Conflict is inevitable. The question is not conflict or no conflict, but "Am I handling conflict in a Biblical way?" One book on conflict resolution states,
The comment that frightens me most as a consultant on conflict and cooperation is the declaration, "I've been at this church for more than twenty years and we never have conflict." It frightens me because my experience tells me that either this congregation has not done anything for twenty years, or it has failed to admit those instances where conflict has in fact existed.1
Another author said,
Conflict occurs most often in congregations in which there is a deep commitment to the church, the more deeply ingrained is the sense of ownership about what is happening, the more possible the conflict. Apathy is a sure guarantee of a conflict-free setting. Persons who do not care about their faith are unlikely to exhibit enough energy to act upon it. Corpses do not fight!2
The author is not saying that we want to have conflict, or that you are God's gift for bringing conflict. He is observing that apathy is not a good alternative to conflict.
Paul had his share of conflict during his years of service, and I want to look at his seasoned instructions in 2 Cor. 7:1-12 to see how we can deal with conflict, serious or minor. Let's walk through the crucial lessons in this text step by step.
Personal Humility Before the Law
First, in v.1, Paul modeled humility before the law of God and a readiness to apply the gospel to his own life. Paul says, "Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." Paul included himself in that admonition because the easiest way to become a Pharisee in our dealings with others is to fail to start with our own sins first.
This is true even if we are only five percent at fault and the other person is ninety-five percent at fault. Christ said that we must take the beam out of our own eye first, not so that we can ignore the pain in our brother's eye, but so that we can see clearly to take it out.
Specks hurt, and brothers need this kind of intervention that Paul engaged in. But the reason it is so important to look at our own sinfulness first is that we are much more likely to be tender, merciful, and gentle with our brothers who are in sin when we know personally both the work of the law and the work of God's grace. We are also much more likely to be listened to. If we have come across as Pharisees in the past, it is going to be very hard for someone to interpret our current intervention as an expression of love. So, before Paul brings any rebuke to those involved in division, he reveals a heart that is open and ready to hear God's law-word, a heart that is secure in God's grace.
Second, be committed to openness and call for it. Verse 2 says, "Open your hearts to us" (cf. v. 6:11). Paul realized that he was being shut down, so he moves to reopen communication.
The first temptation when we're having strong disagreements with each other is to avoid one another, to permit barriers to go up between us. You may be polite and act as if nothing is wrong, yet you won't trust the other person enough to be transparent.
In Paul's epistle, we see that the hurts went both ways. We'll see in a moment that Paul had brought pain into their lives, pain that provoked them to erect barriers against him. But before we examine that aspect, let's look at how Paul handled their wrongful hurts toward him.
Paul had been hurt by this congregation over and over again. In chapter 10 he quotes the congregation's stated opinion of him: "his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is contemptible" (2 Cor. 10:10). How would you like it if someone talked about you like that? In chapter 11 he was called inferior. He was not paid a salary by them although he deserved it.
In that same chapter they falsely claimed that he did not love them (2 Cor. 11:11). It was actually love that motivated Paul to rebuke them, but they said that he didn't love them. The false apostles had convinced the people that Paul was a fool (11:16). If you read through this epistle you immediately see that Paul had been badly hurt. Concerning this conflict Paul said, "Outside were conflicts, inside were fears" (7:5). The most natural thing for Paul to do would be to protect himself by have nothing more to do with the Corinthians.
But rather than pushing such people off, Paul wanted to maintain open lines of communication. In 2 Cor. 6:11, Paul said, "O Corinthians! We have spoken openly to you, our heart is wide open. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us."
This is the hardest step in managing conflict: getting people who have cut themselves off from each other to be willing to be vulnerable and open again-husbands with wives, members with other members, etc. We are not talking about merely being civil to one another. People who are alienated can still be civil and smile and be pleasant to each other. But genuine reconciliation requires that we be willing to have hearts opened. And that's hard.
Opening our hearts involves acceptance of the person, deeper communication with the person, love for the person and tactful honesty (about our own failings and theirs). Acceptance does not mean you have to agree. You can accept a person and be committed to him without believing that he is right on the issue that has alienated you. Paul in this epistle continues to work on issues he was not able to resolve in the previous letter, but it is also clear that he accepts the Corinthians in the Lord.
