Restoring Christian Relationships
Rev. Brian M. Abshire
Conflicts have been eating at the Christian Church since the time of the Lord Jesus (remember John and James angling for power?). Since none of us have yet been perfected, all of us will sin against God and each other. Therefore, conflicts are inevitable. Ideally, impartial church courts, governed by wise and compassionate elders, ought to help us resolve conflicts appropriately. Sadly, not all of us have decent churches. But good church government is predicated on good self-government. If our churches aren’t doing what they are supposed to do, could it be because we are not doing what we are supposed to do? If we cannot make God’s principles, statutes, commandments and judgments work in our personal lives, our families and our churches, then God will not give His blessing to our efforts in the social and political areas. And let’s be honest, the average Church suffers the worst sorts of bruised egos, constant bickering, back stabbing, petty politicking and vicious infighting. Judgment begins with the household of God. We have to start cleaning up our own acts, and we have to start now.
We’ve discussed the problem before, but now it’s time to start looking at the biblical solution. Therefore, the following principles from the book of Proverbs are offered as a primer on resolving conflicts Biblically.
First, whenever in a conflict situation, we need to remember Proverbs 28:26; “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but he who walks wisely will be delivered.” Our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer 17:9). There is a “natural” tendency to blame others for the problem (going all the way back to Adam in the garden). Some of us seem to have a pathological need to be right and try every trick in the lawyer’s handbook to convince ourselves and others that “I’ve been wronged!” But our hearts will deceive us. Often, the situation is not as clear cut as we think it is. Usually, the other side has a point. We need to learn how to see things from the other guy’s perspective. And besides, is being “right” really all that important? What benefit to win an argument here, only to be judged by God at the Great White Throne? Proverbs 21:2 “Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the hearts.” Simply because we think we are right, doesn’t mean we are right. And what folly it is to lose God’s blessing over a trivial matter! Or even worse, how about people who are actually right, but they are right in the wrong way, with the wrong attitude (1 Cor 8:1ff)?
Therefore Christians need to develop a gentle and contrite heart, open to rebuke, and criticism from others, lest we harden ourselves to the Spirit’s conviction. Isaiah 66:2 says “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”
A second principle of resolving conflicts biblically comes from Proverbs 3:3 “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man.” Both kindness and truth are important. The two go together. Sadly in this age when truth is so regularly compromised, one is either “kind” or “truthful.” This is an unbliblical dichotomy. Kindness is the setting by which the beauty of truth is displayed. Proverbs 25:11-12 “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances. Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” Notice the result, “favor and good repute.” Sometimes, when we run into opposition, especially when standing for the truth, the cause might not have been the truth, but a lack of kindness. Thus it could be not our stand that gets us into trouble, but the way that we take that stand. If a person knows that our intention is to love them, support them, assist them, come along side and help them, if we have demonstrated repeatedly a humble spirit in our relations with them, served them (Mark 10:45) then they are more likely to receive a rebuke when necessary. There is never an excuse for being bitter, scathing, short tempered, harsh or nasty with each other. It’s sin.
Proverbs 9:7-9 says “He who corrects a scoffer gets dishonor for himself, and he who reproves a wicked man gets insults for himself. Do not reprove a scoffer, lest he hate you, reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser, teach a righteous man, and he will increase his learning.” If we won’t take criticism or correction we are fools, pure and simple. Yet all of us know too many “Christians” who cannot handle crticism on any level. And often, the worst offenders are our leaders. You know the sort, they fly into a rage if questioned, they intimidate everyone around them. They effectively isolate themselves from any kind of reproof. But since we value their gifts more than their character, we continue to support them, encourage them, work for them. Which is worse, being a fool, or following one?
