From my perspective, the Bible defines very clearly how Christians should behave amid conflict, and in general it boils down to some pretty simple, matter-of-fact concepts. Living them out, however, especially in the heat of the moment, can be quite difficult. I want to acknowledge that before presenting the biblical ideals. Nevertheless, we should strive to be peacemakers whenever possible: in our own lives, and even on behalf of others should the need arise.
When I first sat down to write this essay, my mind became somewhat overwhelmed thinking through all the possible types of scenarios which might call for biblical conflict resolution. I eventually realized that a systematic, flow-chart approach would not work for me. If you would like to read a systematic approach to biblical conflict resolution, I can highly recommend The Peacemaker by Ken Sande (and even that is, of course, a limited framework). Since this is meant to be a brief essay rather than a book, I am taking a more distilled approach.
Rather than examine a vast array of potential situations, I will simply point out some principles I have noticed in scripture. I see them as seeds of wisdom, simple but providing all the necessary DNA for dealing with a complex and multifaceted life.
Firstly, I should avoid causing or contributing to conflict when possible. All the teachings, wisdom and statutes given to people by God rest on the underlying ideal of humans loving God and loving each other. Even when conflict does not come from outright hatred for each other, it corrodes and/or impedes loving relationships. It introduces a barrier. On the other hand, when people truly love each other as themselves, conflict is much less likely to arise in the first place. Peace is the ideal portrayed in Eden at creation, and in the new world of Revelation. Meanwhile, conflict is the destructive inevitability of a sin-ridden world. Christians are called to reflect the ideal of peace to the best of their ability.
Romans 12:18, 14:19, Matthew 5:43-48, 22:37-40, Mark 12:29-31, Hebrews 12:14, 1 Peter 3:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:15, James 3:18, John 13:34-35, 16:33, Philippians 4:7, Proverbs 12:20, 16:7, Psalm 29:11, 34:14, 37:37
However, given that conflict between people is unavoidable, we should know how to navigate it in a way that is God-honoring, and, ideally, results in a loving resolution. Of course, the only variable I can truly control in any given situation is my own decisions and responses. So, what are some ideal responses to conflict?
As with most things, external interactions are a result of internal thoughts, feelings and attitudes. Internal decisions result in external decisions. (Luke 6:45, Matthew 12:34) Specifically, I think humility, respect and empathy are principal components of loving interactions.
Humility allows us to see when we are in the wrong, whereas pride resists repentance. If I have in fact wronged someone in any way, I need to repent, apologize, and thereby attempt reconciliation. If such a response is truly humble and sincere, the only barrier to reconciliation remaining would be that of the other party.
Colossians 3:12, Ephesians 4:2, 1 Peter 5:5, Proverbs 11:2, 15:33, 18:12, 22:4, Romans 12:3, 12:16
Respect recognizes other people as being image-bearers of their creator. If I see others as icons of divinity, created to be tabernacles of God’s presence, suddenly that person becomes very important. My priorities should naturally shift towards wanting to see them healed, built up, and shining in the light of God’s glory, rather than torn down and despised.
Genesis 1:27, Romans 12:10, 1 Peter 2:17, Philippians 2:3, Ephesians 5:21
Empathy considers the “golden rule” by trying to see the other side and discern how I would want to be treated if I were in their shoes. Understanding the other person’s perspective is, in my experience, not the default state for most situations. Simply taking the time to think through the other person’s background and events leading up to an interaction is one step toward empathetic reasoning. However, we can never truly see through other people’s eyes, so I may need to ask genuine and loving questions when I seek to understand someone else’s perspective.
Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31, Romans 12:15, 1 Peter 3:8, 1 Corinthians 12:26, Proverbs 24:17
Unless I can achieve a humble, respectful and empathetic attitude toward someone else, my words and actions have no chance at being truly loving, and therefore little chance at resolving conflict. These personal attributes and decisions are at the core of a God-honoring response to conflict; all other decisions stem from that internal perspective.
If I have honestly checked (and, better yet, cross-checked with a trusted friend or mentor) my own attitude and actions, repented of any wrong, and sought reconciliation, I can then pray that any other involved parties would do the same. If they are in fact willing, the process may take time or be almost immediate, but should always be steeped in love, humility, respect and empathy. Details beyond that are too widely varied to discuss here. However, there is no guarantee that even the most loving of approaches will be reciprocated. It may, in fact, be scorned. In such a case, my options narrow somewhat.
The first, completely valid, even Christ-like response is to simply forgive and move on. No matter what, I should seek to forgive others as I have been forgiven. This must be true forgiveness, as opposed to simply pushing it aside and allowing bitterness and resentment to fester within myself. Real forgiveness should not adversely affect my relationship with others nor cause any other long-term harm. But if I have truly forgiven someone, and can ignore everything else, that may be the best way out of conflict.
Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13, Matthew 5:39-41, 6:14-15, Mark 11:25, Proverbs 17:9, 10:12, Luke 6:35-36
Unfortunately, some offenses may be too serious to simply ignore, forgiven or not. In this case, I should first run through the above criteria. Have I made an attempt at reconciliation with a loving heart, humble spirit, respectful eyes, and empathetic mind? If so, and action is still needed, then I should involve a third party to help mediate the situation. What that looks like totally depends on the context, but regardless of the details, it is a crucial step towards reconciliation. An unbiased third-party can help ease tension and facilitate a fair resolution.
If an informal third party fails at arbitration, a formal process may be necessary. This means involving people who have authority over all parties involved, whether it is an employer, the government, or church elders. The latter of course only applies in the case of two believers who are in conflict. In that context, the church is meant to provide an essential layer of mediation. This is explicitly described in Matthew 18:15-17, where we see that ideally such issues should be solved as if it is a family matter: addressing your brother directly first, bringing one or two other people along if necessary, and finally bringing it to the church. If that still does not work, it can no longer be treated as a “family matter,” so other steps such as legal action may become acceptable. Otherwise, legal action against brothers and sisters in the church is strongly discouraged. (1 Corinthians 6:7) The phrase “let him be to you as a gentile…” is thereby significant, in that it opens secular avenues for resolution. It does not imply that our attitude of love towards them should be in any way diminished. Rather, we should be even more burdened to reach them with the love of Christ.
I have not touched much on the topic of what to do if you are a third party attempting to resolve conflict. Being a mediator is certainly a different experience than being directly involved in a conflict, but I think a successful approach still boils down to the same principles. It begins with love, respect, and humility, and prayerfully seeking to help others achieve the same.
Regardless of our role in any given situation, we should always seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and spend time in prayer, for ourselves and for everyone else involved. Prayer itself can be a catalyst to achieving the necessary heart condition for dealing with conflict. As with the attitude check, conflict should trigger an intentionality toward this fundamental aspect of a Christian lifestyle.
Again, each situation can be incredibly nuanced and complex, so this short paper is certainly not exhaustive on the topic. What I hope to have made clear is that I do believe scripture teaches a worldview and heart condition, rather than a set of rules to apply to conflict. Instead of a chart of instructions for every potential scenario, we have a booster shot of wisdom with which to navigate life. Regardless of any conflict’s cultural context, the biblical response is one of love, respect, humility, empathy, and peace. While this is much easier said than done, we may practice this and pray, and rely on the power of the Spirit to prevail over our insufficiencies every day.