When conflict becomes a part of the human experience, one typically expects the outcome to be negative. From history’s telling, conflict has almost always led to battles, schisms, separation, and even wars. Worse, conflict can lead to a loss of witness to an unbelieving world when it happens among believers. But conflict, when seen from a God-focused perspective does not have to result in situations that bring pain and alienation. Resolved conflict can bring great glory to God. This is an important truth to understand, especially among the family of God, and more particularly, within the local body of believers.
As seen in the example of Achan’s disobedience during the conquering of Jericho, described in the book of Joshua, God’s glory can and will shine through if leaders handle conflict faithfully. While the actual ramifications of sinful behavior in the body of Christ are not as dramatic today as they were in the days of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land, the pain inflicted on the community can be just as great. Yet in the proper handling of this situation, Joshua restored the community and their relationship to God and ultimately preserved the glory of God.
In Joshua 6:17-19, Joshua instructed the Israelite fighting force how they were to handle the conquest of Jericho. Jericho was, according to Joshua, to “be set apart for the Lord” (Joshua 6:17, NET), and all her riches, especially the silver, gold, bronze, and iron items, were to be placed into the Lord’s treasury (Joshua 6:19). If the Israelites were disobedient, the whole camp would be “subject to annihilation.” (Joshua 6:18)
In Joshua 7, the reader learns of Achan’s disobedience. He had stolen some of the items found during the conquest of Jericho and had hidden them in the ground underneath his tent (Joshua 7:21). While he thought no one would know, God knew and was furious with the Israelites (Joshua 7:1). It is interesting to note that God’s anger was not against Achan alone, and that Scripture does not assign blame solely to him, even though it appears he was the sole perpetrator. Rather, Scripture tells us “the Israelites disobeyed” (Joshua 7:1). Sin was going to hurt not just Achan, even though his heart and hands physically committed the sin, but it was going to impact the entire nation.
Thirty-six men died in the assault on Ai before Joshua was even aware of what had happened at Jericho (Joshua 7:5). Suddenly the Israelite army, which was so confident that God was with them when the walls of Jericho fell, saw their courage “melt away like water” (Joshua 7:5. Joshua and the leaders of Israel sought God’s face in prayer, and God revealed to them something that may seem astounding to today’s reader: Israel had sinned. Not Achan. Israel. God told Joshua and the leaders, “You are contaminated, O Israel!” (Joshua 7:13) While God saw a corporate guilt, He nevertheless showed Joshua what needed to be done, and that was to find the root of the problem (Achan) and deal with the assault on the Lord’s covenant (Joshua 7:14-15).
While Achan did not step forward and confess voluntarily, he was identified through the selection process God had demanded. After confessing very readily and completely once confronted by Joshua, Joshua, his family, his livestock, his tent and the riches he had stolen are taken to the Valley of Achor, where he was stoned and his family killed and his belongings burnt.
BRINGING GLORY TO GOD
There are many things not to understand on an initial reading of this story contained within the pages of the book of Joshua, a book which describes the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites after their Exodus from Egypt. It may not necessarily seem foreign to us how God views a conflict caused by sin, but rather how He deals with it. Why would God blame the entire nation of Israel if one person sinned? Why would God extinguish an entire family and the livestock over Achan’s guilt?
Through his actions, ultimately Achan had not only hurt himself, but also his family and the broader family of the Israelites. He had brought conflict into their midst. God viewed one person’s sin as something that reflected on the community and ultimately infected it. Alfred Poirier offers up a helpful reflection on the desires of a human’s heart that are the cause for much conflict. He writes that the book of James can provide us insights into why our desires are so destructive.  In particular James 4:2 sheds light on this topic: “You desire and you do not have; you murder and envy and you cannot obtain; you quarrel and fight.” In Achan’s case, he desired to possess riches that were certainly enticing from a human perspective, but ultimately were not meant for him, but for a holy God who had protected Achan’s family and the other Israelite families on their way out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
Joshua’s obedience in both seeking the Lord in prayer with his leaders as well as in executing a discipline, in this case capital punishment for the offender, allows God’s glory to be restored, and is captured for future generations as an example of both divine justice and faithful human response in obedience through a passage that seems hard to us. The death of Achan and his family and the destruction of his livestock and possessions, including the tainted riches he had stolen, seem to be excessive punishment to the reader. Marten Woudstra offers a helpful insight into the tricky ending of Joshua 7 in this reflection on the text:
Although v. 15 had spoken only of burning, v. 25 also speaks of stoning. Moreover, v. 25 uses alternately the third person singular and the third person plural for the object of the punishment. It may well be that the stoning was done to enable “all Israel” to participate in the act. The use of both singular and plural probably indicates that Achan was put to death separately, to make an example of him. The fact that his family also shared in that fate may be due to their common knowledge of the crime. After all, the goods were hidden in the parental tent. The element of corporate guilt is here also. Deut. 24:16 is held in balance by Deut. 5:9.53 The former should not be seen as representing a more individualistic, less “sacral” view than the latter. Properly understood the Bible does not teach individualism anywhere. Care should also be taken not to view the corporate element as only a remnant of a primitive mode of thought that is inconsistent with modern thinking.
