Conflict resolution

Conflict resolution
Let’s face it, one way or another we’re all flawed; such is the human condition. It follows then that there’s no earthly relationship, however loving, that doesn’t require patience, compromise and forgiveness.

I truly believe that one reason we find it so hard to forgive is, quite simply, that we don’t honour God by adhering to His clearly revealed instruction in the matter of conflict resolution. Sadly, more often than not, our human reaction to conflict tends to exacerbate the situation rather than resolve it.

The Bible instructs and, therefore, requires how we are to go about resolving our differences so applying Biblical principles isn’t a function of how we feel but rather it’s an act of obedience. The entire process here deals with sins within the Church but, obviously, we can apply most of the principles to family and private conflict. Discretion is a huge factor in resolving differences, both private and public.

This article is quite long but, rather than divide it, here’s a guide or overview of this article.

  • The purpose of conflict resolution
  • What type of conflict or dispute might we face?
  • The Bible model for conflict resolution
      1. Don’t sweat the small stuff!
      2. Anger management
      3. Consider your own part in this conflict
      4. Act quickly!
      5. One on one
      6. An impartial view
      7. Going public
      8. Leave the door open

• The purpose of conflict resolution

Right from the outset, it’s essential that we don’t lose sight of why we need to resolve conflict.

– God’s glory:
The primary purpose of conflict resolution is for God’s glory. While that may not seem immediately obvious, this discipline is, in fact, a perfect opportunity to reflect His love, grace and forgiveness and it can serve as a powerful witness to others. ‘So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.’ (1 Corinthians 10:31)

As brothers and sisters-in-Christ, the world is watching us and our public witness should, at all times and in every way, bring glory to God.

– Reconciliation
The secondary, and probably more obvious, purpose is to achieve complete, loving and peaceful reconciliation with our brothers and sisters-in-Christ. Bear in mind that it’s to our physical, emotional and spiritual benefit that we maintain positive, loving relationships with all those involved.

‘I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’ (Ephesians 4:1-3)

• What type of conflict or dispute might we face?
Before we begin to consider how we are to deal with conflict, let’s consider three broad categories of discord we may be faced with.

Interpersonal conflict: This is the primary and most common source of dispute. Examples include bitterness, malice, judging, hypocrisy, anger, bickering, gossip, slander, and legalism. (See Ephesians 4:31, Romans 1:29-31 and 2 Corinthians 12:20)

Sometimes conflict has more to do with personality clashes more than with sin. In such cases, we may need to check our own motives and intentions. ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. and remember to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others’. (Philippians 2:3–4)

Doctrinal conflict: There’s no greater gift to an assembly of God’s people than competent and dedicated teachers and preachers. However, we mustn’t forget that, as children of God, each one of us is required to test all things in the light of Scripture. ‘But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good…’ (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

‘I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people.’ (Romans 16:17-18)

Flagrant sin:
As children of God, our lives, public and private, should reflect Biblical values and so, within the family, between close Christian friends and in the Church, issues such as promiscuity, adultery etc., ought to be addressed. It’s loving and fully scriptural to help one another to live as we ought provided, of course, that it’s done in a spirit of love and according to Bible principles. ‘Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.’ (Galatians 6:1)

Issues that involve illegal activity, such as abuse (mental, physical or sexual), theft and fraud and the like, must be dealt with according to the law. ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.’ (Romans 13:1) The single caveat here is that, in respecting man’s law, we don’t break God’s law.

Flagrant sin is, by nature, public and it represents a very negative Christian and Church witness. We’re exhorted to remove such offenders from our assembly unless they repent otherwise we risk bringing the Church into disrepute.

I’m sure there are many other offences that could be included but the point is that Bible principles remain constant across the board from minor to major conflict. Whenever there’s genuine repentance, forgiveness is mandatory.

• The Bible model for conflict resolution
Most people find conflict resolution challenging, if not downright impossible, and that’s, no doubt, why Scripture is so clear on the subject. So what does the Bible say about how we are to go about resolving our differences?

