Fellowship - Lesson 08 - Dispute Resolution

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Fellowship – Dispute resolution

Lesson 8: Dispute resolution

Where ever there are people there will be disagreement. Everyone has there opinion, and sadly disputes can become very heated very quickly. We only have to consider Cain and Abel to realize how bad things can go, and how very quickly.

Relational conflict is hard. Facing it is uncomfortable. Experiencing conflict affects our daily rhythms and routines. Conflict can even cause us to doubt God’s goodness, His will for our lives, or His love for us. But, in fact, God often uses conflict to refine our character, draw us closer to Him, and, ultimately, to glorify Himself.

The Bible is full of wisdom about how believers should handle conflict, yet far too many Christians end up handing their disputes over to the secular court to decide their fate an outcome that will be determined by worldly statutes, rules, and regulations that may or may not align with Biblical wisdom or a party’s Christian worldview and values. Biblical principles for conflict resolution can be applied to any type of conflict. And we believe scripture provides the best approach to conflict resolution, one that will result in lasting peace if both parties will only commit to following God’s ordained methods.

The Ecclesia needs to equip believers to address conflict biblically. Ecclesias themselves are often not equipped to support members struggling to resolve disputes.  Christian counseling or therapy might be the only option or referral offered.  Simply too few resources exist to support Christians through the process of biblical conflict resolution.  And if they do, Christians don’t know where to find them.  

This lesson is intended to provide an overview of the scriptural basis for our approach to conflict as believers, as well as to provide some practical guidance for the steps you can take to pursue biblical resolution to conflict.  If we look to His word and follow His guidance, we can experience peace from conflict, and provide a compelling witness to others of His goodness and love. 

Self-Reflection

Romans 3:23 “…for all have sinned…”

Matthew 7:3-5  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Man’s fall from grace in the garden of Eden continues to affect our every relationship.  We are all sinners, whose hearts have tendencies toward self-serving motivations and selfish pride.   The first step in any biblical approach to conflict resolution is necessarily turning our gaze inward, inspecting our emotional responses, checking them against God’s Word, repenting of our sin, and preparing our hearts for a humble posture toward our adversary.  We cannot expect to experience peace if we haven’t first identified our role in the conflict.

The process of self-reflection is not intended to identify where blame lies or who is at fault.  The purpose is to sufficiently prepare your heart for a personal encounter with conflict that glorifies God.  

What sin or heart issue on my part has contributed to the conflict?  How might my response to a hurt or offense have intensified the division?  In most types of conflict, there is some degree of contribution that we must acknowledge.  Our contribution could be an outward offense, such as an angry outburst or conduct that advanced our own interests at another’s expense, or it could be a heart condition, such as harboring bitterness or gossiping about the other person. Either way, we must first confront our offenses against others and against God, repent of our sins, and move forward with an attitude of humility and grace if we hope to see reconciliation or experience peace.

Go To Your Brother

Romans 12:18If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”

Matthew 18:15If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”

Matthew 5:23-24  So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. “

Galatians 6:1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

Oftentimes facing conflict head-on is the last thing we want to do.  We’d rather bury our head in the sand, avoid the person who caused us pain, or try to pretend the offense did not occur. Oftentimes we avoid the conflict, or the person entirely, convincing ourselves that in doing so we are maintaining peace.  But God calls us to initiate the process of reconciliation.  If there is conflict in a relationship, “go to your brother”.  God’s call for us is to be a peacemaker, even if we feel we have done nothing wrong or the other person’s offense is the greater of the two.  

This approach is vastly counter-cultural.  Our obligation as Christians is to do everything we can to restore peace to relationships, regardless of the other person’s role in the conflict or posture toward reconciliation. This can be an extremely intimidating proposition.  We may feel that we know that the other person wants nothing to do with us.  We might fear being confronted in an angry tirade of accusations.  Nevertheless, God calls us to “go,” not wait for someone else to make the first move.  

