Deconstructing Destruction in the Church: Interpersonal Conflict

I could tell the young man standing in front of me was deeply concerned.  It didn’t take long to find out why.  A friend of his from another church was having a difficult time with the church’s leadership. He felt his friend had experienced an injustice.  He wanted to help but didn’t know how and he was asking for my counsel.  But before I tell you what I told him let’s pause to get oriented.  My young friend was dealing with interpersonal conflict. The incident of concern was not about him.  However, that is the thing most helpful about this story.  Often the interpersonal conflicts with which we are concerned do not involve us but rather those we love.  But the advice I gave to my young friend is good for those either directly involved or those simply standing by.  So, what did I tell him?

I simply told him to think about his role in the situation and that would be enough to guide him.  Yes, the particulars would need some filling in but understanding his role Biblically would be a major rock upon which to build his response.  He looked at me quizzically.  Perhaps you are looking at the screen with the same quizzical look.  So, let me explain. Understanding your role Biblically will be a skeletal frame on which you can hang the flesh of Biblical wisdom.  How so?  Well, in order to explain I will use the word role as an acrostic.

The R stands for responsibility. You must ask yourself in any situation, “What is my responsibility?”  You may have a perceived responsibility like my young friend.  But he didn’t have a real responsibility.  He was not an elder in that church.  He wasn’t even a member of the church to which his friend belonged.  In short, he had no real responsibility in the situation.  Often this is the very point where people get tripped up because when they do have a real responsibility they are unwilling to be, well, responsible!  For example, if a brother offends you Matthew 18:15 says that it is your responsibility to speak to him about the offense.  It is not your responsibility to gossip about it or even tell the leadership in your church, at least, not yet.  It is your responsibility to go to your brother.  But my friend bore no such responsibility in this case. That was something he needed to recognize.

Second, the O stands for obligation.  You must ask yourself, “What are my obligations in this situation?  What am I obliged to do?” When I asked my young friend this question he looked at me and said, “Well according to what you are telling me, I am not obliged to do anything.”  He couldn’t have been more wrong.  I told him that he was obliged to see Christ not only in his friend but he was obliged to see Christ in those who were in leadership over his friend.  What is more, his friend bore the same obligation.  If we are to overcome conflicts in the church we must see Christ in one another before we see their faults.  But that is not all.  Those more directly involved have other obligations.  My friend’s friend had an obligation to submit to his elders (Hebrews 13:7; 17). The leaders also have an obligation to deal justly and gently. There are always Biblical obligations to go around.

Third, the L stands for limitations.  We must ask what it is that limits us in our words and actions.  To put it differently, what are the things I should not do?  For instance, I asked my young friend a simple question, “Should you have shared this with me?”  After a moment, I asked the even harder question, “Should your friend have shared this with you?”  These are hard questions to ask and sometimes hard to answer but they must be asked.  And they must be asked for a very simple reason.  When we do not explore the limitations of our role we can sometimes sow the seed of sin and discord in fields having nothing to do with the original problem. 

And fourth, the E stands for encouragement.  No matter our responsibility, obligations or limitations we can always encourage.  I told my friend that he may not have a real role in the situation but he could always be a source of encouragement to his friend even without knowing all the details.  In fact, that is the best way to encourage because when you are free from the details you can encourage without fear of offense.    

Interpersonal conflict can kill a church.  But if we begin with a sense of our role in any given situation then we can move forward in the situation with the confidence that comes with being in Christ.  That is not to say it will be easy.  It will likely be difficult.  But we are to pursue Christ not ease. Therefore, remember…

Responsibility – what is real and not perceived?

Obligation – what should I do?

Limitation – what should I not do?

Encouragement – How can I be an encouragement?

Jeffrey A. Stivason (Ph.D.) is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Senior Editor for Place for Truth.