The time has come to give up the misguided and misleading beliefs that Matthew 18:15-17 contains the universal prescription for Christians to resolve their personal disputes and that Acts 15 portrays a universal procedure for resolving congregational conflicts.
There is an unfortunate tendency among some who have not carefully looked into the New Testament to oversimplify this topic. They make quick and easy references to the above named passages as a set of easy answers to all congregational conflict. Just plug in the formula and work the system. Or, we are told “just love one another,” and everything will work out fine.
They are blind, and they blind others to the rich store of information about church conflict that lies, waiting to be discovered throughout the New Testament. There is direct or indirect evidence of conflict in every New Testament book: conflict in the Gospels between Jesus and various opponents, including his own disciples, and among his disciples; conflict among the earliest Christians in the Jerusalem church and at the Jerusalem Council; Paul’s conflicts with Judaizing opponents in Galatians, especially regarding his authority as an apostle, and with the Corinthians on at least nine issues, conflicts among Christians in Philippi and Thessalonica; conflict between wealthy and poor in James, between Christians and the world in 1Peter and 1 John; an internal schism in 1-3 John; intra-church conflict and cosmic conflict in Revelation.
Denominational leaders, pastors and concerned church members need to be creative, adaptive, energetic, and skilled when it comes to handling conflict between Christians. They should avoid simple formulae and be prepared for complexity. The New Testament is replete with references to controversy, conflict and strife, and it is incumbent upon responsible leaders, who desire scriptural guidance, to be informed by the whole New Testament, and then to reach beyond it to incorporate what the social sciences now teach us about human relationships. Ideally, those responsible to respond to conflict within the Church would act out of a rich repertoire of potential responses, being prepared to change their approaches as experience dictates.
In this article we focus on intra-Christian conflict, a form of conflict we are calling “strife.” Some of the conflicts reflected in the New Testament involve two individuals; they are personal. Others involve an entire church that appears to be divided “down the middle.” Some are disputes over moral standards, others over doctrine, and still others over worship practices. Some conflicts are widespread, affecting more than one congregation. In Corinth there are multiple conflicts. The same conflict appears in more than one New Testament writing. Sometimes a rift is described in one place and an apparent reconciliation in another. Some of the texts lay down instructions for dealing with conflict, and yet other texts describe events that do not conform to those instructions.
It is also important to make a distinction between mere differences of opinion and strife in the Christian community. The distinction can be drawn by attending to the balance (or lack of balance) between the attention given to the specific issue(s) and the attention given to the relationships in individual cases. When relationships are clearly in danger, there is true conflict, not mere differences of opinion. In many such cases the language of the New Testament focuses on relational failure, and strong words are used to describe the situation. For example, some of these words are:
- dissension(s:) Acts 15:2; Rom. 16:17; I Cor.12:25; Gal. 5:20; I Tim. 6:4; Tit. 3:19;
- dispute(s): Lk. 22:4; 2 Cor. 7:5; I Tim. 6;4; Jas. 4:1-2
- quarrel(s)(ing): Rom. 13:13; 14:1; 1 Cor. 1:11; 3:3; 2 Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:20; 2 Tim. 2:23-24; Tit. 3:2, 9;
- division(s): 1 Cor. 10:1; 11:18; Tit. 3:10; Jud. 1:19;
- factions: 1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 2:12; Gal. 5:20;
- conflict(s): Jas. 4:1-2, and
- strife: Gal. 5:20.
These complexities do not reduce to a simple formula for resolving conflict. Therefore, since insufficient and often careless attention has been paid to this topic, at least in ways that might be helpful to readers of the New Testament who desire to learn how to manage conflict in their own communities, we are writing this article with one eye on the biblical text and the other on contemporary congregations where strife is also a significant theme.” And, while we might say that conflict is normal in all human interaction, the New Testament never approves of it or takes it lightly.
- The New Testament gives few direct procedural instructions about responding to conflict.
- In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his disciples that “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you”, . . . go and “be reconciled to your brother or sister” before you seek to worship God. (Mt. 5:23-24).
It does not appear that a specific conflict is in view here. The situation is hypothetical, (“if you remember”), but alludes to what must have been a common experience. The onus for reconciliation is on the one who knows that a fellow disciple has something against him or her. The nature of the conflict is personal. The trouble is between two who are part of the same community, and reconciliation is the preferred result.
- In Matthew 18:15-17 disciples are told to work out their conflicts one to one, but if that does not work, they are to bring along witnesses who might hear exactly the nature of the difficulty, and if that fails, to bring the matter before the whole church. If the people in the wrong will not listen to the church (repent), then they are to be ostracized. The onus here (in contrast to Mt. 5:23-26) is on the person who has something against another.
