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Minimizing Conflict By Building Healthy Communities Of Faith

By Gary R. Allen

Church conflict can be minimized and better managed by building strong, healthy communities of faith. When courageous leaders and loving people learn to overcome the pain of destructive conflict and experience the tremendous joy of productive interaction, they will eagerly work to sustain a healthy church. Conflict management, then, becomes an intentional, ongoing interpersonal and organizational process instead of a periodic reaction to conflicting events.

The Severity Of Church Conflict

Many churches are immobilized by destructive conflict that destroys personal relationships and paralyzes the ministries of the church. Such conflict is contrary to God’s Word that instructs: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). However, when properly managed, conflict can have positive effects on interpersonal relations and church ministries.

Destructive conflict can be a major hindrance in evangelizing unchurched people and assimilating them into the church. h.b. London Jr., vice president of ministry outreach/pastoral ministries for Focus on the Family, suggests, “One of the reasons people use as an excuse not to attend a local church is the level of contention they observe. Pastors and Christian leaders must learn the art of managing conflict to successful resolution if the church is to survive.”1

The unchurched do not expect the church to be free from conflict. However, it is not unreasonable for them to expect the church to resolve conflict with the same biblical principles the church proclaims.

Many churches are in a post-conflict stage. They are not presently in conflict, but their ministries are immobilized. Conflict will either renew or kill struggling churches.2 The church’s condition is critical, and the urgency of its mission demands resolution.

Spiritual And Personal Interaction Within The Church

After the family, the community of faith is the primary environment in which God intended human beings to demonstrate the dynamics of their transformed lives. In the community of faith, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional experiences are lived out in interpersonal relationships and in the local culture.

The Early Church took the obligations of community seriously. Luke described their actions: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44,45).

The foundation of the Christian community is the Cross. Christ unites different bodies into one Body.3 Believers belong in the body of Christ because He has redeemed them through His suffering, death, and resurrection. He has placed them together in the community of faith, and they now belong to one another.

The community of faith is obligated to one another because they like each other and have similar experiences, but more important because Christ has placed them together. This obligates the believer to behave in ways that are best for one another, not in ways that are best for the individual.

Unique Characteristics Of The Community Of Faith

The church, as a community of faith, is different from other social organizations. It is relationship-based. We are together because of our personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and He commanded that we love each other. Therefore, the church is more susceptible to interpersonal conflict than other social organizations.

The community of faith has eternal importance.

The church is an integral part of God’s eternal plan, comprised of God’s people for God’s purpose. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). Believers need to remember, especially during times of conflict, that they are part of a God-designed community.

The community of faith is supernatural in origin.

Only God could create a unique community like the church. The people who come to Christ are so vastly different from each other in personality and culture that without the commonality of Christ there is every reason for them to remain separate. It is reasonable that difference and conflict would prevail in such a diverse community. However, with the help of the Holy Spirit and effective conflict management, there can be unity and missional purpose.

The community of faith has visible local expression.

The church is the full expression of the body of Christ, not just a miniature of a greater invisible Church. When only two or three people gather in the name of Christ, all of who and what He is as Savior and Lord is present (Matthew 18:20). In His presence, personal accountability and intimacy are valued and expressed.

The community of faith is a steward of God’s grace.

The church, while it may develop its own personality, remains a steward of God’s grace. If God is light and the church is a prism, then the church must refract the colors of His grace to its culture. The missional purpose of the church is to project and proclaim Jesus Christ, not itself, to its community. Paul said “this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8).

When in conflict, believers in the church should remember that they are called into God’s kingdom as stewards of His grace: “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (Ephesians 4:7).

The community of faith demonstrates in its unity the reality of what it proclaims.

The personal life of the believer and the organizational life of the church must be congruent with the gospel they proclaim. Believers’ love for one another is the foundational message of the gospel. Love, integrity, and mutual trust among believers are necessary to facilitate a healthy process of conflict resolution.