It’s important to keep in mind that the call to “go” is not a call to declare war.  It is not an instruction to arm yourself with an arsenal of evidence, excuses, justification, and quick retorts.  If we have taken the first step of self-reflection seriously, we should be prepared to humble ourselves, confess our sins before the other party, and request forgiveness.  And when confronting and acknowledging sin in another’s role in the conflict we should seek to do so graciously, in love, rather than righteous condemnation. Often it is by God’s grace alone that can we approach the conflict with love and grace, honoring the other person as created in the image of God, and one of God’s beloved children.  Pray that God would transform your heart and “go” to your brother with an attitude of love and mercy. 

Assisted Peacemaking

1 Corinthians 12:25-27: That there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Matthew 18:15-17  “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Ecclesia.”

Sometimes two believers need outside help to resolve conflict between them.  Emotions can run high and resentment and hurt may have settled in, clouding objectivity.  Thankfully, part of the blessing of living in Christian community is that we are surrounded by others whose wise counsel and unbiased hearts can be called on to assist should the need arise.  

Your Ecclesia may have defined processes to assist in the resolution of conflict between members. The degree of involvement may depend on the nature of the conflict.  Group leaders, arranging brethren, pastoral carers, or Ecclesial counselors are available within the C.B.M. to assist with the resolution of conflict.  Check with yours about what kind of resources might be available or what processes they already have in place.  If they don’t have options in-house, they will likely be able to refer you to someone.   Traditional counseling is the most common resource utilized to address conflict in marital relationships, but it is not the only option.  Christian mediation, discussed more fully below, can also be used to reconcile conflict between spouses or in other relationships; it is not only limited to legal disputes.  

Regardless of your relationship or the nature of the conflict between two believers, God calls us to pursue peace amongst believers, and we honour God when we make every effort, and utilize a variety of resources in the name of reconciliation.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

1 Corinthians 6:1-8 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the Ecclesia? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers…”

Romans 14:19So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.”

Matthew 5:25-26 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

2 Corinthians 13:11: “Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.”

When individuals have a dispute they can not resolve between themselves, legal options are often explored and often pursued.  Through the litigation process, rights are asserted, demands are made, and if settlement is not reached, a trial occurs, each party testifying to the wrongs and hurts committed by the other.  As a result, the nature of a relationship can devolve from a simple difference of opposing interests to one of pure adversarial contempt for one another.

The legal system in Tanzania is arguably at best not the most fair and just in the world. In order to achieve outcomes insulated by Constitutional protections (fair notice of the charges/claims against you, opportunity for a hearing before a Court, burdens of proof, the right to face and cross-examine witnesses who testify against you, etc…), parties to a lawsuit too often become competitors, fighting over access to evidence and witnesses, demanding strict compliance with procedural rules, all with the goal of jockeying for a better position before the Judge or jury.  The desired outcome is no longer one that results in a restored relationship (if it ever was), or one that allows the parties to move forward with a different, but peaceful, relationship, but one that satisfies each litigants own goals and demands, at the expense of the other’s.  

Parties in a lawsuit may yearn for their “day in court,” an opportunity to make their case and present evidence of the other person’s wrongs.  However, most often, especially in family courts (divorce/custody), there is rarely a “winner.”  Court-determined outcomes are often lose-lose. Neither party gets everything they wanted, and they have both paid dearly, in both attorney fees and, perhaps more costly, any hope of restoring a peaceful relationship.  

God understood the perils of the secular legal system.  He warned of the risks of submitting a dispute between believers to the secular Court.  And he called believers to something different. We are held to a different standard in how we live and love others. Why then would we resolve disputes according to a worldly standard?  While the secular legal process may be necessary to obtain a full resolution of some kinds of disputes (i.e., divorce), Christians can still obtain resolutions to their conflicts in a way that glorifies God, honours one another, and restores peace.  

Through alternative resolution processes, Christians can resolve disputes according to biblical values and principles, even those that implicate legal rights disputes.  Mediation and arbitration are the most commonly available forms of alternative dispute resolution that seek to provides resolution to parties in conflict without requiring court intervention.  

Mediation

Mediation is a structured form of settlement negotiation, facilitated by a trained third-party neutral, the Mediator.  The mediator is specially trained to help the parties engage in communication that is respectful and productive, moving the conversation from “what happened?” to “where do we go from here?”  Christian mediation focuses on identifying the heart issues underlying the dispute and providing a forum for gracious restoration of offenses.  The mediator can help the parties identify mutually beneficial outcomes to a conflict, or negotiate a settlement to a legal dispute, that is satisfactory to both parties.  

