Conflict is a challenging but normal feature of human life, including the life of the church. Though conflict can be upsetting and stressful, it is sometimes essential to the health of our community.
Healthy conflict can:
- show us the areas God would like us to work on in our own lives
- clarify doctrine
- bring us closer to God by inviting us to follow the model of Christ by crucifying our pride and humbly seeking reconciliation
- strengthen our witness to the world. (The gospel is discredited every time people who confess Christ abandon love, sacrifice and the hope of reconciliation in favor of pride or comfort. When we handle conflict in a Christ-like way, we are glorifying God.)
- ultimately strengthen the bonds of Christian love and unity once it is overcome
What is Christian Reconciliation?
Reconciliation refers to the restoring of a relationship. For us as Friends of Jesus, the most obvious and vital example of being reconciled is our relationship with God, who has restored us to him through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Ephesians 2:8 explains, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God[.]
While our human shortcomings make it inevitable that we will sometimes be involved in disputes, our faith in a loving and forgiving God compels us to make a genuine effort to mend rifts in a sincere and timely manner.
Why Be Reconciled?
Our natural inclination can be to avoid conflict and the people who are involved in it. Confrontation is often an uncomfortable prospect, so why bother when you can just ignore the problem and hope it goes away? The primary reason we should desire reconciliation is that, as followers of Jesus, God entrusts this gift to us and expects us to use it. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 tells us:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus takes it a step further:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Conflict impacts our entire community, not only those who are directly involved. First be reconciled. God commands us to make it a priority.
Where Do I Start? Prayer!
First – and most importantly – take the problem to God. Don’t talk about it with your mom or your spouse or a close friend just yet – take it directly to the Lord of creation. Oftentimes, just taking our troubles to God and asking for his help in the name of his son Jesus will open up peace, clarity and new understandings for us.
Open yourself up to the work of Christ. He is a master of reconciliation – just look at his ministry and sacrificial death! His inward teaching can lead you just as his earthly ministry can instruct you.
Be sure to pray for the person with whom you are in conflict. Don’t pray that his (or her) heart conform to your will and desires. Instead, pray for his health, peace, family and dreams. Bathe him in love. Pray for discernment about the spiritual reality of what is going on. The conflict may seem like it is about the use of physical resources, but really be about deeply spiritual matters, or it may seem theological, but really be a simple matter of divergent personal styles. Bringing the problem to the Lord will help illuminate the truth of the conflict, as long as you do so with a sincere and humble heart.
Ask for God’s help in understanding how your actions and attitudes may be contributing to the problem. Oftentimes conflict arises when we have expectations that we can’t let go of, without even realizing what those expectations are. Look inward. Search your heart for any desires or motives that may be keeping you from living in harmony with this person.
You may want to ask yourself:
- When did the first hurt occur? Was there an action or word that particularly offended you or the other person? What might be behind that offense?
- How may I have inadvertently contributed to this conflict? How did I directly contribute to it?
- What do I trust?
- What do I fear?
- What do I want to preserve or avoid at all costs?
- When a certain desire is not met, do I feel frustration, anxiety, resentment, bitterness, anger, or depression?
This can be scary and painful work, but it is necessary to examine your own part in the discord before you can begin the process of reconciling. And remember, God is with you. 1 Corinthians 4:5 says, Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.
After you have prayed about the situation, ask yourself if you can simply forgive and move forward. This is sometimes the simplest solution, and one for which God has set the ultimate example.
If after serious prayer and contemplation you are clear that further action is needed, you may follow the steps below to seek reconciliation. This process, called gospel order, is the way that a Christian community should act when it has Jesus as its leader. The following steps are rooted in Christ’s teaching on how to resolve conflict, found in Matthew 18. We offer suggestions for how to carry out these steps, based in part on our own experience with conflict.
Approach the Individual
Matthew 18:15: If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
After praying about the conflict, your role in it, and for the person you are in conflict with, you may still have trouble moving on without addressing the problem. If this is so, you should approach the other individual directly. Keep in mind that the conflict should still be between just the two of you. Try to refrain from talking to others about it just yet, as this could color your confidante’s perception of the dispute and easily devolve into gossip about the other person. Protect her reputation.
