Biblical Conflict Resolution: 6 Questions to Ask
Biblical Conflict Resolution: 6 Questions to Ask
by Mindy May, PhD
During my years at Cedarville University, I have been asked to speak on conflict resolution in various classes and student staff training events. Any time I speak on conflict resolution with our students, I typically ask the audience, “How many of you enjoy conflict?” Stilled silence. Then I ask, “How many of you would say you avoid conflict at all costs?” The majority of in the room raise their hands.
With the ever-increasing use of digital platforms and communication veins, the art of healthy conflict resolution has taken a significant hit. We live in a time where communication is dwindled to a few short texts to communicate a breadth of experiences and emotions. Through this type of communication, the meta-message of communication is often lost; eye contact, tone of voice, intent, and personal care are all absent from the conversation. Whether it is training our Resident Assistants or equipping women’s ministry leaders, a few simple principles help offer some foundational tools to live out this aspect of biblical community.
As Christians, we are very familiar with Matthew 18, the passage that instructs us on what to do when there is conflict between brothers and sisters in Christ.
“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. 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 18:15-17
This passage is in no way the only one that addresses how we should engage with one another. Proverbs 12:18, Proverbs 15:1, Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:29, and others are helpful references that offer sound wisdom — biblical wisdom — on how to engage conflict with others. Often people are keen to grasp the theological concepts and directives, but seldom feel equipped to put the wisdom into practice.
There are two important truths about conflict to remember:
- Conflict is INEVITABLE! – That may sound depressing, but in our current state, there is no way around it. With the introduction of sin into the world in Genesis 3, conflict was present. The perfect union between God and man was severed, but the perfect union between man and woman, man and creation, and man and self were also marred. We see the conflict clearly unfold. God asks Adam, “Where are you?” Adam identifies himself and admits to eating the fruit they were instructed not to eat. Adam blames Eve and God for his behavior. Eve blames the serpent. There you have it — lack of responsibility, blame shifting, and HURT enter the picture … along with many, many, more complexities. A true trauma to the human race. Even though God has made a redemptive path for us through the work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we still live in the present tension of sin-stained reality.
- Healthy conflict resolution produces CHANGE! – If we continually “brush things under the rug” and never engage in seeking forgiveness, reconciling, mending broken relationships, exhorting one another, or truly building one another up, we are diminishing an essential function of the Body of Christ. It is only through engaging conflict that true change in relational dynamics can occur. Therefore, the question is not, “How do I avoid conflict?” But, rather, “How do I engage conflict in a way that is honoring to God and others?”
So, what can we do?
6 Questions for Healthy Conflict Resolution
Ask the following questions when you encounter conflict:
- What is the problem? – Oftentimes in conflict with one another, both parties are not always informed. This is frequently the primary barrier for “conflict avoiders” because they find solace in the fact that the other person is not aware of the fracture in their relationship. They would rather personally hold the conflict for fear of making the fracture deeper by permitting the other person insight into their hurt. However, this is where bitterness, resentment, and unhelpful behaviors like passive-aggressiveness — or even gossip and slander — can begin to set in and create bigger problems. Ensuring that all members involved in the conflict are aware of the problem is an essential starting point toward resolution.
- When did the problem start: Event vs. Pattern? – Many people wonder, “When is it worth saying something?” The advice I typically give is: it depends. If something is unequivocally sinful, wrong, harmful, and dangerous — it is not only appropriate but imperative that the problem is addressed. However, those types of concerns are seldom in question and seem evident. If the problem is less obvious, my recommendation is to assess if the problem is an event vs. a pattern. An event can be defined as a one-time occurrence; something has occurred that is troublesome or hurtful in a relationship. In some cases, an event is something that we can choose to think charitably (a word we rarely use) and graciously about. These are our opportunities to let things roll off our shoulders because we are trying to assume the best in others. Conversely, a pattern is when a behavior or attitude is repeated in the relationship and the impact is becoming much more significant. Often with a relational event, we can choose in wisdom whether or not we address the situation. With a pattern, we often need to take the step of engaging in conflict resolution conversations.
- What is the goal of the conversation? – I want to highlight the word RESOLUTION as we discuss conflict resolution. People often enter into challenging conversations with the intent to “vent” or “process” their emotions, but are not prepared to work toward resolution. We have a tendency to want to be heard, but are not yet prepared or willing to receive feedback or work toward reconciliation or resolution. I would strongly caution against this. The goal of conflict resolution is to collaborate with one another to work toward a common goal. As Christians, we should be wise with our words — slow to speak and slow to become angry as James reminds us (James 1:19). This requires being prayerful, charitable, loving, and aware of what you would like to communicate and what you are working toward.
- What logistics should be considered? – The “when” and “where” of conflict resolution conversations is critical in optimizing the best results. Taking time to consider other’s time, stresses, and preparedness for the conversation shows care and respect. It is often helpful to establish a time and location that works best for both parties involved. (i.e., “Hi Susan. I would like to have a conversation about _______. When is a good time for you?”). By identifying the problem and establishing a mutually beneficial time and location, both parties can come prepared to engage the conversation and not feel taken off guard.
- Am I understanding? – Thus far, questions 1-4 have touched on preliminary heart and mind work before engaging in the actual conversation. While conflict resolution should be focused on resolve, the actual real-time conversation is contingent on mutual understanding. Often in conflict conversations, when grievances are raised, people have a tendency to build their defense to the grievance before the person has finished speaking. This is a major misstep in communication. If a person is solely building their personal rebuttal before a person has articulated their thoughts, it is likely that the message has been misunderstood. Engaging in this conversation requires that a person slow down long enough to prioritize understanding one another’s perspective before working toward next steps.
- What is the resolution? – Now that the conflict has been discussed, it is time to collaborate on options for moving forward. Through genuine love, consideration, and understanding, both parties can work together to formulate solutions.
While these questions are not a fool-proof guide for resolving conflict, they are helpful tools for equipping our Cedarville students in a willingness to grow in biblical maturity.
Dr. Mindy May serves as Associate Vice President for Student Development and Dean of Students at Cedarville University. She earned her PhD in psychology and counseling from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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