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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

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




I was recently asked, "Bill, what makes you weep and pound the table?" -- two things which I do too often.

I have always been searching for justice, but as an attorney I could not achieve it, as judge I could not deliver it, and I was dealt with unjustly by the law I loved and attempted to serve. Since 1983, after leaving the law, and as I have worked within the church and the lives of individual Christians, I have begun to see true justice.

Thus I weep watching Christians, and others destroying themselves -- emotionally, spiritually, financially, and even physically -- because they don't know how to deal biblically with conflict. I pound the table because I think the church is doing nothing about it and there is so much potential for glory to God and revival for the church in these conflicts.

It is easy to blame the pastorate for these failings, but they are not alone. However, for this pamphlet, I want to focus on how I would run a church if I were a pastor. [See Looking at Organizational Conflict; Some Thoughts on Small Group Conflicts; The Role of Leaders in Conflict; Confronting Church Leaders; and Comparing Governance/Law of State and Church]

All that I would do would be focused on conflict. One reason is because of my background; another is because conflict is a guaranteed part of life; another is that conflict involves relationship and relationships are important to God; and one is because I see conflict as a way to evangelism and revival.

In case you do not know the extent to which legal conflict is impacting the Body of Christ, here are some figures: 1 of every 15 men, women, and children in the U.S. are involved in some legal conflict at any moment in time. Studies show a person's self-description as a Christian seems to make no difference in how they handle the disputes. We go to law in as large a percentage as do unbelievers. Interviews with Christians in legal conflict show that they are unaware that the Bible has anything to say about the matter.

Yet, these interviews show them speaking with anger about their opponent, bitterness and disillusionment with the "justice" system, and frustration. Most speak disparagingly about the attorneys, judge, and jurors. Many call the system a farce (Eph. 4:30-31). They have been, in three words: "defeated" -- I Cor. 6:7; "consumed" -- Gal. 5:15; and "imprisoned" -- Matt. 5:25. Litigation has become a way of life in this country and we seem blind to its effects.

Now, we "know" that God would prefer that we not sue other people, that we bring our disputes to the church for healing, that Christians are capable of deciding matters between one another, that lawsuits are such a defeat that we should consider being wronged and defrauded, and that we harm others when we war against them at law -- I Cor. 6:1-8. [See May We Sue? Shall We Sue? Whom May We Sue?]

We know that we may seek favors from judges, juries legislators, and others, but the justice we hunger for and seek comes only from the Lord -- Pro. 29:26.

We know that Christ called us to seek resolution of conflict and reconciliation of relationships before we come to church or present our offerings -- Matt. 5:23-24.

We know that Christ wants us to do this because we were lost sheep for whom He came and died -- Matt. 18:12-14 -- yet we still call others "fools" for which we are worthy of damnation -- Matt. 5:22 -- and we have been forgiven more than we can ever repay -- Matt. 18:21-35.

We know that He gave us a process to work through when we are in conflict -- Matt. 18:15-20 -- which calls forth others from within the Body of Christ to help (verses 16 and 17).

We know that He established this process because He was going to grant gifts to the members of the Body -- Rom. 12:6-8; Eph. 4:11; I Cor. 12:4-11 -- place those gifts where He wanted them to be -- I Cor. 12:18 -- for the purpose of building up His Body into unity -- Eph. 4:12-13; I Cor. 12:12-27 -- so the world would know that God was in Him -- Jn. 17:19-21 -- reconciling the world to Himself and making the reconciled into ministers of reconciliation -- II Cor. 5:17-20.

Yes, I just threw a bunch of things at you which you already know. We do know these things, but why do we not practice them?

First, we have defaulted the matter of conflict resolution to the secular system. We declared: "We the people", and then listed things which the Bible says are the exclusive province of God -- including the matter of justice. In the process, we gave up true justice for a pale imitation. We gave up healing, reconciliation and revival for division.

Second, we think of ourselves as rugged frontier individualists instead of mutual bearers of burdens.

Third, we fear conflict and flee from it because of our knowledge of our own sinfulness, our knowledge that sin is often a root cause of the conflicts of our own and others (James 4:1-4), and therefore we feel unworthy or unable to confront others.

Fourth, we know, instinctively, that the road to peace is potentially a road of sacrifice (it was for Christ).

