I chanced to have a conversation with someone who has sat in the pews of several congregations while each went through a period of deep and hurtful conflict. The person does not like conflict. We might say, "who does?" Somebody must because it seems that some parishes are always up to a good verbal brawl.
I ventured that much of the conflict in the church has little to do with the church. It has been my experience that just as conflicts outside the home get brought home and dumped there, so conflicts in which the people are prevented from or powerless to respond often come out in a "safe place" like a church. I learned this from a psychologist who described a child who acts up at home but appears to be the model child outside the home is often venting where he feels safest and where he believes the damage will hurt the fewest. You may not like that explanation but I see a great deal of wisdom in it. People who have conflicts at home but cannot deal with them or at work but cannot quit because they need the paycheck have to dump somewhere. The church may end up being that somewhere.
More to the point, however, what did Jesus expect of church conflict? I am convinced that Jesus saw it coming. I believe He not only saw it coming but equipped us with the answer to conflict -- where we will let it work. After His resurrection our Lord gathered His disciples for an Easter evening ordination. I do not think it is chance what words Jesus spoke as He set apart His disciples, sent them forth in His name, and breathed on them the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld... (ESV).
The ordination direction led His disciples right to the challenge before them and the answer to that challenge. It did not take long before conflict and division threatened the very life of the early Church. In the Council of Jerusalem, Peter and Paul, the twin towers of Christianity, came to blows with a divided Christendom. It was not settled merely by James' wise and patient leadership. I believe inherent to that conflict resolved was this conferral of the keys of the kingdom.
It is not merely that we forgive the brother or sister whose hurtful words or actions have offended us, it is that we seek out the grace of forgiveness for ourselves. I am not talking about some grand resolution party in which we hug and all the bad is forgotten. I am speaking about the confessional in which we must name out loud the sins we have thought, said, and done. Nothing releases us from the conflicted and destructive character of sinful conflict than when we own up to our part by speaking it out loud and owning those hurtful thoughts, words, and deeds. Once we own them, we can be forgiven of them. Until we own them, no one can release us from their grasp.
Honest private confession regularly exercised in the life of the faith would encourage and support the mutual consolation of the brethren in which we confess to and forgive the sins of those whom we have hurt by what we have thought, said, and done -- or left undone. It seems to me that all the high powered programs for conflict resolution could largely disappear if the conflicted parties availed themselves first of private confession and then confessed and absolved one another.
Jesus certainly knew the tests that would face His people and His Church. He equipped us with the resource of His grace to meet the challenge of conflicts which wound, divide, and weaken His people. It was there all along -- private confession and absolution. It may begin one person and one Pastor at the rail, but it does not end there. And that is how this grace is multiplied.
I expect that the holidays are an especially stressful time in which the grace of confession is even more urgently needed... for the benefit of the individual, the family, and the church. Do I need to say it? Go to confession.