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Lesson 6: Resolving Personal Conflict in the Church (Matthew 5:21-24; 18:15-17)

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May 21, 2017

I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I can predict with absolute certainty that if you are involved in a local church, you will have a conflict with another person. That person may wrong you unintentionally or intentionally. Most likely, it will not involve a violation of our civil laws, but it might. Or, you will wrong another believer. Or, someone will wrong one of your family members or a friend, who will tell you about what has happened.

I’m not overstating the case when I say that if you do not learn to deal biblically with personal conflict, you will not do well as a Christian. After all, the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:39). It’s really important for you to obey that commandment. But such obedience does not happen automatically. It requires biblical understanding and constant effort.

Every relational conflict or misunderstanding is an opportunity to learn more of Christ. Did someone treat me in an offensive manner? People treated Jesus offensively, but He still loved them. Did they run roughshod over my feelings? Jesus knew that kind of treatment. Did I show kindness to someone, only to have him go behind my back and spread lies about me? Jesus knew that experience. Did my friends desert me at my time of need? The disciples deserted Jesus at His trial and crucifixion. Did a close associate betray me? Judas betrayed Jesus. Maybe you feel mistreated, unloved, or betrayed by a family member or fellow Christian. Use that situation to draw near to Jesus, who loved you, even though your sin put Him on the cross.

How you deal with conflict, whether in your family, with other believers, or for that matter, with those in the world, will either advance or hinder God’s kingdom. Others will either see Christ in you and be drawn to Him, or they will see sinful selfishness in one who claims to be a Christian and be repelled. Thus:

Resolving conflict in a biblical way is crucial for the sake of the gospel.

I’m going to spend most of this message on what you should do if another believer wrongs you. I will also deal briefly about what you should do if you wrong someone else and what to do when someone you know has been wronged. In addition to this message, I have several messages on the church website on resolving conflicts and having harmonious relationships. Also, there is a one-page summary, “Some Biblical Principles for Communication,” on the church website. Also, I would recommend Ken Sande and Kevin Johnson’s Resolving Everyday Conflict [Baker] and Stuart Scott’s Communication and Conflict Resolution and From Pride to Humility [both Focus Publishing].

Suppose someone in the church deliberately wronged you. It could be anything from gossip or telling half-truths about you to something extremely serious, such as committing adultery with your spouse or molesting one of your children. First we’ll look at how to deal with a non-legal wrong and then at how to deal with it if someone has violated a civil or criminal law.

1. When another believer intentionally wrongs you in a non-legal way, look to the Lord, look to yourself, and then go to the person in an attempt to be reconciled.

Non-legal does not mean that the wrong was not serious (e.g. adultery), but only that the government has no concern in the matter. Also, it is not always easy to determine whether a wrong against you was intentional or unintentional. Maybe the person is spiritually or emotionally immature or oblivious to others’ feelings. I’ll talk about this later. But if you’re pretty sure it was an intentional wrong:

A. Look to the Lord.

That may sound obvious, but when you’ve been wronged, it’s anything but obvious. The most natural thing to do is to react emotionally. Ken Sande and Kevin Johnson (ibid. p. 35) point out that in any conflict, there are three possible responses: escape; attack; or make peace. If you react in the flesh, you will either escape or attack, but you will not resolve the conflict and you will not grow in Christ. If you look to the Lord, you can take steps to make peace.

(1) Look to the glory of Christ as your aim in resolving the conflict. By looking to the Lord, I mean that you should stop and ask Him to help you glorify and please Him in your thoughts, words, and deeds in dealing with the wrong you have suffered. That should be your aim in every relational conflict.

(2) Look to the cross of Christ as the basis for forgiveness and reconciliation. Ephesians 2:14 states, “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups [Jew and Gentile] into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall.” In that day, the Jews and Gentiles were hostile and derisive towards one another. But as Paul goes on to say (Eph. 2:15-17), through the cross Christ reconciled these formerly hostile groups in one body (the church) to God.

Also, as Jesus taught (Matt. 18:21-35) in the parable of the servant whose master forgave him $5 billion, only to have that servant go and demand payment from a fellow servant who owed him $5,000, the cross reminds us that God has forgiven our $5 billion debt. Now He wants me to forgive others just as I’ve been forgiven (Eph. 4:32). However badly the other person wronged me, it wasn’t as badly as I wronged the Lord. The cross is the basis for forgiveness and reconciliation with the one who wronged me.

(3) Look to the body of Christ as the basis for preserving unity. As Paul taught (1 Cor. 12:12-30), all believers are one body in Christ. If the person who hurt me is a Christian and I retaliate by hurting him, I’m hurting myself, because we’re members of the same body. Even worse, I’m hurting Christ, because He is the head of the body. So your purpose is not to get even or to tear the other person apart so that you can prove that you were right. Rather, it is to build him or her up in Christ.

(4) Look to the love of Christ as the example of how you should respond to the one who wronged you. Jesus loved us and sacrificed Himself for us while we were yet sinners (Eph. 5:2; Rom. 5:8). This does not mean that you must endure all wrongs against you without confronting the one who wronged you. Love seeks the highest good of the one loved, which sometimes means correcting the person or pointing out a blind spot that was the cause of the wrong. But your aim toward the one who wronged you should be to build him in Christ by showing him the love of Christ.

