Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard, coming down upon the edge of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon coming down upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the blessing—life forever” (Ps. 133, NASB).
I will sadly add the words, “Behold, how ugly and how unpleasant it is for brothers to be divided due to conflict!”
People do have conflict. Christians have conflict. It is a part of life. Sometimes it is due to mere misunderstandings and easily settled, so life goes on. At times is it can be healthy and good because matters can be clarified and sins can be forgiven. Sometimes, however, it is unresolved and continues in cycles of verbal and physical abuse. Unresolved conflict can cause divorce. Christians can have conflict and never settle their differences. Christians and churches can separate from one another. It can cause unbelievers to avoid the church and weaker saints to forsake the Lord. Conflict can even end with murder. Worst of all, people can be lost in eternity over it. Are there no answers? No resolutions? Yes, there are.
The Old Testament records examples of conflict. Cain killed his brother, Abel (Gen. 4:8-10). Sarai had conflict with Hagar (Gen. 16). Jacob and Esau had conflict (Gen. 27). Joseph and his brothers had conflict (Gen. 37). In a mere two chapters — 1 Samuel 18 and 18 — Saul tried to kill David at least twelve times!
The New Testament also records examples of conflict. Jesus had conflict with the Pharisees over several issues. The Lord’s disciples had conflict over a power position in the kingdom (Lk. 22:24ff). Stephen faced conflict for being truthful and direct in his message (Acts 7). The Christians in Corinth had conflict over spiritual leaders, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, and more. Euodia and Syntyche had conflict (Phil. 4:2). Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark had conflict (Acts 15:37-40). Diotrophes caused conflict by seeking to be first, making unjust accusations, and turning good men away (3 John).
The Scriptures also give us examples of resolutions. Jacob and Esau finally made up after Jacob’s deception. They wept, Jacob offered gifts, and they peacefully went separate ways (Gen. 33). Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him as a slave, fed them during a famine, and eased the heart of his grieving father, Israel (Gen. 42-50). Eventually the Lord’s disputing disciples became apostles and served Him until their deaths. Although we don’t know how, Paul and John Mark worked out their differences and Paul found him useful (2 Tim. 4:11).
What Is The Lord’s Plan For Unity In The Church? How About Conflict Prevention?
Consider the Lord’s prayer in John 17. He prayed that His disciples would be one and at peace in several ways.
“Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one as We are” (v. 11). The Lord repeats this plea for oneness in verse 23, with a special emphasis on their behavior so positively affecting the world that it would believe the Father had sent Him.
He prayed, “…that they may have My joy made full in themselves” (v. 13). He wants His people to be spiritually joyful!
He prayed that the Father would not “take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one” (v. 15).
Finally, Jesus said, “…I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them” (v. 26).
We should carefully examine the key points Jesus made and understand how this oneness can prevent conflict. Note especially verse 26 and the love that exists between the Heavenly Father and the Son! These petitions do not mean that Christians will never have conflict, and Jesus knew that. They do mean that our first and foremost desire should be the same as His: seek the oneness that He and the Father had for which He fervently prayed.
How Are Conflicts Supposed To Be Resolved?
Conflict, disunity, and divisions arise from two approaches:
- I want my way. It is all about me and what I want.
- Not seeking God’s will to promote unity or prevent strife and division.
When unity is broken, the only way to repair it is by using the Scriptures.
Consider Matthew 18:15. Break down the verse and you’ll see a pattern emerge:
If — Situation. There must be certainty.
Your brother— Connection. Someone in Christ.
Sins— Infraction. A violation of God’s will (cf. 1 John 3:4).
Go and tell him his fault — Confrontation. The charge needs to be made clear and explained. Clarify. Get everything out in the open.
Between you and him alone— Condition. This is to be dealt with privately. (Unfortunately, this is not the usual pattern. Brothers will tell everyone except the one with whom they had the problem. That is a sin! Neither does it resolve the conflict.)
If he hears you— Contrition and confession.
You have gained him— Communion.
Jesus illustrated the contrite heart in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk. 18:10-14). The humble repentance which God desires is contrasted with self-righteousness. The eloquent prayer of the proud Pharisee did not reach the heart of God, but the humble cry of the repentant sinner did and brought about his forgiveness. They both needed mercy, but only the contrite heart was in a position to receive it.
Now consider Matthew 5:21-24. As used in this passage, Mounce’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines “angry” as a sustained anger. “Raca” means “good for nothing; empty-headed; stupid” and “fool” means “moron; one without reason; morally worthless.” One of the reasons conflicts are often unresolved is because people do not have a Christ-like attitude toward others. Like the Pharisee, they look down on them and speak evil words, even calling them names.