God asks us to deal with conflict according to His rules because He know that it holds the key to revival and evangelism. Why? Revival almost always begins from confession, repentance, and/or a grant of forgiveness. But, what is done publicly must first be worked out in private settings. Then, with time and understanding of how God was working in the entire process, we become able to stand and give Him the glory. The private setting for working through forgiveness and confession is the conflicts we get into, one with another.

Only the church offers the potential for resolving the conflict in a manner which honors God and heals relationships. The law offers nothing but a sword (I Kg. 3:16-28) -- as I well know. On Monday morning, I divided people from family and community and sent them to prison as judge of criminal court. On Monday afternoons, I divided marriages in divorce court. On Tuesday, I divided families in juvenile court. On Wednesday and Thursday, I divided businessmen. On Friday, I divided people by sending them to mental institutions. And all weekend I cried.

I believe that God cries when we allow our conflicts to divide us, and that He will cry at the time of the Great White Throne Judgment.

In addition to giving us guidelines for resolving conflict, God gave us a text book case of how the church and pastors should deal with conflicts -- Acts 6:1-6. As an attorney, I look at this passage and I see a potential lawsuit resolved. I see job descriptions for pastors, leaders, and members of the Body. I see a process. I see the Lord Jesus Christ honored and unity displayed to the world which was intently watching these strange new people.

In this dispute, the plaintiffs were the Greek Jews and the defendants were the Hebrew Jews. Notice that the pastors (apostles) were aware of the dispute and that they initiated the process. This says to me that two of the jobs of the pastor are; (1) mingling with the people looking for needs; and (2) exhorting the people to meet the needs of one another.

Then, the pastors acted. They did not wait for an eruption. They did not wait for others to do something. They acted quickly, decisively and with authority. They showed no concern for their position, salary, church budget, housing or how others might choose to negatively receive their actions -- Matt. 6:25-34.

They called in the "congregation of disciples" -- "those who are learning" -- but not the entire congregation. As they mingle, they must be getting some idea for who the wise and mature members are -- who will receive, accept and act upon the Lord's direction issued through the apostles.

Then, they defined their role. I can see them, sitting there, looking at the disciples, and saying: "First, we want you to know that we are aware of the problem. That problem has the potential of splitting this church, dividing some golf foursomes, ending some quilting bees, and giving Jesus a bum reputation in the town. That must not be. I bet you folks thought we were going to do something about this conflict. Well, we aren't, for it's not our job. Our job is to read the Word, teach, train, equip, and exhort you to know and use your gifts to help one another -- and to pray for you. We are not table waiters, counselors, visitors to the sick and shut-in, secretary, janitor, etc. The Body does those things."

These pastors knew that the laity was competent (because of the indwelling Holy Spirit) and were not worried about a clergy malpractice lawsuit. Most pastors I speak to start to applaud about this point, although they will later tell me privately all the reasons why they can't be the way the apostles were. Well, pastors can be, if they are willing to trust God and let go.

You see, we humans are upside down from God. We think about rights and property while God thinks about relationships. We think about structures and organizations (we call them ministries and churches) while God calls them towers of Babel. God keeps looking for one person to do His will at one moment in time towards one other person.

So, the apostles turned away from the dumb-struck disciples, and went back to their reading. The disciples went to the congregation and said: "We need to tell you people what the apostles just told us."

Then, a funny thing happened. The entire congregation picked the table waiters -- not the leadership. This says to me the members of the Body know the gifts of each other. Let me give you a challenge.

Drop a questionnaire in your Sunday church bulletin which says: "Assume there are no people in the world except those sitting here with you right now. Assume all the pastors are dead. Assume there are no outside service agencies of any nature. Your marriage is falling apart (or you have a rebellious son; or you have a financial nightmare; or you have a legal dispute; or etc.). Who will you ask to help?" Leave several lines of space for the people to write in names. Collect the papers, and then look at who they write in. You will be amazed at their understanding of one another.

So, the congregation selected, and a funny thing happened again -- the majority (Hebrews) decided to defer to the minority (Greeks). All seven men were Greeks! That certainly ended the conflict. That is something we have forgotten how to do -- defer to one another in love. Maybe it should be taught. Maybe it has something to do with trusting God to work things together for His Glory some day in some way. Maybe it helps resolve conflict.

