God Heals Relationships
Disagreement Isn’t Conflict
Disagreement is a difference of opinion. My brothers and I support different college football teams, including Penn State, Temple, and Pittsburgh. Which team wins or loses doesn't affect our relationship.
Conflict occurs partly because no two of us see life precisely the same. We have different information, values, desires, priorities, beliefs, etc. These competing views of life can be like gunpowder.
When our ideas clash with someone else’s, and our pride supplies the match (Proverbs 13:10), we call the resulting KA-POW “conflict.” It separates us from others, and it hurts.
Forgiveness glues relationships back together. Conflict causes separation. Even in committed relationships. Forgiveness is optional. It requires humility, and no one can force us to do it.
Jesus humbled Himself to absorb our sins on the cross and didn’t hold them against us. That’s the pattern.
We must humble ourselves. We must take others' offenses. Without holding them responsible. It’s difficult.
But we can do everything Jesus asks us to do through the strength He provides (Philippians 4:13). It’s necessary because God’s forgiving us is linked to our forgiving others (Mark 11:25).
Reconciliation is complex. It includes forgiving the other person for their part in the conflict. Asking for forgiveness for our part. And rebuilding the relationship.
I have an old pair of walking shoes. The sole of the left foot has four times separated from the upper portion of the shoe. Four times, I glued it back together.
Forgiveness is the glue we apply. Whenever there’s a separation in our relationship.
Conflict Is Inevitable
Conflict collides between competing information, values, desires, priorities, beliefs, etc. These competing elements can exist without a crash. We each have the potential to disagree with anybody about just about anything.
The issue isn’t whether we disagree but how. Conflict happens both between us and others and inside us (James 4:1-3). As believers, we’ll never experience a conflict-free day. We can’t even agree with ourselves!
Since we have trouble getting along with “ourselves,” even though we love ourselves, it shouldn’t surprise us that we have difficulty getting along with others we love less. Again, what matters is our response.
The right choice is for the Spirit to lead us in interpersonal relations, and the most common wrong choice is to be led by pride and try to prove we’re right. “Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice” (Proverbs 13:10).
Pride pursues victory over or harm to an opponent. Holy Spirit-led persons pursue peace. That is a fruit of the Spirit. That’s why Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
When we’re seeking to beat, embarrass, hurt, or drive out of the church another believer with whom we disagree, we can be very sure the Spirit is not leading us.
The sinful nature pursues what’s best for the self, but those led by the Spirit seek what’s best for God and others. That includes living in harmony (Romans 12:16) and peace (1 Thessalonians 5:13b) with other believers and with everyone as far as it depends on us (Romans 12:18). Conflict is inevitable; peace and harmony aren’t.
Unity requires harmonizing. Consensus requires peacemaking. Both necessitate putting up with one another’s quirks.
“Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.” (Colossians 3:13 NLT).
There is a common source of conflict in the church. It is the pursuit of power to bolster a sense of importance. Our actual value is what God paid to get us (Jesus).
We’ve nothing to lose and nothing to prove. We don’t need a high position in the church to be necessary to Jesus.
The disciples argued over which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24). In Mark 9:35 NLT, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.”
If we’re controlling the church, we’re driving a stolen vehicle! The church belongs to Jesus (Matthew 16:18). Give Him control!
God Uses Conflict to Mold Us
God uses conflict (competing desires) to shape nature, history, and the church. Individuals of the same and different species compete.
Not all plants and animals do it successfully. Those who do pass their genes to the next generation. Even weather is the product of a “conflict” between air masses.
The behind-the-scenes conflict between the kingdoms of light and darkness drives history. When that conflict erupts into persecution, the church grows more robust.
God also uses friction within the church to shape believers into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). It’s one way He tests us. If everything in the church always went our way, and everyone always agreed with us, we’d have no motivation to change and wouldn’t need God’s power to do it.
Conflict is as much a part of life as breathing. Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and foes all experience conflict.
The only residents on the globe who don’t are the under-the-hill crowd! Treat conflict like an orange. Squeeze out all its potential benefits.
Avoid the seeds of disunity and strife. God uses conflict to accomplish His will.
As churches, we go to extremes to avoid God’s shaping tool. We sweep it under the rug as quickly as conflict appears to make it disappear. We don’t like it.