Make contact directly, in a manner that is most comfortable for the other by phone, email, text, social media messaging, or a handwritten letter, considering which method she would most likely receive best. Ask to set up a time to discuss the issue. This gives the other person some space beforehand to think and pray about the conversation. Try not to talk about the problem during the initial contact, but rather set a tone of calm and contemplation.
The other person may feel defensive; these types of conversations are never easy. Try to approach her in as loving a way as possible. Still, it’s possible she may refuse to talk with you one-on-one about the conflict. If that’s the case, see the next step, Take Two or Three Along.
If she does agree to have a conversation with you, prepare beforehand:
- Continue in earnest prayer, seeking God’s will for this relationship. Ask God to guide you in how to approach this discussion.
- Consider that the conflict may have arisen out of a misunderstanding. Many times we jump to conclusions based on our own prejudices and perceptions. Especially when offense is taken, we may not try to clarify meaning, instead stopping at our hurt and deciding for ourselves what was intended.
- Try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. Sometimes objectivity is less important than empathy. Ask yourself: Where is she coming from? What are her reference points?
- Revisit your part in the conflict. What can you confess to the other person? What do you think she needs to hear from you?
At the appointed time, approach your meeting openly and humbly, keeping in mind that you may not have all the information you need. When you approach the person with compassion and love, they may be more open to having a candid conversation with you. Try to start with clarifying questions (what did you mean when you said…) and try not to be accusatory. Keeping the tone calm and open may help you understand the situation better. You may even realize that you misunderstood altogether. Perhaps this meeting will give you both the opportunity to confess and forgive one another, and the dispute can end here.
If the conversation doesn’t go well, don’t despair. Sometimes the initial dialog will bring up more anger and pain. This is a normal, and often necessary, feature of conflict. If the meeting gets too heated, consider stopping and asking if a second conversation can take place. It could be that you both need additional time to reflect and pray on what’s been revealed.
Continue having conversations one-on-one, not discussing the situation with others, until you have either reconciled yourselves or continuing these talks will do more harm than good. If you’ve reached the latter point, move on to the next step.
Take Two or Three Along
Matthew 18:16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
If you’ve reached the point where you’ve prayed and made genuine attempts to resolve a rift directly, but are still in conflict, it’s time to enlist the help of others. It can be difficult to move to this step, especially if you’ve been careful about keeping the conflict private. But sometimes a fresh, objective perspective can be of great assistance.
When considering whom to enlist to help, consider these factors:
- Since you are following gospel order and biblically-based reconciliation, these people should be rooted and mature followers of Jesus, and members of our community
- Think of people who know both of you well, but will still be objective. You don’t want to invite those who may automatically side with one party. On the other hand, it is helpful if they have a good understanding of the two of you beforehand. They may be able to perceive issues faster and with speak with more candor.
Try to select these people with the person you are in dispute with. He will probably want to have a say in who gets involved at this point. If you cannot agree on the same people, perhaps you can each select one person to attend the next discussion. If the other party refuses to select witnesses, you may do so yourself. If this happens, try to approach individuals whom your opponent respects and will listen to.
(It is possible to simply ask a single person to mediate. However that can be a very difficult position to navigate when a dispute has been ongoing. If one person is agreed upon, she should ideally have some experience with conflict resolution. Consider asking that person to select another spiritually mature person to collaborate in the process.)
As you enlist the help of others, refrain from going into detail about the conflict. You obviously must tell them there is a problem, but don’t elaborate more than necessary. Protecting reputations should still be paramount. It will also be helpful to the witnesses to hear about the problem from both of you at the same time.
