A Manual on Christian Conflict Resolution
Conflict resolution is more than a bleak necessity.
By Wong Kim Kong
(Consultation on Conflict Resolution July 19 2003)
As a result of increasing pressure in life and work expectations, there have been rising tensions and conflicts in interpersonal relationships. Even the closest friends have disagreements. The best-run church also experiences discord. A church is as susceptible to conflicts as any other secular organization in the marketplace. So it's not surprising that the church, with its mix of older and younger generations, active and inactive members, committed and lukewarm, is ripe for conflict. It's simply inevitable.
A conflict between two people in a church may in any time affect an entire congregation, unresolved tensions between pastors and leaders may rob the church of effective leadership, and disputes between members in business with one another may lead to lawsuits, and so on. As a result, people are hurt, some leave the church or ministry; division occurs and eventually leads to church split and unforgiveness.
Given this scenario, how can we manage the disparities in ways that bring Christians closer instead of driving them apart? How can we develop a Biblical approach of addressing hot-button issues before they hamper our relationship and the church's progress? How, in fact, can we transform conflict into a positive force that sparks improvements in our partnership and ministry?
This paper is intended to serve as a guide for resolving conflicts. It's a simple practical "how-to" manual in dealing with some critical issues.
I. CHURCH CONFLICT RESOLUTION AND MEDIATION
What is conflict resolution?
Conflict resolution refers generally to strategies and process by which a dispute between two or more parties is resolved peacefully and cooperatively outside the traditional disciplinary procedures. It’s a way to settle disagreements amicably by getting to the root of the problems and find lasting solutions. It means working things out without aggression, name-calling or hurting the feelings of others; without running away from difficult situations; and without going against others’ feelings or beliefs. The process sometimes may involve negotiation, mediation and arbitration.
What is mediation?
Mediation is a structured problem-solving process in which the parties involved, with the assistance of a neutral third party (the mediator), identify the disputed issues, develop options, consider alternatives and endeavour to reach an agreement. The mediator has no advisory or determinative role with regard to the content of the dispute or the outcome of its resolution, but may advise on or determine the process of mediation whereby resolution is attempted.
The mediators manage the process, including communications, discussions and negotiations, in such a way that the parties have a full opportunity to give thorough consideration to all of the issues, personal and legal ramifications, possible settlements and alternative outcomes. The parties will be encouraged to discuss the important needs, interests, values and goals that are motivating them to pursue the matter, and to rely on their attorneys to advise them of the legal implications of the issues and any decision they may make.
- The passage of Matthew 18:15–17 gives us clear directions on the procedure on conflict resolution and church discipline.
- Always remember that the motivation behind every conflict resolution and discipline is redemption and restoration. (Gal. 6:1)
- When dealing with reproof, one should avoid harshness or condemnation, and allow the preeminence of the spirit of Christ to prevail. (2 Tim. 2:24-26)
- There will always be the extending of forgiveness up to "seventy times seven." (Matt. 18:21-22)
- The process and efforts in mediating will most likely be a series of contacts.
- It takes a lot of nurture in reconciliation and restoration
- We must seek to express concern and attempt to work with two hands extended: one of mercy and grace towards healing, and the other of the unchanging standard of God’s Word.
- We must at all time, call the church to love these people, to pray for them, and to abstain from judgment; and to pray for the leaders who are making difficult decisions.
- The New Testament makes clear that the exercise of church discipline is for those "who are spiritual" (Gal. 6:1), and that discipline is to be carried out in a spirit of "meekness."
- It’s time for us to take the matter to the Father in prayer.
- Then, if a valid concern persists (not borne solely out of emotional reaction), face the person gently and seek for third party mediation.
- When an understanding prevails between two parties, the process of reconciliation becomes easier.
(A) CONFLICT RESOLUTION PROCESS INVOLVING TWO PARTIES:
"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you." Matt. 18:15a
- First, it calls for an open fellowship where two persons can honestly talk to one another about differences, shortcomings, and sins. Until we start talking, we cannot reconcile. Productive communication is necessary.
