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Solving Conflict Biblically

The following reviews are reports I wrote for a seminary class I’ve been taking called conflict resolution. I thought the books were so good that I wanted to let everyone know about them. – Jonathan Harris

The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal ConflictReview of The Peace Maker by Ken Sande

Ken Sande’s practical book, The Peacemaker, will teach the average layman all the way up to the powerful executive what it means to follow in the steps of the Prince of Peace. In a down-to-earth way, Sande explores what the Bible has to say about peacemaking, while at the same time interjecting his own powerful personal and career-related experience to demonstrate its applicability. Did you know that the central message of the Bible is that of making peace between parties adverse to each other? Is this not what the Father himself did in making those who were contrary to Him reconciled through the blood of His Son? For the Christian, being a peacemaker is a non-negotiable. As the author rightly points out, “Christians are the most forgiven therefore we should be the most forgiving.”

In the introduction to Sande’s book, he gives his reason for writing. “This book is designed to help you become this kind of peacemakeer [i.e. emulating Christ]. It provides a simple yet comprehensive approach to resolving conflict. Because this approach is based solidly on God’s Word, it is effective in every type of conflict.” Sande is correct when he characterizes his book as Word-driven. Just about every page you’ll read is chalk-filled with references demonstrating their origin in Scripture.

One of the major passages Sande uses to get his point across is James 4:1 which aks, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” The author correlates this passage with Matthew 15:19 showing that conflict is ultimately produced by heart motivations. He writes, “These passages describe the root cause of conflict: unmet desires in our hearts. Wen we want something and feel that we will not be satisfied unless we get it, that desire starts to control us. If others fail to meet our desires, we sometimes condemn them in our hearts and fight harder to get our own way.” I think it is fair to say that without understanding this principle, nothing else in the book will make sense, the application will be unattainable, and ultimately God will not be in whatever remedy is chosen. The root problem in all conflict is rightly placed at the feet of a particular “idol(s)” by the author. “Conflict always begins with some kind of desire. . . Unmet desires have the potential of working themselves deeper and deeper into our hearts” eventually being justified and demanded.

So then, what is the remedy for this damning conflict ridden problem we all seem to possess? Sande proposes a replacement strategy that starts with dethroning our idol of choice. We must first “Repent before God,” cultivate a “Fear” of God, “Love God,” “Trust God”, and “Delight in God.” This may seem daunting at first but as we can observe, there is a common element to each step. The object of our action is always rooted in the Lord. I would like to suggest that Sande isn’t necessarily proposing a strict step by step process in which there are no relations to previous and later steps. He is proposing a simultaneous attitude that acknowledges God’s character and actions. Before providing a useful heart diagnostic at the end of the chapter entitled Conflict Starts in the Heart, Sande summarizes:

James 4:1-3 provides a key principle for understanding and resolving conflict. Whenever we have a serious dispute with others, we should always look carefully at our own hearts to see whether we are being controlled by unmet desires that we have turned into idols. These desires love to disguise themselves as things we need or deserve, or even as things that would advance God’s kingdom. But no matter how good or legitimate a desire may look on the surface, if we have gotten to te point where we cannot be content, fulfilled, or secure unless we have it, that desire has evolved into an idol that has diverted our love and trust from God.

Lest someone should think that the Peacemaker is all about correcting personal sin, let me affirm the fact that this work also provides a complete strategy for dealing with multiple party conflicts, even if you are not identified with one of the parties, or are involved but have not done anything necessarily wrong.

