Resolving conflicts among Christians

We must be realistic about our expectations of life in a fallen world. While conducting our relationships with humble integrity, we must not be unrealistic about differences and difficulties that threaten peace between people — even among those who care deeply about each other. This is a truth that must be taught more clearly in the Church.

Jesus clearly anticipated fractures in Christian fellowship and taught us how to resolve them (Matthew 5:23-24;Matthew 18:15ff). We should not be surprised by them but ready to seek reconciliation.

These fractures are very different from the many minor grievances that should be immediately covered in love (I Peter 4:8) or from non-essential matters that should never be permitted to cause conflict in the Church (Romans 14:1-3). Believers must be mature on such matters.

But when sin divides Christian fellowship, a Church must understand the difference between personal forgiveness and reconciling a broken relationship. It’s possible to forgive someone without offering immediate reconciliation. It’s possible for forgiveness to occur in the context of one’s relationship with God apart from contact with an offender (Joseph being a great example). Reconciliation is about restoring broken relationships.

Forgiveness itself is not whitewashing or pretending a wrong never happened when the offense has driven a wedge between people. Forgiveness doesn’t require us to neutralize our sense of justice. The very act itself takes seriously the offense. But forgiveness does involve a surrender of desires for revenge. As such, it is an act of worship in the presence of the God who forgives our sins because it acknowledges God’s sole right to punish the offender (see: Genesis 5:15-20Romans 12:17-21). Forgiveness thus frees us from grudge-bearing vindictiveness and conversely empowers us to love our enemies as God loved us (Romans 5:8).

Priority Scripture places on pursuing peace

  • “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
  • “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace …” (Romans 14:19).
  • “Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
  • “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy …” (Hebrews 12:14).

What to do when peace does not seem possible

This depends on the nature of the situation. If the person is part of a fellowship of believers, we must follow Biblical mandates for protecting the unity of believers. The steps Jesus taught begin with private confrontation (after the personal preparation of removing logs from our own eyes, Matthew 7:3-5). If private confrontation does not remove the wedge, we move to private conference involving the offender brother and two or three others (enlisting those who are spiritually prepared (Matthew 7:3-5), spiritually mature (Galatians 6:1), and entrusted with spiritual oversight (I Peter 5:1-4Acts 20:28).

This only becomes necessary, if the one confronted has as obstinate attitude (Matthew 18:16). When a sinning member of the church refuses to heed the confrontation of a fellow believer, thus refusing to be restored to proper fellowship, the circle of confrontation must broaden to include one or two others.

Those called to be part of the confrontation do not need to be eyewitnesses of the sin (If they had been, they should have gone to confront the member themselves). Ideally, it would be good to include people who are known and respected by the erring member but this is not always possible.

The one or two witnesses are involved “so that every fact may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (v.16). Their purpose is not to threaten or intimidate, but to help the erring brother to understand the seriousness of the matter. Their main purpose is not really to evaluate the truthfulness of the charge, but to strengthen the rebuke and the call to restoration. After private conference, if the erring member remains obstinate and unwilling to acknowledge and repent of the sin, Jesus teaches a fourth step.

Each of the four steps has as its primary aim the restoration of the brother to proper fellowship. The fourth step is public announcement (Matthew 18:17a). Jesus said, “Tell it to the church (the assembly).”

This step is a sobering reminder that sin is not merely a private and personal matter for Christians. Sin that separates and alienates believers, must be dealt with and resolved. But how do we take this step of public announcement? In our church (due to size), we’ve sometimes handled this in the adult fellowship group the member participates in. Other times, we’ve communicated to all the covenant members through a special meeting of the membership. Some churches make these announcements during communion. Others will use a letter to the membership.

All churches should clearly spell out the process in their documents and seek agreement from the membership to follow it. This step also involves the fellowship in some kind of public confrontation. In Matthew 18:17b, Jesus implies that the church (as an assembly) has made an appeal to the erring member.

When the church is informed, (which reasonably implies that the pastors will be involved) warnings should be made about the need for the whole assembly to avoid gossip, slander and a proud or critical spirit (Matthew 7:3-5Galatians 6:1). Members should not play spiritual detective or allow either a lenient or a punitive attitude. They should be encouraged to pray for repentance and restoration, and to appeal to their fellow member to submit to the leadership of the Church. In such an appeal, one might humbly say, “I don’t know all the details, nor is it my place to know them, but I do want to encourage you to make things right with the church.”

No one should give the erring member the feeling that he is in good fellowship with the Church (cf. II Thessalonians 3:12-14). Never act in cross-purpose with the church. We should not do anything that would cause disrespect for the leadership. Remember the goal: “Win your brother.” It is redemptive!