- Allow each party to express freely his or her feelings towards the issues.
- Gather information and to learn from one another. This can be achieved through attentive listening. Ask relevant questions as and when necessary (for information and clarification only.)
- Learn and understand the person’ situation and difficulties.
- Work towards a "win-win" situation where both parties arrived at an amicable solution.
- Take the matter to the Father in prayer.
- If a valid concern persists (not borne solely out of emotional reaction), face the person gently and seek for third party mediation.
- Prevent defense mechanisms.
- Avoid any attempt to justify one actions.
- Learn to listen - summarize to the person what he or she has said.
- Reprove should be private.
- Listen to reproof. It is good for our character, an aid in our development, and a bridge-builder in our church’s web of relationships.
- It is not the time to gossip. It brings injury to the other person.
- Ask for forgiveness and also to release forgiveness if necessary.
(B) THIRD PARTY INVOLVES IN THE RECONCILIATION PROCESS:
"If he will not listen, take one or two others along." Matt. 18:16a
1. Establish the need for mediation
- Determine whether intervention is necessary.
- See whether the parties are willing to end the conflict.
- If the first step does not bring the needed response in private, it is time to involve two or more people.
2. Define the role of the mediator
- Define your role as mediator to support both parties to "win".
- Avoid mediating alone.
- The mediator serves as an instigator of, and impetus to, reconciliation.
- The mediator is not there to substantiate one’s prejudices but to bring new objectivity as God gives him/her spiritual insight.
3. Do your homework
- A person who handles conflict must do adequate research and investigation over the issues.
- Gather and learn as much information as possible, e.g. through attentive listening.
- Ask relevant questions as and when necessary (for information and clarification only.)
4. Develop the mediation agreement
- Negotiate a process agreeable to both parties.
- Establish sincerity of parties. Obtain an agreement from both parties on a basic willingness to fix the problem.
- Establish mediation in good faith.
- Establish the recognized people who have the authority to settle when there is an agreement.
- Establish that final agreement will be implemented.
iii. Confirm agreement on confidentiality.
- What will be discussed during mediation process cannot be used in court (in the event where mediation fails and court proceedings are required), in church congregation, and other places.
- A statement will be published at the end of the mediation. This has to be agreed by all parties.
- This is important to prevent cliques and gossips in the congregations.
iv. Confirm issues from all parties.
a. Purpose is to confirm agenda for the mediation.
b. Parties must be willing to discuss any issues that each
party deems relevant.
- Require a commitment to submit to the process regardless of the outcome.
5. Create a conducive atmosphere for discussion
- Call for an open fellowship where two persons can honestly talk to one another about differences, shortcomings, sins.
- Diffuse tension as much as possible.
- Use humor to lighten the atmosphere.
6. Give balanced treatment
- Try to listen and understand all sides with honesty and empathy.
- Careful to avoid being misconstrued as taking side.
- God wants us to make an effort to understand what is being communicated.
7. Consider pastoral needs
- Think through the situation well enough and suggest a sensible course of action.
- Take cognizance of their sensitivity and feelings.
8. Steps in mediation
- Introductions and agreements warm up, explanations, agenda if known.
- Turn the heat off and switch the light on.
- Do not impose your views or attempt to change the views of others.
- Generate discussion on the issues.
- Establishing the mediation
- What is the matter? Allow each person to express his/her views and feelings. Make sure the other party has actually understood them.
- Guide the conversation towards a joint problem solving approach and away from personal attack.
- Encourage all parties to look for answers where everybody gets what he/she needs.
- Redirect "fouls" (name-calling, put-downs, sneering, blaming, threats, bringing up the past, making excuses, not listening, get-even). Where possible, reframe the negative statement into a neutral description of a legitimate present time concern.
- What is involved? More details. Map out needs and concerns.
- Clarify misperceptions. Identify other relevant issues. Mirroring if needed.
