The Bible states that God "… reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18–19). In Matthew 5:9 Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." Reconciliation and being a peacemaker have to do with helping others have peace with God through Jesus Christ and also helping others live at peace among themselves. Hebrews 12:14 calls us to "Strive for peace with everyone…" It is clear that God intends His followers to resolve conflicts when they arise. So what are the biblical options for conflict resolution?
What does the Bible teach about conflict resolution?
First, if an offense is minor, the Bible encourages God's followers to overlook the offense. Proverbs 19:11 says, "Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense." Overlooking an offense simply means to forgive the person and keep the relationship intact without ever mentioning the incident. Extending forgiveness in this way reflects the understanding that the offender is a fellow member of the fallen human race and that God can be trusted to sanctify that person just as He sanctifies all those who belong to Him. First Peter 4:8 conveys a similar concept.
However, if the offense is more serious or occurs consistently, the Bible gives instructions on how to confront the offender with the goal of restoring the relationship. In fact, restoring a broken relationship is so important that God commands His followers to take the initiative to reconcile not only when they have been offended, but also when they are (or have been) the offender: "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23–24).
Matthew 18:15–17 gives a pattern in how the steps of reconciliation should progress. Matthew 18:15 says, "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone…" Resolving conflict should first be done privately. An offense may not even be a matter of sin, but may end up having been a simple misunderstanding. Coming to the person privately allows the misunderstanding to be cleared up quickly. If it is indeed a matter of sin, the personal, private meeting keeps the offender from undue shame or embarrassment and allows him to deal with the matter between himself and God. As Matthew 18:15 continues "…If he listens to you, you have gained your brother." The goal of private confrontation is always to restore the relationship.
Matthew 18:16 continues, "But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses." If the private meeting does not resolve the conflict, the next step is to involve a small number of people to help bring reconciliation. Sometimes a mutual friend can help resolve the matter. A professional counselor or therapist can mediate the confrontation in a way that ensures clear communication and healthy interactions. Some disagreeing parties progress to a legal arbitration where they both agree to allow a judge or lawyer to render a binding decision that will settle the matter. In each of these cases, the conflict is brought before a limited number of people in order to bring resolution.
However, Matthew 18:17 continues that, "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." In other words, when private meetings and involving a small number of people for outside help don't bring resolution to the conflict, it can be brought before the church leaders to hold the person accountable to Scripture. If the person does not agree with the church leaders' assessment, he should then be subject to church discipline. Paul makes clear that even church discipline is meant to bring the offender back into right relationship with God and others. In 1 Corinthians 5:5 he states that excommunication is "so that his [the offender's] spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord." Even this final step in biblical conflict resolution is in hopes of restoring the relationship with the offender.
While Matthew 18:15–17 lays a foundation for the process of resolving conflict, Jesus warns that before even beginning that process His followers should take time to self-reflect. He says, "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye" (Matthew 7:5). We should humbly assess our own contribution to the conflict and correct our own behavior and attitude before trying to point out someone else's shortcomings. In Philippians 2:3 Paul reminds us to, "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." Even in resolving conflict, our goal should be to serve the other person by lovingly restoring the relationship.
Once our attitude is one of humility and service, we have to prepare the actual words and delivery of the confrontation. Here again the Bible has instructions. Ephesians 4:15 says, "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ." Christian maturity is marked by the ability to share difficult truths in a loving way. Peacemaker Ministries says, "Peacemakers are people who breathe grace. Inspired by the gospel, they draw continually on the goodness and power of Jesus Christ, and then breathe out His love, mercy, forgiveness, and wisdom to dissipate anger, improve understanding, promote justice, and model repentance and reconciliation." Our efforts to resolve conflict should be marked by lovingly sharing the truth in order to restore the relationship.
Despite doing self-reflection, bearing a humble attitude, and lovingly sharing the truth first in private and then including more people according to the biblical process, sometimes the offender refuses to be reconciled. Romans 12:18 instructs that, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." This verse shows that reconciliation does not depend solely on one party. God only holds us accountable for doing what He has called us to do, which may not always result in reconciliation. However, no matter the final result of conflict resolution, God does command His followers to forgive. "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32). Ultimately conflict resolution gives us the opportunity to display the gospel to others and experience God's grace in our own lives.
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