When one is in need, the community of faith rallies to help: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Managing conflict within the community of faith is everyone’s responsibility.

The community of faith is where transformed lives are planted and maturity takes place.

God designed the church for believers. He places them in a community of faith to grow and mature. Spiritual maturity does not readily take place outside of the community of faith. Spirituality is a personal relationship with God, yet He intended this relationship to also develop in and through interactions with other believers.

Jesus instructed His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19,20). Discipling and teaching are interpersonal processes requiring others of more experience to mentor those of less experience. The intentional facilitation of discipleship and spiritual maturity should be nonnegotiable in the church.

The community of faith gives visibility to the presence of Christ.

A distinguishing characteristic of the community of faith is the supernatural presence of Christ. The presence of God was evident from the Garden of Eden, to the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire in the wilderness, to the Holy of Holies in the temple, to Pentecost, and on through the Church Age. The presence of Christ should be the distinctive of the church today.

Quite often the first impression the unchurched receive of Jesus Christ is through their interaction with believers in the community of faith. The ability of the church to interact in unity and resolve its conflicts visibly demonstrates the supernatural presence and power of Christ.4

Although the close fellowship and intense personal interaction of the community of faith may appear to make the church more susceptible to conflict than many other social groups, these spiritual characteristics equip the church to better deal with conflict.

Responsibilities Toward One Another In The Community Of Faith

The New Testament gives numerous commands about how believers should treat one another. These commands form a list of mutual obligations — the responsibilities that all church members have in their relationships with one another. Understanding how important believers are to each other and how they are to treat each other may minimize differences and perhaps eliminate destructive conflict.

Jesus commanded believers to love one another.

Perhaps the most comprehensive command Jesus gave is the well-known command to “love one another.” He continued, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34,35). Jesus’ command is such a fundamental statement of Christian duty and is repeated more than 10 times in the New Testament (John 15:12,17; Romans 13:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:11,23; 4:7,11,12; and 2 John 5). Loving one another is obligatory and foundational to conflict management.

Paul reinforced Jesus’ command.

Paul further developed Jesus’ command: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). He also said, “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). Paul prayed that the Lord would help the Thessalonians’ love to increase not only for each other, but also for everyone else. “Always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else” (1 Thessalonians 5:15; compare 3:12). In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul thanked God that their mutual love was indeed increasing (2 Thessalonians 1:3).

Believers belong to each other in Christ.

In Christ, believers belong to each other and form one Body (Romans 12:5). We are members of one Body: “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25); and “we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7). Paul prayed that the Roman Christians would have “a spirit of unity” among themselves as they followed Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5). To avoid division in the Body, Paul instructed members to “have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:25) and to “offer hospitality to one another” (1 Peter 4:9).

Believers honor one another.

Throughout the Bible people are clearly expected to honor God and one another. Paul said, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). He further indicated that honoring one another minimizes division within the Body.

Believers live at peace with one another in humility.

We see another development of this command in the words of Jesus: “Be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50). Paul put it several ways: “Live in peace with each other” (1 Thessalonians 5:13). “Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16). “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Peter said, “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5).

Believers accept one another.

“Stop passing judgment on one another,” Paul wrote in Romans 14:13. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Romans 15:7). “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other” (James 5:16). Accepting the personal and cultural differences of others can expand one’s likes and interests and thereby minimize conflict.

Believers bear with one another.

To bear with one another means to care for those whom we may not like — those who are the difficult people in our life. Scripture says we are to “put up with, bear with, endure, forbear, or suffer”5 such people. This does not mean we allow them to take control or that we should not hold them accountable for their words and actions. “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:1,2; compare Colossians 3:13,14).

Believers serve one another.

Accepting one another demands righteous interaction with each other. Peter said: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others” (1 Peter 4:10; compare Galatians 5:13). Jesus gave the same lesson when He told His disciples to “wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). Paul continued this thought when he commended believers to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21), and “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Believers encourage one another.

