Christian Conflict Resolution

Like all people, Christians have conflict over ideas, practices, preferred traditions, and how the to spend money. Conflict is good. It helps solve problems. But we frequently handle this conflict in ways that contradict the purpose of the church and the content of the gospel message! When we value a minor thing as though it were a major thing, we let our emotional response guide us rather than truth, practicality, or ethics. And so below, I’ll explain what appears to me to be a New Testament guide to conflict resolution among Christians:

Christian Conflict Resolution

A Translation of Philippians 4:2-9:[1]

“I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say: rejoice! Let your reasonableness be made known to all people, the Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is honest, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever causes affection, whatever is commendable, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy take account of these things; and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice and the God of peace will be with you.”

Below is an attempt to give a commentary on the passage above, followed by an argument for why I think it is meant to conflict resolution. But for those more interested in the practical take away, here it is. In list form, Paul’s recommendations for Christian conflict resolution:

  1. Call to mind your calling as Christians
    If you remember, in the midst of a conflict, who you are, who the other person is, and where you are, and why you’re together in the first place, then you’ll have a foundation for productive Christian conflict. To “have the same way of thinking” in the passage hearkens back to Philippians 2:5-11. It doesn’t mean “agree in all things.” It means remember to try to be like Jesus.
  2. Rejoice in the Lord always.
    Think of specific reasons to be joyful in connection with your faith. So think of Christ’s death for sins, your forgiveness, the greatness of God’s love, answered prayers, etc. 
  3. Behave reasonably (esp.) when you have an audience
    Paul recommends that when others are present, you put extra care into being moderate and reasonable. This makes sense, as acting vindictive or angry in public exacerbates things.
  4. Recognize the nearness of the Lord
    Just like realizing you have an audience might make you circumspect, remembering that the Lord is near ought to make you more so. 
  5. Do not fret about anything
    Allowing a thought to occupy your mind obsessively can blow it out of proportion. Instead of thinking constantly about how you’re not getting your way, Paul recommends the next step.
  6. Thankfully ask God to grant your requests
    Think of specific reasons to be thankful, and in that attitude of thanksgiving, ask God to give you what is best. God may grant your request. Also, you’re preparing yourself to seek the best thing, not merely what you want in the moment. And so Christian arguments should include time for prayer. 
  7. Think about what is good in the other.
    It’s harder to hate somebody and aim to thwart their desires without reason when you sit and consider what it best in them. For instance, you’ve probably had the experience where somebody tells you a true, positive fact when you’re mad or sad and you start to laugh. That’s a sign that you’re being persuaded into a positive frame of mind.
  8. Practice the Paul’s spiritual disciplines in accordance with Paul’s gospel.
    Finally, everybody involved should be practicing self-denial, prayer, fasting, etc. Every Christian ought to be aiming their life at Christ-likeness. And in this letter and spread throughout the New Testament are the practices in accord with that lifestyle.

A Christian Conflict Resolution Commentary

  1. I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.
    Paul reminds the women and the entire Philippian church that they are co-workers in the gospel. And the gospel comes with a calling to acquire the mind of Christ. And so if you remember that you’re on the same task force, it will be easier to get along. And in fact, if you remember that your partners in conflict have their names in the book of life, you’ll remember how much God loves them too!
  2. Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say: rejoice!
    In order for these women to get along, Paul challenges them to rejoice in the Lord. The idea here is that when dealing with disagreement, if both of you think about the reasons that Jesus Christ has given you to rejoice, then this will set the tone for your own approach to the issue.
  3. Let your reasonableness be made known to all people.
    The idea here is that being open to reason and dealing with a conflict in a winsome and evidence based way not is not only the right thing to do, but it goes a long way in preserving the public image of the Christian church for its members as well as for its opponents. In other words, think about the issue enough to talk about it well, have a discussion and deal with it in a self-controlled and moderate manner. Paul will go on to tell them not to let the issue occupy their minds constantly as human beings are wont to do.
  4. The Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
    Conflict has a tendency to create anxiety or annoyance. So, remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ is near, Christians ought to pray when they have conflict rather than letting the distress of the difficult occupy and distract their minds until it foments into a terrible argument. Instead, it is better to pray and move on.
  5. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
    Paul then says that if these steps are followed on both sides, that the peace of God, which is impossible to grasp for outsiders, will protect their hearts and minds from needless divisions, grumbling, and conflict. Do note the focus on peace in relationship to the conflict mentioned above and that it comes up again at the end of verse 9.
  6. Finally, brothers
    This address is the biggest piece of evidence against the conflict resolution interpretation (that and the fact that as far as I can tell, no commentary agrees with me). But I think it is possible for his advice to Euodia and Syntyche, to include an address to the whole church. This makes sense when you consider that 4:2-7 are already in a letter which was to be read aloud to everybody.