1. Don’t sweat the small stuff!
Is the offence real or imagined? People are often thoughtless about the things they say and do and, frequently, there really is no offence intended. Problems may arise because we’re over-sensitive and perceive insult or criticism where there is none. Or perhaps we misread a situation because we’re just tired or a bit out of sorts. Whatever the reason for over-reacting, sometimes there’s a case for simply not responding.

If the offence is real, is it worth getting worked up over?
Over-reacting to minor offences says a lot more about us than it does about the supposed offender. Could it be that it’s just our ego – that false sense of pride – acting up? While it’s hard to argue that super-sensitivity is a sin, it’s certainly folly and it manifests a lack of self-control. ‘Do not be quick to take offence, for the taking of offence is the mark of a fool.’ (Ecclesiastes 7:9)

So, even if an offence is real, the Bible encourages us to overlook it. Exercising restraint shows wisdom and maturity. ‘Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offence.’ (Proverbs 19:11)

If we have been offended, conflict resolution starts with us and sometimes we can choose to disregard the offence, put it aside and never refer to it again. This demonstrates patience, love and forgiveness.

2. Anger management
The Bible offers many examples of God’s righteous anger including the well-known incident when Christ cleared the temple of sellers and money-changers. (See John 2:13-17) So we can see that anger, in itself, isn’t a sin. It is, however, an emotion that’s extremely challenging to manage and it can very quickly and easily lead to sin.

Is our anger righteous? Most people I know, Christians or not, pretty much always claim that their anger is justified. (Guilty as charged!) While there’s certainly a Bible mandate for righteous anger; the problem is that, most of the time, our anger isn’t righteous.

It’s fully acceptable to be angry about the things that anger God; injustice, cruelty and the like.
Interpersonal conflict? Injured pride? Mmmm… I’m not so sure!

If we’re going to claim the right to righteous anger, we need to be sure that we’re modelling God’s anger and not simply indulging ourselves.

‘The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’ (Psalm 145:8)

‘For His anger is but for a moment and His favour is for a lifetime.’(Psalm 30:5)

Are we gracious and merciful to those who offend us?
Are we slow to anger?
Are our reactions based on constant and steady love?
Is our anger short-lived?
Once our anger has passed, do we exhibit love, forgiveness and long lasting support?
If the answer to any one of these questions is ‘No’, then it’s not righteous anger.

The most frequently quoted verse on anger is; ‘Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.’ (Ephesians 4:26-27) There’s so much instruction packed into this short verse; it contains one permissive phrase and two imperatives, one of which is emphasised a second time.

Be angry…
This is a permission rather than an imperative. A number of respected scholars advise that this is a reference to; ‘Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.’ (Psalm 4:4) So we’re not being actively encouraged to be angry but rather the inference is that IF we’re angry we mustn’t allow it to lead to sin.

Do not sin… This is absolutely an imperative; we may have permission to be angry, when appropriate, but we never have permission to sin. It’s interesting that this command comes in the same breath as acknowledging a possible right to be angry. That’s because anger is a powerful and unwieldy emotion and many of us – dare I say most of us! – don’t handle anger well.

Do not let the sun go down on your anger… This is also a command so we must obey it. That’s not to say that our anger isn’t justified but when we refuse to release it, it very quickly tends to fester and turn to bitterness and resentment. This is definitely a sin and the Bible tells us to reject it. ‘Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.’ (Ephesians 4:31)

It’s quite a tall order to release our anger on the same day and, in my own experience, this can only be achieved through prayer and quite a lot of practice! If we hold on to it, even for a short time, bitterness and resentment cloud our thoughts and make it difficult, if not impossible, to resolve conflict and move towards forgiveness, peace and reconciliation.

Give no opportunity to the devil. This imperative underlines the injunction not to let anger lead to sin. Once again, it’s there because being angry opens up the possibility of Satan gaining a foothold in our lives.

