Chapter 15 — Conflict Resolution

'If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he 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 he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.'

(Matt 18:15-17)

Conflict is sadly inevitable

Let's be clear that conflict is inevitable in human relationships. As we've already seen in Genesis 3, when sin first entered the world one of the results was a breakdown in the relationship between Adam and Eve. They descend into the first husband and wife fallout when Adam was asked whether he'd eaten from the tree and responded "The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it" (Gen 3:12). Not much later we find Cain murdering Abel. And things aren’t much different when we get to the New Testament. Paul and Barnabus fall out:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. (Acts 15:36-39)

and Paul has to write to the church in Phillipi encouraging two women to fix a broken relationship:

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Phil 4:2-3)

Not only is conflict inevitable, but most of us don't handle conflict well when it comes. We teach on The Marriage Course that when we fall out some of us (like me) respond like hedgehogs and withdraw into ourselves and go all quiet, whereas others respond like rhinos and go on the warpath. Neither approach is right or helpful in resolving conflict. The Bible is clear that anger in and of itself isn't wrong — in fact it is often an indication, like a warning light, that there is an issue which needs to be resolved. Jesus seemed to get pretty angry when he drove the money changers out of the temple (Luke 2:13-16 — see also Num 14:18), but it was a righteous anger against something which was wrong. The important thing is to 'in your anger do not sin' (Eph 4:26), it's not about what you feel but how you deal with it.

We might have a hope that in authentic peachy communities there might be less conflict, but that doesn't seem to be the case - in fact the opposite often seems to be true. In coconut communities where people are wearing masks and not displaying who they really, and where people who are broken and messed up aren't allowed in, then conflict can get avoided and buried. But as we begin to take off the masks and reveal who we really are, and as we start to allow people into our community who are different to us and don't yet know how to behave, conflict becomes more and more likely.

So we mustn’t be surprised when conflict comes. But we must make sure that when it does come we deal with it in a Godly and mature way. In fact I believe this can be one of the greatest measures of Christian maturity. I’ve seen far too many allegedly mature believers who when faces with a relationship breakdown have run away from it rather than attempted to resolve it.

So how do we begin to resolve conflict? Well not surprisingly for such an important subject the Bible is incredibly clear how we should go about doing it.

Don’t Gossip

Step one for conflict resolution is not to talk to anyone other than God and the person you are in conflict with about the situation. The Bible calls talking to someone else gossip, however much we might like to couch it in language such as “I’m just telling you so you can pray”. I love what Rick Warren has to say on this:

"When offended by others tell God, not gossipers. Take it to the Throne, not the phone! God reduces hurt. Gossip reinforces it."

Gossip just makes things worse. Many times I’ve been in situations where I’ve gossiped about the offence, and then long after I’ve resolved the conflict the person I’ve gossiped to still has a problem with the person who offended me.

Can you overlook the offence?

The next question to ask when somebody offends, or seems offended by something you've done, is 'can I simply overlook this.' Proverbs 19:11 teaches us that 'A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense'. One of the things I've learnt in ministry is that 'hurting people hurt people'. Many times in the past (and I'm sure it will happen again in the future) somebody has reacted to something I've done in a way which seems totally out of proportion to what I've done, or allegedly done. Usually I've discovered later down the line that there was some other issue going on in that persons life which caused them to react in the way they did. Actually the issue isn’t me but something else going on in that persons life, and dealing with the offence is just going to make things worse, as you aren’t dealing with the root of the problem. Instead begin to ask God how you can help be part of the process of healing in this persons life.

What if you can’t overlook the offence

You’ll know that you can’t overlook the offence if forgiving the person doesn’t restore peace in your own heart.

If overlooking the offence doesn't work then Jesus gives us a wonderful model of how to resolve conflict if we feel we do need to confront the other person. Let's work our way through what he has to say.

First he says we need to go directly to the person we have the issue with. We’ve already talked about not gossiping, but let me say again how much heartache and hassle could be avoided if we followed this simple rule. The social networking phenomenon is another place where not to work all this out. I see more and more cases where an offended person will first 'unfriend' the other person on Facebook (if they were friends in the first place) and then use their status to inform all and sundry of what has happened. Please can I be clear that isn't a helpful, mature, Biblical or godly way of resolving conflict.

Let me repeat the words of Jesus again, just in case they weren't clear enough:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.

Don't talk to anyone else, don't put it out on the internet, just go straight to the other person.

And if you're going to do this please can I encourage you to actually physically go. Meet up with the person face to face. Don't email them. I find that people get all brave when they send emails and do and say things they would never do or say face to face. Often it can be a cowards way out - be courageous and do it face to face. In a similar way don't do it via letter, text, MSN or even by phone. With all of those forms of communication it's impossible to read facial expressions and body language which forms so much of our communication. When Jesus says 'go' he means 'go'.

What if that doesn’t work?

My experience is face to face contact, with a genuine desire to restore the relationship rather than win a war of words, is enough to resolve most conflicts. But if that doesn’t work Jesus is very clear about what to do next.

But if he 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 he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.'

There is an escalation process here. At this stage including other people is not gossip, but the next step in trying to deal with the issue. My advice would be to find a trusted third party, who knows both of you but is impartial and wise enough not to take sides, and ask them to try and help you resolve the issue. Sit down with the third person as a mediator, to help you process how both of you feel.

Then if that doesn’t work it needs to be taken to yet another level, ending up I would suggest with the elders if it has to go that far.

(ran out of time here - this bit needs more work but my 30 minutes of wireless internet is about to run out and we’re setting off for Serenje in 5 minutes!).

Recommended Reading

Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them - John Ortberg. This is the best and most practical book I’ve ever read on the subject of understanding and prospering in our relationships with one another.

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus - John Gray. My own analysis is that lots of conflict within marriage is because of a failure to understand the different ways God has wired men and women. I’d recommend this to both married couples and singles as they seek to understand why the opposite sex can often seem to be such a mystery.