The process of Christian mediation endeavors to restore relationships in a manner that glorifies God and honours the other person.  If the relationship can not be restored to its previous form, mediation can help the parties define what the new relationship will look like and how they can each move forward in genuine peace.  

Arbitration

Sometimes parties to a dispute cannot come to an agreed-upon resolution themselves, even after numerous attempts at peacemaking.  As discussed above, God calls believers to resolve disputes between them outside of the secular court.  Arbitration is one such an alternative.  Arbitration provides a definitive outcome to a dispute, oftentimes with binding, legally enforceable orders.

To proceed with arbitration, both parties must have signed a written agreement to give an arbitrator, a neutral third-party, the authority to decide their dispute for them.  The written agreement of the parties will set forth the scope of the issues to be decided and the arbitrator’s procedural requirements of the parties and for the process.  Christian Arbitration can occur by agreement of the parties with an arbitrator who will decide their dispute, and  according to Christian principles and biblical wisdom.  

We honour God when we seek to follow his commands and trust His wisdom through even the most difficult times of conflict.  When we strive to reflect God’s love, forgiveness, grace, and mercy to those we are in conflict with, we provide a beautiful witness to God’s character and glorify Him. Peace is possible if we look to Him.  

Mathew 5:9: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.”

Rebuilding the ecclesial community

Matters of fellowship and membership often prove unsettling and upsetting to ecclesial life; sometimes the effects can continue for many years and may leave individuals feeling emotionally “bruised and broken”. How the ecclesial family resolves such matters can have ramifications beyond the confines of the membership with children, friends and family witnessing the behaviour and actions which are taken.

In the aftermath, many may just wish to put the matter behind them, but this is the time to review what has happened: what lessons have emerged and could matters have been considered differently. Most importantly, how can the members of the ecclesial family be supported and encouraged both now and in the future.

Matters for consideration will include: are our services reaching out to each of our members, including those on the periphery of ecclesial life? Is there a need for better or more comprehensive pastoral care? How do we strengthen the bonds of shared fellowship and friendship? Should our talks and discussions cover more topical and challenging subjects? How do we exercise loving care to those who may be involved in similar situations in the future? How do we engender a greater spirit of kindness and mutual support in all that we do?

Each of these are matters which can be considered in the aftermath of an issue of membership. But hopefully, discussion of these matters without the pressure of an actual incident will help us to explore our attitudes and question whether our initial reactions would be helpful both to the ecclesial community and those involved. We owe it to each other and to our Lord Jesus Christ to continue to grow together in bonds of harmony and peace.

The prime consideration in any matter of ecclesial disharmony is both in the restoration of those concerned and the harmony of the body of Christ.

The same passage outlines the way in which such matters should be dealt with in the ecclesial community:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Ecclesia. And if he refuses to listen even to the Ecclesia, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

It is very important to remember that the way in which the ecclesial community handles such matters can have long term implications both on the individuals concerned and the whole membership. So, it is worthwhile to take time to ensure that any actions are taken carefully, prayerfully and lovingly from the very outset. Rushed actions in the spirit of something needs to be done, may well be regretted later.

The Lord sets out for us, a clear process for dealing with matters of concern within the Ecclesia in which there are three stages:

Stage 1 An informal ‘one to one’ meeting

Stage 2 An informal meeting with one or two independent ‘observers’

Stage 3 A more formal ‘Ecclesial’ meeting

Let us examine how each of these stages could be conducted in a spirit of reconciliation.

Stage 1

The one making the accusation initially makes a direct approach to the individual whose behaviour is thought to be a cause of disharmony. This should provide the opportunity for honest and candid discussion of the matter with the aim of producing understanding and reconciliation in private between the two individuals.

The first move is not to tell others and/or complain to the recorder, secretary or arranging committee members.

