We live in the midst of a broken world. Every day, we encounter sin, wounds, and hate. While we experience everyday life, we are keenly aware of the lack of love in the world. We have even come to expect it. After all, how can people be equipped to love one another if they are not submitted to the origin of love itself?
But, what happens when a wound is inflicted by another member of the family of Christ?
We know that we are often no less broken than people outside the church. Sometimes, we are even more broken! Still, the wounds from someone we have called friend—even family—tend to run significantly deeper for us, because we know that this should not be. And, what do we do about it? We still see that person in worship, Sunday school, and other activities. We know it is not a good witness to be at odds with one another. Matthew 18 stresses the need to resolve conflict within the Body of Christ. But, how do we manage it?
There are biblical steps that need to be taken in order to restore fellowship with another Christian when there is conflict in the relationship. Sometimes it is hard to know where to start and how to proceed. Though conflict in the church can be a very complicated matter, there are three steps that, when considered thoughtfully, will help get you going in the right direction.
1) What should I do before I confront the problem?
Before you address your problem with another person, prayerfully consider the contents of your own heart. It helps to begin with the prayer of Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.” Then, take an honest inventory.
Ephesians 6:12 states that our struggle is not against flesh and blood. Remind yourself that people are not the enemy of our souls. Ask the Lord to help you see the person who offended you the way He sees that person—not as an enemy, but as someone who is created in the image of God with eternal worth. Pray for that person (and I don’t mean praying for a rock to fall on his or her head). Ask yourself who the real enemy is here.
The next thing that needs to be done before addressing the other person is to identify any sin that may have contributed to the situation. Often, our conflicts are a result of misunderstandings, but sometimes they are a result of sin. Is sin involved in this situation? If so, whose sin is it, really? It may not even be a sin that either you or the other person committed. It could be another person’s sin (lying, gossip,etc.) or even the result of the fallen nature of the world.
In that regard, we need to first look at how we might have contributed to the problem. Luke 6:42 talks about getting the plank out of our own eye before we attempt to help another. Ask yourself these questions: Is there something for which I need to repent and ask forgiveness? Did the situation escalate because it touched an unhealed wound in my heart? Is the Holy Spirit revealing something as an invitation to come and be healed? Pray for the Lord to reveal anything that you may not be aware of.
2) What should I do while I am confronting the problem?
The first thing that must be said about confronting a problem with a brother or sister in Christ is to follow the biblical example in Matthew 18:15-17. The first time you approach that person, you need to attempt to handle it between the two of you. God is love, and we are called to give preference to one another. Part of that is in preserving another person’s dignity whenever possible. Do not go to another person and talk about the situation or try to enlist their help before trying to reconcile one-on-one. How quickly innocent intentions turn into damaging gossip, ostracism, and bashing sessions!
When you approach the person, pray for love and humility. There is no conflict that can be resolved without love. And, the best way to approach another person for the sake of reconciliation is to admit your own wrong, apologize, and ask for forgiveness first. Even if you feel like your part in the problem was smaller than the other person’s, be the one who apologizes first.
We hope that after confronting the issue one-on-one with love and humility, that reconciliation will occur. And, often, it does! Thanks be to God! However, sometimes, we are not received as well as we would hope, and sometimes when people have sinned, their hearts become hard, and they do not accept you approaching them. When that happens, what do I do then?
Occasionally, you may need to bring in a third party to try and facilitate reconciliation. You must be very careful who you choose to be a mediator between the two of you. You will not want to take anyone who will automatically side with you. The other person involved will only feel outnumbered and become more defensive. Find that person in your life who has the wisdom to be neutral and remain on God’s side rather than being concerned about staying on yours.
If the person still does not receive you, you may choose to bring a pastor (yours or theirs) into the situation. However, it may become clear that the other person is simply not interested in reconciliation, at least at that time. In those situations, the best course of action is to acknowledge that you have done as much as you can to live at peace with that person (see Romans 12:18) and move on, while continuing to pray for the person and the situation. Above all, make sure that your own conduct honors God. Do not gossip about the person or tolerate such gossip from those around you.
3) What should I do after I confront the problem?
If you have experienced reconciliation with the person involved, your first step will be to thank God! It is through the Holy Spirit at work in us that we are enabled to love one another. Whether you have experienced reconciliation or not, if you have discovered wounds or sin in yourself that need healing, make sure to do the work needed to cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s desire for you to be whole. You may choose to seek help from your pastor, a spiritual mentor, or a counselor. God has a strong track record for taking the ugly experiences in life and turning them into an opportunity for growth and blessing.
Another thing to consider after confronting an issue with another member of the Body of Christ is to take this event as an invitation to explore your own health in relationships. Are there some healthy boundaries that you might develop in order to prevent similar problems in the future? If you were hurt deeply, you may benefit from exploring those feelings and learning to rebuild broken trust for the Body of Christ in order to prevent yourself from becoming bitter, jaded, or cynical.
Finally, I would like to point out an absolutely essential truth. There are situations when reconciliation is not possible or advisable. If you feel that a person in your life is abusive, coercive, or manipulative, it may be necessary to distance yourself from that person. We, as Christians, are called to love all people, but we are not called to let every one of them into all parts of our lives. We do not have to allow them access to cause damage to our souls. We are called to be healthy and whole, and whole people nurture healthy relationships with others.