(5) Look to the sovereignty of Christ, who brought this trial into your life for His glory and your good, and also for the good of the one who wronged you. The Lord is never responsible for sin, but in ways that we cannot understand, He uses other people’s sins for His glory and our good when we respond rightly. Out of hatred, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Then Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him and he spent the better part of his twenties in an Egyptian dungeon. But through all these wrongs, Joseph trusted in the sovereign goodness of God. Years later, he said to his brothers (Gen. 50:20), “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” So when you’ve been wronged, first stop and get a godly perspective by looking to the Lord.

B. Look to yourself: Do a heart check.

(1) Check for hidden causes for the offense on your part. Perhaps you offended the person in the past, but never made it right. Or, perhaps you came across in an arrogant, abrasive, or self-serving manner. James 4:1-2 states, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel.” If you previously offended the one who now has wronged you, it doesn’t excuse his sin, but it does alter the equation a bit. You can’t be reconciled to him until you ask forgiveness for your own wrongs.

(2) Check for a root of bitterness on your part. Hebrews 12:15 warns, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.” When you’ve been wronged, it’s easy to become bitter. Bitterness is a root. As you know, it’s easier to pull out a new plant than it is to dig out one that has deep roots that have grown over the years. And, your root of bitterness will defile others, especially those who are closest to you. You don’t want to defile your kids by your bitterness.

(3) Check for any gossip on your part. When you’ve been wronged, it’s easy to go to others and build your case by making yourself look like an innocent victim and making the wrongdoer look like an evil villain. Granted, you may need to go to a trusted, mature believer and get counsel on how to deal with the person who wronged you. But you should not talk to a lot of people to build your case.

(4) Check for a spirit of gentleness and a desire for reconciliation on your part. To correct those who are in sin, you need to be gentle, seeking to bring restoration, reconciliation, and healing (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). Proverbs 12:18 says, “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” You can use your tongue to hack someone to bits, or you can use it like a surgeon uses a scalpel, to bring healing.

(5) Check to see what character qualities God may want to teach you through this conflict. There is always room to grow in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23): Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We all need to grow in humility! We all need to depend on God more in prayer. Every conflict provides opportunities for growth in godliness.

So, first look to the Lord; then look to yourself. Then …

C. Go to the person in a spirit of gentleness in an attempt to be reconciled.

In Romans 14:18, Paul says, “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” Many scholars prefer the reading, “Let us pursue.” Either way, the idea is that no matter “who started it,” if you’re aware of a relational strain, you’re responsible to pursue peace and reconciliation.

Before you go, pray for the right timing and setting. Pray for yourself, so that you will be gracious, gentle, and kind. Pray for the other person to be open to whatever the Lord wants to teach him or her in this situation. When you meet with the offender, begin by asking questions to make sure that you understand his or her perspective and feelings. Remember, you’re not there to win an argument or prove that you were right and the offender was wrong. You’re there to glorify and please God and to help your brother or sister grow in Christ. Give the person the opportunity to repent and change without putting him down or backing him into a corner where he gets defensive. Let him know that you’re a fellow sinner, not a saint who never sins.

Speak the truth, but always in love (Eph. 4:15). There are two ways to err here: If you exaggerate to win your point (“you always,” or “you never”), you’re not being truthful. If you say that you’re fine when you’re not, you’re not being truthful. If you deny that you feel hurt when you were hurt, or minimize the other person’s serious sin, you’re not being truthful. Joseph didn’t minimize his brothers’ sin against him. Even though he had forgiven them, he said truthfully (Gen. 50:20), “you meant evil against me.”

The other way to err is to speak the truth, but not in love. To blast the other person angrily because “that’s just the way I feel,” may be truthful, but it’s not loving. Love has regard for the other person’s feelings. Love does not use abusive speech that puts down the other person. Love does not back the other person into a corner where he becomes defensive. Love seeks to build up the other person. If the offender verbally attacks, criticizes, or blames you, love does not return insult for insult, but gives a blessing instead (1 Pet. 3:9). It’s a good idea to read 1 Corinthians 13 before you go to the offending person to remind yourself of what love looks like.

Depending on the magnitude of the offense against you, if the offender does not repent, you may need to take another brother or sister with you (Matt. 18:16). If the offense is serious and there is still no repentance, at some point, the elders may need to “tell it to the church” and expel the offender from the church (Matt. 18:17). But throughout the process, your aim is never to win or prove that you were right, but rather to restore and be reconciled to the sinning person for the glory of God and the good of the other person.

2. When another believer intentionally wrongs you in a legal way, distinguish between a civil and a criminal offense.

A. If it’s a civil matter, seek resolution first personally, then through church leaders, and only as a last resort through litigation.

Paul rebukes the bickering Corinthian church (1 Cor. 6:1-8) because they were taking one another to court before unbelievers. He asks rhetorically (1 Cor. 6:7), “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” If you’re considering suing another believer, ask, “Will going to court against a fellow believer glorify God? Will it help or hinder the furtherance of the gospel? Will it help or hinder being reconciled with my brother or sister in Christ?”