Once you have settled on witnesses, here are some of the roles they may play when you next meet for a discussion:
- Listening: careful, active listening to both sides will be crucial
- Questioning: the witnesses may ask questions to clarify detail or seek an explanation
- Restating: making sure they understand what is being said, both for their own understanding and others’
- Advising: if the two parties have come to an impasse about how to move forward, the witnesses may offer suggestions for how to do that
It is possible to agree beforehand to empower the witnesses to offer a binding solution. Their solution may not be ideal, but it could be a way forward. Pray about this option beforehand and remember that Jesus cautions his disciples that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20) and that when we commit to something, we must follow through (Matt. 5:37). If you agree in advance to be bound, you must adhere to that agreement when the time comes.
Tell It to the Church
Matthew 18:17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
It is a hard thing to lay our conflicts before the judgment of the community. We may worry about our reputation and that of the person with whom we are in conflict, along with other parties who may be involved. We may fear that we might have to divulge uncomfortable secrets. We are forced to acknowledge the fact that we have been powerless to resolve the conflict by our own efforts. We may hesitate to submit ourselves and our problems to the judgment and discipline of our community. What will they do, we may ask, when we have placed ourselves under their power? Will they judge us and condemn us? Will they actually believe that we are in the wrong? If they do, how do we respond?
Confronting these very real worries is essential for the health of our communities. Our concern for reputation is misplaced if the price of preserving it is festering resentment and unspoken hurt. No conflict stays hidden forever, and it is far better to cleanly set it before the bring it into the light than to let rumor and gossip take their toll.
Our hesitation to submit to the body must also be addressed directly. As a community gathered in the power and spirit of Jesus, we care for our members in time of need. But we can only provide this important care if all of us are willing to submit ourselves to one another in all areas of our lives, even when there is conflict. We seek to live in mutual submission to one another not because the community is always right and the individual always wrong.Rather, we seek to live into the vision of unity that God has for his people, which we believe is more important than being right on any particular issue.
Our willingness to make important sacrifices for one another, including sacrificing our sense of ourselves as victims or victors in a particular conflict, is the highest gift we can give to one another and to God. Our ability to make these sacrifices is rooted in our faith that the Holy Spirit will guide our fellowship in its discernment of God’s will for us. If we cannot trust God to work through our brothers and sisters, we are in a state of spiritual disease, independent of any conflict that may be in our midst.
How do we go about telling it to the church? First, alert the clerk or whomever sets the agenda for the conduct of business of the existence of the conflict and the need to seek a resolution. It is neither advisable nor appropriate to get into too much detail, but you should share at least the following information: the name of the person with whom you are in conflict, the names of any other members of the community who have been touched by the conflict, and the identities of the witnesses you brought with you to talk to the person with whom you are in conflict.
After consulting with the parties involved, the clerk may then call a business meeting. This will allow the conflict to be shared with the community in a loving and prayerful way, so that, with the help of Christ and by the grace of God, the community may move forward. The meeting opens with an extended period of worship so that the community may be gathered in the power of God. The clerk then invites those in conflict to share their perspectives one at a time, without interruption. It may be advisable to have the person who brought the matter forward to go last, so that there is no feeling of the courtroom or debate tournament about the sharing. The witnesses may also share their experience, if appropriate.
After this time of sharing, there is another period of worship, allowing space for the Holy Spirit to work on those in the room. From that point on, the rhythm of the meeting will vary based on the circumstances and the discernment of the clerk, but it is the responsibility of all to maintain an attitude of worship as a solution is revealed. This solution may include requiring one person in the dispute to take some action to provide restitution or to publicly disclaim his or her past actions. It may require reimagining structures or revisiting the assignment of roles in the community.
Moving Forward in Love
Whatever decision we arrive at under the Lord’s guidance, it is essential that everyone involved proceed with love and humility. There are no winners and losers, only brothers and sisters whom God empowers to overcome the spiritual darkness that would otherwise isolate and alienate us from one another. When we submit ourselves to gospel order, we are liberated from the tyranny of our desires and insecurities and freed to encourage and empower one another to do God’s will. When we choose the path of obedience instead of trying to solve our problems alone, instead of guarding our hearts as slaves to fear, we are free to love each other in the sure knowledge that God is with us, binding us together by his love.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Phillippians 2:1-11