Causing conflict is something we’re all innately skilled at it. From preschool playgrounds to presidential elections, we humans are exceptional at causing trouble for each other, myself very much included. Resolving conflict, now that’s another matter entirely. Let me tell you a story from a ministry experience many years ago:
I was an associate pastor in a new church. The pastor of a megachurch in the area was starting a monthly gathering for pastors in the city. For the first meeting they were going to have a special guest speaker. The topic? Conflict Resolution. I was excited to go. Surely they were going to have some great things to say. I arrived and watched the room fill with roughly 80 pastors! This wasn’t a Calvary Chapel meeting. These guys were from lots of different denominations, and if you know anything about pastors - it’s miraculous to get that many together.
I was ready to learn, imagining the wisdom represented by all those pastors. The senior pastor of the megachurch stepped up to the mic.
“I’m very sorry guys, but our guest speaker isn’t coming. I’m going to stand in his place.”
Ok, ok. Not great, but this guy was the pastor of a church with 3,000 people coming together every week. Surely he had a lot to say about conflict! How did he start?
“Alright…well…does anyone have something to say about conflict resolution?”
Wait. What? I was in shock. He punted. He completely hit the eject button. What happened next, I’ll never forget. A hand went up.
“Yes, go ahead.”
“Yeah, my church secretary sits outside my office when I’m counseling and eavesdrops on everything. Now she’s blackmailing me…what can I do?”
More shock. Immediately after a third voice rang out, “Me too!”
Then another complaint of a different kind, and another, and so on...For thirty minutes a room full of pastors vented complaints about the conflicts they were embroiled in. No solutions, principles, or even options were talked about. The senior pastor of the megachurch finally closed the meeting. I don’t recall there being a second.
Over the years I’ve learned that what I saw in that room was not a fluke. Generally in life, and specifically in ministry, we need help in resolving conflict. I freely admit I’m not the authority on conflict resolution. But I have journeyed with people much holier, wiser and more patient than I am. These are just a few simple things that I’ve picked up over the years that have helped me a lot and hopefully blessed the churches and colleges where I’ve served.
The greatest truths of Scripture are the easiest to understand and the hardest to live. Love God first and best. Love your neighbor like you love yourself. You don’t need formal theological training to get that. But try living it. So it is with prayer.
More than once I’ve been racked with anxiety about a conflict that I know must take place. I prayed and God miraculously changed the person(s) heart before I said a word. Instead of a confrontation, it was a confession. Most often I have to do the hard thing, but by prayer my spirit is in the right place, so that I can honor Christ in the process, whatever the outcome. You cannot overestimate what the Lord does by prayer (James 1:5; Proverbs 21:1).
2. It’s about restoration, not being right.
Jesus is the answer for all of us, from the saint of 50 years to the man who hates the idea of God; we all need more Jesus. In fact, if God is, as we read of Him in Scripture, the wise, loving creator and sustainer of all things, then the greatest possible blessing He can give us is more of Himself.
Our goal when dealing with conflict is to see the other person grow closer to Jesus. It’s not important that we are shown to be right, or vindicated or held in esteem. It’s about reconciliation, about building them up, not tearing them down. Pray and allow God to put your heart in a place where you desire the greatest possible good for this person; that you want Jesus for them, remembering that you need Him as much as they do (Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
3. Err on the side of grace.
When there’s a situation that isn’t clear, when you don’t know exactly who did what and there is confusion and hurt, err on the side of grace. Don’t ignore sin or rebellion or to give way for further hurt. I do not advocate fleeing conflict or being eager to bring judgment. Be wise, protect the weak, and if you have to “take a risk,” err on the side of grace (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8).
4. Go beyond the “open hand/closed hand” illustration.
There’s a popular illustration called the “open hand, closed hand. “ The idea is that there are certain things that are central to the Christian faith and cannot be compromised without losing the essence of our faith. This includes such things as the deity and humanity of Christ, the resurrection and so on. Those who are in the “closed hand “ can’t be touched. Everything else goes in the “open hand.”
The helpful part is that this makes it clear that there are things which cannot be reduced, altered or transformed without moving away from Jesus and our faith as He gave it to us. That’s important. There are, in fact, some hills worth dying on.
However, the “open hand, closed hand “ illustration is inadequate. It just doesn’t say enough. What about all that stuff that goes in the “open hand?” Is it all the same level of importance? Are disagreements about women in ministry the same as disagreements about drinking alcohol? Are disagreements about spiritual gifts the same as disagreements about how often we have the Lord’s Supper? No, they’re not. We need something more to help us see how serious a conflict is or isn’t.
First, there are some things that really aren’t worth much time. Did Adam have a belly button? You get the idea. Maybe you talk about them, but you don’t need to take it any further. Then, there are some things you have to have a decision about. You need to know where you stand and where the church stands, so that there’s no confusion. Confusion is like gasoline to the fire of conflict. For example, how do you exercise gifts in the church? If it’s unclear (undecided), confusion will bring conflict. Next, there are some things you have to separate over. Views of baptism, women’s ministry roles and sign gifts are examples of things that often, though not always, are in this group.
Last, there are those things about which we simply cannot compromise at any cost, even our mortal lives. To move away from them is to move away from Jesus.