance is to join an argument between two disciples.

Avoiding conflict

Should Christians ever argue?

In my online class on leadership, I ask my students whether they prefer “fight” or “flight” when it comes to conflict. By far, the majority tend to avoid conflict. We feel uncomfortable with passionate arguments on mission teams. But can conflict and disagreement on mission teams ever be productive? Could it even be necessary?

For many years, I have been intrigued by Patrick Lencioni’s claim that one of the five dysfunctions of a team is a fear of conflict.1The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. See diagram of the 5 dysfunctions on the SEND U wiki. Recently, I listened to a podcast by Pat Lencioni and his Table Group on “The Upside of Conflict.” He made the startling statement that very few companies that he has worked with have even close to enough conflict. This view seems to radically differ from the prevailing view that Christians and Christian organizations should avoid conflict at all costs! Often our organizational cultures seem to discourage any open expression of disagreement. We do not want to undermine our unity in Christ.

Which hills to die on

Theological Triage: Which theological issues are worth fighting for?

The term “Theological Triage” was introduced in 2005 by Albert Mohler1A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity. Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (The Gospel Coalition) by [Gavin Ortlund, D. A. Carson]It is a “system of prioritization”2Gavin Ortland, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: the Case for Theological Triage, 2020 . Since I have spent most of my life in theological education, on one side of the desk or the other, this is an important issue for me. Distinguishing the relative importance of theological issues has been a very practical task in navigating relationships with others in ministry. Furthermore, the metaphor of triage resonates from the time I spent serving as a volunteer EMT for many years. So, when the Gospel Coalition published Finding the Right Hills to Die On: the Case for Theological Triage by Gavin Ortland earlier this year, I added it to my reading list. Though the book does not directly address missiological issues, its relevance to cross-cultural workers is underscored by the cross-cultural examples mentioned by D. A. Carson in the preface.3Ortland, 11-14.

Four categories

In the Introduction, Ortland spells out the categories of his fourfold ranking for theological triage:

  • First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself.
  • Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the health and practice of the church such that they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry.
  • Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.
  • Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration. 4Ortland, 19.

Why Theological Triage?

The book is divided into two parts: 1. Why Theological Triage? (chapters 1-3) and 2. Theological Triage At Work (chapters 4-6). The first two chapters address the danger of doctrinal sectarianism and doctrinal minimalism respectively. We tend to two extremes: every issue is a hill to die on or nothing is worth fighting for. He urges us to find our identity in the gospel, not our theological positions, hence the need for theological triage. 5Ortland, 42. Second-rank and third-rank doctrines preserve, picture, protect, and pertain to the gospel.6Ortland, 57.

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Valuing Conflict

I have just finished reading the latest edition of the Missio Nexus Anthology, an issue solely devoted to talking about conflict in the Christian community. It includes a few articles particularly focused on resolving cross-cultural conflict, and a couple of articles about dealing with differences between mission agencies. But the idea that most struck me was that conflict is important, even necessary for our development in our Christian life.

Ted Esler, in his closing article in the Anthology, talks about “Loving Conflict.”  Conflict, he says, deepens relationships, is necessary for good decisions and shapes our character.  He concludes,

Do you want to have strong relationships, good decisions, and a deeper character? Then learn to embrace and love conflict.

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