We hate it. We run from it. But conflict is inevitable in the local church. Our experience and the testimony of Scripture confirm that when sinners mingle and rub shoulders, they won’t always see eye to eye. There will be fireworks among fellow believers from time to time.
Consider the disagreement that took place between Paul and Barnabas. For years, they were a dynamic ministry duo, but then “there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed” (Acts 15:39-40). Yes, God used this to advance the gospel, but it still arose from conflict.
Our aim as pastors and church leaders should not be “conflict avoidance” but “conflict resolution.” Of course, there are conflicts we can easily avoid, but not always. The trick is knowing how to respond when conflict emerges.
Here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Follow the Golden Rule
Relationships matter! And when conflict rears its ugly head, it can help teach and grow the Body of Christ. The golden rule is an excellent reminder of how believers should relate to one another. Jesus said, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12).
It is easy and natural to lash out in anger. It is much harder to respond with gentleness. Value the person more than you do winning the conflict or argument. Remember, you are talking to a fellow image bearer (Genesis 1:27). Respect is due.
How you want others to treat you in any situation can be highly instructive. As Paul writes:
While we won’t follow through on this all the time, Jesus did! Aim to follow his example and lean into the grace of God.
2. Keep short accounts
The only way some know how to deal with conflict is through avoidance. But as Christians, we know it is not okay to ignore someone without trying to restore the relationship. Working through the matter is hard, but it is entirely necessary.
The Bible says, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). It is never good to respond quickly in anger (Proverbs 15:1), nor is it prudent to let things simmer and hope that the issue will eventually go away. Pastors need to model and teach the principle of keeping short accounts.
Make it a goal to deal with conflict as quickly as possible. Be quick to confess your sin to one another (James 5:16). Be quick to repent, if necessary. And be quick to tell the person that despite your differences, you love them and want the best for them.
3. Look beyond the presenting issue
As conflicting parties come together and communication starts to flow, sometimes it becomes evident that the presenting issue is not the real issue. Someone might say that X is the issue when it’s something deeper they may or may not understand.
As James 1:19 explains, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Always try to be a good listener.
Inevitably, circumstances will call upon pastors to navigate conflict in various ways – personally and within the corporate Body. If they can dig below the surface and discover the real issue(s), it will significantly aid in sorting through the matter and moving toward conflict resolution.
4. Aim for reconciliation
The Bible says:
Our Lord is in the business of reconciliation. As His followers, we are too. When conflict emerges, the way forward is not to become defensive and judgmental. That approach is all about self-preservation and doesn’t lend itself to reconciliation, which is always the goal.
The Bible is clear. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15). If that doesn’t work, further steps may be necessary (Matthew 18:16-17). But the goal is always to move toward one another and be humble. Pastors and church leaders must do everything possible to model and facilitate such behavior among the brethren.
The “ministry of reconciliation” is rarely easy, but it is possible. When the people of God come together in love and unity, it is a beautiful thing (Psalm 133:1).
5. See the Value of Conflict
Sometimes conflict can expose patterns of sin in the camp. Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “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” (1 Corinthians 11:18-19).
The last thing any church wants is to deal with conflict and division, whether large or small. Conflict is sometimes necessary to expose those not of God, including church leaders (Acts 20:29-30).
Pastor, don’t be too quick to quench the fires of division. God may be using it in ways you don’t fully comprehend. Do everything you can to resolve it biblically, but resist the temptation to employ quick-fix, “sweep it under the rug” methods that don’t get to the heart of the matter.
God’s work is wonderful and mysterious (Isaiah 55:8-9), and He often uses hard things (like conflict) for His purposes.
6. Recognize the centrality of the gospel
If you search the internet or visit your local Barnes and Noble bookstore, you can easily find helpful secular resources on conflict resolution. But what fundamentally separates Christians and non-Christians is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel tells us that Christ loved his enemies and even died for them (Romans 5:10).
There is no more powerful illustration of conflict resolution than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Having been forgiven of all our sins through Christ’s atoning work, God calls believers to forgive one another (Colossians 3:13). If God could love us in such a powerful way, how could we not love one another?
Pastor, continually remind your folks how God loved us through the gospel. It will help them love one another better, forgive one another, and be witnesses to the watching world (John 13:35).
Six Questions Pastors Should Ask When Deciding When to Confront