This conflict is also personal, as in Matthew 5:23-24. Two members of the Christian community are at odds. There are accusations and denials. Three courses of action are outlined: private negotiation, small group intervention, and church discipline. The writer is aware of the church as a body with procedures and a system of discipline. As before, no specific issue is in dispute; the case is hypothetical.
There are three possible outcomes: that the matter is settled face to face, that the matter is settled in a small group, and that the matter is settled by the judgment of the church as a body. Some scholars suggest that “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” requires the offer of redemption and fellowship, as Jesus himself offered to tax collectors and sinners. But the majority see Matthew’s Jewish Christian community treating the offender as an outsider.
- Another set of passages from the Gospels instructs disciples to forgive those who offend them a limitless number of times. Luke 17:3-5, for example, calls for rebuking offenders and forgiving those who repent, even if they offend and repent again and again, to which Jesus’ disciples respond, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
The passage is about inter-personal conflict. Matthew’s “point out the fault” (Mt. 18:15) becomes “rebuke” in Luke (Lk. 17:3) and “listens” in Matthew (18:15) becomes “repentance” in Luke (17:3-4).
In Luke’s passage about dealing with interpersonal conflict, he appears to draw together two sayings of Jesus that are treated separately in Matthew: the one on how to respond when a disciple sins against another and will not repent (Mt. 18:15-17), and another saying that calls for unlimited forgiveness in which there is no mention of repentance (Mt. 18:21-22). Jesus, in Luke 17:3-5, warns the disciples to be on guard against sin and to confront it by rebuking the sinner, and, if the sinner repents, he or she is always to be forgiven, no matter how many times the offense, rebuke, and repentance occur. Luke’s saying does not envision what might happen if the disciple (lit., “brother”) does not repent.
In Matthew, Jesus addresses the situation of an unrepentant disciple (lit., “brother”) and specifies a process for dealing with the unrepentant, including witnesses, a hearing before the ekklésia, and a punishment; whereas in Luke, assuming repentance, forgiveness is unlimited. All of the action to resolve the conflict is interpersonal, and there is no mention in Luke of the church or a group being involved.
While the Gospels of Luke and Matthew are aware of conflict among disciples and in Christian communities, the New Testament epistles always presuppose life in community.
- Romans 16:17-18: 17 I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. 18 For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.
The conflict here concerns incorrect teaching and attitude. Those persons about whom Paul is concerned not only oppose the teaching the Romans had received, but they do so in ways that cause dissensions (dichostasias) and offenses (skandala). The term “offenses,” along with the reference to “their own appetites,” may imply that the harmful teaching was about moral issues. Paul instructs his readers to keep an eye on such persons and to avoid them (lit., keep away from them). There is no confrontation, rebuke, correction or other direct action suggested, though, since Romans is addressed to the whole church, the “turning away” may be a form of shunning.
- In 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 Paul contests a form of sexual immorality in the Corinthian church: a man is sleeping with his stepmother. He gives the Corinthians stern advice on how to deal with this situation and with other immoral believers.
Although conflicts within the Corinthian congregation are well documented in Paul’s letters, this particular passage does not refer to one of those conflicts. In fact, it is the lack of conflict, rather than the presence of conflict, that is the problem as Paul sees it. A serious moral offense is occurring, yet the Corinthians are arrogant about it. They are boasting (vs. 6), evidently about their moral freedom. Instead, they should have engaged the conflict and removed the offending person (vs. 2).
Paul puts himself at odds with the person who is committing the offense. He has already passed judgment on him. There is conflict, and Paul decides the outcome authoritatively and unilaterally. Further, Paul puts himself at odds with the Corinthians. He tells them what they should feel, which is sorrow (vs. 2). He tells them what they should do, which is to evict the offender from the congregation and turn him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. They should not associate with such persons or others who violate the Christian (Jewish?) norms of sexual morality, or who are greedy, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or robbers. “Do not even eat with such a one.” Thus he provokes and urges the Corinthians to enter into conflict with such offenders, and to shun them.
- 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 describes a conflict among the Corinthian Christians revolving around fellowship meals in church and the Lord’s Supper. There is drunkenness and a lack of koinonia (sharing), causing divisions (vs. 18) and humiliation (vs. 22). Paul concludes his counsel on this problem with the tradition he received on how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and a warning for the Corinthians to examine themselves in order to avoid God’s judgment.
The presenting issue here is the Lord’s Supper. The underlying problem is divisions and factions in the church. Someone in the Corinthian church (Chloe’s people? 1 Cor. 1:11) thought this problem was important enough to bring to Paul’s attention. The text also implies that the Corinthians generally were unconcerned about the situation. They appear satisfied with their factions and with having meals without waiting for one another. Paul, however, perceived that their behavior signaled the presence of divisions that was threatening the well-being community.