Paul longed to see the Roman Christians so they might both be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Romans 1:12). One of the main purposes of regular corporate worship is to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” and to “encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:24,25). Believers are also urged to “encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13); “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11; compare 4:18); “build yourselves up in your most holy faith” (Jude 20). When believers concentrate on encouraging and building one another up, they will not readily perpetuate destructive conflict.

Believers instruct and build up one another.

Paul wanted “mutual edification” (Romans 14:19). He instructed, “Teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16; compare Ephesians 5:19). Paul was confident that the Romans could “instruct one another” (Romans 15:14).

Understanding the concept of “one another” in Scripture is foundational to conflict management within the community of faith. Believers are to be committed to the spiritual and moral well-being of each other.

Role Of Forgiveness In Conflict Management

When conflict has been prolonged and people have hurt each other, forgiveness is necessary to reestablish healthy relationships. The term forgiveness is defined as “an active process of the mind and temper of a wronged person, by means of which he or she abolishes a moral hindrance to fellowship with the wrongdoer, and reestablishes the freedom and happiness of friendship.”6 There may be times when those in conflict with each other refuse to forgive and reestablish fellowship, while others are willing to forgive to facilitate their own healing process.

Jesus and Stephen are examples in forgiveness. They forgave their murderers even in the hour of death, even when their attackers were unwilling to consider forgiveness and reconciliation (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:59,60).

While most people will probably not face conflict unto death, destructive conflict can be one of life’s most painful experiences. There are times when conflict may not be resolved, and forgiveness is necessary for the wounded person to bring closure to the situation and begin again. Some people willfully hurt others and have no intention of healing the relationship. Those who are wounded in such situations need to learn to forgive those who have hurt them and move forward with their lives.

The term forgiveness is more difficult to define than the terms diversity, difference, conflict, or reconciliation. Perhaps defining forgiveness is difficult because people often consider forgiveness only after becoming emotionally involved in a conflict.

Sometimes people use forgiveness as an excuse to avoid resolving conflict when they do not want to confront others or, perhaps, do not have the skills to resolve conflict. They just want the conflict to go away. For them forgiveness becomes a spiritual exercise that relieves them of their responsibility. There are times when the one who has been wronged cannot make peace with the wrongdoer because of circumstances, such as death, and forgiveness is the only solution. But forgiveness should not be used as a substitute for both parties engaging in the healing process, if it is feasible.

There is need for interpersonal reconciliation in the forgiveness process. The real work of forgiveness is not just the release from hatred, resentment, suspicion, and hostility in the forgiver; it is found in regaining the sister or brother as a full sister or as a true brother. Since the community of faith is the image of God, individuals in relationship with others express this communion. The principle, “forgiveness is necessary, reconciliation is optional,” is not based on the example of Jesus. Forgiveness that is focused quieting one’s own conscience instead of on the restoration of community is not truly Christian. The goal is community restored, not private perfection maintained.7

Strategic timing is important in the forgiving process. Reconciliation is only possible when forgiveness is allowed time to work. Not allowing the time needed to confront, face, and work through one’s hurts might hasten the goal of reconciliation, but will not assure its quality. If there is no sure strategy for pursuing reconciliation with someone, then any strategy used to bring reconciliation must be motivated by love for the other person.8

The value of a prayerful process for painful memories

Harsh words and actions can create painful, emotional memories that often perpetuate conflict. These painful memories can do one of two things: they can either cripple a person throughout life or they can become a person’s gifts of perseverance and conflict management. Each event in life, even conflict, can be understood either as a blessing or a curse.

