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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

1710 C.R. 121, Hesperus, CO. 81326




Have you ever stood around and watched a Christian organization -- church or ministry -- disintegrate, come apart at the seams? Have you ever asked yourself how people committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ could so lose focus on what they have in common that they would self-destruct their combined service to Him?

I want to offer some thoughts on these situations -- and on how to bring healing to them.

First, let's consider the major sources of conflict in organizations, and some truths about these sources. The most common sources are:

(1) Conflict over how to do the work.

(2) Conflict based upon naked desire to rule, or ruin.

(3) Conflict over theology.

(4) Conflict within relationships.

Out of 100 conflicts, #4 will account for 97.

You cannot resolve #1, 2, and/or 3 -- except by methods that look like legal judgment -- until you resolve #4. If you resolve #4, you should be able to resolve the others, as you will then be addressing them from the Spirit of unity, rather than division.

Finally, when actually facing #4, you will think you are dealing with #1, 2, and/or 3. That is because you don't want to take the time, or face the risk or pain, of dealing righteously with #4.

Since the relational conflicts are the lion's share, let's look at how conflicts in relationship get started, and grow.

Step #1: Conflicts start when someone does something towards another -- sometimes intentionally and sometimes with just thoughtlessness (self-focus rather than other focused). This causes an offense to the other. This lack of love is, before God, sin. For example, I might fail to privately, or publicly, affirm someone for their efforts and work. Or I may publicly criticize someone rather than speak to them privately.

Another major cause of relational conflicts in organizations is that we design expectations about a need, then look to an individual or group to meet that need -- but the need is in reality one which only God can meet (review the people complaining against Moses after staring out from Egypt; and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution). When the need is not met, the expectation fails. Rather than seeing that we created a wrong expectation, or that we improperly placed our expectation, we create an offense in us towards the person who did not meet our expectation. This is also, before God, sin.

Step #2: The person offended by the act, or holding a failed expectation, has only two biblical ways to deal with the conflict:

(1) Overlook the offense. Pro. 19:11 says: "It is the glory of a person to overlook a transgression." But, overlooking requires that there be no change in relationship with the other.

(2) They can care-front the other person, in love, by going to them pursuant to Matt. 5:23-24 or Matt. 18:15. This is demanded if relationship has become broken or if there is a sense that the wrong-doer needs to hear of their wrong so they may grow in the Lord. [See The Path To Reconciliation]

But, what usually happens at step #2 is that an imperfect person reacts imperfectly to imperfect acts of another. Instead of doing what God tells us to do, we appropriate the pain of the offense, making it personal to us. We "own" what we should have overlooked or confronted. And "owning" the pain is, before God, sin.

Step #3: Now, we have to do something with our pain. We want someone to know that we hurt. Since our self-defensiveness won't allow us to acknowledge our sin, we tell someone else of the pain -- of the offense against us. This is called gossip. And gossip always separates people -- Pro. 16:28; 17:9. And it is sin. [See Dealing With Gossip]

Step #4: The person who listens to our gossip now has a problem -- they need to confront us with our gossip, but they don't. Instead, they allow the gossip to "go down into the innermost parts of the body like a dainty morsel" (Pro. 26:22). They "receive" the gossip. Then they either choose my side or the side of the other -- further dividing people. By "receiving" the gossip, they sin.

Step #5: Now many people are murmuring. As this goes on, others "pass by and meddle (pass the bounds of reasonable behavior) in a strife not of their own and become like people who pick up a dog by its ears (unable to let go without being bit)". Pro. 26:17. They choose up sides, and make the offense of another their own. And that is sin.

Step #6: From this point on, every word spoken by anyone drawn into this whirlwind becomes divisive because we have created apparent issues over how to do the work when, in fact, we are engaged in a barnyard hen-pecking party. There are so many logs in so many eyes that we cannot speak to a true issue without slandering, judging, condemning, etc.

Step #7: About this time in the process, one or two people emerge as focal points for each side to rally around. They are "flagbearers" around whom "camps" get formed. And now each camp also has a flagbearer to shoot at in the other camp. It is "capture the flag" time! Sometimes, these flagbearers even become scapegoats and get wounded unto death. While these flagbearers may have played a major role relative to the conflict, they are normally not the cause or, nor the solution to, the conflict.

Once this normal process of institutional conflict gets going, several complicating factors take over.

(1) Those who have sinned don't know what to do with their sin. Please note, they do know that they have sinned. After all, they are made in His image, and He has written His truths on their hearts before they were born.

