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Excursus 2: Conflict Resolution to Restore Unity

Picture this. Enemy soldiers surround the city. The young king and his officials inside the city walls stubbornly refuse to leave, saying, “We won’t lose. We won’t give up our special city.” One voice, however, kept giving them the real news. “You won’t win. God has given this city to Nebuchadnezzar. The people will die of starvation and disease. The city will be burned. Your family will be destroyed unless you surrender.” The king is Zedekiah; the lone voice is God’s prophet, Jeremiah. The rest of the story is in Jeremiah 38:14-28. Zedekiah’s response was not to accept God’s mercy and grace through obeying Him, doing it His way. Instead, Zedekiah chose to protect himself and listen to his peers, to ignore the conflict and hope it goes away. It didn’t. Zedekiah’s entire family was killed; he was blinded and held in chains.

Conflict Is Normal

Conflict. The word has a distasteful overtone. But, because we are human and sin still dwells within us, because we still live in this fallen world, conflict is an everyday part of life. Having or not having conflict isn’t the issue. For believers, it’s what we do when we are faced with conflict. That’s the issue.

Having enemies surrounding your city wall is outside pressure. In the scriptures, Paul referred to those outside pressures that affect us individually and our church—persecutions, enemies, false teachers, and the Roman authorities. He addressed those pressures. Stand firm in one spirit. Do not be afraid. But, those outside pressures often cause friction to develop within. You know that pressure on your husband from his job will affect your relationship as a couple. Soon you have your own interpersonal conflict. That’s what appears to be going on in Philippi.

In our previous study of Philippians 2:1-11, we saw Jesus, fully God and fully man, as the ultimate servant and our example for service. We are to serve Jesus through serving one another as He did. I shared with you four aspects of being a joyful servant:

·         Thinking of others before yourself.

·         Serving wholeheartedly.

·         Sacrificing willingly without whining.

·         Glorifying God as walking, talking visible representatives of the invisible God.

We serve Jesus together, and we serve one another individually. Part of Serving Jesus through serving one another is resolving interpersonal conflict within the Body. Conflict wounds His body and minimizes the effectiveness of the church to advance the gospel. It’s hard to preach Christ and make disciples when we are spending emotional energy on internal conflict. Right? Interpersonal conflict can take many forms from simple behavior clashes (two women who just don’t blend well together) to open defiance of one another. Regardless of the form, a conflict presents opportunity for growth. In fact, some people don’t pay attention to their needs for growth in an area of their lives until conflict occurs.

Resolving Interpersonal Conflict God’s Way

In today’s passage, Philippians 4:3-4, we don’t know anything about these women. Perhaps they were two of the women at the river who first received the gospel from Paul. Maybe they were deaconesses in the church. It is sad that these two women have become the brunt of jokes. Paul calls them fellow workers for the gospel. They weren’t bimbos. They weren’t insignificant troublemakers. They were laborers in the spread of the gospel at Philippi. These were probably mature women, well known by the recipients of the letter. For our purposes today, we will call them Elizabeth and Cindy.

We don’t know what their conflict was. One commentator said, “It may have been accidental friction between two energetic Christian women.” Perhaps they took turns having the church at each other’s home. Elizabeth may have criticized what Cindy did when she hosted everybody. Not enough food. The chairs were too close together. Perhaps Cindy dared to discipline Elizabeth’s child. That’s all it takes. Whatever happened affected the unity of the congregation. It was brought to Paul’s attention. This was a wound in the Philippians body. Apparently ineffective means had been used to stop the bleeding. Paul speaks directly to this situation in his letter, and from his wise advice, we can draw three principles regarding conflict resolution.

The Principles

Principle #1: “In the Lord”

The church is a living organism, not an organization. An organism made of individual parts. Just as our human bodies respond immediately to repair a wound whether minor or major, so should the body of Christ. Suppose you cut your finger. What happens? The body does whatever it takes to enable the healing process to take place. The closest cells start working to clot the blood, close the wound with a scab, and fight invading germs. It is the responsibility of those cells closest to the wound to get there first and stop the bleeding. Then, others step in to help repair the damage and make the body stronger. So also within the body of Christ. The cells within our physical body know what to do. The members of Christ’s body don’t always know what to do. But, the Word gives us direction and guidance so that we can be obedient.

I don’t seek opportunities to resolve conflicts. Most of the time, my response is to ignore the seeds of conflict, hoping that by ignoring it, the tension will be smoothed over and just go away. I want everyone to be part of a team and to get along as a team. Another excuse of mine: I don’t think quickly on my feet. So, how can the Lord use me to manage any kind of crisis between two people when I can’t think straight? Actually, He doesn’t want me to manage it at all. He wants me to allow Him to do His work through me. I have to be weak so He can be strong through me. He wants my obedience. The cells in the elbow have to be just as ready to repair a wound as the cells in the finger or the heart. Ready to function as designed, dependent on the lifeblood to bring the ingredients necessary to heal the wound. The purpose of the action is to promote healing.

Principle #2: Agree with each other (or, live in harmony).

This is one-on-one. As soon as you recognize that you are in a conflict with a sister, then you are responsible to do something. Agree to work on it. That’s Obedience. Give up your rights to be right. That’s humility. The reason is for the good of the relationship and for the church family. This is another aspect of serving one another as Jesus did.

Speaking of Jesus, what did He teach about this?

·         Matthew 5:23-24—You know your sister has something against you; you have offended her, go to her and be reconciled to her.