    1. whatever is honest
      Assuming the conflict-resolution-interpretation, whatever is true would mean whatever integrity and fidelity is apparent in somebody’s life. This makes sense when one considers that αληθη can mean “honest, truthful, or right.”
    2. whatever is noble
      Here, then, Paul is challenging them to think about whatever it is in somebody that is noble of character. Presumably, the focus is on character traits which pertain to achieving honorable status in God’s kingdom and in society in general. There is also such a thing as ascribed honor, but σεμνος seems to me to be focused on character traits, not offices or birth.
    3. whatever is just
      Whatever this person does toward God and man that is right.
    4. whatever is pure
      The word pure carries the weight of ancient rites of sacrifice and ceremonial washing that pertained to the difference between the realm of the gods and man. In the case of Christians this word was transformed into a word about the status of those who have been received into God’s family and into a word about morality rather than about ritual cleansing. So, think about that this person is cleansed by Christ and that this person refrains from this or that sin that they used to do.
    5. whatever causes affection
      Whatever causes you to have warm feelings toward somebody, think on these things. Think about their laugh, their kindness to others, a moment when they were pitiable before God and contrite about their sins, and so-on.
    6. whatever is commendable
      Here, the idea is concerning that which others speak highly of them about. What are they good at? What moral traits go before them? Do they dress well, manage their family well, are they eloquent, and so-on? Think about these things.
    7. if there is any virtue
      If anything in them lines up with the classical virtues: courage, prudence, justice, and self-control. Think about these things.
    8. and if there is anything praiseworthy
      Does this person have any trait that makes them a figure worthy of public appellation, not just private praise? Are they a patron, a benefactor, a broker, of good blood, do they show kindness, do they share the gospel? In the case of Christians, are they a member of a good nation or an important family (yes and yes)?
    9. take account of these things;
      Paul wants them to consider all of these factors in one another when they are having disagreements. The practical reason for this is obvious. It allows for rhetorical and dialectical charity in the leadership affairs of those who are “citizens of heaven” (3:20, cf. 1:27).
  7. and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice
    Here, Paul is using his gospel message (2:5-11) and his own example (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 and 2 Corinthians 11-13) to show them how to deal with conflict with those inside the group. Paul is reminding them to that only by putting these things into practice will they make progress, since Paul is a designated representative of the Jesus whom they mutually claim to be their Lord.
  8. and the God of peace will be with you.
    The take away here is that once these habits of thought are put into practice, then God’s peace will reside with the church. 

Appendix:

The Dominant Interpretation of Philippians 4:2-9

The passage of Scripture above is often (in the majority of commentaries) interpreted as a paraenesis (a collection of general and miscellaneous ethical advice).[2]

The passage seems more specific than that to me. Philippians 4:2-9 is an attempt on Paul’s part to resolve a conflict in the church at Philippi. The passage above is Paul’s application of generally wise advice on Christian living (4:4-9) to the specific issue at hand (4:2-3): a conflict between two notable members of the church leadership. It is notable that David Alan Black suggests a similar point of view for verses 4:2-7 in his book Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.

In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul urges two women to start working together or at least to come to have “the same way of thinking” that Paul has urged elsewhere in the letter which is summed up in the humility of Jesus demonstrated in the gospel story (see especially 1:27-2:11). So, Paul rhetorically hooks this section directly to 1:27 and 2:1-5.

It may not matter, but Paul does use the present tense of the word translated above as “I am urging” which could mean one of two things:

  1. Paul is performing a speech-act (like saying, “I pronounce you husband and wife”) wherein Paul is urging, in that very sentence, for them to get along.
  2. An introduction to a new line of thought: “I am urging, in what follows, that you be of one mind.”

If we take 4:2-3 to be the end of Paul’s instruction about getting along (option 1), then the rest of the passage is simply general moral and spiritual advice. But if 4:2-3 is introducing what follows (option 2), then we have Paul’s vision of Christian conflict resolution. There are four main reasons for seeing 4:2-3 as an introduction to the material that follows all the way until verse 9.

  1. It allows this closing material to fit with the apparent thesis statement of the letter (1:27-30).
  2. It helps make sense of the fact that several of the things Paul says to “take account of” are characteristics of persons, not ideals to be contemplated.
  3. Paul’s says that following these instructions will result in peace.
  4. It is generally true that the New Testament Epistles are more concerned with group cohesiveness than individual spiritual disciplines (although group cohesion almost always relies upon the spiritual health of individual Christians).

Bibliography

Aland, Kurt et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Liddell, Henry George et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[1] Translated from Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Php 4:2–9.

[2] There are good reasons for accepting this view. Several Biblical scholars accept this view (Bruce, Barth, Cohick, O’Brien, Fee, and Witherington) as does my pastor, whose judgment about such matters is very well reasoned. The take away of this perspective is essentially that Paul wants us to think about positively virtuous and God honoring things (which elsewhere he clearly does say to do). I totally agree with the ethical idea that comes from the majority interpretation. It is Pauline advice, it is reasonable advice, it is advice that accords with the sort of meditation that has been prescribed throughout the Christian tradition for centuries, and it seems to be advice that helps people who receive cognitive psychological therapy (thinking about different things to manage bad thought patterns). So don’t hear me being mean about people who see the passage in the more traditional way.