By Melissa Irwin
Reese and Miriam, both committed Christians and seminary graduates, have reputations for faith, wisdom, and a dedication to spiritual growth. Reese had served as a leader in a parachurch women’s ministry for many years but transitioned to host a Bible study in her home for a small group of women.
Through a series of events and misunderstandings, Miriam felt excluded. After only one session of the new study, Miriam took a leave because she lacked respect for Reese and felt bitter. Miriam exited amicably and kept all exchanges private to protect Reese’s reputation and prevent damage to her ministry.
Reese perceived Miriam’s exit as hostile. Soon she spread her version of the conflict to their mutual friends. Enraged, Miriam reacted without thinking and defended herself in anger. In no time, gossip spread throughout mutual circles, leaving Miriam devastated and uninvited. Reese retained the friendships. Miriam retained the hurt.
So many details in this case lacked Christian unity or biblical conflict resolution. When Christians fall out and conviction does its job, both emotional pain and growing pains persist. To learn to respond in humility requires heart surgery. It’s no party.When Christians fall out and conviction does its job, both emotional pain and growing pains persist. — @BeautifulFeetGO Click To Tweet
The world has a ringside seat. Will we provide the popcorn and duke it out? Or will we privately work it out? Squabbles should remain as private as possible with the primary goal to honor God with patience, compassion, and love while working to resolve conflict and restore fractured Christian friendships. However, things don’t always play out this way. Conflict in the local church has become so rampant during this season that pastors indicated to Lifeway Research that maintaining unity in their congregations was one of their top five concerns. As the body of Christ, our charge is unity.
To grow into a Christlike maturity takes time (2 Thessalonians 2:13). Stumbling blocks threaten to trip your congregation as they walk in Christ. We will hurt others and be hurt by them. Our flesh will fight hard for control of our hearts, but we must overcome the flesh (Galatians 5:17). How we behave matters to both Jesus and observers. Whether we behave sweetly or salty affects our representation of Him. If we say we love Jesus but do not show love to our brothers and sisters, John reminds us we are liars (1 John 4:20).
Contrarily, when Christians love one another well, it leads to recognition as the family of Christ (John 13:35). With this love, we can lead our churches to influence the watching world. Our power to love exposes the love of God and draws the lost to Him. By love we evangelize the true gospel. Pride evangelizes a distorted gospel. We get to choose.Our power to love exposes the love of God and draws the lost to Him. By love we evangelize the true gospel. Pride evangelizes a distorted gospel. — @BeautifulFeetGO Click To Tweet
We need mirrors—not reflective glass that reveals our exterior state—but human mirrors who share life with us and will reflect us to expose our hearts and reveal the state of our character. As we walk with Christ and look to Him as the authority of all things, we undergo a slow, steady process of spiritual transformation. Simply put, we should noticeably mature into Christlikeness (Colossians 1:28-29, Ephesians 5:1-2). We benefit from friendly mirrors who will encourage the positive growth but not shy away from also showing us our missteps. They expose where we need to backtrack, make corrections, apologize, and simply ask God to strengthen our weaknesses.
But when pride dwarfs humility our friendly mirrors feel like hostile threats. Push-back against sensible counsel stunts personal growth and weakens our community threads. Those threads will ultimately snap under pressure and compromise the entire infrastructure of Christian unity. The apostle Paul dealt with squabbling Christians all the time. And he reminded those in Ephesus, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit. … Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, quarreling, and slander be put away from you, along with all hatred. Be kind and loving to each other. Forgive each other the same as God forgave you through Christ” (Ephesians 4:31-32).We cannot prevent disputes, but God empowers us to fight fair. — @BeautifulFeetGO Click To Tweet
We cannot prevent disputes, but God empowers us to fight fair. At worst, a fair fight leads to a parting of ways, but privately and with dignity intact. At best, it leads to forgiveness and more tightly woven, unified threads. Not every friendship can mend, but every friendship that ends can do so in ways that reflect the love of Christ (Ephesians 4:29).
Consider seven suggestions to fight fair and resolve conflict:
- Pray first. Reflect for at least one day. Quick reactions often lack stable, mature control.
- Lead with mercy. Extend grace and address the root of bitterness.
- Refrain from gossip to avoid the pervasion of drama.
- When gentle communication fails, engage two additional neutral Christian friends to serve as mediators (Matthew 18:15-17).
- Be prudent. Mutual friends should refrain from taking sides.
- Apologize swiftly. You’ll never be sorry for being sorry.
- Never underestimate the power of your influence. A crowd will follow you because you lead, even when you go astray. You have as much power to harm as you do to help.
Even through conflict, God mysteriously uses our experiences to benefit His family and future kingdom. Dr. Michael Svigel, a theology professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, suggests even conflict, discomfort, and frustration are effects of true community. In RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith, he writes, “These conditions promote real spiritual growth. Putting our natural human inclinations to the test of real life gives God an opportunity to work among us in supernatural ways.” Ultimately, this level of true community promotes sanctification—the process of growing in Christlikeness, being made holy (Hebrews 10:14).Contrition is necessary in leadership, and church leaders must set the example. — @BeautifulFeetGO Click To Tweet
Leader, can you serve as a mirror for someone? Do you need to let go of bitterness? Resolving conflict shows we have a different spirit, the Holy Spirit, living in us. And when we and our people yield to Him in our interactions, “they will know we are Christians by our love.” Welcome your reflectors. Look directly into your mirrors, willing to see the truth and make appropriate adjustments, big or small. It won’t feel smooth going down, but swallow pride. The phrase, “I’m so sorry,” heals, mends, and repairs sore, broken things. Contrition is necessary in leadership, and church leaders must set the example. An apology will never end a relationship. And when the apology you anxiously anticipate stands you up, refrain from lashing out. Let your love cover the sin (1 Peter 4:8).
Melissa is a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, and resides in Franklin, Tennessee with her family. She is the founder and director of Beautiful Feet Global Outreach, Inc., an orphan-care ministry.