When an individual is a party to a conflict, Sande maintains that they have six possible negative responses to choose from — denial, flight, suicide, assault, litigation, or murder — and three basic obedient responses to select from — overlooking, reconciliation, or negotiation. Denial usually results in “temporary relief” making matters worse. Fleeing conflict usually postpones a solution to a given problem, suicide is “never right,” physical or emotional abuse “always makes conflict worse,” Litigation “usually damage[s] relationships and often fail[s] to achieve complete justice,” and murder is a direct violation of God’s commandments. What really needs to be done according to the author, is enact “peacemaking responses.” Overlooking an offense has direct endorsement from the Scripture itself. “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.” Reconciliation is likewise given a biblical stamp of approval in the Sermon on the Mount. Christ instructs, “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” Negotiation or “arbitration” as its form eventually can take, is expanded on in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:4). When in a conflict we should look out for “the interests of others.” When mediating, or arbitrating a conflict in which other parties unrelated to us are involved (following the Matthew 18 process), we must realize our job is to “improve communication and offer biblical counsel.” Sande goes into much detail concerning what this biblical counsel entails, but it can all be summed up in the Gospel. “The key to changing the way we deal with conflict is the gospel.” We “reflect the glory of God’s reconciling love in the midst of conflict.”

All in all, this work has many strengths. It does effectively teach the Biblical principles behind biblical counseling. The only criticism I would personally harbor is very slight. I believe Sande could have done a better job at exegeting biblical texts and using better biblical translations. I do realize that he is trying to reach a broad audience however, so part of this is understandable. Even without a lot of deep exegesis, Sande does seem to “rightly interpret” all the texts he utilizes. I would recommend this book to anyone struggling with conflict.

Peacemaking Pastor, The: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church ConflictReview of The Peace Making Pastor by Alfred Poirier

Alfred Poirier’s vivid accounts and concrete examples of the real conflicts that exist within the context of any church will serve to encourage, enlighten, and assist all church leaders whose job includes dealing with people. Utilizing both Scripture and personal experience, Poirier offers solutions that are solidly biblical and thoroughly tested. The book of which I speak is called The Peace Making Pastor, as its subject matter pertains entirely to the topic of peacemaking among the elect. The author writes, “One of my primary objectives in writing this book has been to ground peacemaking on a solid biblical theological foundation as well as to place it within its ecclesiastical context.” Delving deeper Poirier informs us that book is organized “within the framework of who we are as people in conflict (chapters 1-3), who God is as a reconciling God (chapters 4-5), and how, therefore, God calls us to respond (chapters 6-13).” His “hope is that this book will begin to remedy the current deficiency in pastoral studies by providing pastors-in-training as well as seasoned pastors with an overview of biblical peacemaking from the unique vantage point of the pastor.” After reading this work I trust that you also will be convinced that the author’s hope has and will continue to be sufficiently fulfilled.

Poirier opens the first page of chapter 1 by giving three examples of potential situations that most pastors have encountered to one degree or another on some level during the course of their ministry. A congregant has breached a business contract and now his non-Christian associate wants you to do something about it. A church leader divorces his wife and cuts off all financial support for her and their four children. A former child molester who now claims to have repented desires to join your church despite congregational concern for their own children. The author follows each of these real-world scenarios with the question, “What am I to do?” Many seminary students, not having first-hand experience in vocational ministry, tend to ere on the side of ignorance when it comes to such a question. What course offered holds the answers to such questions? Is it Greek exegesis? No, not that one. Did hermeneutics address any of these topics? No, not really. What about systematic theology? Unfortunately, the answer once again is no. The real ministry of a pastor involves situations that only exist in the real world, and coping with such situations can possibly lead to “heresy of the heart” so to speak. The author recounts a reaction he had one day when it seemed like he was undergoing a bombardment in the area of “people problems.” He recounts, “I woke one day to find in the mirror a pastor with a tired face and a weary soul. I had entered the pastorate eager to walk in the footsteps of the pastorate and practice what the ancient church called the care of souls (cura animarum). But I woke that day frightened to find that I did not care anymore.” He then asks the tough questions—you know, the ones which just about every pastor is familiar with, yet rarely, if ever mentions out loud. “Do you ever dream of leaving your church for a less contentious one? Do you ever pray that the difficult people will just go away?” Poirier admits that he’s been there too, and like a more experienced counselor, desires to show the reader the way out. In the proceeding chapters he lays out his course on how to “exegete people” by “turning to Christ the Peacemaker.” “Instead of fleeing the world [as pastors will sometimes dream about], Jesus Christ embraces us sinners, us rebels, in all our filth, wavering, double-mindedness, hesitating, duplicity, lies, thefts, adulteries, and idolatries. . . He steps down into our pit rather than just shouting from on top.” It is then by following His example and completely adopting his motivations that we can be effective peacemakers and pastors simultaneously. Poirier writes:

Peacemaking is all about Jesus Christ, his person and work, as its ground, message, and manner of being. Jesus is he ground of peacemaking through his reconciling death. The gospel of Jesus is the message of peacemaking that we pastors bring to our people in conflict. And even the mode or manner of peacemaking is shaped by Christ himself, who was humble and gentle of heart and would not break a bruised reed. God’s cosmic work of reconciling all things in heaven and on earth to himself is through the person and work of Christ. In Christ, God reconciles all things to himself.

Consider the overt references to peacemaking that Christ himself made. In the sermon on the mount our Lord proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Jesus’s prayer in John 17:20-21 reflects His longing for there to be peace among His followers. Again in the Sermon on the Mount Christ instructs reconciliation between men before there can be an offering made to God. In Matthew 18 we find the process of “church discipline” being administered for the sake of peace. “Christ’s way was the way of giving forgiveness even before asked, and even when it was not or never would be asked for by the others.” To make peace is to follow the example given by our Lord when he made the ultimate peace between infinitely offensive sinners and an infinitely Holy God.

Of all the principles and helpful patterns forwarded throughout Poirier’s work, I believe the  most helpful is contained in the chapter entitled “The Paths of Conflict.” Poirier uses “The Slippery Slope” graph—invented by Ken Sande—to diagnose the type of response an individual gives when dealing with conflict. This grid-work will serve to help the pastor in getting to the “heart” of the matter by diagnosing the motive of the response being made on the part each party in a conflict. The author divides the various responses into three categories: “Peace-fakers,” “Peace-makers,” and “Peace-breakers.” Depending on what type of response is being evoked is the idol a pastor should focus on in dealing with the conflict. For instance, if someone is trying to escape a conflict by denying that a problem even exists, and in so doing further aggravates the situation, it could be that they have a comfort loving tendency (i.e. idol). The author quotes James 4:1 to prove that it is ultimately the desires of the heart that serve to cause contention. “Conflict erupts and with it all kinds of evil—slander, gossip, blame-shifting, malice, anger, factions, and so on—because there is evil in our hearts.” Poirier then sets out in the very next chapter to exegete James 4:1-10 to show how it is the Gospel itself that provides the answer to conflict on a heart level. It is a deep love for God as a result of his work for us that melts away our idols and causes there to be peace.

Another important, and very practical principle that Poirier introduces us to is the “PAUSE principle.” He writes, “The best way to keep brewing conflicts from bursting into flames is to apply the PAUSE principle. . . [It] can serve as a brake—helping people to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).” “PAUSE” is an acronym which stands for “Prepare,” “Affirm relationships,” “Understand interests,” “Search for creative solutions,” and “Evaluate options objectively and reasonably (according to God’s standards of justice).” The author goes into much more detail regarding each term and what it specifically means practically speaking. I think it is important to note that all the elements of the acronym have there grounding in biblical citations, thus the reader can be assured that what he is receiving is a synthesis on what the Bible actually has to say regarding conflict resolution—not what modern psychology or any other authority may put forward.

In conclusion, Alfred Poirier has put together a wonderful practical tool that will I believe help churches and pastors in many useful ways. His defense of church discipline and insights into incorporating church participatory peacemaking activities are phenomenal. I do perhaps wish even more examples of situations in which biblical principles had to be exercised in the face of conflict were offered; but this is only because I thought the examples given were so rich, vivid, and helpful. It’s not that the biblical exegetical portions were sub-par, but more that the practical portions were so good. I believe that most pastors and church leaders should, at the very least, read the first three and last six chapters of this book in preparation for both personal and corporate ministry. Preferably they should have a copy of it on their shelf for when situations do arise simply because there are quote often times that conflicts are brewing under the surface in the hearts of men and it is when we least expect them that they rise to the surface. Let’s not be caught off guard. That’s Poirier’s wish. Is it yours?

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