Seven Habits of Highly Effective Churches, #6

Positive Outcomes to Conflict

August 17, 1997

There was no deeper alienation in the first-century world than that between Gentiles and Jews. Here is what Paul said about that chasm in light of what Jesus had done:

For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with Godís people and members of Godís household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:14-20).

The church is supposed to model the unity of Godís people before a fragmented world. We are supposed to demonstrate that community can be a reality. Not only do we exhibit the divisions of warring factions across the centuries, however, we periodically seem to self-destruct in our local churches. When I was a teenager, a church less than a dozen miles from my hometown split. The new group built directly across the road from the old one, and the neighbors witnessed ó and continue to see to this day ó how spiteful "Christians" can be to one another.

Conflict Cannot Be Avoided

Because we are human, conflict is inevitable in our dealings with one another. Family, business, school, church ó there is no entity with two or more members that is exempt. The question in the non-cinema, real world is whether conflict must always be destructive. And the answer to that question is an unqualified: That depends!

Whether a conflict is destructive or constructive depends on the reaction the parties involved make to the situation. If the conflict causes them to forget their common cause and focuses them on the negatives they see in one another, it will be destructive; if it moves them to clarify their vision and reaffirm the original commitment they made, it will be constructive. If the conflict turns into attacks on personalities, it will be permanently destructive; if it is confined to a problem and seeking a solution for it, it will be constructive for the long term. It the conflict reveals hidden agendas in conflict, it can destroy the relationship; if it enables them to discover a common cause larger than anyoneís personal agenda, it can free the marriage, company, or church to move ahead together.

Conflict doesnít necessarily mean that a bad person is doing a terrible thing from a rotten motive. Neither does it mean that Satan is manipulating one or both parties to his wicked purpose. It may be something as simple as different personalities or as complex as poor communication. In many, many marriages I have witnessed and in one I have lived, conflict has come into play for a reason as obvious as gender differences. Has anyone other than me noticed that men and women donít always think alike? Donít always read situations the same? Assume different primary methods of appropriate response to a common problem?

I used to dread "problem" discussions with Myra. I read her need to talk with me about paying next yearís college tuition for one of the kids or an idea she had about how to make our den more functional as a call for me to solve the problem. So I would put it off as long as possible and then go into it with all my defenses up. Sheíd begin, and Iíd interrupt. She would raise the possibility of going to work, and Iíd hear her say I was a failure as a provider. She would ask about a lighter color for the walls, and I would explain how I was too busy to paint them. You know what? Iíve learned since that she wasnít expecting me to show her the money for tuition or to paint the den. She never meant to make me feel inadequate.

She just needed to talk about those things ó to be heard, to be considered a genuine partner in dealing with our family issues. She was going to do the painting. She knew weíd have to pay the tuition in monthly increments. She did go to work for several years, and it not only saved our skin with two sons in college at the same time but taught me to appreciate all the things she had been doing to keep our household going for years ó and taught me how to be a less-selfish partner in getting some of those things done.

What a shock to my little pea-sized brain to find out that her questions were not requests for solutions or challenges to my ego. They were simply attempts to talk, show concern, be heard on an issue, and get information. We were Mars and Venus before Mars and Venus were cool. (By the way, Iím speaking of these things in the past tense. If that seems to imply I donít do them anymore, let me disclaim that right now. I donít want to face a lie on the Judgment Day!)

Would it surprise you to learn that the same dynamics work in a church? A question to a preacher or elder may not be an indictment at all. Nine times out of ten, it isnít. Itís nothing more than a simple request for information. It expresses the positive desire to be a partner in this community called church. If more church leaders were aware of that, significant bloodshed among believers could be avoided.

In James 3, the half-brother in the flesh of our Lord Jesus contrasts "worldly" methods with the "heavenly wisdom" that is given to the people of God. If you read him carefully, you will discover that one of the fundamental distinctions between worldly and heavenly ways is an attitude toward controversy and peacemaking.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness (Jas. 3:13-18).

It is the worldís way to pursue personal agendas and to nurture selfish ambition.

There is an unbridled desire to win and to control. On the other hand, godly people love peace, are considerate toward one another, and try to avoid personal agendas in the kingdom of God. A key term in this text is the word translated "submissive" (Gk, eupeithes) in the New International Version. It is used only here in the New Testament and could mean submissive or obedient to God. More likely, however, it refers to a submissive spirit in relation to other people. Thus the New Revised Standard renders it "willing to yield." It is the opposite of a stubborn spirit that is closed to discussion and persuasion.

How does one demonstrate a spirit that is open to reason? Is there a strategy a married couple, business partners, or church members could use with one another that will generate more positive than negative outcomes? Yes. And its elements can be laid out fairly easily. The trick is in remembering to use it when the crunch times come.

A Strategy That Works

The Bible makes it clear that conflict among brothers in Christ is supposed to be resolved in a God-honoring way. Jesus interpreted the Decalogueís commandment against murder to entail a strategy for resolving conflict that imposes personal responsibility. If I recall that some brother has a matter standing open with me that I have not already tried to address and resolve, I am supposed to leave the worship site and go look for him. "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar," Jesus said. "First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift" (Matt. 5:23-25).

