“ …for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” – Romans 3:23
Conflict arises in every human relationship, from marriages to friendships to co-worker relations. While it is only natural to fall into conflict from time to time in this imperfect world, there are—thankfully—biblical guidelines set down to help us resolve it and move forward. Keep reading to learn how to manage conflict in your church, and how the Center for Healthy Churches can help.
Our culture, both within and outside the church, is riddled with conflict. Far too often, churches mirror the tone, tenor, and tactics of secular conflict. We are called to offer an alternative example to the world in how we engage our inevitable conflicts. At CHC, our goal in conflict situations is to seek out the potential for transformation that lies hidden in the conflict. We believe that conflict, if dealt with in a thoughtful and biblical fashion, can lead to personal and corporate transformation. Deeper faith, profound appreciation for differences, and the recognition of our common faith can emerge from the pain of conflict.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 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.’ 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 18:15-17
These guidelines are clear enough, but in practice, it can be difficult to know when and how to step in. If you’re unsure, seek spiritual counsel from someone you trust before staging an intervention.
And remember, these guidelines apply to those within the church who claim to be believers. We are not called to stand in judgment of non-believers or those outside of the church—that is God’s place.
Types of Church Conflict
As the church, we are expected to call out or confront believers who are unrepentant of their sins. As a spiritual leader of the church, you will be called to intervene on the behalf of your staff or members of your congregation from time to time, whether you like it or not. Allowing bullies to run roughshod over others, or standing by while a minority viewpoint is allowed to hold others hostage is a test of leadership that must be met.
It can be difficult to discern when someone is “sinning unrepentantly” and, indeed, Jesus himself warned Christians to observe the log in their own eye before worrying about the speck in another’s. But a good rule of thumb for when to intervene is when someone’s behavior is harming the people around them.
If the church’s reputation is in danger, if people are experiencing mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual harm, or if the person is in danger of irrevocably damaging themselves, it is time for the loving church to step in.
Although it’s uncomfortable, remember that the church should be guided by an attitude of love—and sometimes that means tough love to prevent someone from walking too far down a dangerous path.
What Causes Conflict in the Church?
Pride and selfishness (James 4:1-10)
Offenses that have not been forgiven (Matthew 18:15-35)
As Christ-followers it is our duty to pursue peace in all situations (Colossians 3:12-15). We ought to put in every effort we possibly can to have peace and resolve tension or conflict.
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” – Romans 12:18
Many types of conflict may arise during your tenure with a church. Conflicts between parishioners, conflict between staff members, conflict between church leadership and the congregation, conflict between the church and the community—how you address these conflicts will be affected by the parties involved and the nature of the conflict.
But church conflict management should always follow the pattern cited in Matthew 18–private consultation, group intervention, and then escalation to a higher power within the church.
Tips for Handling Conflict With Grace
Citing biblical conflict handling and transformation procedures in the church is all well and good, but that’s the intellectual, clinical side of things. When it comes to conflict, it’s hearts and wounded feelings that must be addressed to move forward.
We’ve gathered some basic biblical precepts that can help you improve and navigate any conflict. Proceed with the understanding that unless one or both parties want to resolve the conflict, it may still have to be lifted up to a higher authority.
The first step in any conflict is to take a step back and look within yourself. Pray about the matter and ask first God and then yourself, “Is there something I could change in my actions or intentions that would resolve this conflict?”
Remember our Lord’s exhortation to be humble (James 4:10), forgiving (Ephesians 4:3-32), and patient (James 1:19-20). After all, transforming conflict often means turning the finger that’s pointing blame back at yourself.
Ask yourself: “What part did I play in the conflict?” If you find an answer, own up to your mistake and ask for forgiveness. This may soften the heart of the other party and lead to an apology on their side as well. Now you have built a foundation upon which you can work to move forward.
If you are not directly involved in the conflict, but acting as mediator, advise each party to look within themselves for prideful feelings and counsel them to hear the other’s side with an open heart. Humility is a must for healthy conflict transformation.
Speak the Truth in Love
The second step in conflict transformation is to speak the truth in love. If you’ve been hurt by someone, go to them humbly and speak directly to that person. It may feel like speaking the truth to tell your closest friends or put this person on a prayer list, but that’s slander and gossip, which only adds to the conflict by forcing people to choose sides. This is why the Bible exhorts us to seek out the other party of the conflict in private. Talking to the person we have a conflict with, rather than about them, is central to the Bible’s guidance for transforming conflict.
Speak directly with the person about your issue (Matthew 18:15), and do it with love and concern (Ephesians 4:15). Accusations tend to make other people defensive so make sure you’re attacking the problem, not the person. You’re not here to vent negative feelings, you’re here to lovingly offer and humbly receive forgiveness.
To genuinely transform a conflict, you must be ready to forgive the other person. You have no right to exact revenge or demand recompense when you have been offered grace time and again from Christ for your transgressions. Offer forgiveness quickly and whole-heartedly when it’s asked for and wipe the slate clean as yours has been wiped clean.
If you are mediating for others in a conflict, advise them to keep their hearts open and remain humble in the face of vulnerability.
Find the Right Mediator
If the matter cannot be resolved between the two parties, it’s vital that you seek spiritual guidance and mediation from someone who is gifted in such a way in the church. If you are a church leader, this job may fall to you.
Whether you are involved in the conflict or mediating it, you must always seek the guidance of God through prayer and scripture. Your intent cannot be selfish, but instead should be to edify the church and restore loving trust between brothers and sisters in Christ.
If you are seeking counseling on how to handle conflict in your church biblically, contact CHC today. We would love to connect you with one of our conflict transformation advisors.
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