We assume (erroneously) that if we love one another, we’ll be able to get along without any ruffled feathers. We see love and conflict as opposites. We don’t know how to handle conflict, so we deny its existence. We’re silent when others offend us because we think we’re keeping the peace.
The offense infuriates and fractures our relationship, but we say nothing to the person who offended us. We hang on to the hurts and tell everyone but the offender about them, or we “grow a tumor” inside and let the pains eat away.
We can and must do a better job of calling conflict what it is and resolving it. It’s God’s tool to mold our character (James 1:2-4). Avoiding conflict is like skipping school on days when tests are scheduled!
Conflict Can Make Your Church Better
God places us into the church to benefit from one another’s perspectives and gifts. We’re better together because (instead of surrendering to laziness) we can encourage one another to love and do good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).
We’re better together because we need one another’s spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:21). We’re better together because we benefit from the godliness of others. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, NIV).
We’re better together because we can help identify one another’s warts. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:6, NIV).
We’re better together because we can see most clearly in the mirror of one another how our ways and words offend others. Paul confronted Peter because he wasn’t upfront about the gospel's truth concerning eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11ff.). We’re better together because we’re wiser together. “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure” (Proverbs 11:14, NIV).
We must deal with small fires and conflicts. That prevents them from becoming large and destructive. We tend to operate in silent or violent mode when we're offended.
We start with silence. We follow the advice, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes – 100 times!
We take it and say nothing. We try to fit two quarts of offense into a pint container. It’s running all over the place. Quietly, uncomplainingly (to the person offending us), we absorb multiple hurts until we cannot stand anymore.
Then we shift into the violent mode and give the best speech we’ll ever regret. The person who has unknowingly offended us wonders where that came from.
He thinks to himself, “I didn’t do anything!” The offended and the offender switch places. Making peace has just become more complex. It’s far wiser to address the offense the first or second time it occurs.
God uses conflict to change us and others. He uses it to shape us to become more like Jesus for our good and His glory.
Without disputes, we’d have little motivation to change. Neither would our church. Discord brings a sense of urgency. It reveals that something about the status quo isn’t good.
Several years ago, I offended a visiting relative. I won't go into the details about what caused the conflict.
I thought about what caused the problem. I decided to put a greater priority on relating to people. I put less emphasis on completing tasks. Though painful, this conflict helped me understand things I needed to change about myself.
Conflict can help us refocus on our mission and vision. Imagine this scenario. Those who’ve joined our church in the last five years think we should do more in our community, and those who’ve been members for many years don’t see the need to change anything.
The conflict between the two groups becomes intense. Our leaders schedule a leadership retreat. They want to re-examine our mission. They invite the membership to come and bring input.
Speed Leas said, “Unless an organization encourages regular and thorough internal challenge to what it has been doing, it’s unlikely to keep up with the changing world.”
(Speed Leas, “Tension Isn’t All Bad” in Mastering Conflict and Controversy, Edward G. Dobson, Speed B. Leas and Marshall Shelley, Multnomah, p. 31). Dealing with conflict helps our church meet the needs of a changing world.
Conflict helps us understand ourselves and others. It informs us what’s important to them and us through interaction. Where two or more are gathered in His name, there will be conflict in their midst!
We only contest things that matter to us. You could try to argue with me about the best hockey team in history, and you couldn’t upset me because I’m not interested in ice hockey!
The most intense conflict occurs when values collide. Nevertheless, to love one another, we must know what hurts each other to avoid offending. God can use other people to reveal our offensive ways (Psalm 139:24). If we don’t challenge one another when we’re offended, we miss an opportunity for God to use us to shape our brother or sister in Christ.
Conflict reveals our character. When we’re being rebuked or when we’re criticized, do we do it in a Christ-like way? Our lives are like a tube of toothpaste, and when conflict squeezes us, what comes out is the real us. How we handle conflict reveals how far down the road of Christian maturity we’ve progressed.
God Gives Conflict-Resolving Grace
Will all conflicts in the church be resolved? Unfortunately, they won’t. If every battle in the church were resolved, Christian marriages would never end in divorce, would they?
I believe God provides sufficient grace to resolve conflict among Christians. “For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.
The whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15 NLT).
Will the conflict be resolved? It depends on people's motivation. On their willingness to embrace the grace and freedom they have to serve one another in love.
Even if that grace is rejected, God still works all things together for the good of those involved and His glory (Romans 8:28). But the consequences of conflict remain.
Paul and Barnabas couldn’t agree on whether to take John Mark on their second missionary journey (Acts 15:36ff). They parted ways, but God used them to further His kingdom’s work.
Only God knows what would happen on the second missionary journey if Paul and Barnabas hadn’t separated. Conflicts aren’t always resolved because Christians don’t always act like Christians, and some who profess to be Christians aren’t. We can’t ensure others will act like Christians. We can only control ourselves.
Conflict Comes in Different Packages
Speed Leas identified five levels of conflict in congregations (Moving Your Church Through Conflict, Washington D.C.: The Alban Institute, 1985). I’ve used his concept of five levels but modified the content of each.
Paper Sword Conflict
As long as issues remain problem-centered, massive relational explosions won’t happen. I don't consider this an actual conflict. Paper sword conflict is when two or more people are figuratively sitting side by side and facing a common problem together.
It could be as mundane as dividing an apple equally between them. The solution can be as simple as, “I’ll cut the apple in half, and you get the first choice.”
Let’s suppose Bill and Harry meet to improve the flow of the worship service. They want to trim away time when nothing significant is happening. They brainstorm a list of suggestions.
They agree together on the best five on the list and implement them. They faced a problem. They solved it together. Their relationship isn’t negatively affected at all.
Level two is disagreement-centered. Bill and Harry don’t see the world or the church exactly alike. That’s the gunpowder, the potential for an explosion to separate them.
Let’s assume Bill and Harry meet to cut the dead time from the worship service. Bill thinks they should sing the Doxology after the offering. Harry believes they shouldn’t.
They follow a conflict resolution process. They agree to sing the Doxology every other Sunday. They will evaluate after six months.
Both are satisfied. They continue to work together to trim unproductive time from the service.
Level three is victory centered. This is a fleshly approach to a spiritual problem.
Bill and Harry meet. They want to cut unprofitable time from the worship service. During the first meeting, Bill says, “Harry, No one but you would think of a foolish idea like eliminating the Doxology after the offering!” That’s his pride gushing out.
The match also explodes the gunpowder of their differences (KA-POW). He strikes another match, saying, “As long as I’m on the worship committee, we’ll sing the Doxology after we take the offering. That’s how we’ve always done it, and we will keep doing it! I’ve been around this church longer than you have, and I know better than you do what we need!” KA-POW!
Harry is offended. He tells himself that Bill is selfish and wants total control of the church. Harry feels unimportant, embarrassed, unappreciated, inadequate, and angry. He decides to fight Bill.
He thinks to himself, “Foolish! I bet Bill sings the Doxology out of habit without putting his brain in gear. It’s a pointless waste of thirty seconds of worship time.” That thought is just the beginning of the downward spiral of his negative thinking about Bill.
He calls people on the worship committee to rally support for his position. Over time, the issue becomes more about how people feel about singing the Doxology than whether it’s the best use of worship hour time.
Can this conflict be resolved? Perhaps, but it won’t be if Bill and Harry remain obstinate. This issue might require the denomination's help.
Level four is hurt-centered, like the linebacker whose goal is to knock the opposing quarterback out of the game. Hurting and humiliating the other side is just as important as winning.
This, too, is a fleshly approach to a spiritual problem. You can’t resolve it by conflict-resolution techniques. When level four conflict exists, the parties don’t talk to each other and show open disrespect.
When they do communicate with each other, they shout. Resolving this issue will take the denomination's help.
Level five is annihilation-centered. Kenneth C. Haugk calls such people antagonists (Antagonists in the Church). Haugk describes the key characteristics of an antagonist. Their antagonistic behavior recurs inside and outside the church.
They say unspecified others feel the same way they do. They criticize previous leaders. They befriend pastors as soon as they move in and praise them excessively.
After they disagree with something the pastor or leaders do, they try to catch them in error. They seem highly likable. They do much church-hopping.
They frequently lie. They give money conspicuously. They don’t seek or want forgiveness.