Ideally, my adversary and I would bump into each other on the way to finding one another. Each would have been looking to find the other, pray together, talk, and come to a resolution of our problem. Too often it doesnít work that way. The talking is behind someone elseís back rather than to his or her face. My duty to you is to talk with you about any problem I have with you, not some third party. And our mutual responsibility at that point is to resolve our problem in a way that glorifies God.

Here are seven steps to resolving conflicts that will work for a family, an office, or among members of a church.

First, assume right motives on everyoneís part. Rabbi David A. Nelson tells the story of two brothers who went to their rabbi to settle a long-standing feud. The rabbi got them to reconcile their differences and shake hands. As they were about to leave, he asked each one to make a wish for the other in honor of the approaching Jewish New Year. The first brother turned to the other and said, "I wish you what you wish me." At that, the second threw up his hands and said, "See, Rabbi, heís starting it again!"

If each of us would give the other the benefit of the doubt, some potential conflicts could die without a confrontation being necessary. "What did he mean by that comment?" could become "Iím sure he didnít mean that the way it could be taken." If you just canít get the negative possibility out of your mind, go and ask for clarification. But donít assume the worst. Donít put the most negative possible spin on an action or statement, for that may say more about you than the other person.

Letís suppose, however, that a real grievance is already there. When you call your sister, ask to meet with an elder, or make an appointment with the youth minister, pray for God to help you assume that she or he has the same love for Christ and the same desire for peace in the body that you have. The conversation begins better with that attitude fixed in your own mind.

Second, clarify the issue(s) at stake. When you sit down to talk, begin with a prayer for God to help you listen and get clear about what is really going on. I read of a small town newspaper that regularly ran an article by one of the local ministers. In one weekís paper, a typesetter mistakenly inserted an "l" for the letter "h" in a familiar verse that made it read this way: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not clarity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal." It is a quotation error, but it is an important truth about conflict resolution. If we are not clear about what is really at stake, we will likely never arrive at a satisfactory resolution.

"Bob, if I hear you correctly, youíre saying that you are bothered by . . ." is a simple technique called restatement. You are reflecting back to the person in your own words what you have heard. "Ellen, let me say that back to you, and you tell me if I have the issue clear in my mind."

Maybe youíve heard Jeff Walling tell the story of a brother getting in his face one Sunday about the singing during that morningís communion. He listened and then reflected back what he had heard. "So youíre telling me that you donít think we should sing while the bread and wine are being passed," he said. "Am I hearing you correctly?" The man said, "No, thatís not a problem with me. But when we sing Iíd like for someone to be up front as a leader. It helps me to look into somebodyís face, to know what verse of the song is coming next, and so on." Thatís a very different issue from the one Jeff was getting ready to address. I wonder how often we human beings respond to the wrong issue in our conversations because we havenít understood the other person?

Third, define your expectations. What is the goal of this conversation? Are we trying to persuade each other of contrary points of view? Are you just seeking clarification of a point of view? Do we agree that it is all right for Christians to have different points of view and still affirm one another in the Lord?

Mike Cope tells about a Sunday when the parents of a lot of incoming students at Abilene Christian University were at the Highland Church. On the following Monday morning, a fellow called and wanted to make an appointment within the next day or two. "Itís important!" he insisted. With the time set, he showed up and began demanding that Mike explain why the church had been led to sing during the eating of the bread the previous Sunday and allowed to be silent during the serving of the fruit of the vine. He was a bit animated, and it seemed clear to Mike that he was about to be excoriated not for what hadnít happened during the passing of the wine but for what had happened during the eating of the bread. I thought his answer was brilliant. He said, "We did it that way to demonstrate that nobody can have his way all the time in this church."

Do you like silence during the communion? Do you like singing? Do you like large classes? Do you like small ones? Do you like thematic sermons through books of the Bible? Do you prefer current-events sermons that apply the Bible to breaking issues of our time? Do you want the education building erected this fall? Do you want to wait until weíve raised half its cost in advance? Nobody can have his way all the time, and no decision pleases everybody. Show some Christian charity and generosity. Donít expect everything to be the way you would do it if everything were left to you.

Fourth, brainstorm the possibilities for solving the problem. If it is a husband and wife dealing with family finances or a church business meeting about next yearís program, itís better to hear several possibilities than to push an agenda or to have one pushed on you. Of course you have some ideas! But it is always a good plan to ask others to suggest theirs. You might hear something better than your own, and you can avoid being embarrassed for not having thought of it!

The idea of "alternative solutions" means this to some people: My way or the highway. That approach has been used in churches since at least the time of Diotrophes. He was the first-century church boss who, according to the apostle John, always had to be first and get his way (3 John 9-10). Iíve met his modern counterpart several times.

