Conflicts are not unknown in faith communities. Interpersonal church conflicts too often are destructive, with damaging fallout. Uninvolved leaders find themselves at a loss, being asked to choose sides or butt out. This article outlines what those leaders could do, which is to encourage mediation in churches.
This article considers mediation for interpersonal conflicts within churches. Those with the appropriate background or contacts might consider how mediation or other alternative dispute approaches might work in other faiths.
Church leader conflicts and church member conflicts are challenging, not least because of the text in Matthew 18:15 that urges the calling out of sin. Are there texts that suggest a different way?
These ideas come from two verses in Philippians. (I acknowledge the influence in interpreting those verses that I received from Dr. Gordon Zerbe’s Philippians (Believer’s Church Bible Commentary).
Philippians 4:2-3 was written by Paul for a specific conflict. In other words, this is not “theology”, it is a practical process described by the greatest church planter and encourager of the New Testament.
The background is that Paul knew the Philippian church leadership well. It is likely that he founded the group some 5 years before he wrote this letter (in AD 50, well before the passage in Matthew was written). Paul was in prison at the time of writing, and it seems that the church had sent him some funds to support him while waiting for his trial. The letter is for the leaders and adherents, perhaps 30-50 people. Within the letter we find these two verses directed at a specific conflict situation between two women in leadership.
(NIV) Philippians 4: 2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
This short passage encourages Paul’s companion to mediate between Euodia and Syntyche. Paul offers succinct direction on how this particular conflict should be approached. Here is what we can take from these verses.
Leaders encourage cooperation and mediation: Apparently these two women, both leaders, had some kind of conflict going with the other. Paul urges them to get along. Knowing that this encouragement is likely not enough to lead to a rapprochement, he asks his friend to help them work it out, that is, mediate with them.
Leaders name mediators: this translation of the passage asks “my true companion” to take on the mediation role. Other translations suggest that the Greek word is in fact the name of the suggested mediator. Either way, Paul is not shy about telling someone to intervene and naming the person who he prefers as mediator.
Neutrality: These few words offer other points of interest. Paul knew the entire leadership team. Yet he does not name anyone except Clement. If he is trying to encourage mediation, it would be inappropriate to name people who may be supporting one side or the other in the conflict, so he names only one person, who presumably is accepted both sides as neutral. Paul is careful not to be identified with either side.
The Issues and the parties: Paul makes no comment about the issues or their merits. On the other hand, he is directive about the purpose for the process that he recommends: that common ground be found between Euodia and Syntyche. Like good mediators, Paul is neutral as between the parties, while also being encouraging in that he praises them for their efforts and leadership.
Paul’s other writing: One of the best known passages by Paul is 1 Corinthians 13, where he talks about love being the greatest gift that people can have. The context is a major church conflict. Paul’s point is that all the other gifts that people may have count for nothing if there is not love. For our purposes, Paul wants the church to be a team, meaning people who work together at the purposes of the church enterprise. This message is true for Philippi as much as for Corinth.
1. Paul does not avoid the fact that there is a conflict. Instead, he identifies someone who he trusts and who he considers appropriate for the task to take on the role of mediator.
2. Paul does not take sides. He is impartial as between the leaders. Too often church leaders consider that they have a duty to name a wrongdoer, or at least, “encourage” one side or the other to accept responsibility (say “sorry” and ask for forgiveness). Too often this leads to either coalitions forming in the church, or one leader feeling compelled to leave the organization. Paul seems to take care to act differently, as though he wants to be seen as not taking sides. This is between the two women to sort out, with the help of a competent director.
3. Paul sees the larger picture, which is the cause of the gospel, and encourages a refocusing away from the personalities to the bigger purpose. So too can leaders encourage those in disputes to find a bigger purpose than their dispute.
Lessons for today
1. Many churches are struggling, and there is a great deal of strain on leadership. This tension often leads to disputes.
2. As a result, conflict between church leaders in churches is common. Often, the church model is to pick sides, and identify one side as sinning. However, this is not the only, or even the earliest, New Testament model for addressing church conflict. Instead, here we have an example of mediation.
3. It is proper for leaders to encourage mediation, and to suggest the name of a mediator or a choice of mediators. Paul provides a strong example here.
4. It is proper to discourage a power struggle, and instead to work at refocusing the team on the goals of the organization. This passage is presented as an example of how this should be done.
5. I suggest that based on this authority, it is proper for mediators to present these ideas to church leaders and assist them in developing a sensible model for addressing future conflicts that the organization may face.
6. Churches, like other organizations, have to address power struggles. Once problems escalate, the impact on the church is often harmful. Paul’s carefully framed approach is intended to get leaders back to working together, using a model of mediation.
7. Paul is presented in the New Testament as the primary and most influential church organizer. He encouraged mediation in the churches that he organized. Churches can do well by copying the model.
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