One of my favorite stories from The Office is the plot of Season 2, Episode 21, titled “Conflict Resolution.” In the episode, the blundering boss, Michael Scott, wants to show his management skills by resolving workplace disputes. He pulls out his corporate binder full of instructions and spends the entire episode making all the conflicts worse.
It is a funny episode because it is so relatable. We have all made well-intended attempts to mend fences with someone, only to make it worse. Businesses and institutions write up guidelines and protocols for workplace tensions, but silent resentment is still more common than actual reconciliation.
Is conflict management different for Christians? Do we have any special advantages or tools for managing personal problems that others might not have? It seems reasonable that a religion whose founder taught the virtue of peacemaking and turning the other cheek would have something worth hearing about responding to conflicts.
What does biblical conflict resolution look like?
In the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus outlines a specific and practical process. “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” (Matthew 18:15).
Step One: Talk to your brother, not about your brother.
Our goal has to be to mend the relationship, not to win an argument. Nor is our concern being vindicated in the eyes of others. If that is truly our goal, the other person’s front door has to be our first destination. We have a candid and empathetic conversation that allows the other person to save a little face while making things right.
Why don’t we do this every time? Or ever? Mainly because our goal is not actually reconciliation. We don’t want it. We want vindication. We want validation. We want our friends to hear our version of the story and agree with us. Our selfish hearts value empty confirmation over reconciliation to the person who wronged us. Otherwise, we would be speaking to them.
Jesus knows, of course, that it doesn’t always go that simply, so he has another step to offer us. “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” (Matthew 18:16). When we can’t resolve conflict in the first attempt, our temptation is to give up. We start avoiding the person rather than working on a solution.
Step Two: Be persistent in the work of reconciliation.
Jesus tells us that instead of giving up, we look for reinforcements. We bring in more peacemakers. These witnesses are not merely there to listen. Verse 17 begins, “if he refuses to listen to them,” indicating that the witnesses are active in the conversation. They are advocating for reconciliation and – when needed – repentance. You may be the one they encourage to repent! The goal is to get an extra set of eyes and ears on the problem and add wisdom and calm to a tense situation.
What if our brother still cannot be persuaded to mend the problem? Christ teaches that we have still more avenues for healing. “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” (Matthew 18:17). That passage sounds grim, and it may even suggest that some problems will not find their resolution at all.
However, Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this sentence in The Message suggests an alternative interpretation. “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” Peterson understands this instruction not as shunning a troublemaker, but as a renewed approach to reconciliation.
Imagine you were a Jewish person who felt wronged by another Jewish person. You might have begun appealing to your friend by using the Law of Moses and its teachings, assuming you shared the same basic beliefs on right and wrong. But as you worked on the conflict, it might have become obvious that your “brother” either did not know or did not care to follow the teachings of Moses. At that point, you would have needed to change your approach. How would you approach a Gentile who had wronged you? How would you speak to someone with whom you had nothing in common?
This may be the point Jesus is making. We begin this process by talking to the other person, but along the way, perhaps we learn that they do not share with us the same values and convictions. The way you work to persuade your brother or sister in Christ is different than you would a stranger. But if treating them as a brother fails, we still have the opportunity to reach out to them in the way we could a stranger. We begin anew by discussing the most basic teachings of Christ and trying to persuade this person in the same way we might talk with a person who knows nothing about Jesus at all. We engage the church in re-evangelizing the other person who seems to have forgotten what it means to be a Christian.
Of course, this more confrontational approach of involving the whole church certainly includes the possibility of alienating the brother (1 John 2:19). Some would see that as a failure of reconciliation, but this is not how Scripture speaks. Sin is not taken lightly, and so neither is the labor of reconciliation. In Corinth for example, Paul addressed an example of blatant, sexual immorality. The Corinthians were not too concerned about it. Paul, on the other hand, is incensed. “Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:2). In Scripture, the message is not that we should get along by tolerating sin, but that we should work to see it cured, forgiven, and healed. If that proves to be a painful process, we know true reconciliation is worth the price.
Imagine two churches. In one church, a person sins against another, and the issue is simply ignored to keep the peace. In another church, the sin is candidly confronted, but the sinner refuses all entreaties and ultimately leaves the church. Which church was actually working toward reconciliation? If you can answer that question, then you are prepared to understand and implement our third step.
Step Three: Involve the church to create true reconciliation, not false peace.
The reason that we are adamant about real reconciliation taking place is our conviction that these wrongs in need of righting have grave implications. “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). Treat reconciliation as a work of eternal importance because it is. Infighting between fellow believers is not a mere earthly inconvenience; it is a heavenly affair with lasting consequences.
Christian conflicts are handled differently because of our perspectives on these problems. In a secular environment, we manage conflicts to reduce the discomfort and anxiety that come with them. Secular conflict management is ultimately selfish. I am not trying to help you so much as I am trying to improve the conditions of my own life with you in it.
Christians see it differently. We are not merely trying to get along or make our circumstances a little more tolerable. We are not managing a conflict in hopes of an empty peace. We are seeking God-filled reconciliation in the faith that He can bring about personal change in all of us.
”All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18–19).
Jesus did not die so that we could merely tolerate each other. Jesus died so that our sins could be reconciled and forgiven. This God who left heaven to pay the cost to reconcile us to himself despite our sins will not be overwhelmed by the petty grievances we have against each other here on earth.
Because of its importance, Christ does not leave us alone with the task. “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:19–20). We began by asking if Christian reconciliation differed from how conflict is managed in other arenas. Here, Jesus tells us that is very different because he is there with us. Christian reconciliation is about God healing his people through his Son, Jesus Christ. Wherever Christians come together to work toward healing and forgiveness, Jesus is there working with them.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.
Republished with permission from Blogs.crossmap.com, featuring inspiring Bible verses about Reconcile Quickly.