I once heard about a "boss elder" whose predictable trump card with which to veto what five or six other elders had come to agreement on was as follows: "Well, if weíre going to do that, I guess Iíll just have to find another church to attend." One night a frustrated fellow-elder in that church was moved by God to reply in a way different from the usual "No, we donít want that!" and to say instead something his fellow-elders were startled to hear. "Iím going to miss you," he said, "but I want you to know Iíll always appreciate the good things youíve done at this church." Emboldened by him, so said every other man in the room! A speechless church bully gathered up his papers and left the meeting. That night marked the liberation of a church that has consistently moved forward since cutting that shackle off its leadership group that night.

Plural leadership in a church ó a body of shepherds, deacons, ministry leaders, and church staff ó is not only more scriptural but more practical than one-person rule. There is collective wisdom in the pooling of ideas. Sharing ideas in a non-threatening, non-bullying way with peers allows creativity to flow. It allows iron to sharpen iron in the give and take of respectful discussion.

Fifth, decide on a plan of action by consensus rather than unanimity. A husband and wife making vacation plans or a church deciding on an evangelistic strategy for its community may never come up with a unanimous solution. While unanimity may sound ideal, it is not practical because of the diversity of opinions among bright and spiritual people.

The larger a church grows, the more skill it takes to negotiate conflicts and reach consensus. The traditional alternative to the painful process of building consensus is for a group of elders to make a decision and then try to force it on everybody else. That is the strategy that has produced repeated church splits. Sometimes the split would occur before it ever reached the congregation, for somebody in the governing body of elders was determined to force his way on the rest either by coercion or veto.

You have probably watched the phenomenon in churches that I have observed more than once. Leaders trying to find perfect solutions lost the chance to reach workable ones. In the meanwhile, months or years pass. Opportunities were lost. And a church died. To quote Mike Armour:

A good choice made in a timely fashion tends to be far more fruitful than a perfect choice made too late.

True consensus-building, then, is not waiting for the absolutely best decision. Consensus-building is finding a plan with a reasonable promise of success, then rallying everyone behind it.1

The elders at Woodmont Hills do not operate like a jury that requires a unanimous vote to adopt a policy, hire a staff member, or decide on a methodology. They operate by consensus, and it has been a long time since Iíve heard anyone say, "Well, that was the groupís decision, but I was against it!" Not only a body of elders but a whole church ó in order to make solid decisions, rally the troops, and get things done that the Lord is calling his people to do in this generation ó must learn to make decisions by consensus.

Sixth, act on the consensus decision, support it with daily prayer, and resist the temptation to be a critic waiting for it to win you over. We are in service to the God of the Universe. We are preaching the gospel to the world. We are offering the world an alternative to its swimming-with-the-sharks mentality. So we must focus on kingdom issues rather than our personal tastes.

The issue all our churches seem to be in turmoil over is worship styles. Shall we be high church, Stamps-Baxter, or contemporary? Shall we use a single leader or a praise team for our music? Does the praise team need four voices or eight or ten? What is appropriate for females on these praise teams? How long should the service be? How should Sunday evenings be used? Are we asking people to stand up too long during todayís service? How free or restricted should we be in using technology?

Letís not be critics but worshipers when we gather on the Lordís Day! Letís use our freedom responsibly. Letís observe our limitations with forbearance and grace. Letís stop chalking up the things we like or donít like and simply seek the face of the Lord.

We must be careful not to act like spoiled brats about worship. "I didnít get what I wanted!" "We had too many old songs!" "Today wasnít as good as last Sunday!" "I donít like it when we do this or that!" We donít assemble to get pleased, but to get challenged. We donít come together to find what we want, but to be found by God. We donít come together to see what the preacher will have to offer, but to experience what God will choose to do.

If your heartís desire is worship, come here and open your heart to Godís presence with us. When that is your spirit, he will show up to meet you ó even on our "worst days." When we have a sophomore Bible major from Lipscomb to preach, you will still learn something you need to hear from the Holy Book. When the music is awful, your heart will still soar. When leaders arenít as prepared or as competent as you wish we were, God will still purify and lift you ó if you truly come here as a worshiper.

Seventh, agree on a plan for follow-up before you part. Agree on the time you will meet to review the implementation of the consensus decision that has been made. Promise each other to pray for and support its implementation. Pledge yourselves to pray for one another. Then move on without hard feelings over the original conflict that made the meeting necessary in the first place.


Isnít it ironic? The most effective churches are not the most homogenous ones but incredibly diverse groups whose unity is found in deep commitment to Jesus. The commitment to something larger than themselves has bonded black and white, Jews and Gentiles, males and females, marrieds and singles, old and young, rich and poor, illiterates and scholars, Stamps-Baxterites and Bach-lovers into one body!

God didnít call us together with people like ourselves so we could get along. He has brought us together to crash against each other, sharpen each other as iron sharpens iron, teach each of us to affirm the otherís worth and dignity. He has brought us into the church to teach us to forgive, love, and cherish one another for Christís sake. For that reason, any toehold Satan hopes to claim because of our diversity and inevitable conflicts gets turned on him as a positive opportunity to learn more about love for one another.

Only God could create such a community. What a faithful and mighty God we serve.


1Mike Armour, "Fostering Congregational Consensus," Wineskins Vol.3, No.2, p.26.

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