When Christians are unable to resolve a conflict personally and privately, God wants them to turn to their local church for guidance and assistance (see Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 6:1-8). The church can help them in three ways.
Guiding People Through Conflict
A succinct summary and application of biblical conflict resolution principles for those trying to assist other people who are struggling with conflict.
- Initially, one or both parties may receive conflict coaching on how to resolve a dispute personally and privately. When such counsel is offered before feelings are seriously hurt, this is usually all it takes to help people resolve a conflict.
- When coaching does not resolve a conflict, God calls the parties to use mediation. One or more mediators meet with both sides to promote constructive dialogue and encourage a voluntary settlement of their differences. Mediators ask questions and give advice, but it is still up to the parties to decide on a final solution.
- Finally, if mediation is unsuccessful, the parties may proceed to arbitration. Each side explains its position before one or more arbitrators, who are given the responsibility and authority to render a decision that everyone agrees to accept as binding.
To assist the church in carrying out these important tasks, each of these three processes is briefly described below (for a more detailed explanation, please obtain a copy of the booklet, Guiding People through Conflict). For training in these processes, see the Peacemaker Ministries Training Program.
When someone asks for your help in resolving a conflict, you can often do a great deal of good without getting directly involved in the dispute. Instead, you can simply offer counsel on how that individual might be able to go back to the other person and resolve their differences in private. In doing so, you are helping the individual to obey Jesus' instructions in Matthew 5:23-24 and 18:15, "If you ... remember that your brother has something against you ..., go and be reconciled," and "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you."
This process of offering individual counsel is sometimes referred to as "coaching," because the conciliator is offering encouragement and advice from the sidelines instead of getting directly involved with both parties in the dispute.
An effective coach will listen carefully and promote personal responsibility while guiding individuals through the basic steps of peacemaking, which we call the "Four G's: "Glorify God, Get the log out of your eye, Gently restore, and Go and be reconciled. (These principles are described only briefly here; for a more detailed discussion, please see The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict.)
Keep People on Top of the Slippery Slope
When people are faced with conflict, it is natural to try to escape from the situation or to attack the other party. Escape responses only postpone a proper solution to a problem, and attack responses usually damage relationships and make conflicts worse. Therefore, you should generally guide people away from these responses and encourage them to respond to deal with conflict in private by using a conciliation response (overlooking an offense, discussion, or negotiation).
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If repeated efforts at personal peacemaking do not resolve a dispute, you may need to help the person implement one of the other conciliation responses (mediation, arbitration, or church discipline), which will require the assistance of other people in your church or community. For a more detailed description of these various responses to conflict, click The Slippery Slope.
Show How Conflict Is an Opportunity
A person's attitude powerfully affects the way he or she responds to conflict. Therefore, it is important to help people see that conflict is not necessarily bad or destructive. Even when conflict is caused by sin and causes a great deal of stress, God can use it for good (see Rom. 8:28-29). In particular, as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1, conflict actually provides three significant opportunities. By God's grace, we can use conflict to:
- Glorify God (by trusting, obeying, and imitating him)
- Serve other people (by helping them to bear their burdens or by confronting them in love)
- Grow to be like Christ (by confessing sin and turning from attitudes that promote conflict).
Since most people are preoccupied with avoiding or winning a conflict, these three opportunities are totally overlooked in most situations, even by Christians. Therefore, a coach should continually encourage people to realign their goals and behavior to maximize these opportunities.
Listen Carefully and Dig for Information
The greatest drawback to conflict coaching is that you are getting only one side of the story. Therefore, you should pay special attention to Proverbs 18:13 and 17: "He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame .... The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward to question him."
Instead of jumping to conclusions and offering hasty advice, give people time to fully explain their situation. Then ask careful questions to fill in the gaps in their story and learn how they may have contributed to the conflict through their own attitudes, words, or actions. Only after you have understood as much of the situation as possible should you begin to suggest ways that people can pursue peace, and even then you should resist drawing any final conclusions about people with whom you have not talked.
Throughout this data-gathering process, be careful not to encourage sinful gossip or slander. If someone starts to talk about details that are not needed to understand the problem and plan a solution, move them on to more appropriate matters. If they speak about others in a judgmental or condemning way, gently admonish them and help them to speak in a way that honors God (see Prov. 12:18; 2 Tim. 2:16; Eph. 4:29).
Promote Personal Responsibility
A good coach doesn't run the plays for the players. Your job is to provide wise counsel and develop sound plans, but then you need to stand back and let the person you are advising put the plan into action.
