You will notice that we are not calling this series “Conflict Management in the Shadow of the Cross.” We are calling it “Conflict Resolution in the Shadow of the Cross.” The goal of Christians in conflict is to press toward resolution using all of the wisdom and guidance that God has offered us in His Word and under the leading and prompting of the Holy Spirit. In the first part of our consideration of what to do when conflict comes we laid out three initial steps:
- Assess the conflict from the perspective (1) of heaven and (2) of the other person.
- Move quickly with forgiveness and/or an apology.
- Keep the circle of conflict as small as possible for as long as possible.
We now continue with steps 4, 5, 6, and 7. Each of these steps are rooted in scripture and each is geared toward resolution and the reestablishment of unity. What is more, each step must be taken in love and genuine concern for peace and the other’s well-being as opposed to taking them mechanistically or in a detached spirit of simply checking the boxes.
Keep your language simple, clear, and uncharged.
How we speak to one another in conflict is extremely important. The need for careful language cannot be overstated. In short, our language needs to be simple, clear, and uncharged.
Our language needs to be simple and clear. This means refusing the temptation to traffic in innuendo, suggestion, and sarcasm. Conflict is not the time to “tell it slant,” as the poem says. Rather, this is the time to “let your yay be yay and your nay be nay” (Matthew 5:37). When you are in a good place with others—when, for instance, you are relaxing and laughing with your friends—relaxed and playful speech is appropriate. Conflict is not that time. People will sometimes say defiantly that they “refuse to walk on eggshells.” While it is true that eggshells are hard to walk on for an extended period of time, is there not, in fact, a time to do precisely that? If “walking on eggshells” in your speech wins your brother or sister, should you not do so? Of course you should!
And our language needs to be uncharged. By that I mean we must avoid hyperbolic language and phrases: “You alwaysdo this!” “You never do that!” I also mean we must avoid sarcasm and sarcastic phrases: “Oh, yes, I’m sure you meant nothing by what you said! Sure!” And I also mean by “charged” language ad hominems, personal attacks. None of these are conducive to conflict resolution.
In Matthew 5, Jesus warned about escalating language in times of conflict:
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
Notice the regression: (1) anger, (2) insults, (3) saying, “You fool!” I say “regression” because truly that is what is being depicted here. These escalating stages actually represent backwards relational movement. Why in particular does Jesus pronounce such shocking judgment (“will be liable to the hell of fire”) on calling somebody a “fool”? It is because, at least in part, such a statement dehumanizes the other. It insults the image of God in the other. It suggests that the other is somehow lesser, possibly even less than human, and does not deserve dignity. Practically speaking, to call somebody a “fool” is to signal an abandonment of the process of resolution altogether and to reduce the conflict to crass combat.
We must keep our language uncharged! Consider Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:
22 So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness.
Paul defines the fruit of “youthful passions” as “foolish, ignorant controversies” and “quarrels.” On the other hand he depicts the fruit of “righteousness” as “faith, love…peace,” “a pure heart,” kindness, patience, and, gentleness. This last point, “correcting his opponents with gentleness,” is particularly pertinent to our considerations. This is what we mean by uncharged language: gentle correction. If you want to move toward resolution, let your words bear the aroma and grace of Christ.
Do not proceed to a response until you have restated the person’s position in such a way that they agree that it is their position you are stating.
Hand-in-hand with careful speaking is careful listening. Careful listening means refusing to proceed until you have restated the person’s position in such a way that they agree that it is their position you are stating. This is a common exercise in marriage counseling. When a husband and wife are in a place of conflict and reach a point where they cannot or will not hear one another, it is helpful to have one of them sit silently while the spouse expresses his/her complaint and then have the husband or wife repeat the complaint back until the spouse agrees that the other is in fact hearing and repeating the complaint rightly. In this way, husbands and wives begin to hear each other and, consequently, speak to each other again. But this exercise is helpful in all conflicts.
In James 1, James writes:
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
Quickness in hearing and slowness in speech is a good rule in times of peace or conflict, but especially in times of conflict. Why? Because if anger “does not produce the righteousness of God” then that which makes for peace surely must “produce the righteousness of God.” And careful listening surely makes for peace.
Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church, Farmersville, TX, has spoken of “the James Leo Garrett rule” in theological discourse and debate. He is referring to the late Baptist theologian James Leo Garrett Jr. and his approach to disagreements and debates. Barber summarized the Garrett rule as follows: “Only when you can state your opponent’s position so well that they themselves say, ‘Yes, that’s what I believe,’ can you then begin to debate.”
