Contain Your Church Conflict

Conflict is a fact of life. Throughout the Bible we see God's people at odds with one another. And we're no different today. Although there can be many sources of conflict within a church, the issues that most often cause conflict emerge from differences about beliefs, methods, factual data, budgets, values, change, policies, communication, and church government.

As long as people care, there will always be conflicts of this nature. So what's the secret to resolving such differences? Containment.

Containment by the book

You can see containment applied in the secular world every day. For example, firemen contain a fire to keep it from destroying an entire building or spreading to other nearby structures. It's also likely that you practice containment regularly on a personal level: Self-control is containment. Turning the other cheek is containment. Agreeing to disagree is containment. Speaking the truth in love is also containment. 

Jesus put the principle of containment into powerful words in Matthew 5:23-24 and Matthew 18:15-17, giving us step-by-step guidance that will never become outdated. The core value of this biblical containment principle is that it keeps conflict at the lowest management level and focuses on the primary problem. Church conflicts can be resolved redemptively if leaders will faithfully follow Jesus' guidelines step by step.

The process

If someone has something against you, go to him (Matt. 5:23-25). If someone has wronged you, Jesus says make the first step toward reconciliation (Matt. 18:15). Arrange a time and place to meet without surprises. Use wisdom as to whether to go alone or have someone with you.

If the individual will not listen, take others with you (Matt. 18:16). Always take someone all the parties know and respect.

If the person will not listen, tell the church (Matt. 18:17). At this stage and for subsequent action, seek outside intervention, but keep the principle of containment operative here as well. Depending on the nature of the conflict, taking it directly to the church at large may not be wise. Instead, take it to elected leaders: the deacon body or an established committee structure that the constitutional guidelines dictate.

If the individual refuses to listen, "let him be like an unbeliever" (Matt. 18:17) to motivate and bring him to reconciliation with God and the church. Again, contain. Remove the person from all leadership positions. If that doesn't work, place him in a watchcare ministry. If that fails, follow church policies or constitutional guidelines to revoke his church membership.

The motive

Redemptive solutions to conflict are motivated by love (Eph. 4:15,29), driven by a desire for reconciliation (Matt. 5:23-25), and bathed in prayer (Jas. 5:16).  Before you confront anyone, purify your motives through prayer.

The temperament

The basic temperament to be used in solving conflict is found in the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31; Matt. 7:12). Remember, conflict in and of itself isn't sinful, but a response to it can be. The following scriptural instructions, or as I like to call them, Be-attitudes of the Heart, are clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Be a confessor: "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed" (Jas. 5:16).

Be an edifier: "No rotten talk should come from your mouth, but only what is good for the building up of someone in need, in order to give grace to those who hear" (Eph. 4:29).

Be a restorer: "Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you won't be tempted also" (Gal. 6:1).

Be a forgiver: "And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another just as God also forgave you in Christ" (Eph. 4:32).

Be a unifier: "Now I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all say the same thing, that there be no divisions among you, and that you be united with the same understanding and the same conviction" (1 Cor. 1:10).

Be an example: "Shepherd God's flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but freely, according to God's [will]; not for the money but eagerly; not lording it over those entrusted to you, being examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:2-3).

Be a lover: "'Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another'" (John 13:34).

Norris Smith has served as a pastor and as a consultant at LifeWay Christian Resources, working with terminated ministers.

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