If you can’t resolve the dispute privately, then you may need to take it to the church elders or to Christian arbitrators. Sometimes, the offending person goes to another church where the leaders will not get involved and will not exercise church discipline. What should you do then? Not all would agree with me on this point, but if all avenues for Christian mediation have been pursued, there are times when it is permissible for a believer to take legal action against the other person who claims to be a believer, but who is denying his claim by his life.

For example, if a businessman needs to be paid what he is owed so that he can keep his business going, he may need to sue one who has defrauded him. Or if a man needs financial recompense so that he can provide for his family (1 Tim. 5:8), he may need to use the courts. Or if he sees a pattern of greed and dishonesty on the part of the one who wronged him and thinks that to let the offender off would allow him to go on hurting others and not face his sin; then, it may be right to take him to court. But, in such cases, you need to make sure that you’re not being greedy or seeking revenge. (See John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4:20:17-21.)

B. If it is a criminal offense, you should call the government authorities to carry out justice and protect others.

God provides civil government to uphold the law for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of evildoers (Rom. 13:1-7). If someone molests a child, to protect other children, he needs to be brought to justice. If a Christian has embezzled money, he needs to make full restitution to those he has wronged. If a husband physically abuses his wife or children, he needs to face the penalties of the law. If a man rapes a woman, for the protection of other women, he needs to go to prison. Forgiving and loving a criminal does not mean that you should not report his crime to civil authorities.

3. When another believer wrongs you unintentionally, decide whether you should just absorb it or talk to the person.

As with an intentional wrong, first look to the Lord with the desire to glorify and please Him. Then, look to yourself: Are you being overly sensitive or critical? Could you mistakenly be assuming a wrong motive on the part of the one who offended you? If it was a relatively minor offense, ask, “Was this a deliberate sin against me or was it just spiritual immaturity or human imperfection on this person’s part?” Maybe the other person was insensitive to your feelings or responded sarcastically in a way that made you feel put down. Okay, you were wronged. But do you just need to absorb it?

I asked a man who left our church in California why he left. He said, “Your elders are unfriendly!” I asked, “Which elder was unfriendly to you?” He named a man who was probably our most gregarious elder. He said, “He walked right past me at church and didn’t even say hello!” I tried to explain that this elder probably saw someone across the room he needed to talk to and was making a beeline for that person and that I was sure that this elder did not mean to slight him. But, I said, if it really bothered him, he should talk to this elder and then let me know how it went. But he refused to do that and left the church.

If an unintentional offense is hindering your relationship with the person or you think it represents a pattern or habitual behavior that is hurting others and not glorifying God, or it’s a blind spot that he needs to face so that he doesn’t offend others, then the loving thing to do is to talk to him to try to help him grow in Christ.

4. When you wrong another believer, ask God’s forgiveness, then go and ask forgiveness from the one you wronged.

Think through and try to specify exactly what you did wrong. Don’t blame or attack the other person, even if you think that he or she is mostly at fault. As Sande and Johnson say (p. 62), “Even if I’m only 2 percent responsible for a conflict, I’m 100 percent responsible for my 2 percent.”

It’s important to use the right wording when you ask someone to forgive you. Don’t belittle your sin by saying, “If I was wrong, please forgive me.” Don’t say, “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but it makes me angry when you treat me that way!” You’re blaming, not taking responsibility for your sin. Rather, say, “God has convicted me of my sin when I spoke to you as I did. I know I wronged you in this. I’ve asked God’s forgiveness and I’ve come to ask, ‘Will you forgive me?’” Assure the one you offended that you will work on not repeating the offense. And ask for his or her prayers.

5. When someone you know has been wronged, don’t listen to his side only and take up his offense; rather, direct the offended one to take the steps of action explained above.

When your loved one or friend tells you how another person wronged him, don’t rush to his defense without first hearing the other side. As Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” Ask the one who tells you that he was wronged: “Have you gone directly to the one who wronged you and sought reconciliation? Have you talked to others besides me about this offense?” If so, you need to tell him not to talk to anyone else, which would be gossip. Explain the steps I’ve covered in this message to resolve the conflict in a godly manner and tell him to report back to you after he has gone to the offending party.

Conclusion

What if none of the above brings resolution? Well, we live in a fallen world and sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible. Paul says (Rom. 12:18), “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Sometimes, peace isn’t possible. In those situations, pray for the offender, don’t badmouth him to everyone else, and move on with growing in Christ and serving Him. But for the sake of the gospel, do all you can to resolve personal conflict in a way that honors the Lord and restores damaged relationships. After all, it is the second greatest commandment!

Application Questions

  1. When someone sins against you, should you grant him forgiveness before he repents? Is there a difference between not granting forgiveness and harboring bitterness?
  2. What is the hardest thing about seeking reconciliation with someone who has wronged you? How can you overcome this?
  3. Is it ever permissible for a Christian to sue another Christian? Is it loving to allow him to rip you off without consequences?
  4. How can a person who is easily offended overcome this problem? How can you know whether you’re overly sensitive?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Fellowship, Suffering, Trials, Persecution