If this verse is taken to justify our anger, we should aware that there are very many more verses that strongly advise against it. Perhaps the clearest instruction, particularly in the case of conflict resolution, is given in the book of James. ‘My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.’ (James 1:19-20) Angry or not, our primary response should be to submit our will to God and bring Him glory by obeying His commands.

If we don’t manage our anger according to Bible principles, we risk sabotaging conflict resolution before it’s even begun and that is definitely sin on our part.

3. Consider your own part in this conflict
How quick we are to see faults in each other while completely ignoring or, worse still, denying our own! Before we react, it’s worth asking what part we may have played in this conflict. Is it the result of lingering resentment over a previous dispute? Or, perhaps, a lack of patience and love on our part for our fellow believers?

It’s one thing to challenge someone on their behaviour but we need to avoid hypocrisy. Jesus’ teaching on this matter is pretty strict! Consider this instruction that forms part of the Sermon on the mount. ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’ (Matthew 7:1-5) Would you ever want to be judged by your own standards?

On another occasion, the Pharisees brought a woman before Him who’d been caught in adultery. This was a very serious sin that carried death by stoning. While there was no doubt that the woman had sinned, Jesus targeted her accusers pointing out that they were far from innocent. Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ (John 8:7)

We’re all flawed and we all make mistakes. If we truly love one another, we’ll take this into account whenever we’re dealing with someone who’s offended us.

4. Act quickly!
If we believe that a real offence has taken place, just as we’re instructed to release our anger very quickly, so we’re also instructed to address the issue very quickly. It’s my personal opinion that I should act in one week or less. Jesus said, ‘If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24) Note that this is a clear imperative.

On the Lord’s Day, we offer our gifts (tithes and offerings) and sacrifice (of praise) when we attend Church to worship God publicly. It’s clear from Jesus’ teaching that reconciliation is so important that we really shouldn’t be offering our gifts and sacrifices until and unless we’ve addressed the issue with our brother or sister-in-Christ. So, if they offended me anytime within the last week, I need to resolve it before I can worship in Church again. How many times have we worshipped knowing full-well that we have unresolved conflict with a fellow believer? Worse still, are we preaching, teaching Sunday School, leading a Bible study group or doing some other act of service when, effectively, we’re in sin because we haven’t obeyed Christ’s clear instruction?

I also note that, even if I think I’m in the right but I believe that someone else has a problem with me, it’s for me to take the initiative in resolving the problem. Equally, if I have a problem with someone else, even as I’m in the act of prayer, I have to make a conscious act to forgive them without delay. ‘And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.’ (Mark 11:25)

5. One on one
While Scripture is clear about WHEN we’re to resolve conflict (i.e. very quickly), it’s equally unambiguous about HOW we’re to go about it – and that definitely doesn’t include gossip! ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.’ (Matthew 18:15)

Christ’s instruction here leaves us in no doubt that the first discussion in any conflict resolution should be private. All too often, in our anger, our first response is to tell someone else; perhaps a family member or someone close to us. While it’s natural to want to defend ourselves and get people ‘on our side’ we need to understand that this is completely contrary to Christ’s teaching – therefore it’s sin. So not only have we sinned but we’ve led others into sin. We’re responsible for that and they’re responsible for having followed us.

I feel very protective towards those I love and my first response is definitely to defend and protect them. But I would love and serve them – and the offender – far better, if I obey God’s command. Rather than jump into a dispute that doesn’t concern me, I can encourage them to go and seek private resolution in accordance with God’s Word and I can pray for all concerned. The more people who’re involved in any given conflict, the harder it is to resolve it. ‘Whoever would foster love covers over an offence, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.’ (Proverbs 17:9)

The goal of private confrontation is always to restore the relationship and, if the conflict is resolved privately, we have won them over and gained (or regained) a brother or sister-in-Christ. (It may also be that we discover there really was no real offence, in which case, we may just have saved ourself from some serious public embarrassment!)