The final step Jesus taught is public exclusion: removal from membership. The primary aim of this step is to protect the purity of the assembly (see: I Corinthians 5:1-11). Failure to practice these steps invites God’s discipline on the entire assembly (see:I Corinthians 11:30-32Revelation 2:5,1620-233:3-19).”

Steve Cornell

6 Affirmations for the Church

“America appears to be moving more and more toward uniformity by enforced unity.” So wrote R. C. Sproul nearly 30 years ago. When he penned these words, the term tolerance was not yet in popular use. RC detected trends that would result in a state led coercion forcing the public to conform to politically approved positions on a growing list of issues.

As the academy increasingly rejected the possibility of truths that transcend historical and cultural limitations, distrust grew toward religious truths in particular. This was especially the case when faith statements contained elements of exclusivity.

The six affirmations RC wrote in response to these trends are even more relevant today. 

  1. We agree with the search for global harmony, but not at the expense of truth.
  2. We agree that a greater knowledge of other religions is enriching, but in comparing them we cannot surrender Christ’s claim to be the truth.
  3. We agree that colonial attitudes of superiority are arrogant, but still insist that truth is superior to falsehood.
  4. We agree that Scripture is culture-conditioned, but affirm that through it God has spoken his Word of truth.
  5. We agree that the ultimate mystery of God is beyond human apprehension, but affirm that God has truly revealed himself in Christ.
  6. We agree that it is an essential part of our Christian calling to serve the poor, but we are also called to bear witness to the truth.

Formula E429 could change your life!

One of the best ways to improve our communication is to replace destructive tones with constructive ways of speaking to each other.

Words of appreciation and encouragement are excellent alternatives to ugly tones of grumbling, whining; impatience, frustration and defensiveness.

Think of how many times we could defuse a situation by choosing better words and tones. Parents especially need to ask if their words and tones set the right example for their children. 

Use Formula E429 to remind yourself of God’s will for our speech. The formula is based on Ephesians 4:29 – “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” (Ephesians 4:29, NLT).

Then apply a large dose of the first two characteristics of love: “Love is patient, Love is kind…” (I Corinthians 13:4).

This could literally change your life and the lives of those close to you!

WARNING LABEL

This advice comes with a warning about how easily we excuse our attitudes, words and tones by pointing to the difficult people around us. Remember the basic truth that the only person you can change is yourself. But by working on self-correction and experiencing personal change, we can powerfully influence others. So if you feel stuck in a bad place, find ways that you can change your attitudes, words and tones. But start with the words and tones you use because this discipline will make you face and confront your attitudes and emotions.

Recognize how all of this change fits under the work God is doing in your life based on these truths:

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And we all … are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (II Corinthians 3:17-18, NIV).

“Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:12-13).

I have work to do. Will you join me?

Steve Cornell 

See also: Spiritual Depression

3 motivations for protecting unity

1. The prayer of Jesus

John 17:23 -Jesus prayed, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

2. The passion of God

Proverbs 6:16,19 - “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: …. a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”

3. The duty of the Church

Romans 16:17-18 - “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 naive people.”

Philippians 2:14-16a - “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…”

Jude 4, 16-  “Watch out for those who have secretly slipped in among you. These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.”

Steve Cornell

Don’t be alarmed by conflict

Mature perspective on conflict

The key to unity in a marriage, family or Church is not the removal of all conflict (that happens in heaven).

So instead of being unrealistically alarmed by differences and disagreements or dancing around them, we should view them as opportunities to mature in deeper and stronger love for one another (I Peter 4:8). When we avoid conflict or just enable others, we often postpone trouble for the future. God provides many opportunities (through conflicts) for us to practice the kind of love He demonstrated to us (Romans 5:6-8).

The key to unity is a deeply shared commitment to work through differences and pursue reconciliation based on God’s love for us in Christ (see: Ephesians 4:32-5:1; Titus 3:3-7)

Make every effort….. (memorize these verses)

  • “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace” (Romans 14:19).
  • Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
  • Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy” (Hebrews 12:14).
  • Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Philippians 2:14).
  • “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (offenses)” (I Peter 4:8).
  • “It is to a man’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3).

 Love is anti-rivalry and peace-building 

  • “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (I Corinthians 13:4-7).

Balancing truths

Short audio clips

Steve Cornell

5 links to see (and a fun video)

How (and why) to be the meanest mom in the world

When your kids tell you you’re mean, take it as a compliment. The rising generation has been called the laziest, rudest, most entitled kids in history. The news stories scare the best of moms. It’s easy to want to throw in the towel with your own kids. After all, don’t we all want to be the cool mom? Don’t give up. They may think you’re mean now, but they’ll thank you later.