Face the Pain
Third, be willing to face pain. Why are people reluctant to open up? Why had the Corinthians closed off their affections toward Paul? The reason is that the moment you open your heart to someone, you become vulnerable once more and can get hurt all over again.
It is possible to avoid hurts by not getting married, but you will also miss the blessings of marriage. You can avoid hurts by not making friends and by becoming a loner, but you will also be the poorer for it. The best things in life require that you take the risk of getting hurt from time to time. The truth that Paul spoke hurt, and these people didn't like that. So the third principle is this: we must be willing to face pain and betrayal.
It is not enough for you to be right on an issue. Paul was right, but because he knew the truth hurts, and hurt tends to make people clam up and shut their hearts up, he pursued them with love. He didn't just hit them with truth; he pursued them with love. He did what he could to make open relationships. That should be the goal when resolving church conflicts: not winning an argument, but bringing people to where they are even more open with each other, even closer to each other, than they were before the conflict.
The fourth principle is this: Do not have a false humility if you are clear of guilt in the situation. In the second sentence in v. 2 Paul says, "We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have defrauded no one." He admits later that he had brought them pain. There was absolutely no question about that. But Paul wants them to realize that the pain was not due to Paul's sin. The pain was the truth exposing their sin.
This gets us back to the flip side of v. 1. We've already seen that to avoid Pharisaism we must be open and honest about our own sinfulness. But the opposite extreme must also be avoided. We ought not solve conflicts by admitting fault when we are not at fault, which involves lying to maintain peace, and we must not downplay the other person's sin.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote about a man who "was so anxious to forgive that he denied the need of forgiveness." Do you understand what he was saying? When people would sin against that man, he would downplay the seriousness of what they had done because he didn't want to ruffle feathers or make them feel badly.
Unfortunately for some people, this is the only technique they know to resolve a fight-by admitting that they were partly to blame, even when that was not true. That strategy doesn't solve the issues. In fact, it reinforces the sinner in his rebellion and pride.
I have known people who absolutely refused to make a confession of guilt until the other party accepted some blame. They would then dismiss the matter as an example of how all of us are sinners and make mistakes. If you are so proud that you will not humble yourself by confession unless you are also able to throw a stone, you need to repent of that. Such attitudes make genuine conflict resolution impossible.
On the other hand, if you are always making peace by admitting blame when there really is no fault on your part, you become an enabler of the other person's prideful ways. This is the world's way of dealing with tough conflicts, those that you can't walk away from. For example, you might reject divorce as an option for marital conflict, so you retreat into a false humility and take the blame upon yourself, which is inherently dishonest.
The fifth principle is absolutely critical: the need always to communicate a positive attitude (vv. 3-4, 7, 9, 12-16). Proverbs says that a harsh answer stirs up strife. You might be in the right, but when you use harshness, it simply intensifies the conflict. Harshness is going to make things worse. Again, being right in a conflict does not guarantee that you have God's blessing or that what you are doing will benefit the other person. The following four points all help in maintaining this positive attitude.
Verse 3 says, "I do not say this to condemn." Paul's goal was not to hurt them or to get even. In chapter 3 Paul contrasted a ministry of condemnation with a ministry of life. Both ministries pointed out sin, but the ministry of condemnation was only concerned about the law and did not care about the person. The ministry of the Spirit is concerned about the restoration of the people as well.
Paul said, "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (3:6). He didn't just use the law to bring conviction and prove that he was right. It is easy to use the Word like a club, but Paul was interested in far more than just winning an argument. Paul wanted to win the person. Paul was opening the wound (which inflicted pain) so that he could pour in the medicine of grace. So he assures them, in effect, I'm not writing this because I'm against you; I'm here because I'm on your side!
The next phrase continues this positive attitude by expressing confidence in the relationship. Verse 3 says, "For I have said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. Great is my boldness of speech toward you, great is my boasting on your behalf." Some have translated this as "I have great confidence in you" (NIV). Don't give up on your Christian relationships. Paul would not give up on the Corinthians. You have every reason to have the same confidence when dealing with believers in your congregation. They are loved by God, indwelt by the Spirit, set apart to be conformed to Christ, and endowed with God's promise that He would finish the good work that He has begun.