The perception of whether conflict is resolved or perpetuated is often more influenced by one’s feelings than by the facts of the situation. Many people who are emotionally wounded have difficulty forgiving, letting go, and moving on. The healing of the pain caused by destructive conflict is a process. Like physical wounds, emotional wounds heal gradually. The healing of painful memories follows the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As a person moves from stage to stage, he penetrates each stage at ever-greater depths. The five stages of healing emotional wounds point to the natural way the Spirit heals.9

The value of forgiveness as a gift from God

John Patton, former president of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and vice president of the International Committee on Pastoral Care and Counseling, contends that when conceptualizing forgiveness as an act or attitude, many Christians, in spite of their best efforts, seem unable to forgive. Patton believes forgiveness is not a human act or attitude, but is a gift given by God. While shame is a response to rejection and frustration and as such encourages people to build protective defenses, Patton’s proposed therapeutic relationship offers the opportunity to explore the defenses of shame (for example, rage, power, and righteousness) within an empathetic context to discover guilt. Once a person understands that he is guilty, he can then recognize that he belongs to a community of sinners loved by God. The pastoral counselor’s role is not to supervise and encourage acts or attitudes of forgiveness, but to provide an appropriate empathetic atmosphere that enables a person to shed the defenses of shame and to discover relatedness with others.10

The value of redemptive remembering

False forgiving corrodes the moral fiber of society, but redemptive remembering focuses on hope-filled and redemptive future possibilities without forgetting the past. Those who forgive, since forgiveness is grounded in reality rather than in deception, do not fear confrontation and are guided by a freedom stronger than hate. Those who forgive as love’s revolution against life’s unfairness are guided by respect and commitment to each other. This provides insight into the realization that no person is totally pure. A person forgives because he realizes that God has forgiven the evil in his own heart. To not forgive one’s neighbor, therefore, is a dishonest denial of the mixture of good and evil in every human heart.11

Forgiveness is partnering with others and with God. Forgiveness as reconciliation is not merely the effort of an individual, but is also God’s choice to enter human confusion and violence. Reconciliation occurs because God is invited and is eager to respond.12

Remembering how we have been hurt and how we often hurt others can be a valuable guide in how we react to and treat others. Forgiveness does not mean accepting further abuse or continuing destructive relationships. We need to establish boundaries for what is acceptable to us and make those boundaries clear to others. We need to hold others accountable for their actions.13

Role Of Water Baptism And Communion In Conflict Management

God has provided the Church with two ordinances, water baptism and Communion, to facilitate a regular and ongoing means of addressing our relationship with Him and our relationships with each other in the body of Christ. The obligation of believers to resolve their conflicts is rooted in their commitment to Christ and to each other.

The role of water baptism

Water baptism provides two specific helps for conflict management. First, water baptism is our identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Second, water baptism is our identification with and commitment to those who “received a faith as precious as ours” (2 Peter 1:1). In our identification with Christ, we give testimony in water baptism to having died to self, burying the old nature, and being raised into new life in Him. His transforming power in our life has delivered us from the power of sin. We are no longer at enmity with God and rebellious toward Him and His law. Our hearts have changed, and He has placed us in the community of faith to live in unity.

Paul addressed both the Ephesians and the Corinthians concerning this: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:3–6). “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:12,13).

Water baptism identifies the believer with others in the community of faith. We not only give testimony of a similar salvation experience, but we also commit to the support and well-being of the fellowship in the body of Christ. This involves both privileges and responsibilities for maintaining unity. We are obligated to love one another, resolve our differences, and forgive one another.

The role of Communion

Communion, like water baptism, also provides two specific helps for conflict resolution: First, Communion is the remembrance of and reflection on our Savior who redeemed us by His broken body and shed blood. The bread and the cup represent what He has done for us. This should evoke humility from us as we remember what He did for us when we could do nothing for ourselves. We also remember that each person in the community of faith is present only because of His broken body and shed blood. This should bring a sense of awe and reverence toward God and a sense of unity with one another.

Second, Communion is a time to examine our own relationship with God and with others in the community of faith. During Communion we reaffirm our baptismal identifications and commitments. We partake of the emblems of the body and blood of our Lord in remembrance of Him. We also share it with our fellow believers to reaffirm our love for and commitment to them as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.

A central purpose of Communion is to let “a man examine himself” (1 Corinthians 11:28).14 At the Lord’s table, differences can be settled before they become destructive to our relationship with God and/or with fellow believers. It is at the Lord’s table that God’s love and our love for one another become measurable.