There are those in the kingdom who are always in conflict with others and love to fuss! In Luke 22:24, “dispute” is a compound Greek word, “philoneikia,” which accourding to Mounce means “a love of contention; rivalry, contention.” How are conflicts often handled? Quite often they are not dealt with at all. If they are dealt with, oftentimes they are not done so biblically.
In an article titled “Animal Instincts” published in Leadership, authors Norman Shawchuck and Robert Moeller identified “a variety of conflict management styles” and shared what “psychologists…labeled” as “responses with animal names: sharks (“I win; you lose”), foxes (“Everyone wins a little and loses a little”), turtles (“I withdraw”), teddy bears (“I’ll lose so you can win”), and owls (“Let’s find a way for everyone to win.”).
The personality types and approaches were described as follows:
The Sharks. “Sharks tend to be domineering, aggressive, and open to any solution as long as it’s the one they want. Sharks use whatever it takes to prevail: persuasion, intimidation, power plays. Sharks don’t always appear menacing and may even possess a quiet demeanor, but make no mistake — they play to win, even if others lose.”
This attitude is diametrically opposed to seeking God’s way and a fellow saint’s good. The “shark” needs to look at the humility of Jesus, who had all power and yet submitted to the will of God (Phil. 2:6-11).
The Fox. The “wily fox” represents someone who makes an “attempt to help everyone win-a-little, lose-a-little.” The desire is for compromise to keep everyone from “breaking apart.” And while “their primary interest is the common good, if people don’t immediately respond to their bargain they aren’t above arm-twisting and manipulation to impose an agreement” to resolve the conflict. The fox seeks ways and means to get conflicting “parties to accept” their “solution.” The problem with this is that “the problem will emerge again later in a different form.” Compromise does not “address the underlying issues” which will “eventually re-emerge.”
Furthermore, no solution should compromise God’s truth nor leave sinful issues unsettled. It is wrong to manipulate people (2 Cor. 4:2).
The Turtles. “The turtles are so frightened by conflict that they pull into their shell.” This reaction could be the result of abuse or a home where children were not allowed to voice their feelings in conflicting situations.
That said, the turtle reaction could also be the result of pent up anger or repressed feelings. So the withdrawal approach can be counterproductive to remedying the conflict, because people can and do hold on to bitterness or anger for years. Paul instructed to not “let the sun go down on your wrath” (Eph. 4:26); that is, deal with it quickly. There are times when people need to speak up, even when it is uncomfortable or fearful to do so. Often people are afraid to do what Jesus said in Matthew 18:15. That’s fine if the offended can let it go. Stephen did so (Acts 7:60). Yet if one cannot let it go, fear has to be overcome and a meeting or confrontation must occur.
The Teddy Bear. Described as “cuddly and accommodating,” the teddy bear “is typical of the most lovable creature in the conflict management menagerie.” “In a threatening situation, teddy bears readily surrender their own interests to accommodate the disagreeing party” and “will maintain peace at almost any price.” The article concluded that while there is value in surrendering selfish goals in pursuit of peace (Phil. 2:3ff), the downside is that relationships should not override the settling of legitimate issues.
The loving thing to do is solve problems God’s way. Paul urged Euodia and Syntyche “to live in harmony in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2, emp. added). He obviously realized that the conflict was known by and affecting the church. He expected the dispute to be resolved, and not to just have them give one another a hug and move on.
The Owl. The “Collaborative Owl” will “‘co-labor’ with all parties until they arrive at a mutually satisfying solution.” They “see disputes as opportunities to strengthen…not destroy.” This fits the “spiritual” ones described in Galatians 6:1-2. These Christians seek to help others who are overtaken in any sin. The owls could also be the ones who would go with an offended brother (Matt. 18:16) with a goal to help resolve the conflict. The wise owls will seek God’s wisdom and not take sides with anyone but the Lord!
Brethren Must Settle Their Differences God’s Way…But Often They Do Not
Jesus made it clear that further actions must take place if brothers cannot reconcile alone (Matt. 18:16ff). Ultimately, a withdrawal by the church is commanded by the Lord if there is no repentance by the sinning offender.
Some brethren see this as optional — at least in practice — because they will not do it. Yet the same Lord who commanded Mark 16:16 commanded this.
Those “who cause divisions (are) worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19). Solomon wrote, “Through insolence comes nothing but strife, but wisdom is with those who receive counsel” (Prov. 13:10). Some brethren need to receive counsel and repent. Some are able to give it. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9).
Roger and his wife Alisa live in Valdosta, GA. He preaches for the Adel Church of Christ in Adel, GA.
Norman Shawchuck and Robert Moeller. “Animal Instincts: Five ways church members will react in a fight.” Leadership, Vol. XIV. Number 1 (Winter 1993): Pp. 43-44.
William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.