There is one exception to this process: if a child is at risk. Here the Safeguarding Procedure agreed by the Ecclesia will require the accuser to immediately contact the Designated Safeguarding Lead who will review the risk and may contact the Local Authority Safeguarding Team for advice. The purpose of this is to protect the child and the person being accused, who may suffer serious damage to their reputation, family and employment if the accusations are made public at this early stage, even to the arranging committee

Where more than one person is aware of the matter then who makes this initial approach will depend upon the circumstances and the individuals concerned but the purpose remains to raise the matter in a spirit of loving kindness and concern for the spiritual welfare of all. The one delegated to carry out the task of reconciliation must be respected by and well disposed towards the other.

There is a clear example of this action in scripture. God sent Nathan the prophet to speak to David when his mind had become separated from God, which ultimately led to his adultery with Bathsheba

2 Samuel 12:12

And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.

Notice the manner of the approach: a story is told, and it is only after the story has had its effect upon David, that Nathan then tells him “You are the man!’ This indicates that the approach is to prick the conscience of the other rather than to lay down the law. If this is achieved, then an early resolution may be possible.

There may be a need for more than one Stage 1 meeting to take place to allow time for the issue to be fully considered and for a move towards reconciliation to take place.

Stage 2

If the initial individual meeting is unsuccessful or is avoided, then an approach is made a second time with one or two independent witnesses. The purpose of these witnesses is not to join the argument on one side or the other but to establish the facts.

Is the incident credible? Are the facts agreed? Are there mitigating factors? Is there remorse? Again, the response to this meeting may enable a positive way forward to be determined. Only if these more private approaches fail will the ecclesial community need to consider becoming involved.

Stage 3

It is only at this stage after prior attempts at reconciliation have failed that the matter may come before the Ecclesia. The Ecclesial community will confidentially consider the matter seeking the prayerful co-operation of those concerned. This may involve the appointment of certain individuals to consider the matter, in confidence, and report back.

This is important as accusations can lead to uninformed opinions and the damaging disruption of fellowship. In cases of relationship breakdown, great discretion will need to be exercised as hasty or uninformed actions could prejudice an eventual restoration of the relationship.

The overall aim of this process is not punishment but always to seek restoration in a spirit of gentleness.

Galatians 6:1

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. The body of Christ, in this situation the Ecclesia, will together seek to restore.

See too where the responsibility to act in humility and gentleness is placed: upon those who are trying to restore the individual or individuals. Paul encouraged the Galatians to work together as a team. If someone is struggling, seek to restore them in a ‘spirit of gentleness’. But also consider how you would like to be treated if you yourself were struggling or tempted.

He then continues; v4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbour. For each will have to bear his own load.

Paul assumes we all have burdens. The word used means ‘heavy burdens’. It is a wide-ranging term that would cover issues common to each of us including; suffering, illnesses, physical disabilities, sorrows, grief, worries, responsibilities (financial and other), temptations, errors, doubts, weaknesses and failures (moral and other). In other words, it includes every load that is hard to bear. So, we seek restoration, fully aware of each other’s burden, and the gift of grace we share.

Conducting a meeting as part of the process of reconciliation.

This is not a trial and both the format and location of the meeting should not give this impression. The aim is reconciliation and not retribution and a neutral venue may well encourage this attitude. Avoid pre-judging the meeting by using terms like ‘the accused’ or ‘the guilty or the wronged party’. These will not help in establishing the facts and developing an atmosphere of caring concern. Avoid taking sides and indicating any hostility, show sympathy and love, listen to both sides avoiding jumping to conclusions.

The aim of the meeting is to investigate the matter and to listen to both parties, ideally with both present, seeking to understand the issue and the reason and motive for the apparent behaviour. Whilst we may be tempted to think that there may be no excuse for what has happened, there may be circumstances that need to be considered: circumstances such as health (mental and physical), bereavement, loss of employment, addiction, debt, or breakdown in a relationship with possible safety issues which has led to the situation.

Both parties should be encouraged to have someone with them to offer personal support. If a sister is concerned, it is essential that she is supported by another sister in the room. Initially the meeting should be restricted to at most two or three representing the Ecclesia and will be as informal as possible. Where a sister is involved, a majority of sisters would be expected to be at the meeting and brothers should have the sensitivity to withdraw if the truth will only be shared with a sister. The required spirit of gentleness would prohibit a sister being interviewed on her own before a committee of brothers. The meeting will have a chairperson to facilitate the meeting and to ensure it is conducted in calmness without hostility. The chair should remind those involved of the spirit in which the meeting should progress and to aim for a length not exceeding two hours. Nothing will be gained from a longer meeting. A further meeting can always be arranged.