Once you are armed with the confidence of what God's grace can achieve, you will begin depending upon Him rather than acting like it all depends upon you. In fact, if you think it is up to you to change people's hearts, then you are going to be tempted to anger and frustration when people don't change. So, we need confidence as an expression of our faith in God. But we need to maintain a confidence in the relationship so the other person knows that they can be secure in the relationship of love even though they are wrong.
Another way to show a positive attitude is to express faith in the Biblical process. Paul said in v. 4 "I am filled with comfort, I am exceedingly joyful in all our tribulation." It was not the situation that gave him comfort, but the process that God had put in place. Paul said that God's methods were capable of tearing down strongholds and taking every thought captive. We don't use the means of conciliation that God has given in a cynical way. We must believe in God's process and be committed to it.
Another way that Paul maintained a positive attitude was to deal not only with the past but with the future. There is nothing that can be done to change the past and it won't help the conflict to nag about it. Constantly bringing up the past is a sure way to spoil any attempts at bringing reconciliation. Forget about the past. Begin working on the problem now, and have hope for the future. Walking in the preceding four principles were constructive ways that Paul embraced to maintain a positive attitude.
The tenth point is that we should be committed to our fellow believers till death parts us. Do struggles happen in marriage? Yes, but you can't just leave your marriage. You are committed. Paul was so committed to unity that he was willing to live or die for the Corinthians.
Be committed to radical unity and appeal for radical unity. And just look at how radical that unity really was: Paul said, "you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together." If people are convinced that you are committed to them in the Lord, it makes all the difference in the world. Isn't that what 1 John 3:16 commands us to do in the church? "By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren."
When you have that kind of radical commitment to each other you are less likely to leave in a huff. Many wives and husbands have been tempted to call it quits-but then they remember that they can't. They are committed. And we need to have that commitment to believers. 1 John 3:16 and this passage call us to be willing to live and die together.
Options for Resolution
We shouldn't forget that there are several options for conflict resolution. Too many Christians default to one or two. Some churches default directly to church discipline while other churches ignore problems that should not be ignored. While it is true that love covers a multitude of sins, there are sins that love must confront.
The same is true of our conflicts with unbelievers. While either ignoring an unbeliever's sins or taking him to court are options on occasion, the Bible delineates many more options. Because I am restricting my comments to 2 Corinthians 7, I won't cover these in depth, but I list fifteen options below that are available to you for resolving conflicts. Study them and you will come away with a new appreciation for how God's law-word addresses the messiness of life with a wide variety of options:
Options for unbelievers
- Give in (Gen. 26:15-22)
- Rebuke (Luke 3:19-20; John rebuked Herod)
- Ignore (Luke 13:31-33)
- Flee (Matt 10:23; Acts 8:1)
- Use the law against persecutors (Acts 22:24-26; Tit. 3:13; Zenas the lawyer)
- Appeal to officers for help (Acts 23:16-24)
- Appeal to higher court (Acts 25:9-12)
Options for believers
- Ignore for a time (1 Pet. 4:8)
- Rebuke (Lev. 19:17; Luke 17:3)
- Entreat (1 Tim. 5:1-2)
- Give in (1 Cor. 6:2). Pagan court brings emotional loss, economic loss, and loss of reputation, ministry, friendship.
- Negotiation (Matt. 18:15)
- Mediation (Matt. 18:16)
- Binding arbitration (1 Cor. 6:4-5)
- Church Court (Matt 18:16-20)
Paul was not a coward, he faced issues squarely (vv. 5-11). Some people are more interested in peace than they are in growth. Their cowardice avoids the issues that really are destroying the relationship in favor of superficial change. If the stakes are too high, they won't try to win the person. If there is too much emotion, they back out. If they get too stressed out, they decide that pursuing the matter simply isn't worth it. So you need to face the issue squarely.
Paul did this in two ways. First of all, he was not intimidated by the emotionally charged atmosphere. Being a conflict resolver was not easy for Paul. Verse 5 says, "For indeed, when we came to Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears." Paul found conflict very stressful. Yet he did not avoid the conflicts by avoiding the issues that needed to be confronted.
In this chapter Paul shows that he was not intimidated by the emotions of others. He knew that the long term results were worth pursuing. In v. 8 he says, "For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for awhile. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance." This shows that Paul was more interested in their well-being than in an artificial peace.
Some people will try to intimidate you with their anger or manipulate you with their tears. They do this so that you won't deal with the real issues. If you let them succeed in this, you are failing them. Certainly, Scripture calls us to cover a multitude of sins with love, but it is never loving to allow alienation to persist for weeks at a time.
