Conflict is one of the more unpleasant symptoms of sinful people living in a sinful world. Its effects range from uncomfortable but momentary interactions to total relational devastation. And if you’ve been part of a local church for any length of time, you know that the bride of Christ isn’t immune to it. In fact, some of the most unsavory instances of conflict I’ve witnessed have occurred within the church, and that’s no accident. Our enemy is the great Accuser. If he can plant seeds of accusation and malice within the church body, there is huge potential for destruction.
Three Questions to Ask in Conflict
So how do we combat this? What wisdom can we employ to address conflict in a God-honoring way and lessen its effects? In answer, I offer three questions.
1. Is this truly conflict or an issue of conscience?
Among Christians, what we call issues of conscience are often the cause of conflict when they need not be. These are things like alcohol consumption, dietary restrictions, dress, etc. that God’s Word neither requires nor prohibits for Christians. We form opinions about these things based on the strength or weakness of our consciences. For some of us, our consciences allow much freedom. For others, their consciences require a stricter interpretation.
While Scripture doesn’t mandate any one interpretation of these matters, it does speak strongly against their use as battering rams with one another. In Romans 14-15, Paul spends 30 verses urging the church to not “destroy the work of God” for the sake of issues of conscience (14:20). He says, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.…So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (14:17,19).
When butting heads with someone, try to quickly decipher the source of the problem. If it’s an issue of conscience, there is a painless solution: lovingly agree to disagree. In the words of commentator, Douglas Moo, “As long as they [issues of conscience] are not contrary to the gospel and hindering the work of the church, we should learn to tolerate these differences.”
2. Could this be resolved if my pride was not involved?
The second thing to determine when experiencing conflict is whether or not it’s a pride problem. We are quick to quote Proverbs 16:18, but slow in applying it to our own behavior. We, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, must do the hard work of searching our hearts and laying aside any pride we find there.
Scripture is clear as a bell about the destructive nature of pride. Pride leads to disgrace (Proverbs 11:2). God opposes the proud (James 4:6). There is more hope for a fool than for a person who thinks highly of herself (Proverbs 26:12). Pride ultimately makes us like the one Paul warns of in 1 Timothy 6:4-5 – conceited, quarrelsome, depraved in mind, and deprived of truth.
Most of what we experience as conflict in day-to-day life is the result of someone pricking our pride. We loathe feeling less-than or wrong. Our instinct is often to react in defensiveness rather than to accept that someone else could be right or have a better idea. But God’s Word says that kind of behavior will not go unpunished (Proverbs 16:5). We are commanded to “do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [ourselves]” (Philippians 2:3).
Answering this question can be a hard pill to swallow, but it bears good fruit. God promises grace to the humble.
3. Am I pursuing restoration or justification?
Conflict can be ugly. Sometimes we are falsely accused, misunderstood, and even attacked. A knife in the back feels more like a meat cleaver when it’s in the hand of a Christian brother or sister. This is conflict at its most painful.
In one such instance, a wise friend gave me this advice:“Pray for your accuser, that they would not continue to be deceived. And resist the urge to defend yourself.” She couldn’t have given me two more difficult directives. But they revealed my sin in the situation. While I wasn’t responsible for the wrong committed against me, I was responsible for the anger and ill will I harbored. I wanted to be justified and vindicated when I should have been praying for my accuser to be restored in peace and truth.
Any attempts to resolve conflict will fail if we are seeking justice for ourselves. Vengeance – sub justice, truth, recompense – is the Lord’s, not ours. Romans 12:17 tells us not to repay evil for evil, but to do what is honorable in the sight of all. Our prayer for our accusers should be the same as Jesus’ when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). We should seek their restoration with the Lord, and trust that every tongue that rises up against us in judgment will be refuted as he has promised (Isaiah 54:17).
Christ, Our Peacemaker
Conflict entered our reality the moment Eve took a bite out of that piece of fruit. Sin put us in an eternal state of conflict with our Creator, and therefore with each other. But Christ humbled himself to resolve this conflict. He came to be our Peacemaker. Christ bought our reconciliation with his shed blood.
So since we have been reconciled with God, we extend that same spirit of reconciliation to each other. This should spur us to pray for sanctification because we can’t be peacemakers, ourselves, unless we become more like our Savior in humility, truth, and grace.