A third principle from Proverbs is found in 10:19 says, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” In a conflict, many of us desperately want to state our case as loudly and as often (and to as many people) as we can. Sometimes, we need to learn how to stay quiet. Proverbs 17:28 says “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is counted prudent.” (The humanistic parallel is “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, then open one’s mouth and remove all doubt”). The more we open our mouth, the more opportunity we have to put our feet firmly in it. Instead of stating our case (or rehashing it in our minds) we need to learn how to listen. God may be trying to tell us something, But you can’t listen, if you’re talking.
This is especially important when the conflict is between an individual and one of God’s authorities. Remember Peter’s instructions to wives on how to win disobedient husbands (1 Ptr 3:1ff)? Since they are in a subordinate position, sometimes their only weapon is trust in the sovereignty of God. Knowing when not to say something may be as important as what to say. Sometimes an authority (i.e., a pastor, elder, husband, parent, boss, etc.) is dead wrong. Restraining the lips, biting back that critical word and letting the authority find out for himself that he was wrong, is sometimes the only option. It is not a matter of peace at any price, but the acknowledgment that God is sovereign. In submitting to our authorities, it is our duty to bring sin and failure to their attention. But sometimes, rather than a direct rebuke, a searching question might be the better tactic, giving them an opportunity to find out for themselves what they have done wrong.
Proverbs 25:15 says “By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue breaks the bone.” There are definite tactics required when confronting authority with their sin. A direct, head to head knock down argument is seldom appropriate. God demands respect for those He has placed in authority over us. The Apostle Paul apologized for speaking badly of the High Priest, even though the Priest had ordered an unlawful beating!
Proverbs 11:13 provides a basic fundamental principle that is almost universally violated by Christians. “He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy conceals a matter.” Yet, how often whenever someone has a complaint against another, the first thing so many do is try to recruit others for our “side.” We want the approval of men rather than God. And therefore, we reveal secrets. We bear tales. We talk to anyone and everyone about the problem; except the people actually involved. Here’s a simple life principle: if you want to get people really mad, then make their mistakes public by talking behind their backs. Not only does this make it harder for others to acknowledge their error, but like cancer, it spreads frustration, anger and bitterness throughout the body. Proverbs 25:23 “The north wind brings forth rain, and a backbiting tongue, an angry countenance.” There is a cause and effect relationship here. Furthermore, many of us listen to these bad reports. We forget Proverbs 18:17 “The first to plead his case seems just, until another comes and examines him.” We take an unholy delight in hearing bad things about others. And a minor conflict escalates into a major conflict.
Instead of spreading a complaint against another, (or listening to one) Proverbs 13:3 requires “The one who guards his mouth preserves his life; the one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” Too many Christians go at each other like cannibalistic piranhas over the silliest issues. But why not just let some things go? OK, your brother offended you. He sinned. Surprise surprise, he’s a sinner saved by grace, just like you. Is the issue worth getting upset, angry, gossiping about, etc.? Proverbs 17:9 is appropriate here: “He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends.” In the grand scheme of God’s omnipotent plan, is this something that’s really important? Every conflict involves a cost and we need to learn how to “pick the hill carefully you want to die on.” Discretion says that not every battle needs be fought at this time, at this place. Grace is allowing God to work on someone, at His time. Love is not breaking fellowship over personalities or hurt feelings. And it’s time to start calling this kind of backbiting foolishness just what it is, sin, and God’s people must repent of it.
Proverbs 21:23 “He who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles.” But there are some brothers, God bless ’em, who seem to take a positive delight in being cantankerous, critical and nasty. They’re looking for an excuse to fight with someone, anyone, over anything! And often (not always) the more solidly reformed they are, the more unpleasant they are to be around. They have this wonderful tool called “Reformed Theology” and they just don’t know what to do with it. They’re like a little boy with a hatchet, chopping up the furniture because it’s so much fun to see things go “splinter!” Likewise, we end up cutting each other up, as the world goes to hell around us. No wonder the Christian church is ridiculed. We so often act so ridiculous!