- Where are they now? Identify areas of agreement. Encourage willingness to move forward. Hold a caucus if needed.
- Negotiation: Focus on future action. How would they like it to be? What would it take? Develop options. Trading - build "wins" for everyone.
9. Closure investigation
- What are the skirmishes still being fought?
- Who needs immediate rescue?
- What are the recovery signs?
- How healthy are the hurting people spiritually, emotional and psychologically?
- Plans for the future, including appointed time to review agreement. Closing statements.
10. Nurturing wounds
- Assist them to release and receive forgiveness.
- Getting them back into actions.
- Helping them to find the long-lost relationship and love.
- Improve the morale of the people affected.
- A period of rehabilitation through counseling is needed to:
- Develop the ability to overcome adversity.
- Receive spontaneous and structured discipleship.
- Re-enter into active involvement of the ministry.
- THE CHURCH INVOLVES IN THE RECONCILIATION PROCESS:
"If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church." Matt. 18:17a
- Follow the same process and same principles as stated in (B), except that the people involved are more than the second instance and they are usually leaders of the Church.
- CHURCH DISCIPLINE:
"If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." Matt. 18:17b
- The Church makes a corporate decision and executes discipline as deem necessary.
- A letter should be written to explain and express our concern, our understanding of what the person had done (based on Scripture), our love, and the responsibility we would accept in dismissing him or her from our fellowship.
- We treat the person as a nonbeliever, because he or she is not walking as a believer.
- It means to love the person as Jesus loved the publicans and sinners.
- It means to reach out to him/her in witness, but not to relate to him/her as a member of the body of Christ.
Qualifications of the Mediators:
Mediators intervening in and responding to conflicts need to be:
- Recognized and respected by the disputants.
- Spiritually matured and discerning.
- Skill in negotiation, mediation and arbitration.
- Understand group dynamics, community organizing and how to work with diverse groups of people.
Attitudes for Mediators:
Be objective - validate both sides, even if privately you prefer one point of view, or even when only one party is present.
Be supportive - use caring language. Provide a non-threatening learning environment, where people will feel safe to open up.
Non-judging - actively discourage judgements as to who is right and who is wrong. Don't ask "Why did you?" Ask "What happened?" and "How did you feel?"
Steer process, not content - use astute questioning. Encourage suggestions from participants. Resist advising. If your suggestions are really needed, offer as options not directives.
Win/win - work towards "wins" for both sides. Turn opponents into problem-solving partners.
Deciding factor in conflict resolution and mediation:
- The involvement of a credible panel for reconciliation and restoration in handling cases including threatened divorce, business disputes, and interpersonal strife.
- A pastor or recognized leader, simply by his weight of position and spiritual authority, can break the deadlock of conflict.
- An adequate pre-knowledge of the congregation members in understanding conflict – anticipation, prevention, confrontation and redemption, ease the process.
- Commitment to the process of mediation from all parties concerned alleviates complication and confusion.
- Are personality issues preventing communication and mediation?
- Do the parties understand each other’s interests?
- Are the parties willing to compromise?
II. CHRISTIAN CONFLICT RESOLUTION AND LITIGATION
- A continuing trend on the part of some members and churches to seek legal counsel and remedy as a first rather than last resort.
- There is a need to fully understand what it means today as children of God in a complex world of litigation, and liability to deal lovingly and justly with our brothers and sisters with whom we are in conflict.
Why do the Christians and the church bring disputes to the Courts (1 Cor. 6:1–8)
- The basic problem is carnality (1 Cor.3:1–4). It is not uncommon for a son to sue his own father!
- Preoccupation with individualism, a diminished respect for authority, and the acceptance of relative morality.
- When Christians are immature and not growing, they cannot get along with one another.
- The lack of spiritual discernment to settle and solve personal problems.
- The legal climate has changed dramatically and the issues of the church became commercialized.
- When all other Christian avenues of resolution have failed and the impasse cannot be broken.
What are the explicit views of the Bible?
