by Shawn McMullen
Conflict occurs all around us. And perhaps nowhere is its presence more quickly noticed and keenly felt than in a local church. As shepherds of God’s flock, elders are often drawn into conflicts among believers. Just as often, we should be agents of conflict resolution.
While it’s vital to resolve conflict in the church, it is possible to prevent it. That’s what Alexander Campbell had in mind when he wrote about church discipline in 1839, “Offences must come; and, if possible, they must be healed. To cut off an offender, is good; to cure him, is better; but to prevent him falling, is best of all” (emphasis added).
So what can elders in the local church do to help prevent at least some of the conflict that might occur among members? Here are a few thoughts.
Be a Constant Encourager: Paul advised, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11), and “encourage one another daily” (Heb. 3:13).
Author Stephen Covey popularized a concept he referred to as “the emotional bank account.” He pointed out that we can’t make withdrawals from a financial institution without first making deposits, and that a similar principle holds true in our personal relationships. When we’ve faithfully made deposits into the emotional bank accounts of those around us (by sincerely and continually expressing our appreciation and encouragement to them), we’ll have resources to withdraw from when we need to confront or correct them. This allows us to address problems before they escalate into conflict.
Say It with Tears: To the Ephesians, Paul offered this helpful insight: “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (4:15). He twice reminded the elders of the same congregation that he’d served among them with “tears” (Acts 20:19, 31). Shepherds of God’s flock are not duplicitous. They can’t simply say what they think others want to hear. They must be able to speak the hard truth, but when they do, they must say it with tears and in a spirit of love. Most people will accept anything you have to say if they’re convinced you have their best interest at heart.
Set an Example of Humility: Even if we’re not directly involved in a conflict, we can often prevent it from developing or escalating, and we can encourage others to do the same, by keeping our pride in check. Proverbs addresses the theme frequently:
- A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a wise man overlooks an insult. (12:16)
- A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (15:1)
- God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble. (3:34 as quoted in James 4:6)
And we certainly can’t forget Jesus’ example, laid out by Paul, in Philippians 2:1-11 (“…he humbled himself…” v. 8).
Make Unity a Daily Priority: Knowing God is displeased when Christians remain at odds with one another, shepherds of God’s flock will do everything in their power to keep peace in God’s family. Jesus spoke to this urgent need in Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Paul also stressed the importance of this goal: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). If the elders of the local church, by word and example, show the congregation that unity is a priority – among church leaders and members – their example can have a profound impact on the congregation.
While conflict is inevitable, even in the church, much of it is preventable. Let’s do all we can to prevent any strife that we can, to the glory of God.