Conflict, Confrontation, and Confession
Benjaminm Dean, GWC Dean of Postgraduate Studies, Christian Doctrine
BA Hons (London School of Theology), MA (King’s College, London), MPhil, CTh, PhD (University of Cambridge)
Conflict is inevitable in human life as currently experienced in the world. Indeed, it is a fact rarely acknowledged that all people, at all times, in all places everywhere, encounter opposition, hostility, aggression, violence, even war, in some way, shape, or form.
Conflict was very clearly bound up into the earthly experience of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Not only was intense opposition definitive for what happened to him at many junctures but, so grippingly, Christ’s teaching itself frequently sets out various conflict situations where one kind of power and will encounters quite directly and tangibly another hostile force. A particularly striking saying, for instance, is one where Jesus presented an image of his overarching objective. ‘How’, he asked, ‘can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.’ (Matt 12:29). The Lord is of course painting himself into the picture here.
Alerted to the thought, we can easily recognize categories of conflict featuring on virtually every page of the New Testament Scriptures. After all, the most central event and the turning point of history, is Christ’s execution by crucifixion. Obviously the whole process of betrayal, arrest, trial, and dispatch involved a devastating range of values, interests, powers, and intentions, each in unflinching conflict with one another. At that precise point of time and space, the Kingdom of God collided in every imaginable regard with the powers of darkness. Conquest and Victory are integral to the Gospel.
For the Christian disciple, moreover, conflict is reckoned normal, routine, and usual. As the Apostle remarked, ‘doing the will of God’ entails unceasing struggle on a vast scale, against the devil, against rulers and authorities, against cosmic powers, and against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6: 6, 12). From this angle, real faith in Christ is inherently oppositional. This is because confession of Jesus Christ invariably occurs against a background of sin and its close ally, unbelief. Confession – public declaration of belief in Christ with everything that that involves – actually drives the Christian toward conflict and confrontation, for the believer’s ‘yes’ to God’s ‘yes’ in the Gospel meets with a persistent ‘no’ from the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Resistance to confession and proclamation of the Gospel sometimes comes most pointedly from within the church itself. This year of course we are drawn to recall and reflect upon a remarkable instance of confrontation half a millennium ago. Martin Luther’s publication (in 1517) of the famous Ninety-five Theses provoked a period of conflict so intense and prolonged that he has gone down in history as the first Protestant reformer. Luther did not have a detailed plan for church reform prompting him to act so provocatively, and picking a fight with Roman authority certainly wasn’t his intent. Rather, Luther felt impelled to act having rediscovered the Gospel of Christ, and it is hugely important to see that it was precisely this – sustained confession of the Gospel – which provided impetus for a confrontation which soon ignited massive hostility from the Roman curia (the Vatican’s papal court) and over time substantially changed the landscape of worldwide Christianity. Others like John Hus (1369-1415) and John Wyclif (1384-1443) had challenged Roman Catholic teaching and called for root-and-branch renewal of Christianity in Europe. Yet it was Luther who managed to forge the collegial and political backing that helped bring the breakthrough.
Luther was himself excommunicated in 1521, becoming in the eyes of officialdom a theological and political outlaw. A few years later, in 1529 at the diet of Speyer, a small number of German evangelical princes and the cities they represented who followed Luther protested against an imperial injunction voicing the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of Luther’s teaching. Through their objection, ‘protestant’ was coined as a new term. Yet, again, the protesters at Speyer were not difficult people bent on causing Christian disunity and political-religious turmoil. They were moved by vital evangelical concern, that the good news of Jesus Christ be accurately understood and carefully communicated. So, the following year at the diet of Augsburg (1530), this same group published a statement of faith and life that became known as The Augsburg Confession.
But let us briefly illustrate these matters in a slightly different regard. Consider the words ‘true’ and ‘truth’, and how they feature in current culture and conversation. Some degree of conflict usually follows almost immediately after one utters the terms ‘true’ and ‘truth’ concerning any significant moral, philosophical, or religious matter. It comes by way of confrontation in the realm of ideas and, of course, not just from obviously intellectual folk, but from a broad swath of citizens in every strata of society, religious leaders, business people, politicians, media, and many other arenas of cultural commentary. People today are as divided, cynical, leery, uncertain, threatened, and contentious about many matters of truth and importance (and especially about those who claim to know it with some authority) as they have ever been. ‘Post-truth’ is but one notable instance. But if ‘truth’ means (roughly) something like ‘knowledge corresponding to reality, or knowledge built upon deep and real understanding of the way things actually are’, then to be in an era of ‘post-truth’ is to be in an age of unreality; and that is a rather worrying place to be.
For serious and thoughtful Christians, however, particularly those seeking to be biblically faithful and, through God’s revelation in Christ, claim objective knowledge about spiritual and moral reality, some measure of confrontation and conflict is necessary and unavoidable. Popular, educational, and professional circles of public life continue in hostility to genuine presentation of the Gospel, and such hostility will arise with special vehemence when faith in Christ is presented as essentially and universally true, reaching far beyond the categories of sincerity, opinion, emotion, tradition, or private commitment. Yet confession of Christian belief is confession of a clear set of teachings – about Christ, Scripture, faith, grace, and the glory of God alone – and bound up with these teachings is the responsibility to cross cultural boundaries. And doing that with consistency and integrity requires courage. Yet how many among us today have that?