God’s holiness was perfect and was not to be tainted through the disobedience of His people. Joshua’s obedience to God’s demands showed that he understood the damage of sin in the midst of the congregation. If he had allowed this episode to go unpunished, the desires of others would have grown to the proportion James describes, where people would have killed to get what they coveted.
RESPONDING TO CONFLICT TODAY AND BRINGING GLORY TO GOD
In our churches today, the situation is really not that much different. If sin is allowed to rise up without countering it, we may see “a bitter root springing up” (Hebrews 12:15). Roger Ellsworth writes, “Achan was guilty of holding one of the trademark beliefs of our age, namely, that personal happiness and fulfilment should override every other consideration. This mentality has devastating ramifications for society in general, but it is particularly damaging when it crops up in the church.”
The example of Achan shows us just how idolatrous our desires can become. In his case, riches were more important than obedience to his God. Achan had seen God provide for the Israelites through their trek through the desert and into the Promised Land. He had a family, so he was probably not a very young man. Yet he allowed the desire for riches become an idol that was more important than obedience. Poirier writes, “As counterfeit gods, idols are lawgivers. They command us. They shape our affections, direct our decisions, and motivate our behavior. What we do, we do because we obey the command of our god.”
The example of Achan also shows that we cannot divorce ourselves even today from the corporate aspect of our life as believers in the body of Christ. What one brother or sister does can have possible ramifications and ripple effects through an entire local body of believers or even outside of the local body into broader groups. God is still the same holy God He was in the days of Joshua and Achan, and His holiness still demands that we address sin in the body that brings conflict and ultimately can lead to division – or even brothers or sisters walking away from God because of it. If issues that offend God are addressed in a timely manner and appropriately dealt with, whether through direct one-on-one reconciliation or through a broader accountability (depending on the severity of the conflict), the risk of individual members of the body resorting either to peace-faking measures, such as denial or flight, or peace-breaking measures, such as assault or litigation, is greatly reduced. Through this, God’s honor is maintained and the witness to the unbelieving world untainted and even strengthened.
Ellsworth summarizes the lesson leaders in the church can take away from the example given to us in the pages of the book of Joshua:
God has not changed in his nature or in his fundamental purposes since that long-ago day in devastated Jericho. He still wants us to bring glory to his name by obeying his commands….Once we understand these fundamental realities we can see that the story of Achan is not just a tiring bit of ancient history; his choice is still being played out in our own age. Any time we let our own desires and happiness crowd out obedience to God, we have donned Achan’s Babylonian garment and pocketed his Canaanite shekels.
The story of Achan’s stealing of Jericho’s riches can teach believers about the importance of not letting disobedience or sin in our midst simply be ignored or overlooked. God’s glory is too important to Him (and should be to His people) to allow conflict to go unaddressed. If the body of Christ is allowed to make decisions based on their wants and desires, conflict is pre-programmed, and God is not honored. God is honored when His precepts are honored.
Conflict appropriately addressed can help avoid dividing the body of Christ, can restore relationships, can combat the rise of idols in our thinking, can give joy, can strengthen our witness to an unbelieving world, and ultimately will bring glory to the One to whom it is due. Psalm 133:1 tells us about God’s ideal for the community of believers: “Look! How good and how pleasant it is when brothers live together!” Our actions and engagements with each other need to strive to bring this experience of unity about through our faithfulness in combating sin and addressing conflict in our midst.
Ellsworth, Roger. Opening Up Joshua. Leominster: Day One Publications, 2008.
Poirier, Alfred. The Peace Making Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006.
Woudstra, Marten H. The Book of Joshua. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981.
 All biblical citations below are taken from the New English Translation (NET).
 Alfred Poirier, The Peace Making Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 53.
 Marten H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981), 130-31.
 Roger Ellsworth, Opening Up Joshua (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2008), 75.
 Poirier, The Peace Making Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict, 59.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ellsworth, Opening Up Joshua, 75.