New Testament guidance:
- The New Testament gives the fullest witness to Christ, it is a sufficient authority for our faith. As followers of Jesus, we have alternatives for reconciliation that secular judicial processes cannot offer.
- Jesus' instructions to disciples to make friends with an accuser before a court hearing (Mart. 5:25) result from the possibilities of faith. The context of the Sermon on the Mount, in which these teachings appear, promises alternatives for reconciliation for those who trust in Jesus' way.
- Paul's advice to the Corinthians that recourse to secular court is a defeat for Christians (1 Corinthian 6:1-11) grows out of a similar conviction that for Christians, an alternative exercise of power leading to reconciliation is open through Jesus' living, His death and resurrection.
- The letter of James names specifically the evil of wealth and material desire as the cause of litigation against the poor (James 2:6).
1 Corinthian 6:1-11 arguments:
- For a Christian to take another Christian to court is "an utter failure" (v7).
- The congregation had failed to live up to its full position in Christ.
- The believers will present a poor testimony to the non-Christians.
- The fact that matters could not be resolved when a brother has a dispute against another Christian is a sign of defeat for the Christian community.
- If the saints are to judge the world (cf. Dn. 7:22) then they are surely competent to act as mediators in the civil actions which Paul calls trivial cases.
- Paul again uses a favourite argument form, Do you not know … (cf. v 2), to indicate that if the angels are to be judged by the saints, surely the latter can resolve these disputes.
- The unsaved judge lacks the spiritual understanding to deal with spiritual matters (2:14–16).
The teachings of the New Testament, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the moral counsel of the discipleship community have all made Christians reluctant to use the legal system and to be cautious when approaching it.
The Biblical injunctions to resolve conflict
- Paul recommends that we take the matter before wise believers who can make a judgment (v4–5).
- But suppose we can’t arrange that? Then Paul says it would be better to "accept wrong" than to go before unbelievers for judgment.
- 1 Peter 4:14-16: It is better to suffer for the sake of Christ then feel guilty in sins and wrong. It is therefore better to err for the sake of Christ than right at the expense of the testimony of the church.
- Far better that a Christian should lose money and pride than lose his spiritual stature and bring shame to Christ’s name! We can find this same attitude in Matt. 5:38–42.
Does that categorically rule out lawsuits between Christians today? What, then, should we as believers do when we have disputes that normally call for litigation?
- Not necessarily.
- Our society is very different from the first-century Roman Empire.
- The Church appointed their own elders to judge civil disputes between members.
- Because of their reputation, eventually, church courts replaced secular courts.
- Paul is not condemning courts of law (see Rom. 13), for the government is instituted by God for our good.
- Acknowledge that there is Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) processes in church conflict resolution.
- At the same time that Jesus and the New Testament direct believers away from litigation as an avenue to resolve disputes, Acts suggests that at least Paul did not entirely dismiss the legal system's aid.
- He used the privilege of his Roman citizenship for redress of injustice by demanding a public apology for being beaten without charges (Acts 16:37-40).
- He appealed his arrest in Jerusalem to an imperial hearing (Acts 25:11).
- At the same time, he refused to take advantage of the weaknesses of Roman justice by not giving bribes (Acts 24:26).
- There may be times when Christians could morally use legal opportunities.
How do we settle legal problems when other believers are involved? Are we willing to try everything short of litigation first, before even considering going to court?
- Distinguish between what is spiritual and civil; personal and church; internal and external.
- Issues related to church or spiritual matters should be resolved by adhering to biblical principles and expectations of reconciliation. Examples are: inter-personal conflicts of members or leaders related to church ministry; doctrines and values; practices and ordinances; administration and procedure; constitution; conduct and behavior etc. The issues have implication and relation to the church directly.
- Issues that do not have any connection or relation with the church, even though all parties involved are believers. They are strictly personal and external, where the church has no jurisdiction or responsibility over the matters. Examples are: personal conflict at the place of work or home; business disputes; any matters of civil and criminal nature; etc.
