One matter of continual concern to me is interpersonal conflict within the church. It’s not the existence or even the quantity of conflict, but the inability or unwillingness to deal with it when it arises, and this despite the Bible’s clear teaching that Christians are to resolve conflict and how Christians are to resolve conflict. It’s simple: As believers we are not permitted by God to have open, unaddressed quarrels with other believers. We are to work to bring any and every interpersonal conflict to appropriate resolution.
Yet our churches have too many people who are willing to grumble and complain about one another, who allow disputes to go unresolved, who allow petty quarrels to fester and to threaten to grow into full-out battles. Today I offer this brief piece on how to identify conflict within local church relationships and how to bring them to healthy resolution. It involves just two questions: What kind of conflict are we in? And what do we need to do to resolve this kind of conflict?
What Kind of Conflict Are We In?
Before you can resolve any conflict, you need to understand its nature. Broadly speaking, you will encounter three different kinds of interpersonal conflict in your local church relationships. I’ve been helped here by Lou Priolo who in turn draws from Wayne Mack.
- Conflicts of differentness arise between people who disagree on matters of preference, especially when it comes to ministry. Here we think of Paul and Barnabas and their conflict over whether to bring John Mark on their missionary journey (see Acts 15:39). Both wanted to do what was best for the sake of ministry but right there a sharp disagreement arose. They saw the situation differently and were unable to bring it to healthy resolution.
- Conflicts of righteousness arise when people have different understandings of how Christians are to interpret God’s guidance in matters of conscience. In the first century, Paul addressed Christians eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Romans 14). Contemporary examples might include Christians using birth control, abstaining from alcohol, or enrolling their children in public schools.
- Conflicts of sinfulness arise when one person commits sin against another. Biblical examples abound and, undoubtedly, each of us can think of many examples from our own lives, families, and churches.
Most, if not all, conflicts will fit into one of these three categories. The way to resolve a conflict depends on its nature and this is why we must give thought and prayer to discerning what kind of conflict it is. Once we have made that determination, we are ready to work toward resolution. We are ready to ask, What do we need to do to resolve this kind of conflict?
Resolving Conflicts of Differentness
While we may resist differentness in our churches, it can actually be a sign of God’s blessing. After all, God means to call us into countercultural communities that include representatives of all kinds of backgrounds, cultures, races, and socio-economic groups. The very differences that give opportunity for believers to grow in love, unity, and Christlikeness also represent an opportunity for Satan to incite conflict.
Generally, such conflicts are not resolved through a formal process of confrontation, but through growth in Christian character and deliberate expression of that character. If you find yourself in a conflict of differentness, learn to listen, learn to appreciate rather than fear or resent the differences in other believers. Find ways to express the Christian virtues of kindness, love, and patience. Guard yourself against making rash and unfair judgments about another person’s motives or maturity. Do what you can to care more for the other person than for defending your own views. And if you realize that you have sinned against another person along the way, humbly seek their forgiveness (See “Resolving Conflicts of Sinfulness” below).
Resolving Conflicts of Righteousness
God calls his people to himself but does not make us clones. He does not make us utterly uniform in all we believe when it comes to understanding and applying his Word. This is especially true when it comes to matters of conscience such as the number of children we have, whether we have liberty to enjoy alcohol, or whether we must set aside Sunday as the sabbath. We cannot be without convictions in these areas, but we soon realize that our convictions may differ from those of other people in our local church.
Once more, conflicts of this nature are not resolved by a formal process of confrontation. They, too, are addressed through Christian character. In Romans 14, Paul uses the language of “weak” and “strong” and warns of the unique temptations that will threaten to divide Christians. The temptation of the strong will be to despise the weak while the temptation of the weak will be to condemn the strong. The strong may see the weak as ensnared by legalism and immaturity and this will lead to hatred and mockery. The weak will see the strong as licentious and will condemn them for lawless behavior. Both will distance themselves from the other. Paul’s solution is two-fold: Welcome one another and refuse to pass judgment.
When you find yourself in a conflict of righteousness, understand that healthy resolution involves self-confrontation, not confrontation of the other person. (Lou Priolo says, “If anything, some form of self-confrontation may be in order to bring about repentance for any selfish thoughts, motives, and attitudes (if not words and actions) that have been brought to light by the differentness conflict.”) Deliberately seek out the people who differ from you, get to know them, and learn to express love to them. Do your best to understand how they have arrived at their convictions. Be aware of your temptation to divide from people who differ from you (and group together with people who agree with you) and utterly refuse to judge others as godly or ungodly, mature or immature, worthy or unworthy, on the basis of similarity or difference.
Resolving Conflicts of Sinfulness
And then there are the conflicts of sinfulness in which one Christian has sinned against the other. In many cases, the best course of action is to overlook the offense in love (1 Peter 4:8, Proverbs 10:12). This is not pretending that it never happened, but identifying it as a minor matter that does not need to confronted.
The second option is to confront the sinner, and this is advisable or even necessary if the sin is too hurtful, habitual, or significant to overlook. The purpose of such confrontation is to bring reconciliation and it involves a process that begins informally but may end with the gravest formality. Jesus lays it out in Matthew 18.
Step 1. Speak to the person who sinned against you. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (15). Approach that person in a spirit of gentleness and humility, explain how he sinned, and allow him to express repentance. Be sure to ask clarifying questions instead of relying on bold accusations. Be willing to believe that perhaps he did not sin at all and that you simply misunderstood the situation. In most cases, forgiveness is sought and extended and the issue goes no further.
Let me add two pieces of counsel here. For church leaders: Some of the most common phrases pastors should utter is, “Have you spoken to him about this?” or “Have you confronted her for what she said?” Leaders can be too quick to short-circuit this Christian-to-Christian process. For church members: There is a fine balance between confronting too often and too rarely. Immaturity or fear of man may keep us from confronting sinners and pursuing reconciliation. Many relationships remain broken simply because no one had the courage to confront. On the other hand, immaturity and pride can compel us to address even the smallest issues. There is a balance that can be attained by seeking counsel from wiser, more seasoned believers. But all the while, know that it is your responsibility to maintain discretion and, initially at least, to protect the reputation of the other person. The best outcome is when the matter is known only to you and the other person.
Step 2. If the person does not express remorse or ask forgiveness after your confrontation, you are bound to follow the second step: “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (16). Appeal to one or two mature believers in the church, explain the situation, and let them affirm that you have taken the right approach to this point. Be willing to hear that the other person did not sin or that you misunderstood the situation. But if they affirm your actions, take them with you as you approach the person a second time. As you confront that person, make it clear that you are following the steps laid out in Matthew 18. Once again, the hope and expectation is that the person will seek forgiveness and the matter will be closed. If the person remains unrepentant even now, then it becomes a matter for the church membership and leadership. You may still be involved, but the main responsibility passes out of your hands.
Conflict between believers is a sad, inevitable reality. If even Paul (the great Apostle) and Barnabas (the son of encouragement) had a sharp disagreement, what is the likelihood that we will live out our Christian lives unscathed? Yet conflict is an opportunity to grow in grace, in character, in love, in humility. It all begins with two simple questions: What kind of conflict are we in? And what do we need to do to resolve that kind of conflict?
Note: Lou Priolo’s Resolving Conflict is an excellent book that I’ve drawn from substantially (as well as from his previous writings that formed the basis of this work).