Knowing it, they may even confess it to God -- and it is against Him that we sin. But they forget that the sin created an offense -- that another, or others (the entire congregation?) have been harmed by the sin. Then, God brings them to conviction of all of this. Now we must cooperate by an act of the will -- an act of humbling oneself before any and all whom we have hurt, confessing the specific sin, owning the offenses caused, seeking forgiveness. But we will not do this. [See Confession and Forgiveness -- Keys to Reconciliation]

Why? One reason is ignorance of how to deal with conflict according to Biblical principles. Another is fear of rejection -- "People will not love me (have anything to do with me) if I show myself as human." Another is grading of sin -- "Well, what they did to me was far worse. They need to come to me. What I did was of little significance in the entire matter." Another is the need for restitution -- we know God desires this, but we think of restitution in legal and financial terms. We look at the harm done, and cannot put a dollar sign on it (and prison is certainly not an appropriate response!). We forget that all we owe is love (Rom. 13:8). But if we will just do the love we owe -- and that begins with confession and forgiveness -- the Holy Spirit is then freed to reveal other acts of love which He may want which then become equal to restitution. But most often we do none of this, and slowly our heart becomes hardened.

(2) The second complicating factor is that the church is an organism, not an organization. Chrysler is an organization which exists to produce cars. You can change people in the assembly line like you might change socks and still pump cars out the end of the line. The church, however, is in the "business" of assisting God in producing mature witnesses. The fact that I hate the person next to me at Chrysler will rarely interrupt the flow of cars -- but, in the church, it will stop God's love-flow through me, through my neighbor, and, to a greater or lessor degree, through the entire church.

Another difference is that as people come and go at Chrysler, the manner of doing the work stays constant -- the assembly line is still there. But in the church, as people come and go, the work to be done and the way of doing it continue to change. Change is always a potential for conflict, for we develop different expectations, positions in the organism, ownership of processes, etc. Also, in the church, people form naturally into groups -- families, extended families, singles, young married, seniors, etc. Each segment becomes a lobbying force for needs to be met, and each creates expectations for how those needs should be met. Then, when the division gets started, it will cut through and across these segments -- increasing the pain and the sense of swirling chaos.

(3) The third complicating factor is that church people -- leaders and members alike -- do not know how to deal with conflict. Add to this that God's way seems foolish and looks like it will take so much time that the work will suffer. And, since God's way means calling sin, sin, and leaders fear rejection like everyone else (plus pastor's have a pay check at issue; there are worries about mortgage payments; etc.), wrong choices get made.

Leaders tend to move in four ways relative to the conflict:

(a) Avoid -- but you can't forever;

(b) Investigate -- but never in the care-fronting manner which puts

people in conflict face-to-face with one another before biblical witnesses. People

now share their hurt with the leaders, but they still have not shared the hurt with

the one who hurt them -- the one against whom they have the offense. Thus,

they still feel "unheard" and unless the leaders do exactly what the person thinks

should be done, their stake in the conflict not only remains but it grows, now

having been "treated wrongly by leadership"; [See WHAT IS/IS NOT, GODLY INVESTIGATION]

(c) Judgment -- against someone for something, and almost never in

love. "If we crucify one for the good of all, we can end the conflict." But this

approach only further divides people and expands the conflict;

(d) Pass the conflict on -- call in the area minister, or someone from the

denominational home office, and let them handle the matter. The problem with

this is that most of those people also have no understanding of how to deal with

the conflict, have probably received gossip over the telephone or by letters, and

can generally come in for a day or two rather than come and live among the

hurting people for however long it will take.

So, what can leaders do?

First, what can be done in prevention? Teach the people God's way for dealing with conflict and explain to them why God designed His way the way He did. Then, establish people who can serve as "witnesses" -- Matt. 18:16 -- when the steps of Matt. 5:23-24 and Matt. 18:15 have not worked. This web-site is devoted to getting the information on how to deal with conflict according to biblical principles out into the market-place of ideas.

Second, what can be done when you wake up to the fact that the barn-yard is full of pecking hens? Acknowledge publicly to the people what is happening, and have leadership commit to work through the matter. This commitment will free the Holy Spirit to begin His convicting work. Speak some words of hope and truth to the Body: "There is therefore now no condemnation just because we have acted imperfectly." Rom. 8:1 "God can, if we will choose to love Him and walk according to His purposes, take even those imperfect things and work them together for His glory." Rom. 8:28

As leaders, confess your own faults -- not knowing how to deal with conflict, dealing with it improperly, receiving gossip, taking up sides, etc. (Judges 5:2) Call in an outsider to be a "witness" -- one who is an outsider even as to denominational leadership -- one who will start to get people sitting down and speaking to one another of the offenses they have felt.

And what about the other sources of conflict -- #1, 2, and 3?

As to #1, you must learn to defer to one another in love. If you are in unity of relationship, you will find this easy to do. If you are not "one", you will find it impossible.

As to #2, if you are absolutely certain that this is the situation, and the person involved is not the pastor, then church discipline is the only way available -- probably dealing with the person as a divisive, factious, person.

As to #3, having attempted care-frontation, leave. As you leave, ask no one to come with you, do not open a competing church in the town, and never speak ill of those whom you left. Maintain relationships, in so far as possible, with those with whom you had relationship and who stay behind.