- Pre-determine the process of the mediation and the mutually agreed authority over the outcome of the mediation by all parties concerned.
- Conflict between Christians even though is of civil or secular nature should first of all be settled quietly according to the principles of Matt. 18:15–17 and 1 Corinthian 6:5.
- If the two parties cannot reach an agreement or amicable solution, then they should invite some spiritual believers to meet with them and help decide. If the matter becomes known to the church (or outside the church), the members should appoint a group to examine the matter and give spiritual counsel.
- Unless otherwise recommended by the spiritual counsel, all parties concerned should leave the issue to rest at the closure of the mediation.
Case for litigation:
- When legal redress is needed to offer resolution on civil, criminal or injustice matters, especially when mediation, consultation or lobbying do not help.
- Litigation may be the only way to channel violence into a nonviolent alternative. In family disputes, the legal system offers protection to spouses and children from the violence of other family members.
- When a significant power imbalance exists between the parties to a dispute, court intervention may help equalize such a power imbalance when the church cannot or will not help.
- Disputes on issues that the church does not have locus standing or jurisdiction.
- Once an action is filed against a Christian or a church, the party concerned will be compelled to defend itself in court or lose by default judgment.
When churches do not deal with conflict in a biblical and legally prudent manner, they may face a lawsuit for:
- Breach of contract
- Defamation (slander or libel)
- Intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress
- Breach of fiduciary responsibility
- Invasion of privacy
- Sexual harassment
- Wrongful discharge
- Negligent hiring, supervision, or retention of employees or volunteers such as:
- Negligent selection of church workers
- Negligent retention of church staff
- Negligent supervision of church staff and activities
- Negligent and irresponsible counseling practices
- Failure to report abuses
- Securities law violations
- Violating employment laws
- Exerting undue influence in properties and assets matters
- Personal liability of church board members as a result of negligence.
Reducing the Risk of Legal Liability
There are a number of things that a church can do to dramatically reduce its exposure to destructive conflict and avoid legal liability. These steps include:
- Introduce bylaws and guidelines for church discipline so that you can live out your convictions of biblical church government and accountability without legal interference.
- Require membership commitments that provide "informed consent" to church policies (When members have expressly consented to your policies and practices, it is extremely difficult for them to bring a lawsuit against you when you actually exercise those policies).
- Use conciliation clauses in your bylaws and all church contracts; these legally enforceable clauses require that subsequent conflicts or lawsuits be resolved through biblical mediation or arbitration rather than civil litigation.
- Adopt and follow a carefully designed policy for screening church workers and reporting suspected abuses.
- Use consent to counseling forms that inform counselees of your policies on confidentiality and church discipline, and create a binding commitment to resolve disputes within the church rather than a civil court.
III. WHAT THE CHURCH SHOULD DO TO FACILITATE CHRISTIAN MEDIATION?
- We recommend that the Church better inform members about mediation alternatives.
- We encourage the Church to set goals for increasing the number of people who have received training in mediation skills.
- We ask the Church to provide financial support to make possible the training of more mediators.
- We ask that congregations offer counseling and mediation ministries that offer the hope of reconciliation rather than adversarial litigation.
- We encourage Christians in all careers, including legal careers, to examine what it means to be conformed to Christ in our occupations and daily living.
- Support the emphasis on ethics in ministry and congregational relations.
- Christian must respond to any problem, first of all, as Christian.
- Litigation is not the preferred way to resolve disputes.
- The Christian knows that love can heal where law can only restrict unless it is enlivened by true regard for each other's welfare.
- We firmly believe Christians should use their best efforts to promote methods of resolving disputes according to Biblical principles and church discipline that do not require litigation.
- The Church should cultivate among our members a new sense of mutual dependence and trust, responsibility and accountability grounded in the grace of Jesus Christ to help mediate disagreements between believers.
- We urge members of the Church to find alternatives to litigation, such as mediation, counseling, or some other settlement process.