This role distinction is especially important in peacemaking, because people in conflict are often looking for someone to solve their problems for them. If you give in to that desire you will usually end up with superficial, temporary solutions, and you will deprive others of the learning and maturing that God has in store for them.
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Therefore, while you should certainly do what is necessary to help people deal with matters that are truly beyond their abilities, you should be careful not to take over their responsibilities. One way to help people take ownership for the solution of their problems is to give them specific homework assignments. You can do this by assigning select chapters from The Peacemaker and having them answer the corresponding questions in The Peacemaker Workbook. You can also ask them to read and apply relevant portions of Scripture. For example, an unforgiving person could study and meditate on Matthew 18:20-35 and Ephesians 4:30-32; a harsh employer could do the same with Matthew 7:12, Ephesians 6:9, and Colossians 4:1; and a disrespectful employee could read and apply Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 3:22-25, 1 Timothy 6:1, and Titus 2:9-10.
By requiring people to study and apply God's Word for themselves, you will increase the likelihood of their finding solid solutions to a conflict. More importantly, you will help them to develop insights and skills that will enable them to deal with future conflicts with less outside help from others.
Provide Hope and Encouragement
By the time people turn to someone else for help with a conflict, many of them are already feeling discouraged about resolving the situation, either because of their opponent's stubborn behavior or because of all the mistakes they themselves have made. You must deliberately counteract this pessimism. Like a coach whose team is trailing at half-time, your job is to rekindle hope and motivate them to play even harder. In biblical terms, you need to "warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, [and] be patient with everyone" (1 Thess. 5:14-15).
When I (Ken) lost hope of redeeming a particular situation, a friend gave me an enormous amount of hope with one simple observation. All he said was, "For a Christian, it's never too late to start doing what's right." His statement helped me to recall that I serve a redeeming God who has forgiven all of my sins. He delights in turning ashes into beauty and is always willing to help his children change their ways. That realization motivated me to keep working at the situation, being confident that even if my opponent did not change, by God's grace I could.
Guide People Through the Four G's of Peacemaking
There are four basic principles that people need to apply in order to respond to conflict biblically, which are:
- Glorify God
- Get the log out of your own eye
- Gently Restore
- Go and be reconciled
Click The Four G's for a more detailed description of these four steps.
Jesus knew that we would not always be able to resolve our differences in private. Therefore he said, "But if [your brother] will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses'" (Matt. 18:16).
The role that these "one or two others" are fulfilling is sometimes referred to as "mediation." Unlike a conciliation coach, who works with only one party in a dispute, a mediator works with both sides to help them move toward a voluntary agreement. (The parties are still responsible for deciding on a final agreement.)
Mediation can be as simple as sitting down for a cup of coffee with two friends or as complicated as arranging an all day meeting with several parties and a panel of mediators. In either case, a mediator should be prepared to play a number of roles, including prayer supporter, teacher, referee, encourager, and exhorter.
A biblical mediator should depend entirely on Christ, respect the role of the church, and help people to deal with the root causes of their conflict. He must also behave in such a way as to win and hold the trust of those who are involved in the conflict, and provide them with a fair and orderly process that gives every opportunity for personal reconciliation and a just resolution.
Know When to Step In
As taught in the previous chapters, before you agree to get involved in a conflict, you should make sure that one or both of the parties has made a sincere and diligent effort to resolve the dispute personally and privately (see Matt. 18:15). If repeated efforts have not succeeded and it is clear that further private attempts will be fruitless or even cause things to get worse (and if the matter is too serious to overlook), it is probably time for a mediator to step in.
Be Prepared to Play Several Roles
When God gives you an opportunity to serve him as a mediator, you may need to play several different roles before the conflict is resolved. These include:
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- Intercessor Peacemaking can be draining spiritual work that encounters difficult obstacles (e.g., pride, worldly values, and Satan himself). A mediator's most important job is to intercede in prayer for those who are striving to restore peace.
- Convener In some situations people are so enmeshed in their conflict and have so little trust in one another that they can't even agree on when and how they will try to resolve their differences. In these situations, the mediator may need to take the initiative to bring the parties together in a safe and constructive environment.
- Facilitator of communication and understanding Jesus' instruction in Matthew 18:16 shows that one of the primary roles of a mediator is to help the parties listen to God and one another so they can understand the truth about themselves and their situation. Objective and thorough data gathering and evaluation (including careful questions, active listening, and timely observations) are essential elements of this role.
