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Conflict Resolution in the New Testament
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Gerhard Pfandl, PhD
Associate Director,
Biblical Research Institute

Recognizing differences and sharing them.

Tensions over doctrinal points and practical issues have been part of church life since the church’s inception. It is the way we deal with conflicts in the church that will determine whether such events will make a church stronger or weaker.

Let us look at a few examples of conflict resolution in the New Testament, in order to find guidelines which will help us to deal with similar situations in the church today.

Matthew 18:15-17

The words of Christ in this passage are the primary basis for church discipline in cases of "sin in the church." Initially, the offending person is to be confronted privately, one-on-one, next in the company of one or two witnesses, and finally before the whole church, until the issue is resolved; or, if he refuses to listen, until the church parts company with him.

These basic guidelines include recognition of conflict, communication between opposing parties, and appeal to a higher authority. We shall illustrate these principles in studying a few passages that deal directly with the issue of doctrinal differences in the early church.

Acts 15

The Council of Jerusalem was convened to settle the first major theological dispute in the early church. The issue at the meeting of the apostles and Christian leaders at Jerusalem concerned the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. At the outset, the Jerusalem Christians considered themselves to be the faithful remnant within Judaism. After all, their men were all circumcised, they all knew the Jewish Scriptures, and they all worshiped at the Temple. However, when Gentiles began to enter the church, the group’s Jewish identity was called into question. If Gentiles were accepted into the church without first accepting Judaism, then Christianity would become a new religion and altogether cease to be part of Judaism.

The apostles and elders decided to call a special meeting in which opposing sides could present their points of view. Two important items formed the agenda: 1. Can Gentiles be admitted into the church without circumcision? 2. What parts of the Mosaic Law apply to the Gentiles? Luke reports that there was "much disputing" (v. 7), and then gives us the gist of three speeches. Peter spoke first. On behalf of the Gentile mission, he reminded the assembly of the way God had used him to preach to Cornelius’s household, and he recommended that no yoke be put upon Gentile Christians. The term "yoke" is particularly appropriate in this context: a proselyte, by undertaking to keep the Law of Moses, was said to "take up the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven." In his conclusion, Peter emphasized that salvation comes not through keeping the law, but through the grace of the Lord (v. 11).

James, who at that time was the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17), summed up the debate and proposed some practical guidelines. With regard to the first issue, he recommended that circumcision be not required of Gentile Christians. As for the second issue, concerning the Mosaic Law, he suggested that certain restrictions be imposed upon the Gentile Christians. "That they abstain from pollution of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood" (15:20). This, he thought, was necessary for peace and mutual understanding between Jewish and Gentile Christians. In his opinion, Gentile Christians had to make concessions to the customs of the Jewish Christians, who still attended synagogues on the Sabbath where the Law of Moses was regularly read (v. 21). James apparently expected Jewish Christians to retain all that Judaism had given them, and that they would not separate from their synagogues.

From verse 22 we conclude that the majority of the people at this council accepted this decision, now happy to send a delegation to Antioch to inform the church of the decisions adopted by this council of apostles and elders. Although only the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch were represented, the decisions were considered binding on all Christians. This was probably due to the unique authority of the original apostles in the early church.

We see in this chapter a number of important principles for conflict resolution in the church. First, the opposing parties were invited to present their views before a gathering of church leaders. Second, much time was spent in discussion. Third, the decisions made at this meeting were accepted by the church at large.

SUMMARY

The early church dealt with internal conflict by recognizing differences and openly sharing them. They acknowledged a common calling, testing issues against their sense of mission. Once a decision was reached, they rejoiced in the unity they experienced in the Holy Spirit and demonstrated this in subsequent action. They emphasized the supremacy of their mission, to which everything else was subordinated, and they did not tolerate "the antichrists" or disruptive elements within the community of saints.

The following guidelines are derived from the passages investigated, as well as from the entirety of New Testament teaching on conflict resolution:

1. Recognize that conflict exists: "Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses . . ." (Romans 16:17, NKJV). To take note of people who create dissension and divisiveness is the first step in dealing with it. It is always tempting to remain silent in the name of love and tolerance and to ignore dissension in the church. The results, however, can be devastating for the mission and internal functioning of the church.

2. Provide opportunities for discussion: "Paul and Barnabas had no small discussion and disputation with them" (Acts 15:2). In reference to the guidelines of Matthew 18:15-17, resolution of conflicts should first be attempted in small circles of elected church officials before unresolved conflicts are brought before the whole church.

3. Expose error through the presentation of truth: "Preach the Word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine" (2 Timothy 4:2). The Word of God is "the Word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15), which at times is uncomfortable to those who hear it. To expose error is never a pleasant task, but when truth is presented prayerfully and in love, the weakness of error will become apparent.

4. Deal wisely with those in error: "Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and

harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). Jesus admonished His disciples to exhibit the gentleness of sheep when dealing with others. When confronted by "wolves," they were to be wise as serpents (Genesis 3:1), while as innocent, or free from guile, as doves.

5. Present Christ, and Him crucified, as the solution to disunity: "I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). In contrast to those who fostered certain personality cults in Corinth, Paul concentrated on the central truths: Who Jesus is and what He did. The cross is the flagpole around which all God’s children can rally.

6. Test the issues against the overarching sense of mission: "We are laborers together with God" (1 Corinthians 3:9). Paul directed the thoughts of the Corinthian believers to the higher, common cause of preaching the Gospel to all the world. He appealed to them to rise above their differences and find harmony in something beyond all differences.

7. Be ready to forgive: "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Till seven times? Jesus saith unto him: I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21, 22). There is no limit to God’s forgiveness, and so it also should be with the forgiveness of Jesus’ followers. Successful conflict resolution presupposes willingness to forgive one another.

8. Appeal to a higher church authority: "They determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question" (Acts 15:2). In the early church, the apostles and elders were considered to be the highest authority within the church. Yet from verse 22 it seems clear they did not attempt to settle the matter by decree, rather they involved the whole church in settling its disputes.

9. Accept the decisions of the corporate church: "Whatsoever ye shall bind on Earth shall be bound in Heaven" (Matthew 18:18). The context of this verse is the subject of church discipline and not doctrinal disputes, though the latter can lead to church discipline. The book of Acts specifically indicates that in matters of theological differences, the decision of the Jerusalem Council was accepted by the church as a whole (Acts 15:28-31).

10. Recognize the authority of the church to dismiss members: "A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition reject" (Titus 3:10). In the preceding verse Paul mentions strife and contentions in the church produced by perverted teachers of the law (cf. 1 Timothy 1:7). In order to restore peace and harmony in the church, the proper method is to arrange at least two interviews with a person who stirs up strife and contention. If these interviews fail, the church is at liberty to exclude this divisive person from the community of believers. Dismissing a member should never be done lightly; but the apostolic guideline is clear—have nothing to do with him" (NIV). Such counsel does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of God’s total message in Scripture.

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