How do you respond to conflict?
- Are you an avoider?
- A collaborator?
- A peacemaker — at all costs?
- The proverbial “bull in a china shop”?
Christians have a special responsibility to resolve conflicts in a way that reflects God’s love through Christ.
Since God has sacrificial key reconciled us to himself, He expects us to pursue reconciled relationships (Romans 12:16,18;Ephesians 4:2-3; see: God expects forgiven people to forgive).
Repeated call to pursue unity
- “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud,… Do not be conceited (Rom. 12:16).
- “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18).
- “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Philippians 2:14).
- “It is to a man’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel (Pr. 20:3).
- “Make every effort to live in peace with all men…” (Heb. 12:14)
Two main principles
Conflicts are often mishandled because people don’t understand God’s plan for resolving them. Conflicts must be resolved based on two principles.
1. Covering in love
“Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins (i.e. offenses)” (I Peter 4:8). The plan of action found in Matthew 5:23-24 and 18:15-17 must be kept in balance with the principle of covering in love.
In I Peter 4:8, the apostle quotes Proverbs 10:12 which says, “Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.” In the contrast, “covers up” is the opposite of “stirs up”. When one truly covers in love she will not stir up matters over the grievance.
We would be involved in endless conflict if every offense became a matter for confrontation. Instead, a mature love covers many minor offenses. We must learn to cover many minor grievances for the sake of our unity and the testimony of our fellowship (John 13:34-35;17:20-23;Philippians 2:14-15). This principle aligns with the requirement in Ephesians 4:2- “show forbearance to one another in love.” (see: Eph. 4:32)
According to I Corinthians 13:5, “Love does not take into account a wrong suffered.” The continual emphasis on strong enduring love between believers highlights the importance of this principle (see: Phil. 1:9; Col. 3:14; I Thess. 3:12; Eph. 5:2; Gal. 5:13; Rom. 12:10). By keeping short accounts with God (see: Prov. 28:13; I Jn. 1:9), we are better prepared to display a generous spirit to our fellow believers.
2. Confronting in love
When sinned against, we are directed to speak to our offender with honesty and humility —to confront him in a loving manner. This follows the pattern of Ephesians 4:15– “Speak the truth in love.” It is mandated by Jesus in Matthew 5:23,24 and 18:15-17. Jesus anticipates conflicts among His followers and provides steps for resolution. This reminds us not to be alarmed by conflicts.
“Therefore, 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” (Matt. 5:23-24).
“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).
The key to unity is not removal of all conflict but deep commitment to a reconciling spirit based on God’s love.
The principle behind our Lord’s teaching in the above passages is clear. Whether you have been offended, or you offended another, responsibility for reconciliation is with you. There is no room for the attitude that says: “That’s his problem!” or “Let her come to me!” The mandate in these passages is from the Lord himself. Note the clear sense of urgency and immediacy in Matthew 5:23-24 (cf. Ephesians 4:3, 27). See: Seven Signs of True Repentance:
Question: How do we know which of the two principles to apply?
“People often ask: ‘Wouldn’t it be better just to let a matter die and not raise the question afresh, thereby starting more trouble?’ The issue resolves itself to this: whether or not the offended person really finds it possible to let the problem die. Plainly every rub and offense cannot be raised and settled. We must learn, in love, to forgive and pass by many slights, annoyances, and offenses. Christ is not speaking of these in Mt. 5 & 18. Rather, he speaks of those offenses that brethren find it difficult to ‘cover.’ If a matter is likely to rattle around inside or carry over till the next day, it should be handled. To put it another way, if an offense drives a wedge between Christian brothers, the wedge must be removed by reconciliation. To say it a third say: anything that causes an unreconciled condition to exist between brethren must be dealt with.” (The Christian Counselors Manual, Jay Adams p. 52).
Apply Matthew 5 and 18
On the one hand, if we feel the need to talk to others about an offense instead of our offender, this may indicate a need for loving confrontation. On the other hand, if we are involved in constant confrontation, we need to become more mature in our love. Where love is weak, suspicion, misunderstanding, and conflict increase. Where love is strong, many minor offenses are covered (I Pet. 1:22).
“If you decide to overlook an offense, you should not simply file it away in your memory for later use against the other person. Instead, you need to forgive the offense in a biblical way: making a commitment not to dwell on it or to use it against the other person in the future. If you cannot overlook the offense this way, or if overlooking it would not be biblically appropriate, talk to the other person about it in a loving and constructive manner.” (The Peacemaker, Ken Sande, p. 64).
A person with a deeply negative and critical spirit (a faultfinder, cf. Jude 16) is destructive to unity in a family, work place or Church. Be careful about the destructive influence of such a person. When she refuses to change, the necessary step is to: “Remove the scoffer and contention will cease” (Proverbs 22:10).
See also: Watch Your Tone