The Irony of Despair (David Brooks, NYT)

“According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates have increased by 60 percent over the past 45 years. The increase in this country is nothing like that, but between 1999 and 2010, the suicide rate among Americans between 35 and 64 rose by 28 percent. More people die by suicide than by auto accidents.”

“Suicide is delayed homicide.” Suicides happen in clusters, with one person’s suicide influencing the other’s. If a parent commits suicide, his or her children are three times as likely to do so at some point in their lives. In the month after Marilyn Monroe’s overdose, there was a 12 percent increase in suicides across America. People in the act of committing suicide may feel isolated, but, in fact, they are deeply connected to those around. As Hecht put it, if you want your niece to make it through her dark nights, you have to make it through yours.

Diagnosis: Human (Ted Gup, NYT)

Challenge and hardship have become pathologized and monetized. Instead of enhancing our coping skills, we undermine them and seek shortcuts where there are none, eroding the resilience upon which each of us, at some point in our lives, must rely. Diagnosing grief as a part of depression runs the very real risk of delegitimizing that which is most human — the bonds of our love and attachment to one another. The new entry in the D.S.M. cannot tame grief by giving it a name or a subsection, nor render it less frightening or more manageable.

The 5 Gossips You Will Meet (Tim Challies)

Gossip is a serious problem. It is a problem in the home, in the workplace, in the local church and in broader evangelicalism. It is a problem in the blogosphere, in social media, and beyond. In his book Resisting Gossip, Matthew Mitchell defines gossip as “bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart” and shows…”

The Hole in the Gospel (D. A. Carson)

What is the gospel? In recent years that question has been answered in numerous books, essays, and blogs. Like the word “sin,” the word “gospel” can be accurately but rather fuzzily defined in a few words, or it can be unpacked at many levels…

Intentional Church growth


“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).

Many would tell you that, based on their experiences, the Psalm would say,

“Behold how ‘difficult‘ and ‘challenging‘ it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

Perhaps unity is such a “good and pleasant” experience because it’s so rare and exceptional.

We at least know that unity is neither easily attained or easily maintained. This is why the early Church was told to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Unity requires hard work (make every effort), vigilance (to keep or protect), and walking by the Spirit (the unity of the Spirit). It must be an intentional commitment and value of a local Church. Leaders have a special calling to watch over and protect the unity of the local Church.

Our story

I know a little about this after 30 years of pastoral ministry. While serving as a youth pastor in the greater Philadelphia area, 29 years ago this fall, we received a call that led to our ministry in Millersville, Pennsylvania. Looking back, I can tell you that planting and growing a healthy Church requires intentional commitment to core values and practices.

For those unaware of our journey, we’ve been privileged to oversee Church growth from 10 original people to more than 550 people. During those years, we’ve also invested in about a thousand University students who called our Church home during their time in school. We’ve grown from one staff person to six full-time and many part-time staff. We’ve gone from one little old building to nine buildings on two sites with over 16 acres (while remaining debt-free).

More importantly, many lives have been transformed during these years. And God has spread the ministry of our Church far beyond the home borders through missionaries sent from our number, extensive conference ministry, daily radio, columns in newspapers, this blog, etc… We are now connecting with pastors who are looking for help and encouragement on a weekly basis.

An intentional focus

Many years ago, we focused intentionally on Church growth based on a deep commitment to the following statement:

“It is God’s will for each believer to be a faithful, serving, and accountable part of a visible body of believers under the pastoral oversight of elders – sharing and experiencing meaningful relationship with one another.”

We summarized this understanding in the fourth point of our Church mission statement:

4. Fellowship of believers in an age of individualism

“It is God’s design for every Christian to be an active and accountable part of a local assembly of believers, willingly serving others. This results in the mutual encouragement and support of all the believers in their walk with Jesus Christ. In contrast, our society promotes individualism; the attitude which seeks to please self, elevates personal fulfillment, and avoids costly involvement with others. At MBC, we challenge believers to fulfill God’s design by meaningfully and sacrificially relating to others in the church.”

Some of the primary Scriptures for this statement include:

The picture of life together for those who follow Christ is not one of superficial or casual engagement. A close look at the “one anthers” of the NT depicts life-together in mutual love, honor, unity, care, service and accountability.