He can put a positive spin on their factions (they show who is genuine, 11:19), but he tells them how to resolve the conflict by self-examination and by establishing more orderly procedures for observing the Lord’s Supper. The solution relies on better attitudes, a deeper understanding of the Lord’s Supper, and what we might call systemic changes. It is noteworthy that there are no leaders Paul can appeal to, in order to settle the conflict. Was this a purely “charismatic” church with either elders or deacons?
- Ephesians 4:25-32; 5:21-6:9. There is no conflict evident in the letter to the Ephesians. As a circular letter, Ephesians provides theological, spiritual, and moral teaching in a kind of summary of Paul’s perspectives. The Jew-Gentile conflict, evident in throughout Paul’s ministry, appears resolved: Jewish and Gentile Christians are one in Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). Unity is a high value for the writer of Ephesians. He has detailed teaching on the unity of the church in 4:1-6. Most of the second half of Ephesians contains practical counsel on avoiding conflict and sin. “Speak the truth,” don’t let anger and bitterness fester, work hard, share with one another, speak only helpfully, be kind to one another and forgive one another, “as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:25-32).
Since there is potential for conflict in all relationships, the writer counsels the readers to be submissive to one another, especially in marriage (5:21-32). Fathers are to avoid provoking their children, and slave-masters must stop threatening their slaves, while children and slaves are to be obedient. (6:1-9). It is interesting that there is no appeal to any actions of a church body or to the existence of any church leaders, though Ephesians says Christ gave various gifts to the church, such as pastors and teachers (4:11), but, as in Corinth, there appears to be no governing authority.
The search for a consistent procedure in the New Testament for resolving conflict among the followers of Jesus fails. There is no single consistent procedure to handle different kinds of conflict. The instructions that do exist are partial and situational. Matthew and Luke vary in their expressions of Jesus’ teaching on “offending church members,” and Paul’s instructions are diverse from letter to letter and even within one letter. We will see in what follows that even these general instructions on handling conflict were not always put into practice, just as intra-church conflicts are often left unaddressed today.
- The New Testament provides a rich variety of accounts about how conflict was handled and many clues to less well documented cases.
How does conflict in the New Testament get resolved, and, if it does not get resolved, what attempts are made at resolution? It does not seem to be on the basis of the instructions we have cited so far. In fact, those instructions are, at times, contrary to actual practice. For example, whereas Matthew 18:15-17 lays out specific steps the offended person should follow, Paul, who may not have known Jesus’ teaching, says something quite different in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.
In that passage the offended person has three options: a civil lawsuit (which the Corinthians had pursued, much to Paul’s chagrin), arbitration by the church, or simply accepting the actions of the offender. There is nothing here about confronting the offender, nothing about calling witnesses, and nothing even about repentance and forgiveness. Yet the cases in Matthew and 1 Corinthians are similar. Both passages deal with individual, personal conflicts. Both deal with an offender and a victim. Neither involves church doctrine, worship practices, or anything that would seem to directly affect the church as an organization.
Nevertheless, it is possible to discern some common courses of action that are portrayed or named in the New Testament. There is a multitude of general sayings about church members being at peace, being unified, loving one another, bearing one another’s burdens, etc. Yet most of those references give no guidance about how peace or unity is to be attained. Certainly there are appeals to live in the Spirit, to follow Christ as head of the Church, and similar theological statements. It is the specific, practical procedure that is generally lacking.
But not always. One process is described in some detail in Acts 6:1-7 where the Hellenists Jewish Christians have complained about their widows not being served, at least in comparison to the Jewish Christian widows. In fact, it appears that the apostles pronounced a decision, and the whole body of believers accepted it. Though we have only Luke’s shorthand version of what may have been a larger and longer discussion, the process here followed was a combination of an authoritative edict, acceptance by the community, and apparent resolution.
Another method of strife management is found in Philippians 4:2-3. Paul urges Euodia and Syntyche “to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel . . . .” While pressing these two women to agree (one strategy), Paul also invites his “loyal companion” (Syzygus?) to help them. This suggests a strategy of mediation. At a minimum we can recognize that the latter is facilitation of some kind.
The task for us now, is to examine a selection of representative texts through which we can discover and describe the range and variety of problems and conflict resolution methods that were recognized and practiced in New Testament era Christian communities as reflected in our sources. Only after we have done this descriptive work will we turn to the task of drawing some conclusions from this data for contemporary congregations.
 All Bible references and quotations in the paper, unless otherwise specified, are from the NRSV.
 We will be using the terms “conflict” and “strife” interchangeably, but the focus is on intra-Christian relational discord.
 No position is taken in this paper on the Pauline authorship of any particular letter. We use “Paul” because the New Testament texts do.Download Full Material-N4000 PAY WITH PAYPAL