At the commencement of the meeting, it should be agreed by all parties, that what is said will be confidential, except for a brief written summary, agreed by all, which will be made available to the arranging committee and made known (although not necessarily circulated) to the Ecclesia.

If the issue involves a couple, then ideally, they will be seen together rather than separately however, from a practical point of view this may not always be possible.

The process of coming to a decision

What does our Lord mean when he states that we must not judge?

Matthew 7:1-5

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.

The members of an Ecclesia have a responsibility to come to a judgment but that can only be of an individual’s behaviour. We are not able to judge the individual’s heart, reason or motives. Only the Father knows the heart. How then do we come to a conclusion and make decisions about a brother’s or sister’s actions which may impact upon their membership?

As examples of where we might allow our own personal feelings and opinions to get in the way of a ‘Christ-like’ view we might prayerfully and honestly consider the following:

Our age and background: Different generations have different challenges, attitudes and experiences that might not be to our personal taste, but are they incompatible with discipleship?

Our marriage circumstances: Those who have enjoyed a happy and fulfilled marriage and a family may not appreciate the struggles of those who do not or who are alone?

Our personality: Are we ‘easy going’ or do we like things done ‘our way’. Do we empathise with others or are we quick to judge?

Our circumstances in life: Perhaps we have led a ‘comfortable life’ without major financial concerns and other worries and anxieties. Can we sympathise with others whose experiences are very different?

Is it possible that some of our attitudes and behaviours have been forged within a Christadelphian culture, with little knowledge of the life experiences of others. For example, the pressures on young people; those with difficult relationships; the impact of bereavement and loss; financial problems; the consequences of poor physical or mental health; addiction; anxiety and sexuality issues.

It can be too easy to judge the actions and behaviours of others when we have no appreciation of their struggles. Could we consciously or unconsciously, be prejudiced against them?

Or perhaps there may be a conflict of interest because of family or other connections which could influence our opinions?

These issues should be borne in mind when faced with circumstances with which we are unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

It may be that we are concerned by what other people will think, and that our judgement will take this into account.

Are we primarily concerned, not about the issue, but what people will think about our part in the investigation and decision? If this is the case can we consider carefully this attitude before ever becoming involved? Other people, perhaps in other Ecclesias, will not be aware of all the circumstances and therefore should not express opinions. This can be a concern when our decision tends towards gentleness and compassion in accepting a repentant heart when others are expecting a legalistic approach.

Are we strong enough to stand by a decision which others, who are not as well informed, may disagree with?

The advice in the Ecclesial Guide should be given careful consideration. Those charged with serving the Ecclesia will also consider the effect on the faith of other members and will express this responsibility to the parties involved.

When it is agreed that the actions of the individual are inappropriate then they require to be challenged. If the individual shows no concern for others, no regret and argues to justify their behaviour, then some action by the Ecclesia may be necessary to restore a sense of harmony.

However, it is important not to rush to decisions.

Beware of having an agenda to complete the matter by the next business meeting. Individuals need time to consider the options before them and perhaps to make changes. First reactions and initial responses can be reconsidered. There may need to be a ‘cooling off’ period. Evidence of the Ecclesia’s care and prayerful, gentle interest and response can bring about change.

What about continued unrepentant behaviour?

Is it an option to ignore this? To do so may not bring about the self-examination desired by the Ecclesial community and may result in a continuing state of disharmony or even division. The decision to act or not will depend upon the response of the individual concerned, the issue and the ongoing impact which it may be having upon others.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul refers to the brother as being delivered to satan for a period and then sought after to be restored. He uses the term satan elsewhere to indicate the Roman world and government. He uses the expression “not to eat with them”. Both indicate a temporary removal from the Ecclesial community and its shared fellowship.

This will be for an agreed period with some contact maintained following which the individual should then be sought after for a return to membership.

2 Cor 2:6-8

For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So, I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.

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