The word love refers to the intent of a person’s actions. When a church has agape love (sharing with each other), it means that the strong, the weak, the rich, the poor, the big, and the little care for each other and do things to help each other. The fellowship of the church that springs from the communion of love is pictured for us during the Lord’s Supper. The church gathers together in fellowship around the table in the warm, informal, family atmosphere created by eating together. Believers symbolically partake together of Christ’s broken body and drink together His shed blood, and as a congregation affirm together that their salvation comes from Him. In the Apostles’ Creed, Christians confess their faith and say they believe “in the communion of the saints.” The “communion of the saints” emphasizes that all believers are to belong to each other and have fellowship with each other.

God offers to us several means of grace, including Communion, which give us the grace to deal with conflict and difficult people. People should not excuse each other’s dysfunctional behavior, but should hold each other accountable in God’s presence. The “communion of love” may be compared with what happens when a person brings in his poor relationships and includes them in the church family situation. In the communion of love, people are willing to include those who are disobedient and cantankerous, even though they might need to be disciplined. They will be cared for; they will not be shut out.15

The ordinances of water baptism and Communion are not only continual reminders of God’s love and our commitment to the practice of our faith, but are also practical avenues for addressing and confronting our differences to strengthen our relationships and defuse conflicting situations. In water baptism we accept one another and commit to one another regardless of personal or culture differences. In Communion we are obligated to confront any differences that interfere in our relationships with each other.

Conclusion

Training in interpersonal relationships and conflict-management skills is essential for everyone in the church. It is imperative that national leaders, district leaders, pastors, and church leaders receive adequate training and, with God’s help, provide hope for peaceful resolution to every conflict situation. The church is a community of faith that can live in unity and in the glorious hope of Christ who said, “I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5).

Conflict management is the responsibility of everyone in the church. Everyone needs to make every effort to minimize destructive conflict and be committed to love one another.

Many people in our pews have learned leadership, team building, and conflict-management skills in the workplace and could easily transfer these principles into the church. Often, our churches have great people with great skills who go unrecognized and underutilized.

By understanding the source and nature of conflict and the process of conflict management, we can confront conflict with less fear and with the hope for resolution that strengthens personal relationships and enables the ministry of the church to be more effective.

Neil B. Wiseman

GARY R. ALLEN, D.Min., is executive editor of Enrichment journal and national director of the Ministerial Enrichment Office, Springfield, Missouri.

Endnotes

  1. H.B. London Jr., “Trinity College and Seminary Department of Conflict Management” (Deerfield, Ill., accessed December 1999); available from http://www.trintysem.edu/tccm.html; Internet.

  2. Norman Shawchuck, “Managing Conflict and Change” (Lecture at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Mo., October 1999).

  3. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 47.

  4. Byron Klaus, “Leadership Development for Church Revitalization” (Lecture at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Mo., June 1999).

  5. Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary (Seattle, Wash.: Biblesoft and International Bible Translators, 1994).

  6. Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (New York: Pocket Books, 1984), 50.

  7. David Augsburger, Caring Enough To Forgive: True Forgiveness and Caring Enough To Not Forgive: False Forgiveness (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1981), 32–40.

  8. Doris Donnelly, Learning To Forgive (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979), 84–89.

  9. Dennis Linn and Matthew Linn, Healing Life’s Hurts: Healing Memories Through Five Stages of Forgiveness(New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 1–17.

  10. John Patton, Is Human Forgiveness Possible? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), 16–18.

  11. Smedes, 94–101.

  12. Joan Mueller, Is Forgiveness Possible?(Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 61–63.

  13. David W. Schell, Forgiveness Therapy(St. Meinrad, Ind.: Abbey Press, 1993), 7.

  14. Richard D. Dobbins, At the Table of the Lord (Akron, Ohio: Totally Alive Publications, 1999), 8.

  15. Manford G. Gutzke, Plain Talk About Christian Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), 216–17.

 

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