Well, all I have written has been a preamble for how I would be as a pastor. Let me outline how I would behave, beginning the first day I enter the church.

My sermons would be teaching sermons on matters of practical application of the Biblical lessons to life today, with plenty of current stories to drive the points home -- stories of living people in other churches. (With time, I would expect to get the people in this church up front giving their own stories.)

I would begin with messages on conflict, being peaceable in personal life, and how to help others whom you meet who are in conflict. If I felt limited in knowledge or understanding in this area, or any other area I wanted to teach on, I would call in an expert (who might be an expert lay person) and let them have the pulpit.

Then, when the first person in the congregation who was in a conflict contacts me, my wife and I would start to work with them. Note, I start by using my wife in this role, not the role of piano player. Note, it places "two or more" at the opening scene. Note, there will never be a man counseling a woman or a woman counseling a man. Finally, be advised that as soon as I have picked up my first counselee, I will not start with another until I have ended involvement with the first one.

At the first meeting with this person, I would seek to display myself to them -- warts and all (and do I ever have warts!). I want to encourage them to share their agonies, so I share first. Then, I'll try to get them talking. As they are talking, I am listening: (1) for attitudes; (2) for feelings; (3) for facts of process within Matt. 5:22-26, Matt. 18:12-35, and I Cor. 6:1-8; and (4) for who they have already been talking to and have selected as their counselors and authorities.

I take everything they say or demonstrate to me, and run it through God's image within me, my knowledge of the Bible, and the Holy Spirit in prayer, expecting and waiting to hear finger nails on the black-board. When I hear them, I'll make a mental note of them, for it is to those things that I will begin to minister.

I'll affirm their right actions and right attitudes but may not -- at this moment -- attack the wrong ones, for I have not yet gained sufficient relationship with them to do that. I will try to gently teach, from the Word -- II Tim. 3:16-17 -- some truths which will start them on the right road. I'll display hope, close in prayer, and send them home with a home-work assignment.

The next meeting will be within 3 days. At that meeting, I will be asking to get the other people they have been talking to ("counselors") together, because we need to determine if we are unified in what we are saying. I will ask them to please not be calling on these others until we can get together, for there is a great danger of receiving conflicting advice and creating double-mindedness. I will also ask them who they see within the church as people who might be able to help all of us.

During this time I will let them become aware that if we are going to proceed further, this meeting with the various counselors must take place and others from the congregation must be brought in to help or I will have to stop. What I want to do is create a situation where the counselee receives their counsel only in face-to-face meetings, and with always two or more gathered together -- Pro. 11:14; Jas. 5:14-16.

The next meeting, again within 3 days, will have the counselee, my wife and I, as many of the counselors as possible, and one or more members of the church (assuming there are none within the group of counselors). As we move together down the road of life, I will be teaching the counselee what they need to do and the counselors how they can help (and how their help could harm). After a time, I expect to see the counselors being able to move along without my wife and I.

So, we withdraw, but remain available to the counselors to give them assistance -- but not available to the counselee. My wife and I then start a new counseling relationship with someone in need, and repeat the process. Once every month, at a minimum, there would be a meeting of all counselors for a time of sharing and learning from one another, led by myself.

Once that group got to about 15 people, I would withdraw and have someone from within the group take over leadership of the group (no, I would not select the leader; God can do that).

Sooner or later, a counselee or one of the counselors will see that God has done something special in their life, and they will want to share that with the congregation -- our first testimony!

What else would I do, other than read and study and preach? Well, I would set up small groups of men (5 per group?), one for each of the 5 days of the week. I would try to teach them principles of leading a Godly life in all that they do and with all whom they meet. My wife might have 5 groups of women, doing the same. I would also have a weekly meeting with my personal overseers -- three to five people, some selected from outside the church, who would hold me accountable. (The congregation would be told who they are, so that if there was a complaint against me, they would know to whom to go.)

Finally, there is one thing I would not be or allow: I would not be the Protestant equivalent of the Catholic confessional. If you walk by me and drop some comment about some other person, I would stop you so fast you would get whiplash. I would find out if you have practiced Matt. 18:15-16 or Matt. 5:23-24. I would gently rebuke you if you had not, instruct you of your need to go and seek forgiveness for your gossip, and tell you I will check up to be sure you do so.

Well, there you have my thoughts.