- Model Example is always the most effective way to teach and encourage others (1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 4:9). Therefore a mediator should strive earnestly to model the same attitudes and actions he or she wishes to see in the parties, such as: courtesy, honesty, humility, active listening, confession of weaknesses and wrongs, tolerance, loving confrontation, and forgiveness.
- Referee and protector Some conflicts involve significant imbalances of power because the parties have different levels of spiritual maturity, sophistication, resources, experience, or confidence. At times, the mere presence of a mediator will help to neutralize these imbalances, but at other times a mediator may need to take overt measures to insure that a dominant party does not force a weaker party to concede issues and sidestep necessary confrontation.
- Trust builder By the time a conflict becomes known to others, the parties are often alienated and suspicious of each others' actions. A critical step in the conciliation process is to help each party begin to trust and respect the other party. People can learn to disagree with one another without judging the other person as being wrong or inferior.
- Resource expander Parties in a conflict often are more concerned about defeating each other than they are about finding resources to solve their problem. A mediator is often able to eliminate conflict by locating appropriate resources, including expert advice, professional counseling, or financial assistance.
- Generator of alternatives People in conflict gravitate toward a "fixed-pie" perspective ("if you gain, I must lose"), which limits their ability to think of alternative solutions that provide for mutual gain. An objective mediator breaks through this perspective and fosters the development of creative solutions.
- Reality tester Settlements often are inhibited because parties develop unrealistic confidence in their positions. A mediator can help parties to examine their assumptions objectively, which helps to dispel unrealistic hopes and promote needed commitments.
- Teacher and counselor Matthew 18:16 implies that a mediator needs to be prepared to give godly instruction and counsel, especially when the parties themselves cannot discern the proper solution to their disagreement (see 2 Tim. 2:24-26; Rom. 15:14).
- Encourager and coach Even when people know what they should do, they often have a difficult time doing what is right. A mediator helps to dispel ungodly fears and reluctance, affirms wise choices, and encourages people to persevere in doing what is right, even if the world says that doing so is foolish (see 1 Cor. 15:58; Heb. 10:24-25).
- Confronter and exhorter Conflict sometimes involves sinful attitudes and behavior that the parties are unable or unwilling to recognize and confess. A mediator must sometimes use loving confrontation, admonishment, and exhortation to help such people come to grips with the truth, put off sinful ways, and make needed changes (see 2 Tim. 4:2). Since a mediator can exercise great influence over people and their decisions, this role should be carried out with great caution and care!
- Proclaimer of forgiveness As people repent of their sin, the mediator should remind them of the forgiveness they have received through Christ and guide them through the process of imitating God by forgiving each other as he has forgiven them (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:12-14).
- Closer Some parties will continue to debate and discuss indefinitely, either because they love to fight or because they are afraid to commit to a settlement. A wise mediator knows when a matter has been adequately examined and will help the parties to see that it is in their best interest to reach a final solution.
- Witness When a party refuses to resolve a dispute properly, a mediator may need to inform the leaders of his or her church so that they can intervene as Jesus instructs in Matthew 18:16-17. (Limitations on confidentiality should be clearly explained at the beginning of the conciliation process.)
Be Distinctively Biblical
All too often Christians simply imitate the world's approach to resolving conflict. When we do, we deprive ourselves of the heart-searching, life-changing, God-honoring process that is revealed to us in the Bible.
One of the best ways to avoid superficial solutions to conflict is to hold fast to three basic convictions that distinguish a truly biblical approach to resolving conflict.
- The centrality of Christ Genuine peace between people may be found only through Jesus Christ. Therefore, people in conflict should be encouraged to believe the gospel and trust in Christ, and to faithfully obey the peacemaking principles that he has given to us in Scripture (see John 14:27; 2 Cor. 5:18-19; Col. 3:15-16; 2 Tim. 3:16).
- The role of the church Peacemaking is an essential ministry of the local church, not a task reserved for professional mediators, therapists, or lawyers. Therefore, Christians should be encouraged to take unresolved conflicts to their church families, which are called by God to restore peace by promoting biblical justice and reconciliation (see Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 6:4; Eph. 3:10; Heb. 13:17).
- The necessity of counseling Destructive conflict comes from desires that battle within people's hearts. Therefore peacemaking cannot stop with resolving surface issues. It must also involve counseling parties to find their fulfillment in Christ, renounce any sinful desires and actions that have contributed to a conflict, and seek genuine reconciliation with others (see James 4:1-3; Gal. 2:20; Prov. 28:13; Rom. 15:14).
