“Why Should the Work Cease?” – How Leaders Handle Conflict

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The entire Bible story is set against the backdrop of conflict. Conflict between good and evil. Conflict between man and God. Conflict between husband and wife. Conflict between brothers. Conflict between sisters. Conflict between parents and children. Conflict between Satan and God. Conflict between Satan and man. Conflict within nations. Conflict among nations. Conflict between flesh and spirit. Conflict between Jew and Gentile. Conflict between the church and the world. Conflict among God’s people. Conflict, for followers of God, is impossible to escape. In fact, conflict in this world is impossible to escape.

The whys of conflict are manifold, but likely boil down to a few truths. We are moral beings, created with an understanding of right and wrong. We are free moral beings, created with the ability to do as we please. We almost innately think of self first, thus are prone to act accordingly. We are influenced by Satan in his effort to undermine God. Put these things together, and conflict is almost guaranteed.

Given the certainty and frequency of conflict, it is imperative that those who lead God’s people become adept at doing their job in the midst of such. There are ample warnings and instructions in the NT about difficulties among God’s people – Acts 6.1f; Acts 15.1f; Rom.14-15; 1 Cor.1.10f; 5.1f; Gal.5-6; Phil.4.1f; 1 Tim.1.3f; 2 Pet.3.1f; etc. etc. Anyone who has accepted one of the roles of leadership in a local church should give due attention to these various instructions. But there are also examples provided to us so that we might see how God’s men have led others in the midst of great difficulty. Some examples are not so glorious. Moses became angry when the Israelites rebelled in Num.20, and in doing so, sacrificed his entry into the promised land. David mourned publicly over the death of his treasonous son, and almost sacrificed the loyalty of his most trusted soldiers (2 Sam.18-19). Zedekiah cowered before the princes of Israel rather than heeding the words of Jeremiah, and his failure resulted in the razing and burning of Jerusalem and the temple (Jer.38-39). On the other hand, the apostles were wise in their handling of the conflict in Acts 6, and the sage counsel of women like Abigail (1 Sam.26) or the woman of Abel Beth Maachah (2 Sam.20) averted unjust bloodshed and preserved the dignity of David’s rule. One such powerful example of good leadership in the midst of great conflict is found in the account of Nehemiah 2-6.

In this passage, Nehemiah has left his position as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia and returned to Jerusalem for the express purpose of rebuilding the city and its walls. Upon arriving, he is confronted with two primary sources of conflict – one from outside the city and its people, and one internal in nature. The threat from without was the opposition of those regional Gentile rulers who had filled the void of power when the Jews were exiled. They were in the habit of intimidating and abusing those who had returned from captivity. Thus, they attempted to halt the construction of the wall both by threat of violence toward the people and by an assassination scheme against Nehemiah himself. The internal threat which confronted God’s leader was perhaps more dangerous. The nobles who were exerting political power over their Jewish brethren were unwilling to participate in the building of the wall (due to the intimidation of the Gentile rulers?). Moreover, they were enslaving their countrymen by economic chicanery. They secured family lands in exchange for grain and then charged exorbitant interest so that the lands and houses could not be repurchased. Furthermore, these leaders were excising the Persian taxes on the land at the hands of the poor people while not contributing themselves. Thus, Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem with serious difficulties before him.

Please note, first of all, the response of Nehemiah in the face of such threats:
1. He continued the planning and execution of the building of the wall (Neh.2-3).
2. He was unafraid to confront the source of conflict (Neh.2.19-20; 5.7f).
3. He maintained his confidence in God and His work (Neh.2.17-20; 4.14; 5.14f; 6.3f).
4. He inspired the effort of others (Neh.2.18; 3.1f; 5.10f).
5. He prayed (Neh.4.4-5,9; 5.19).
6. He made needed provisions to insure success (Neh.4.9-23; 5.10,14f).
7. He gave serious thought to his response and action (Neh.5.7).
8. He brought to bear the influence of God, his brethren, history, and himself (Neh.5.7-14).
9. He reminded others of God’s judgment (Neh.4.14f; 5.12-13).
10. He remained personally focused upon his work (Neh.6.3).

God has recorded for us these details for a reason. Nehemiah was effective, though he faced threats both from without and from within. He arrived in Jerusalem at a critical time in Israel’s history, as evidenced in the books of both Ezra and Malachi. The Babylonian captivity was over, but the remnant who had returned to the land were discouraged and distraught (Neh.1.3). They were failing of proper service to God and that failure was preventing God’s blessings upon them. They were being oppressed by surrounding power and by the godlessness of their own nobles. And Nehemiah led them through these serious threats. So, what can we learn about leadership in the midst of conflict from Nehemiah?

