The Biblical Doctrine of Conflict Resolution
In this article I will be drawing heavily from the book Resolving Everyday Conflict by Ken Sande and the pamphlet Peacemaking Principles by Peacemaker Ministries. Where possible I will provide page numbers from the book in parentheses.
There are three ways to respond to conflict, which Sande calls the “Slippery Slope of Conflict” (37). Before addressing the Biblical doctrine of conflict resolution it may be helpful to briefly consider escape responses and attack responses, which are both unhealthy ways of responding to conflict. Escape responses can be labeled “peace-faking” and include suicide, flight, and denial. In an escape response the person focuses on running from and avoiding the situation. Attack responses (or “peace-breaking”) include litigation, assault, and murder. Those actions are motivated by a desire to win the conflict. A person’s default response to conflict usually falls into one of those two areas. However, those responses are not the Biblical model for conflict resolution.
The conciliation response (“peace-making”) includes overlooking, reconciliation, discussion, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, accountability, and church discipline. Each of those actions are worth addressing from a Scriptural perspective.
Overlooking. Overlooking an offense is an active choice, a strong choice, and a practical choice (53-54). A relevant verse is Proverbs 19:11, which says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (ESV). In overlooking a person makes a choice to release the offense and not dwell on it. The first part of that verse is powerful – a person who is quick to anger will likely have a difficult time overlooking an offense.
Sande states that overlooking should be first option that the peacemaker considers. In certain situations overlooking is the best option. Sande also states, “Yet overlooking clearly isn’t the right choice when a wrong is damaging your relationship with a person; is hurting other people; is hurting the offender; is significantly dishonoring God (55).” Those criteria are worth keeping in mind. While minor offenses should often simply be overlooked, major offenses should be dealt with. There is also the possibility that minor offenses will be repeated and perhaps even become a pattern of behavior. In that case conflict resolution will likely be necessary. It does take wisdom to evaluate whether or not a situation should be overlooked.
Reconciliation. If it is determined that a situation is too serious to overlook, then it must be addressed with the goal of reconciliation. In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus commanded us to be reconciled to a person who has something against us. A significant aspect of the Gospel is the fact that we have been reconciled to God through Christ. As followers of Christ we must be committed to restoring estranged relationships with our fellow man.
Discussion. Effective conflict resolution will likely require a significant amount of discussion. Some practical suggestions for discussion include 1) do it face-to-face whenever possible, 2) make sure to be a good listener, 3) be prepared, and 4) make sure your goal is restoration, not confrontation (80-82). There are times when this type of discussion will bring sufficient resolution. At other times additional steps will be required.
Negotiation. Even when a resolution can be agreed to through the process of discussion, it may be necessary to negotiate about money, property, etc. This can be a difficult stage because it may feel like negotiating an agreement will wind up “costing” a person more than extending forgiveness. Philippians 2:3-4 are verses worth bearing in mind: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (ESV).
Mediation. If the parties in conflict cannot come to an agreement by themselves, the next step is to seek assistance in mediation. In Matthew 18:16 we read Jesus’ instruction to seek outside help in conflict resolution if necessary. Proverbs 15:22 points out the value of receiving outside counsel. From a practical standpoint, the mediators are responsible to ask questions and offer advice. They must also seek to provide an atmosphere which allows the parties to discuss the issue respectfully. Despite the importance of mediation, the resolution to the conflict must be arrived at by the parties involved.
Arbitration. If mediation does not lead to an effective solution, the parties should pursue arbitration. The arbitrator(s) will listen to both sides of the story and seek to render a fair judgment. The parties must agree in advance that the decision of the arbitrator will be considered binding. This step goes beyond mediation in that the decision is reached by a third party.
If both parties profess to be Christians, arbitration should be accomplished outside of court if possible. In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul discourages lawsuits among believers. Speaking of earthly matters he says, “So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?” (1 Corinthians 6:4–6, ESV). Christians should seek to resolve their conflicts in a way that will not do harm to their testimony or to the Gospel.
Accountability. Christians have a responsibility to hold each other accountable to the teaching of Scripture. Disobedience to Scripture brings a person into conflict with God. Paul wrote, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1, ESV). We have a responsibility to gently restore straying Christians to a right relationship with God. This must be done with alertness, lest we also fall into sin.
Church Discipline. The process of Christian accountability may lead to church discipline. Matthew 18:15-17 is a classic passage addressing church discipline. However, it must be remembered that a church member’s sin is not automatically a reason for church discipline. In Matthew 18:15 Jesus instructs us to first address that person’s sin in a one-on-one meeting. If he listens to what you say (and presumably repents of his sin), “you have gained your brother.” The process has no need of going further – he has been restored.
If the person refuses to listen, then it becomes necessary to bring another person or two with you to assist in the process of reconciliation (v. 16). The goal must be restoration. If he still persists in his attitude, he must then be brought before the church (v. 17). The goal is still reconciliation. However, if he refuses to listen to the warning of the church, he must be removed from fellowship. That person could then only be readmitted to church membership upon an expression of genuine repentance.
Biblical Guidelines for Peacemaking. Sande developed four biblical guidelines that should be kept in mind as conflict resolution is pursued. Those guidelines are referred to as the 4 G’s. The first is “Glorify God” (45). How can you glorify God in this situation? The second is “Get the log out” (57). What aspect of this conflict do you need to take responsibility for? The third is “Gently restore” (71). How can you help other people take responsibility for their actions? Finally, the fourth guideline is “Go and be reconciled” (85). What do you need to forgive and what needs to be resolved? Conflict resolution is most effectively accomplished by those who are seeking to glorify God, take responsibility, offer forgiveness, and work to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.
Concluding Thoughts. A valuable skill is conflict resolution is the ability to be a respectful listener. Listening is a necessary skill when I am in a personal conflict, and is equally important when I have the opportunity to be a third-party mediator in a conflict. It is also vitally important to recognize that I have to take responsibility for my role in every conflict in my life. It is natural to see myself as innocent and the other person as being at fault. The best way for me to begin resolving the conflicts in my life is to first remove the log from my own eye.
Regardless of the exact process that is used, biblical conflict resolution must always be characterized by Christian love: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35, ESV).