Earn a Passport
In order to effectively mediate a conflict, it is essential that you earn the confidence and trust of the parties. This trust is sometimes referred to as "passport," because it is the key to being able to move into the personal areas of others' lives.
Earning a passport depends on your behaving in such a way that the people you wish to serve will answer "yes" to three basic questions:
- Can I trust you?
- Do you care about me?
- Can you really help me?
Getting affirmative answers to these questions depends heavily on your respecting others' confidences (within agreed limitations), using your influence fairly, showing genuine love and concern, and demonstrating consistent integrity, godly wisdom, and good judgment as you guide people through the mediation process.
This does not mean that you have to be perfect. Honest mistakes can actually help to build confidence if you admit them humbly and state clearly how you will handle things differently in the future. (This also sets a good example for the parties to follow.)
Nor does gaining a passport require that you continually skirt unpleasant issues or say only what people want to hear. If you confront people in a loving and respectful way, they will usually have greater confidence in the mediation process. When they see that you are willing and able to confront their inappropriate attitudes and behavior, they are more likely to trust that you will also do the same with their opponents.
As you gain increased passport with the parties, they will find it easier to discuss personal matters with you. This will give you the freedom you need to provide them with the encouragement, advice, and even exhortation that is often needed to resolve conflict.
Provide the "Three P's" of Satisfaction
As you mediate a dispute, you should strive to provide the parties with three types of satisfaction.
- Process satisfaction results from providing the parties with a fair, orderly, and even-handed process that gives everyone involved a reasonable opportunity to present the information they believe is relevant to the dispute (see 1 Cor. 14:40).
- Personal satisfaction results from consistently treating the parties with respect, courtesy, and equality (see Matt. 7:12; James 2:1-4).
- Product satisfaction results from leading the parties to a final solution that is perceived as being just and equitable, both substantively and personally (see Prov. 28:5)
It is important to note that in the long run most parties place as much value on process and personal satisfaction as they do on product satisfaction. (This is true despite the fact that they usually devote most of their energy to achieving a particular outcome.)
The fact that parties value process and personal satisfaction is good news, because a mediator usually has much more control over these things than the final outcome of a dispute. By carefully providing the parties with a fair process and treating them with genuine respect, you can usually achieve a durable agreement and a high degree of satisfaction, even when the final solution is not entirely to everyone's liking.
Use the GOSPEL
The vast majority of disputes that arise in the church can be resolved through a fairly simple mediation process, which we refer to as "GOSPEL," an acrostic that stands for:
- Greeting and ground rules—Make introductions and agree on how you will work together.
- Opening statements—Ask each party to briefly explain what he or she would like to accomplish.
- Story telling—Help the parties to clearly communicate all relevant information.
- Problem identification and clarification—Clearly define the central issues and interests.
- Explore solutions—Brainstorm options and evaluate them reasonably and objectively.
- Lead to agreement—Encourage and document a final agreement.
For a detailed, step-by-step description of how to walk through the GOSPEL process, see Guiding People through Conflict.
The vast majority of disputes between Christians can be resolved through conflict coaching (working with only one party) or mediation, especially if the church gets involved at an early stage. But occasionally people simply will not be able to reach an agreement. When this happens, God calls the church to take jurisdiction over the conflict and provide a decision that will settle the matter once and for all.
This process of providing a binding decision is sometimes referred to as arbitration. During this process the parties explain their positions to one or more trusted persons from their church or churches who are given the authority to render a final decision on the matter.
The arbitration process is similar to mediation, but it is sometimes more formal and does not allow for negotiations between the parties. Depending on the parties' agreement, the arbitrators' final decision may be binding only within the church, or it may be legally enforceable in a civil court.
A detailed discussion of arbitration is beyond the scope of this site, but the following principles will be sufficient for many of the disputes that Christians might bring to the church for resolution. If you need resources that provide more detailed guidance, please feel free to contact Peacemaker Ministries.
The Apostle Paul taught that the church has jurisdiction to decide disputes between Christians, even if those disputes involve legal matters.
If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another—and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers (1 Cor. 6:1-8).