Note the nature of the conflict and react accordingly. Conflict from without can unify brethren. Witness the impact of persecution or opposition, whether here or in the efforts of New Testament Christians. Threats can provide opportunities for good leaders to “circle the wagons”, to rally saints to courage and defense and activity (1 Thes.1.6f). Good leaders move disciples to pick up their swords with one hand and their hammers with the other. On the other hand, leaders need to see clearly the potential division when threats come from among God’s people. Whether the issue be deceptive teachers (1 Tim.1.3f), ambitious egoists (3 Jn.9), issues of maturity (Rom.14-15; 1 Cor.8-11), or disobedient disciples (1 Cor.5.1f; 2 Thes.3.11f), a good leader needs the wisdom to see the possible impact. Problems from within tend to polarize brethren as folks forsake God’s will and look to their own, soliciting support from friends and family. Self-justification often supercedes honest evaluation and personal loyalities often supercede spiritual brotherhood. Sometimes, unfortunately, division will occur no matter the foresight and wisest efforts of good leaders. But a failure of perception is never profitable. It is important to identify the threat, appreciate the potential of such, and react accordingly. Souls are at stake.

God’s will must always be at the fore. Those who lead God’s people do so with one thought in mind: to glorify God. Such was the work of Christ (Jn.17.4) and such is the work of God’s people, regardless of the covenant under which they live or have lived (1 Pet.2.9-12; Ex.19.5-6). And while we are prone to think that God is ultimately glorified in the salvation of souls, there is a sense in which God is glorified in His justice as well. We are to uphold the will of God, no matter the outcome. Those who submit to such and become His eternal children stand as a testimony to His glorious grace and mercy. But those who refuse such stand as a testimony to His glorious grace and justice. God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek.18.30-32; 33.1-20; 2 Pet.3.9f). Nonetheless, those who obstinately turn away from God’s provisions fall under His righteous retribution (2 Thes.1.6-10). Thus the instructions to “deliver such a one to Satan…purge out the old leaven” (1 Cor.5.1-7). Hopefully, such extreme action will lead to repentance. But if not, it is imperative that we stand for truth. Leaders who compromise God’s word are neither saving souls nor glorifying God. Such a goal must be the clear aim of leaders in the midst of conflict. And we should be praying to that end – that souls might be saved, yes, but ultimately that God might be honored by our actions.

We cannot hide from, avoid, placate, or tolerate threats to God’s work and people. Ours is an age of subjectivism and toleration. We are discouraged from holding to objective truth and the necessary conflict that arises from such. Jesus noted the practical impact of His work – “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt.10.34). That reality does not sell well in our ecumenical world. Culture would influence God’s leaders to appease those who prompt conflict – to promote a “unity in diversity” mindset. There is clearly some diversity among God’s people – different backgrounds, talents, levels of maturity, understanding, etc. But whatever stands opposed to the clearly revealed will of God simply cannot be swept under the rug. The issues that threaten us are real. Immorality, sexual perversion and pervasion, immodesty, dishonesty, intemperance (particularly involving drugs/alcohol), divorce – these are matters that are destroying society. And they are sins that have always challenged God’s people. Leaders must confront them as surely as they were an armed enemy outside the walls. Granted, we are to confront such problems with meekness, caution, humility, gentleness, and love (Gal.6.1f). And the outcome of our efforts may bring loss and heartbreak rather than repentance and rejoicing. But we cannot turn a blind eye to the source of conflict. We cannot let Satan overrun the camp.

We should prayerfully plan our response. Nehemiah is repeatedly seen conferring with other leaders among God’s people (Neh.2.15-18; 4.9,14,19; 5.7f). Moreover, he does not act hastily, often praying to God (Neh.1.5; 4.4,9; 5.19) and pausing to study the situation before him (Neh.2.12-15). He is also noted as giving “serious thought” to his action (Neh.5.7). God’s leaders are to be wise men – experienced men; men given to reflection; men who have wisdom; men familiar with and dedicated to God’s will; men who confer and discuss and consider their actions with other qualified leaders. Such strategy is seen in the demands of 1 Tim.3.1f and Titus 1.3f ; the examples of Acts 6 and Acts 15; the instructions of 1 Tim.4.12f; 5.1f. James 1.19 cautions us to be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” Such is sound and powerful advice for those who must determine a godly course of conduct in the midst of dangerous conflict. Prayer, meditation, and wise counsel are invaluable tools when difficulty stands at the gates.

Conflict must not stop our work. Nehemiah had returned to Jerusalem with a job to do, and he refused to allow anything to stop his work. Leaders among God’s people are trying to bring lost people to redemption; to bring babes to maturity; to edify the brethren; to support the weak; to comfort the feebleminded; to warn the unruly; to reprove, rebuke, exhort; to equip saints for the work of ministry; to watch for souls. As Nehemiah noted in Neh.6.3, we are “doing a great work.” Conflict, whether internal or external, can distract us from our goals. It is easy to become absorbed, consumed, obsessed with problems and difficulties and forget that there is an ongoing effort to be made. As above, we cannot stick our head in the sand when difficulties arise, but neither can we make a conflict the center and circumference of our work. Like the men on the wall, we must lead with one hand on a weapon – defending against the threat – and the other hand hard at work in the ongoing service of God’s people. Such balance is difficult and sometimes leaves little time or opportunity for relief and respite. But, as noted before, souls are at stake.

Leadership is demanding, and those who aspire to such simply for the recognition it brings often have no clue of the difficulties. Nonetheless, those like Nehemiah who are devoted to God and His people, do not shy away from the challenges, even when those challenges come in the form of conflict. God help us to do our work, and do it well.

Russ Bowman