I would like to encourage all of us to heed and practice the Garrett rule in times of conflict. Listen carefully to the other person and then repeat their position to them until they agree that it is in fact their position. In that way, you can be sure that both of you know you are hearing one another rightly and can proceed toward resolution on that basis. This can be a most helpful and healing exercise, and certainly is in keeping with James’ admonition to “be quick to hear, slow to speak.”
Determine what issues you can simply leave on the table and truly move forward from and what issues call for mediation.
In many of our conflicts it will also be necessary to determine whether or not the conflict warrants pressing forward at all. Some conflicts are simply matters of disagreement and it may become clear that resolution is unlikely. In such cases it will likely be necessary to simply move forward. However, this cannot be done so long as you harbor resentment. If you say that you are willing to move forward but deep down harbor resentment then your resentment will work itself out in other ways. No, you must be honest with yourself on the question of whether or not you can move forward with good will, but there will in fact be times when you likely will need to move forward. In the daily unfolding of life, sometimes conflicts reside in murky regions where the way forward is not clear and where there is no clear “right” or “wrong,” just differences of opinions or viewpoints.
One aspect of this step is the aspect of time. There are times to let time do its work, and it is amazing how healing time can be. This calls for patience with one another and with the process of resolution. Paul calls for this patience in Ephesians 4:
1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Notice again the fruits of “the calling to which you have been called”: humility, gentleness, and patience. Paul then fleshes “patience” out as “bearing with one another in love” and the goal of “bearing with one another in love” as eagerness “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
This image of “bearing with one another in love” is a strong and helpful image. It does not mean “bearing” as in “begrudging.” In means “bearing” as in patient understanding and love. Part of “bearing with one another in love” is not demanding resolution on your own schedule but rather allowing the Holy Spirit and time to work in the process. This may mean having the initial meeting in the first step of conflict resolution—going to the other person privately and quickly—and then giving a bit of space and time, not passive aggressively, but hopefully and prayerfully. Some conflicts allow this time and space. Other conflicts, by their very nature, do not allow such space. Even so, the “fruit of the Spirit” spoken of by Paul in Galatians 5 must permeate each step of the process:
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Surely the “crucifying” of “the flesh with its passions and desires” includes doing away with impatience with one another and manipulation of one another. When we commit to putting such things away and giving the Holy Spirit room to work, we allow the fruit of the Spirit to flourish.
Broaden the circle only as wide as is necessary for resolution.
As a final practical step in the process of resolution, there may be a place for broadening the circle to include mediators. This must be done very carefully. Matthew 18 is rightly viewed as the process of church discipline, in other words the process of correction for one in error. And while conflicts and disagreements do not necessarily involve sin in every case, this process does provide guidelines for how to approach one another in even those cases. In other words, we might say that Matthew 18, in addition to its specific purpose of discipline, is paradigmatic for all processes involving the potential of correction or confrontation. With this in mind, Jesus’ call for an expanding or broadening of the circle of those involved is most helpful.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 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. 17 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.
When necessary in the process of conflict resolution, the circle can be broadened, but this must be understood rightly. Christ is not giving a license here for the selfish gathering of reinforcements in such cases so much as He is making room in the process for wise mediators. When applying the Matthew 18 model to conflict resolution we might say that the broadening of the circle is for the inclusion of impartial mediators who can look at the situation with objective eyes with the goal of helping the aggrieved parties resolve the problem.
There are actually parachurch organizations that do this kind of thing. There are groups that, when sought out, will act as official mediators. In such cases the parties involved in the conflict agree to receive their findings and verdicts of this outside group of believers. This is helpful, but we must not think that this step necessarily needs parachurch mediation (though perhaps it might). In fact, it could be argued that the ideal scenario is for two people in a conflict to seek resolution from within the congregation of which they are a part. In this way, the church in which the parties worship has the privilege of bringing the parties to peaceful resolution. And this, even if the circle is only expanded to include two or three more, can do nothing but build up and strengthen the church body.
We must not be so proud that we refuse to seek mediation from wise brothers and sisters. We must not be so proud that we refuse to accept humbly the decisions of those to whom we submit ourselves in such a process.
We once again see that Christ has equipped His church through the ministry of the indwelling Spirit of God, through the teachings of Holy Scripture, and through the gift of the body of Christ at large, to resolve conflict. We see again that conflict is a mission field, an opportunity to extol the greatness of Christ and His gospel. It is an opportunity to proclaim both to the watching world and to the gathered church that the gospel is truly operative and not merely theoretical, that the gospel carries within it all that we need for healing when strife threatens the unity of the body.
May it be so in our lives! May it be so in the church!
 This anecdote was passed on by Garrett’s former student, Bart Barber, in the following tweet: https://twitter.com/bartbarber/status/1177187496200953857?s=20