Rendering a final and binding decision in a dispute is a serious responsibility, but this should in no way deter a church from carrying out its God-given responsibility to keep its people out of court by providing members with a forum for deciding difficult matters. When the Israelites came to King Solomon with their disputes, the Holy Spirit empowered him to make judgments so just that all the world talked about them (see 2 Kings 3:28; 10:6-9). God has poured the same Spirit into his church today (Acts 2:1-4), which gives us access to the same discernment and wisdom that guided Solomon. If the church would believe this promise and obey God's call to resolve disputes between believers, we could demonstrate true justice to the world and bring much praise to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Different from Mediation
The primary difference between mediation and arbitration is the fact that in arbitration the parties have given up the power to decide on their own solution and have agreed to be bound by whatever decision the arbitrators reach. The parties' submission may be a matter of personal commitment, or, if they sign an appropriate document, it may take the form of a legal obligation.
Because of the binding nature of arbitration, the process is normally more formal than mediation. In some situations the parties will want to support their arguments with additional evidence, documents, witnesses, and even the assistance of an attorney, which is entirely biblical.
Entering into an Arbitration Agreement
When parties are simply making a personal commitment to abide by an arbitrator's decision, it is usually not necessary to have them sign a written agreement. But if the parties wish to make a more formal commitment and receive a legally binding decision, you should have them sign a written agreement (see Mediation/Arbitration Agreement). Once that agreement is signed, it is legally enforceable in all states and requires that the parties complete the entire arbitration process and abide by the arbitrator's decision.
Before signing an arbitration agreement, it is essential that the parties understand the legal significance of the commitment they are making. At the very least they should be given written information (like Peacemaker Ministries' Guidelines for Christian Conciliation) to explain the implications of binding arbitration. If significant interests are at stake, it is also wise to recommend that they talk to an attorney before they sign an agreement.
State and federal laws strongly support arbitration. In addition to making arbitration legally binding (when there is a signed agreement), these laws provide a high level of legal immunity for people who serve as arbitrators, even if they make mistakes. Therefore, if arbitrators do not knowingly violate the trust the parties place in them, they are not likely to encounter any legal liability problems.
Civil laws also make it very difficult for a party to overturn an arbitration decision that was reached in good faith (i.e., without deliberate bias or misconduct on the part of the arbitrators). Therefore, the parties will usually be required to accept whatever decision the arbitrators reach (which means the arbitrators need to exercise great care in making their judgment).
The Arbitration Process
Arbitration may be conducted by a single person or by a team of people. If significant material interests or complex legal issues are involved, it is usually wise to have the parties agree to follow specific rules, such as Peacemaker Ministries' Rules of Procedure for Christian Conciliation, which deal with various procedural questions that may arise during the arbitration process.
The arbitration process is very similar to mediation in many respects, especially in the early phases. You can safely follow the initial steps in the format described in the mediation section. These are: Greetings and Ground Rules, Opening Statements, Story-telling, and Problem Clarification.
However, arbitration does not include an interactive negotiation and problem-solving process. The arbitrators work closely with the parties to acquire a clear understanding of the facts of the case, but it is up to the arbitrators to decide on an appropriate solution. Therefore, arbitrators do not caucus (meet with the parties privately), brainstorm, or evaluate solutions with the parties.
Instead, once the arbitrators have a clear picture of the case, they generally retire to another room or adjourn the meeting. Together they pray, search Scripture, and discuss their thoughts about the situation. During this process, which may take several days to complete, the arbitrators may negotiate, brainstorm, and evaluate possible solutions with one another in order to reach a final decision.
The Final Decision
An arbitration decision should generally be in written form, either in an informal letter or a more thorough opinion paper. At the very least, it should specify what issues have been addressed and what actions should be taken by whom and by what date. It can be helpful to the parties if you provide the reasoning for your decision, especially the biblical principles that guided your thinking. One the other hand, the more detail you provide, the more likely it is that one party will find an error or something else with which to disagree. Therefore, it is essential that everything you write is concise, accurate, reasonable, and defendable.
After the arbitrators sign the decision, they should deliver it to the parties, sometimes by mail but preferably in person in whatever way they believe is wise. At that time, they can answer any questions the parties may have and encourage and instruct them on how they should carry out their responsibilities.
If one of the parties refuses to abide by an arbitration decision, it is generally appropriate to contact the leaders of his church and ask them to compel him to keep his word, through church discipline if necessary (see Matt. 18:17-20). If that does not resolve the matter, and if the parties previously agreed to legally binding arbitration, the other party may file the decision with a civil court, which has the authority to enforce the decision as though it was rendered by a civil judge.
For more information on arbitration, click Frequently Asked Questions, or Rules of Procedure for Arbitration. For training in arbitration, see our Certification Program. Detailed guidance on how to carry out church discipline in a biblically sound and legally prudent manner in provided is our Risk Management materials.
Adapted from Guiding People through Conflict