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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Conflicts of Interest vs. the Peace Principle

A conflict of interest, legally speaking, is a situation in which a person owes a duty to more than one party, the execution of which duties are either incompatible or mutually exclusive. In other words, discharging one’s responsibility to the first party may result in negatively impacting or failing to discharge one’s responsibility to the second.

This is not a situation with which Christians are unfamiliar. Let’s consider one example:
“God has called you to peace.”
(1 Corinthians 7:15)
Living in peace is a general rule of the Christian life, and an important one, if we consider the number of times we are instructed to observe it.

But how do we apply the peace principle to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ? Is it to be applied universally? Are we to be so ‘peaceful’ that we never dispute anything with anyone?

I’m sure we can all think of circumstances in which the peace principle creates a conflict of interest for followers of Christ. I’d like to examine several examples of Christian duty that may be incompatible with being peaceful or being considered peaceful.

Peace vs. My Personal Interests

There may be circumstances referenced in the New Testament in which our personal interests ought to win out over the peace principle, but I am currently unable to think of any. I welcome your suggestions.

But when faced with this particular conflict of interest it seems Paul, like the Lord Jesus himself, calls us to take our lumps: “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?”

That has to do with lawsuits against believers, but putting our personal interests second to those of others for the sake of peace also applies to our relationships outside the church. The verse quoted at the top of this post occurs in the context of a potential marriage breakup, where the unbeliever wants to leave and the believer wants to stay together. Paul says, “... if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so”. In other words, this is not something Christians fight about, broken heart or no. God has called you to peace. The peace principle wins. Same thing applies when the circumstances are reversed: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free”. I can imagine circumstances under which the believer might like the idea of some divine sanction for dissolving an unequal yoke, but it isn’t given.

Where the things I want personally come into conflict with the peace principle, it seems there are higher, more spiritual considerations than my desires.

Winner: Peace

Peace vs. Testimony

The testimony of the early church about Jesus Christ was not always delivered in circumstances we would call peaceful. Acts 19 records a riot triggered by Ephesian businessmen who realized that the faith Paul was preaching in their streets might well have a negative impact on their bottom line. But it was not the Christians who were rioting; they bore no responsibility for the intemperate response of the Ephesian tradespeople. The preaching of the word continued, and Paul departed the region. We note that he had already planned his departure, and there is no evidence that the civic disturbance hurried him along.

On more than one occasion the apostles were arrested and “strictly charged” not to teach in the name of Jesus Christ. As far as civic authorities are concerned, an arrest is certainly a breach of the peace. But the apostles, though polite about their refusal to comply, rightly responded “We must obey God rather than men.”

So while it is important to maintain peace with the world around us if at all possible, Christ’s command to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” takes precedence over the peace principle when the two come into conflict.

Winner: Testimony

Peace vs. Truth

This is a conflict of interest more likely to occur within local churches than anywhere else, and it is not within the scope of this post to delineate in every possible instance the exact circumstances under which peace should trump truth, or truth ought to trump peace.

Let’s just be clear, as President Obama often says, that either is possible:

Paul tells the Corinthians that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized”, implying that some issues are worth going to the mat for, regardless of the fact that agreement is not always a given. He also says, “if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God”, implying that there are some issues the faithful believer cannot concede for the sake of peace, even in the face of contention, because to do so would violate the correct practice of all believers as taught by the apostles. In these instances, truth trumps peace.

On the other hand, there are circumstances in which submission to authority among God’s people is a non-negotiable requirement. Hebrews tells us, “Obey your leaders and submit to them”. But submission is not necessary — in fact, it’s not even possible — when we completely agree with everything we are submitting to. Submission is necessary in circumstances where we believe those who have authority over us are wrong, whether that be in their interpretation of Scripture or in their ordering of church practice. The Lord taught the same thing when he told his Jewish followers, with regard to the scribes and Pharisees, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you”. This is particularly compelling, since the Greek verb the Lord used for “sit” has the force of “have seated themselves”. There is the suggestion there that even religious authority wielded by those to whom it may not rightly belong is to be obeyed when possible.

Winner: Depends on what’s at stake

In Conclusion

The peace principle is not a universalism. As much as we are called to it, and as much as it ought to characterize our spirits and speech at all times, sometimes conflicts of interest will make it impossible, and the natural Christian desire for peace will need to be sacrificed to a higher principle. When and how are the questions.

Observing and understanding how the Lord and the apostles applied their own teaching is a big step in finding out.

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