We shouldn't let things drop prematurely before the issue is completely resolved (vv. 6-11). As you read through 2 Corinthians 7 there are two things that you should keep in mind: First, there is a difference between regret and repentance (vv. 9-10 makes that quite clear). Second, true reconciliation makes all parties completely "clear in this matter" (v. 11).
With premature reconciliation people might feel like there is nothing more to do because they are at least talking to each other, yet a huge rift may still exist between them. If you were only interested in winning the argument, that would be fine. But Paul wanted to win the people. And when genuine repentance came about, it was well worth the wait even though it was a long wait and even though Paul regretted it for a while. In v. 11 Paul says, "For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner; What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter." Biblical resolutions of conflict seek to bring a complete clearing of the matter.
Win People, Not Arguments
The last principle is that Paul sought to win people, not arguments (vv. 7-16). There are three ways he tried to do this:
First, he always communicated affection and caring for those he differed with. He starts this chapter by calling them beloved (v. 1). That's another way of saying, ‘I love you." He said that his heart was wide open for them (6:11). He told them that he was united to them in life and in death (7:3). In v. 12 he says "that our care for you in the sight of God might appear to you." Over and over Paul reminded them that he loved them and cared for them. We would do well to do the same. During times of conflict people might begin to think that we don't care for them because we disagree with them. Constantly communicate this affection.
The second way Paul sought to win people rather than arguments was that he didn't take sides with people; he took sides on issues ... and there is a big difference. He wanted the best for all the parties. For example, in v. 12 he says, "Therefore, although I wrote to you, I did not do it for the sake of him who had done the wrong, nor for the sake of him who suffered wrong, but that our care for you in the sight of God might appear to you." He is saying, "I wasn't motivated out of a like for one person and a dislike for the other." No. He genuinely showed concern and caring for those on all sides of the issue. When you have this kind of attitude, you can work out Biblical solutions in many instances.
Acts 15 is an excellent example of this. If all Paul had been interested in was winning an argument, it would have been a clear-cut case of the Circumcision party being wrong, and the Pauline party being right. But because the church was people-oriented rather than merely issue-oriented, a solution was worked out that didn't compromise on Biblical principle yet still (to a point) satisfied all parties.
Secondly, in Acts 15 everyone was allowed to speak. In this well-structured conference, the minority was given a voice so that a compromise could be worked out. So there was procedural satisfaction, which further united them.
Thirdly, all sides of the debate were treated with respect and honor, and all of the major concerns of the parties were at least partly addressed. The circumcision party was not made to feel like outsiders.
Paul shows those same sensitivities in this epistle. Because he sought to win people, not arguments, he gave the Corinthians from all sides at least minimal satisfaction on the issues, both on the procedure that was followed and on the respect and care that was shown. If we want to win people rather than arguments, we need to do the same.
The evidence that Paul put winning people first over winning arguments was that he ended up closer to the Corinthians as a result of the conflict. This is the outcome that we should all desire. Verse 7 says, "and not only by his coming, but also by the consolation with which he was comforted in you, when he told us of your earnest desire, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced even more." Everybody grew through this time of conflict. Verse 15 says of Titus, "his affections are greater for you." Titus actually cared more for them now than he had before. His affections were greater for them.
One of the ways that you can tell if you have handled conflict in a Biblical way or not is by examining the long term results. Are you closer to the people, or is there a lingering distance and alienation? Is that person made to feel fully welcomed back (as was the prodigal son), or is he treated poorly? For Christians the latter is never an option. We are called by God to win people, not simply to win conflicts.
While there is far more that God's law has to say about this subject, the span of scripture we've examined above sets forth a clear framework for achieving resolution to difficult issues. However, there will be occasions when resolution is simply impossible. This is why Romans 12:18 says, "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men." Therefore, it is my prayer that we all depend upon God to use us as peacemakers. May God receive the glory through the faithful efforts that we make.
1. L. Randolph Lowry, J.D. and Richard W. Meyers, Conflict Management and Counseling, volume 29 of the Resources for Christian Counseling series (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, Inc, 1991), p. 189.
2. McSwain, Larry L., and William C. Treadwell, Jr. Conflict and Ministry in the Church (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1981), p. 36.
- Phillip G. Kayser