When we bite and devour one Another

We may not always realise it, but the Bible has a theology of conflict. Indeed, when we stop and think about it, we are literally no further than 57 verses into Genesis before we find ourselves in the conflict zone that changed the course of history. And the conflict that emerges there in the opening section of Genesis 3, culminating in the fall, very quickly proves itself to be the fountainhead of every other form of conflict this world has ever witnessed. Understanding the roots of conflict in the Great Rebellion in Eden provides a framework for understanding its innumerable manifestations at every stage of history and in every sphere of life. Being in conflict with God will inevitably bring us into conflict with our fellow human beings; but also, as the words of the divine curse upon Adam show, it brings us into conflict with the created order itself.

Not a day goes by when we do not struggle with the pain of this conflict – whether it be at the human level of disagreement, or even outright war with those around us, or simply struggling to hold back the relentless advance of weeds in our back yard. Nor are we surprised by many expressions of conflict in different areas of life. Just as there have always been certain nations or people groups that are just bellicose by nature, so there seem to be certain individuals for whom a fight seems to be the norm. The fact the apostle Paul labels this present age – from the fall of Adam to the return of Christ – as ‘evil’ and from which we need to be ‘rescued’ (Ga 1.4), explains why this is so. In one sense this helps us to understand and accept the status quo of everyday life. No matter how shocking conflicts may be – in our families, or between nations – we realise we shouldn’t be surprised. Animosity has been woven into the spiritual DNA of our fallen humanity. Eve was warned of this when God addressed her in the aftermath of her husband’s disobedience (Ge 3.16). What does shock us, however, is when conflict erupts within the family of God in the church.

Out of all the expressions of human community, the church is regarded as a sanctuary of peace. Jesus, its head and king, said that its identifying hallmark would be ‘love for one another’ (Jn 13.35). Yet, from its very inception, the church all too often has been caught up in conflict.

Some of its battles were and always will be absolutely necessary. Paul tells the Ephesians that Christians are to wage ruthless war against ‘the world, the flesh and the devil.’ So too, within the church, Jude tells the believers he is writing to that they must ‘contend for the faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). That is, we must fight for the preservation of the truths revealed in Scripture – something that has marked the course of church history through the ages.

There is, however, another kind of battle that should have no place in the body of Christ, but which has been a running sore within it for every generation. It is the conflict that arises within the family between those who are blood-bought children of God.

Just as domestic disputes are among the most painful experienced in life generally; so, in an even more painful way, the disputes that spoil the harmony of God’s family and disrupt the bond between brothers. Only when we appreciate the gravity of such breakdowns in relations (often only after the fact) do we realise why we so desperately need to avoid them. But this also explains why Paul speaks so passionately about the need to avoid such conflict at all costs in the first place. He does so in numerous ways throughout his letters; but nowhere more pointedly than in his letter to the Galatians. As a group of churches, as much as in their individual congregations, they had become engulfed in and divided by the most divisive issue of the New Testament era: the ‘Jew-Gentile controversy’ over the place of the Mosaic Law in the church. This disagreement had become so heated among the parties involved that Paul has to tell them, ‘If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another’ (Ga 5.15).

Strong words indeed, but truer than we often care to acknowledge. How many churches that once were thriving are now reduced to a mere handful of people, or have even closed, because the congregation literally devoured itself in internecine conflict?

Thankfully this was not Paul’s last word on the subject. There is also a theology of reconciliation – but that will be for another post!

Mark Johnston