6. An impartial view
Perhaps the offender remains indifferent or fully unrepentant and no amount of private discussion moves them. In this case, we can invite one or two witnesses to hear both sides of the argument. ‘But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Matthew 18:16)

This reflects the passage in Deuteronomy 19:15-21 that requires two or more witness to establish whether an offence has been committed. This, then, has serious implications for any witness we may select. They should be mature believers; people who are aware of the Bible mandate and method for conflict resolution. More than that, they should be impartial.

Impartial: unbiased, unprejudiced, neutral, non-partisan, objective, fair-minded, just; without favouritism.

Family members and best friends are unlikely to be completely impartial especially if we’ve already fully – and sinfully – discussed the situation with them and they’ve already formed an opinion based on one side of the story.

The role of the witnesses isn’t to pass their own personal opinions on the matter but rather to judge the situation, not the person, and decide whether or not an offence has been committed. An angry, bad-tempered atmosphere is unlikely to produce repentance.

The passage in Deuteronomy also reflects a court of law so it’s reasonable and fair that the offender should be made aware of this process and certainly has the right to call witnesses as well. There should be no suggestion of an ‘ambush’ where 2 or more people confront an unsuspecting person.

The process should be constructive and polite, as in a court, and the idea that one or more witnesses would become critical and aggressive is fully unacceptable. The whole point of this process is to lovingly restore peace. When one or more participants leave the meeting more angry and estranged than when they went in, you can be sure that the process has failed.

7. Going public
Assuming that the witness procedure was conducted appropriately, a true offence was established and the offender resolutely refuses to repent then, and ONLY THEN, can we ‘go public’ before the rest of the assembly. ‘If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.’ (Matthew 18:17)

It’s amazing to think we’d be so far through the process before anyone, but a very small group, would be aware of the situation. Is that how we handle things? I’ve seen many cases where this simply hasn’t been the case. Sadly, gossip seems to be a more prevalent characteristic than discretion.

Even when we bring someone before the assembly, God’s glory and reconciliation must always be the aim. It takes strong leadership to ensure that this is the case. Once again, an angry, bad-tempered atmosphere is unlikely to produce repentance.

If all things have been conducted properly and the offender refuses to repent, they may have to be excluded from the assembly. … treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. This is a very sad situation and truly a last resort. God places us in our churches and it should only ever be according to His will that we would ever seek to exclude. Equally grievous is the situation where the atmosphere has become so toxic, frequently as a result of gossip, that one or more Church members may conclude that they have no other option than to withdraw from the fellowship. These conditions risk leading to a full-blown schism.

Church discipline is right and necessary but it must be conducted at all times as prescribed – and therefore as required – by God’s Word. If anger, resentment and bitterness remain, we can be sure that the process has failed. It’s very important that we deal with conflict resolution well. If we don’t, we risk doing more harm than good. It’s our responsibility as individuals and as Church members to respect God’s Word in every situation.

8. Leave the door open
For each one of us, without exception, there simply always has to be a way back. This is true with respect to our salvation, where Christ is that way, and so we must reflect God’s compassion and forgiveness whenever an offender repents, changes their ways and wants to return to the assembly.

In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul speaks of a believer who had been sexually immoral. Paul advised them that, for this flagrant sin, the offender should be excluded from the assembly. Later, in 2 Corinthians, this same person had turned from this lifestyle, and Paul advised the local church to accept him again and to reaffirm their love for him.

The primary goal of discipline is not to punish but rather to condemn sinful behaviour and require a change in behaviour – much like the way you’d discipline a much-loved child. Any kind of disciplinary procedure should have reconciliation and restoration as the goal which will, in turn, bring glory to God.

We must always keep an open door to our hearts and to our Church and any offenders should be fully aware that this is the case. How do we do that? Simple, we tell them! Bear in mind that, one day, we’ll need an open door too!

‘Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.’ (1 Peter 4:8)