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.
I have one word for you: conflict. Your pulse probably speed up, your heart is racing, and your palms are sweating just thinking about this word. As Christians, it is also one way that we often hurt one another and our witness for God deeply. How do you handle conflict? We often veer to the extremes, attacking each other mercilessly in ways that a good trial lawyer would even think is harsh. Although just as common we tend to the other extreme: passive action. You would think the other extreme is avoidance, but few people really avoid conflict, they just “handle it differently.”
It looks more like this. Someone says something I don’t like, or the leadership makes a decision that I do not like, and in fact I have another idea of how to do it. Push comes to shove, I am not interested in speaking directly with the person behind the conflict, that would be awkward, but someone needs to know about my emotional angst or great ideas for solving a problem. After church, in the parking lot, at small group, or through email, I reach out to someone near me to “empathize” with me. The goal of the interaction is for this person to hear my concerns, feel bad for me, and share about how bad the other person is, or how stupid the decision is, if only they would listen to me, if only the other person was as calm and thoughtful as I am. As we do this, instead of reconciling ourselves to one another, we create more and more layers of separation. If these conversations multiply enough, a simple conflict turns into cataclysmic disconnect that “we” (the people I spoke with) agree cannot be mended. This is an outcomes that Jesus says is unacceptable for those who follow Him (Matthew 5:23-24).
Jesus layout out a different design for conflict. His model of conflict begins with this premise: God’s work in this world is to reconcile the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). Since God’s desire is to reconcile the world to Himself, and people to one another, we must handle conflict with reconciliation as the end goal. Therefore, we approach people 1 on 1. The goal of this interaction is not winning, it is seeking to reconcile with the other person over whatever caused the conflict. Once you have tried that, it might be helpful to have another person join the conversation, not to take sides, but to help sort out the facts from feelings, to help move the conversation forward, and make sure each person is hearing the other. Lastly if this is not helpful, then you turn to a group. You seek a group of mature Christians, who can reinforce to both sides the desired outcome: reconciliation. A path to reconciliation is laid out, and each side are asked to commit to seeking reconciliation with one another.
Conflict just is. Conflict is a normal part of live together with groups of people who comes from varied backgrounds, belief systems, and values. Our challenge is how will we handle conflict when it comes our way? As Christians we have a chance to model that our God is in the business of reconciliation, and that we as His followers are too. It is not an easy thing to do, confrontation is difficult, but I believe that handling conflict outside of this model from Jesus is just as hard, and far more destructive. When conflict finds you next, how do you want to handle it?