·         Matthew 18:15-17—Your sister has offended you, go to her alone, tell her what she has done. If she listens, you will be reconciled.

Paul gives us more info on how to be reconciled.

·         Ephesians 4:15-16—speak truth in love for the building up and growing of the body, out of love for her and the Body. That’s your motivation.

·         Ephesians 4:32—heart attitude

Did you notice Jesus’ emphasis on confidentiality and trust? First, go alone. Go directly to the person with whom you are in conflict. Then, go to just a few carefully selected individuals, and then the one in authority over that person. Notice, Jesus did not say to talk about it to anyone who’ll listen. Sometimes you can seek counsel from a trusted friend on how to proceed. However, it’s easy to cross the line to complaining and gossiping. I call it sharing sensitive information in inappropriate settings. It’s sensitive because anything negative said about a person or a ministry plants seeds of doubt in the other woman’s mind about that person or the ministry as a whole. That is not beneficial to the body. Someone always gets hurt. It’s an inappropriate setting when that person you are telling has no oversight or authority to do something about the situation.

For a ministry, go to the person involved in the decision-making process for that ministry. Chances are she is fully aware of the challenge. Your solution may have already been tried. Or, the timing isn’t right yet. Whatever, the hardest part is leaving it there. Isn’t it? Trust. That’s what is involved in being humble. Serving Jesus through serving one another in love, not hurting anyone or the Body as a whole.

Principle #3: Help them— Intervention.

Paul urges others around the two women to help them come together. That is our responsibility. Why? A body works to repair itself so it can function effectively. What do you do when two of your friends are bickering with each other? For our purposes, let’s talk about two stages of conflict: 1) Developing and 2) Situational.

Developing means that over a period of time, the relationship between two women is gradually creating more friction. Their friends may recognize clues that this is happening, and someone who cares speaks the truth in love to both parties in hopes of heading off an explosion perhaps by way of a phone call or a chat over lunch. Ideally, this is the most fruitful stage to help two women become reconciled. It’s like a paper cut that hurts but heals quickly.

Ignoring those opportunities usually brings about an emotional crisis situation. That’s called a situational conflict. What has built up is now brought to a head by a wrong word, look, or a sudden change of plans. A crisis exists. Something has to be done to help them immediately. Women in crisis conflict have suddenly lost perspective; they feel like they have been turned upside down. That’s why it presents a tremendous opportunity for personal growth. But, they need an unbiased third party who loves them enough to intercede and help them talk it out. This is called Crisis Intervention.

Okay, when do you intervene?

·         When the two women have not been able to resolve their differences on their own. Jesus said, “You are responsible to go to the one who offended you or the one you offended and be reconciled to her.” If that hasn’t been tried, suggest it. If it has been tried but hasn’t worked, then outside help is needed.

·         When the conflict endangers the safety or welfare of the body of Christ. You can give them perspective and help them to focus on the greater good. That’s what Paul did.

·         When there is an emotional explosion, help immediately.

What Are the A-B-Cs of Conflict Resolution?

A = Achieve Trusting Contact with each Conflicting Party.

In other words, get their attention. Ideally, this should be separately with each one. First talk to the one most agitated then to the calmest. Don’t let them vent on each other or on you. You are the unbiased party. How do you achieve trusting contact? Through a setting that is private and undisturbed where confidentiality can be preserved. Be relaxed and genuinely kind and concerned. Listen carefully but objectively by asking questions such as “What happened?” Collect the facts. Let the pauses come. It’s not your time to talk. Listen carefully.

B = Boil Down What the Presenting Problems Are (Simplify the Issue).

To do this, use reflective listening skills. Concentrate on responding and focusing. Responding is to feed back her own words but in the form of clarifying questions such as Are you telling me…?, Did I hear you say…?, What I am hearing you say is…? This guarantees to the person that you understand. Focusing means to help the women make conclusions as to the real presenting problems that they face. Collect the facts related to the crisis only. Not every problem she has experienced over the past year. Separate the issues. What actually caused the conflict—THIS TIME. Key on one or two actual things that are causing the immediate conflict.

C = Cope Actively (Make A Way Out, A Plan).

Help by providing a way out of the conflict. Establish goals that are possible, measurable, and short-term. Tactfully suggest some non-threatening options:

·         What do you want to see happen?

·         What can I do to help you out?

·         How would you see the plan carried out? “What will you do? How will you do it? By when will you do this?”

·         How are we going to evaluate this later on? Be willing to follow-up and ask, “How is it working?” “What do you need to change in the plan if anything?”

You might have them pray for each other’s needs. Perhaps arrange short, periodic meetings between them for sharing. If they are co-workers, develop clear job descriptions so that each will know what she is to do and not do. Talk about how to warn each other about possible conflict in a non-explosive way.


We are one in the Lord who has one Body. Any cut, tear, or break causes the Body pain and negatively affects the advance of the gospel. We are Christ’s, not the world’s. We are to behave differently because we think differently about one another. We are to be obedient. Not like Zedekiah who could have saved his family and the city had he obeyed. God’s ways are not our ways. They are tons better.

Think About It: Oh, beloved, pray! Pray that you may not be the cause of any disruptions in your church, that you may not be a part of hindering the work of the church for the cause of Christ! And pray to follow in Paul’s wise footsteps if you must ever be a part of helping to solve a dispute between others. (Elizabeth George, Experiencing Gods Peace, page 111)

Related Topics: Curriculum

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