  • Accept one another (Rom 15:7)
  • Carry each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2)
  • Have equal concern for each other (1 Cor. 12:25)
  • Watch out for one another (Heb. 3:12-13)
  • Encourage one another (Heb. 3:13; 10:25)
  • Live in harmony with one another (1 Pet. 3:8)
  • Confess your sins to each other (Jas. 5:16)
  • Be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10)
  • Edify one another (Rom. 14:19; 1 Thess. 5:11)
  • Consider others better than yourselves (Phil. 2:3)
  • Bear with one another (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13)
  • Forgive each other (Eph. 4:32)
  • Live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16; 15:5)
  • Love one another (John 13:34-35; 17; Rom. 13:8)
  • Be members of one body (Rom. 12:5; Eph. 4:25)
  • Be at peace with each other (Eph. 4:3)
  • Pray for each other (Jas. 5:16)
  • Serve one another (Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 4:10)
  • Honor one another (Rom. 12:10)
  • Offer hospitality to one another (1 Pet. 4:9)

One sentence summary of our mission:

We seek to honor God by Winning, Building, Equipping, and Mobilizing people to advance Christ’s kingdom and exalt His name.

Steve Cornell

Are you discouraged by disunity?

A church leader commented that they had not had conflict in their Church for years. Another responded, “Sure. No movement; no friction.”

We don’t want our churches to be like the married couple who said that they haven’t fought for years and then admitted that they also haven’t talked to each other for years. 

While Christians are supposed to be distinguished by their love for one another (John 13:34-35), please don’t conclude that  this means they won’t have conflicts.

God’s Spirit within us longs for unity among us, but experiencing such unity will not happen without effort. This is what stands behind the call to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Some Christians become too easily discouraged by disunity because they hold unrealistic (or even utopian) notions of trouble-free fellowship among those who walk with God.

If you are praying for conflict-free fellowship, God might take you to the only place where this is possible – heaven. Conflict is unavoidable on earth, especially where sinners are joining together to advance God’s kingdom. 

There’s a reason why Jesus prayed for the unity of His disciples before leaving this world (see: John 17:20-23). Jesus placed our unity in the context of our witness to the world when He prayed, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). 

There are many threats to Christian unity but the key to unity in a Church is not the absence of conflict but a shared commitment to pursue reconciliation when conflict occurs (Matthew 5:23-24; 18:15-18).

But we also must have the maturity to understand that sometimes division is necessary. On one occasion, the Apostle Paul actually said, 

“….when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized (I Corinthians 11:18-19).

Most Christians would be surprised to observe how much of our New Testament is written to address issues of conflict, both potential and actual. 

A close look at the early church reveals points of division common to churches throughout history:

When you combine this list with the repeated emphasis on the need to maintain unity and purity in the church (e.g. Rom. 16:17; I Cor. 1:10; 5:7-13; Eph. 4:3; Phil. 2:3-5; 3:16; I Thess. 5:14-15; II Thess. 3:11-16; Ti. 3:10-11; I Pet. 3:8), it becomes even clearer that churches should expect many threats to unity.

Let us call our churches to recommit to the priority of pursuing reconciliation when conflict occurs by following the two primary New Testament directives for resolving conflicts — Covering in love and Confronting in love  (seeTwo Principles For Resolving Conflicts)

“Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Romans 12:10, NLT).  

Other resources for unity in the Church:

Steve Cornell

Overcome division with core values

Conflict management 101

“Virtually all theorists of conflict management agree that parties to a conflict must share larger or ultimate values in common as a basis on which to resolve their differences”  ( Hugh Halverstadt, Managing Church Conflictp. 212).

Two great examples

Two areas of difference among believers that could significantly disrupt unity are spiritual giftedness and opinions on debatable matters.

In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul addressed both of these and provided what might be understood as a “larger or ultimate value” to protect each area from becoming a source of conflict.

Each of the two guiding principles mandates a shared attitude required of all believers in all Churches at all times.

It is especially the responsibility of Church leaders (as protectors of the unity of the Church) to hold people accountable to these guiding attitudes (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:3; Romans 16:17-18; Jude 16). 

1. Romans 12:3 — Guiding attitude for Spiritual gifts

“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (NIV).

2. Romans 14:3 — Guiding attitude for debatable matters

“Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them” (NLT). 

Keep the main core value in view

Romans 15:5-7 –  join together with one voice…

“May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory” (NLT).

That we may be one!

Steve Cornell

Five motivations for protecting unity

1. The teaching of Jesus

Matthew 5:23-24  “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).  (see also: Matthew 18:15-17; Mark 11:25)

2. The prayer of Jesus

John 17:23 - Jesus prayed, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

3. The passion of God

Proverbs 6:16,19 - “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: …. a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”

4. The Word for the Church

Romans 16:17-18 - “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 naive people.”

Jude 16-  Watch out for those who have secretly slipped in among you.  “These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.”

5. The witness of the Church

John 13:34-35 ““A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Philippians 2:14-16a - “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…”

Steve Cornell

See also: Two principles for resolving conflict