A sixth principle of resolving conflicts is self evident to everyone except someone red faced in the middle of an argument. Proverbs 15:1-2 “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly.” Here, is the solution to 95% of the conflict and confrontation problems I counsel. If we could just learn how to speak gently with each other, we could resolve most problems before our pride and arrogance blows them up into major conflicts. If instead of coming out with that snapping, biting word, and instead, learn to keep our voice calm, our words sweet, our attitude humble, most conflicts would die on the vine, and even the most recalcitrant won. But we allow our anger to feed on the others, which feeds on ours, which feeds on theirs… ad nauseam. Proverbs 30:33 says, “For the churning of milk produces butter, and pressing the nose brings forth blood; so the churning of anger produces strife.” Christians need to learn how to stop the spiral. Some of us still use schoolyard ethics, “but he hit me first” and therefore think we are justified in hitting back. But God says, “Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead…” (1 Ptr 3:9). Anger is a motivational emotion God gives us to resolve a problem. It is not an excuse for strife. Our task is always to speak that which builds up, never to tear down (Eph 4:28-29).
A gentle answer is one that respects the other, that comes from a humble heart, that believes in another and will not “receive a bad report” about them. It is the manner we project and the words we use that determines whether anger is stirred up, or wrath is turned away. Expressions of affection and respect in a gentle and kind tone will do much to make one’s rebuke acceptable. This principle works, even if we don’t get it right! I remember an almost violent conflict I once had with my boss at the time, a Christian leader known for his firm manner. While I no longer remember what we were arguing about (except that I am sure I was right and he was wrong; that’s a joke!), I do recall thinking it was time to step outside and roll up the shirt sleeves, when Proverbs 15:1-2 came to mind. I was so angry, I was still shouting when I said, “I love you like a father and I deeply appreciate all the years of friendship and guidance you’ve given me and you’re my boss and I’ll darn well shut up now and do what you say.” The silence that followed my bellow lasted an eternity. I then noticed my brother’s cheeks getting wet. After that, I didn’t see so well (must have gotten something in my eyes or something). We ended up hugging, expressing respect and love for each other. Giving a gentle answer (even in a less than gentle way!) was enough to break through the conflict so we could talk reasonably.
Hence Proverbs 16:23-24 “The heart of the wise teaches his mouth, and adds persuasiveness to his lips. Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” The sweetness here is defined as pleasant words, which heal. The purpose of confrontation is always to bring about healing, rather than just condemnation (or to demonstrate that we are right), (Gal 6:1ff). Therefore no matter how badly our brothers have blown it, we have a duty to make it as easy for them as we can, to repent of their error and get back on track.
Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” I paraphrase this as “Did you get all the facts before you tore them to pieces?” And the application is simple; before condemning, ask questions. I am amazed at how often Christians fight over such stupid things. But because they are more interested in opening their mouths rather than their ears, they fail to understand that they often want the same thing. Seriously! I’ve seen people scream at each other, and they were both saying the same thing! (Of course, both were rebuked, firmly, for shouting). James 1:19-20 is clear, we need to be slow to speak and slower to anger. The anger of men does not accomplish the righteousness of God.
Proverbs 29:1 “A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy.” Some Christians just do not get it. Though a quick wit, an acerbic tongue and a condescending attitude may win arguments, they break fellowship. Often God disciplines such people with emotional, physical or even financial pain. But some people will not listen. And eventually, God will judge them, their families, their churches and their ministries.
I firmly believe that in every conflict situation, no matter what the issue, God is primarily concerned with developing within us the character of Christ (Rms 8:28-29). He could build His kingdom very nicely without us, but He is building His Kingdom through building the character of His people (1 Ptr 2:4-5). Thus in His sovereignty, He often places us in positions where our sins are exposed and we are given constant opportunities to develop into the image of His Son. Furthermore, it is through our weakness that His glory is magnified (1 Cor 1:26-31). But until we can apply the Law in the little things in life, God will never entrust us with the greater things. Social transformation begins with personal reformation.