Antagonists cause only a tiny percentage of conflict. They refuse to change. There’s no trace of Christianity in their approach. That was the nature of Jesus’ confrontation with the Jewish religious leaders of His day.
Their answer to the conflict between His teachings and theirs, His way of life and theirs, and His following and theirs was to kill him. When one party seeks to “nuke” another, denominational intervention is the only option.
Practical Ways to Resolve Conflict
I suggest two strategies to make peace. The first resolves conflict. The second deals with those who disappoint by not doing what they promised.
First, however, we must change how we think about people we’re in conflict with. How we think about a situation or person affects how we feel about it, and how we feel about it affects what we do. To resolve conflicts, we need to think more rationally about those who’ve hurt us.
Our Story Is Wrong!
No one enjoys being wrong! My first title for this section was “Your Story Is Wrong!” After some reflection, I realized that title excused the possibility that my story could be wrong, so I changed it to “Our Story Is Wrong!” Mine too! How so?
When others offend and hurt us, we tell ourselves a story to explain their motivation. Even though we can’t know their intentions, we think we do. We base our judgment on how their words or deeds impacted us.
The more they hurt us, the harsher we judge. We quickly jump to the conclusion. Selfishness motivated their behavior. They intentionally hurt me because they’re terrible people! Case closed.
We don’t consider other possibilities, such as how people or things influenced their behavior or that the offense might have been unintentional.
Such judgments on our part are wrong because they’re contrary to Jesus’ will and because they’re just plain inaccurate. There’s nothing in life for which we’re more unequipped than judging intentions precisely right. We’re more likely to win the lottery without buying a ticket! If you want to be wrong consistently, keep judging people’s intentions!
Furthermore, we become guilty of the selfishness we attribute to the offender. Our concern is our hurt, and that’s selfishness. We don’t consider how reacting to this hurt will affect others.
Our unwillingness to let go of the offense violates Jesus’ command to forgive. When we get tied up in our little package of hurt, we only think about ourselves.
Besides forgiveness, our irrational conclusion shapes our relationship with the offending person afterward. They’re bad people because they hurt me. We magnify their negative traits. We minimize or ignore their positive traits because they don’t fit our conclusion about them.
We must eliminate this judging method because it defies God’s word and reason and consistently causes us great pain.
“So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall.” (Romans 14:13, NLT).
“So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall.” (Colossians 3:13, NLT).
Judging why others behave as they do is contrary to reason. Do you know what I’m going to write next?
Of course, you don’t, any more than I know what you’re thinking right now. Please stick with me. This is the heart of the truth I’m trying to communicate.
We don’t know how others think or feel unless they tell us. They don’t know how we think or feel unless we tell them.
Listening to one another’s stories is the critical element in resolving conflict. Telling ourselves the wrong account is how conflict starts. It doesn’t start with how others hurt us but our irrational reaction to that hurt. Getting our story right is critical.
How to Resolve Conflicts
Based on Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, the following is a process that churches can use when dealing with conflict.
1. The parties in conflict should pray. Do this daily for at least two weeks before the resolution meeting.
For those who’ve offended them.
For wisdom to see the two-by-four in their own eyes (Matthew 7:1-5).
For God to reveal their contribution to the conflict (Proverbs 13:10).
For God to forgive them (1 John 1:9).
2. Get a Grip on What Happened
We’ll meet to talk about the conflict:
1. Place ___________________
2. Date ___________________
3. Time ___________________
We aim to learn, share and fix the problem, not the blame.
If there are multiple issues, we’ll deal with only one at a time.
Party one shares their viewpoint on issue one without attacking. Party two will listen and take notes to understand how the issue looks and feels to party one. No “correcting” is allowed.
After party one’s story, part two will summarize it verbally.
Parties one and two switch roles.
Repeat the process as needed to address other issues.
Jesus humbled Himself on the cross to accept our sins.
We must humble ourselves and not hold the offenses of others against them (Proverbs 13:10).
We can do it through the strength Jesus provides (Philippians 4:13).
God forgiving us is linked to forgiving others (Mark 11:25).
Both parties should confess their part in the conflict to the other (pride, etc.) and ask for forgiveness.
4. Solve the Problem behind the Conflict
Both parties should define the three things they want most related to the conflict area–i.e., their interests.
