How Does the Bible Guide Us through Conflict Resolution?

I must confess a bit of reticence here in answering this question. I say that because there are abusive structures and systems which use “biblical conflict resolution” to harm survivors. The principles outlined in Matthew 18 can be used to browbeat those who have been victimized and to force mock forgiveness upon those who are perpetually wounded.

But God does tell us about conflict resolution. The place where biblical reconciliation always begins is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We can only pursue true and lasting God-honoring reconciliation with one another if we have been first reconciled to God. All reconciliation must begin here.

James 4:1-2 tells us where our battle with conflict resides. David Powlison explains well:

“One of the joys of biblical ministry comes when you are able to turn on the lights in another person’s dark room … I have yet to meet a couple locked in hostility (and the accompanying fear, self-pity, hurt, self-righteousness) who really understood and reckoned with their motives. James 4:1-3 teaches that cravings underlie conflicts. Why do you fight? It’s not “because my wife/husband…” – it’s because of something about you. Couples who see what rules them – cravings for affection, attention, power, vindication, control, comfort, a hassle-free life – can repent and find God’s grace made real to them, and then learn how to make peace.”

This helps us to first reckon with our own role in any conflict that we might have. Matthew 7:3-5 makes it clear that in any conflict we do well to suspect and inspect ourselves first.

Disclaimer: When we are talking about run of the mill sin against one another or when the balance of power is pretty much equal, this is sound advice. It’s probably not a good question to ask, though, if you’ve been victimized. As an example, if someone has been sexually assaulted, it’s irresponsible and harmful to ask questions about personal responsibility.

The same is true of places like Matthew 18. That is a tremendous verse for walking through interpersonal conflicts. It helps us to know how to pursue reconciliation if we’ve been the one offended. As a general rule, when we are the ones who have been sinned against, we should walk through these steps, seek and pray for the repentance of the offender, and respond accordingly.

But it is inappropriate to use Matthew 18 as a cudgel against someone who is in an abusive relationship. Matthew 18 is not intended to outline the steps a wife should take if her husband is abusing her. We do not get to rebuke her for “not going to him first.”

Yes, the Bible outlines how to resolve conflict. But we must consider the general principle that there is a conflict that we are supposed to never make peace with and that is the conflict with sin. Whenever we use biblical principles of conflict to harm those who are vulnerable, we are making peace with sin and placing ourselves at enmity with God. There is much the Bible says about conflict and we do well to consider the whole picture.

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