Church conflict is an ugly, Spirit-quenching, gospel-obscuring tragedy. Aside from the times where it may be necessary as matters of theology and holiness are at stake, conflict is the result of far more trivial concerns being elevated to crusade-worthy status. When that happens, Christ’s prayer for his church in John 17:21 (“that they may all be one”) goes unrealized in our particular corner of the kingdom.
An interesting dynamic occurs in these kinds of church conflict. Both sides will convince themselves that they are more than just right; they will convince themselves that God is on their side. When the inevitable resolution comes, the “winners” will rejoice in God’s vindication. Meanwhile, the “losers” will consider themselves martyrs who will one day experience God’s eschatological vindication. Thus, in victory or defeat, both sides refuse to give up their claim God that was on their side.
But what if they are both wrong? What if God wasn’t “on” either side?
When Abraham Lincoln took his second oath of office, America was at the end of a bloody civil war that had resulted in the deaths of 620,000 Americans. The Union crowds who gathered to hear the second inaugural address were angry and they were eager to hear their leader give voice to their anger. What they got was much different: a call to unite as a nation and as brothers from a president whose entire view of the war had been shaped by his understanding of God’s Providence and its role in the events of human history.
A few years earlier, in 1862, Lincoln wrote down seven sentences on a scrap of paper; a scrap of paper found in his desk drawer after his death by one of his aides:
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party -- and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true -- that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.
Lincoln was coming to the conclusion that God was willing the war to continue in order to carry out some purpose which Lincoln himself could not yet see; a purpose that stood outside of man’s purposes for the conflict. On that scrap of paper, he offered no hint that he knew what that divine purpose might be. But it became clear by his second inaugural address that he had reached a settled conclusion on the matter.