Multiply options that fairly meet both sides’ most important concerns and interests.
Together select the best option that’s fair to both sides or a mediator will make that choice.
Implement the solution. Meet again to evaluate how well it’s working.
How to Deal with Those Who Disappoint You by Not Doing What They Promise
These suggestions are based on: Crucial Confrontations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.
1. Before the confrontation, define what the problem is in one sentence as follows:
The first confrontation should focus on content: "You said you’d do (whatever), but didn’t.”
During the second confrontation about the same issue using a pattern focus – “Repeated disappointments are causing me to begin to lose trust in you, and I don’t want that to happen.”
During the third confrontation, use a relationship focus – “I’ve almost lost my trust in you to do what you promise because of this recurring problem.”
2. Describe in a respectful, non-attacking tone the difference between what you expected and what happened. Give the offender the benefit of the doubt.
Help to maintain safety. Be clear about what you are and aren’t saying. Care about their goals. You can talk about almost anything with people who feel safe.
3. For example:
Beverly, you promised you’d have the newsletter typed by noon yesterday. But it still isn’t completed. You never told me you couldn’t meet the deadline. Now we won’t be able to send it until next week.
I’m not angry at you. Your job certainly isn’t in jeopardy, but I’m disappointed. I’m sure there’s a good reason you didn’t finish it.
But meeting the deadline is significant to me. Let’s talk about what happened.
I want to explore the extent that you do not really want to do the newsletter and to what extent you just couldn’t get it done as promised. I want you to enjoy working here, be motivated, and be able to carry out all your assignments promptly. Let’s try to sort a few things out to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.
Let me ask:
How would you rate how much you like typing the newsletter? (Scale of 1-10)? [This is exploring personal motivation.]
How confident do you feel about your ability to produce a quality newsletter? (Scale of 1- 10)?
How did I or others influence your desire to complete it by noon yesterday?
How did I or others decrease your ability to complete it by noon yesterday?
How does how we run the church office influence your motivation to complete it as promised?
How does how we run the church office impact your ability to produce the newsletter as promised?
4. If Beverly isn’t motivated, explore the natural consequences of her behavior until you find one that encourages her. For example, “Beverly, do you know how many lives you are touching by putting the newsletter together and how eagerly our parishioners look forward to receiving it on the 17th? We regularly get calls from them testifying how the newsletter has encouraged them and made their day.”
5. If natural consequences aren’t motivating and Beverly continues not keeping her promises without alerting you, use discipline, telling her what will happen the next time she doesn’t do what you expect. “If this happens again, it will affect your performance evaluation and raise.”
6. A person cannot do what’s expected. It’s the supervisor’s job to remove personal barriers. Relational or institutional barriers are responsible.
7. Agree on a plan to do what you expect by a given date and how and when follow-up will occur.
Next month’s newsletter should be completed by noon on the 15th. If you can’t project finishing it by the deadline, let me know by noon on the 14th, and I will help you rearrange the timetable for your other tasks to ensure the newsletter is completed on time. Agreed?
God can mend your fractured relationships. He can also use you to bless more people than you can imagine. A sharp tool is more useful than a dull one. The following resources can sharpen your ministry edge:
Discipleship Books Free Download provides church leaders with materials that are completely reproducible.
Church Assimilation Strategy helps keep members and visitors in the church.
ABC of Evangelism enables you to share your faith in Jesus Christ as easy as ABC.
Spiritual Health Assessment partners with Spiritual Health Suggestions. They will help you grow up in your faith.
Dobson, Edward G., Leas, speed B., and Marshall Shelley. Mastering Conflict & Controversy (1992). Portland, OR: Multnomah Press.
Haugk, Kenneth C. Antagonists in the Church (1988). Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House.
Leadingham, Everett, Editor. Christians in Conflict (2004). Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press.
Patterson, Kerry, Grenny, Joseph, McMillan, Ron Switzler, and Al Switzler. Crucial Confrontations (2005). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Stone, Douglas, Patton, Bruce, and Sheila Heen. Difficult Conversations (1999). New York, New York: The Penguin Group.
Ury, William. Getting Past No (1991). New York, New York: Bantam Books
Photo: Gus Moretta/Unsplash