I was a few months away from getting married, and I was in one of the darkest seasons of my life.
It sounds like a paradox, I know, but it was my reality. The thrill of the engagement and the wedding to come was quickly overshadowed by pain, confusion, and loneliness. What was the cause?
A bitter conflict with a close friend.
After a sharp disagreement and a phone conversation that went awry, my matron of honor dropped out of my wedding party and refused to speak to me for months. Most of the other girls in our close-knit group, perhaps feeling awkward about the situation, slowly fell silent too. The same friends who joyfully celebrated our engagement a month prior were now absent in one of the most important times of my life.
I was completely blindsided and un-equipped to deal with the offense in my heart and — what felt like — the betrayal of people I trusted.
Healthy conflict was a totally foreign concept to me. Like the situation I found myself in, it too seemed like a paradox. But in the months that followed I would come to understand that it’s essential for healing fractured relationships and the wounds they cause.
And that would mean stepping into the conflict and not away from it.
What is Healthy Conflict?
If asked, I would guess that a large number of today’s Christians would claim that they are “non-confrontational” and “conflict averse.” These two ideas are often used interchangeably when in fact, they are not synonymous. Healthy conflict does require a confrontation – where parties directly engage in honest conversation over the dispute – but it doesn’t need to be confrontational.
Conflict often gets a bad rap; while it has the potential to escalate and become unfriendly, it isn’t hostile by nature. Healthy conflict involves settling a dispute for the sake of peace. Conversely, being confrontational is an attitude and posture of being aggressive or seeking out an argument
In short, healthy conflict mends bridges while confrontational people set out to tear them down.
Why Do We Avoid Conflict?
If this is the case, then why are most Christians so quick to avoid conflict? Well, there are a few reasons, the most obvious being that conflict is uncomfortable. Confronting someone and admitting that they hurt you can be unpleasant. It’s easier to be passive aggressive – subtly displaying our indignation. We want our offender to know that we’re upset, we just don’t want to tell them. It can feel like we’re driving a wedge between us and them, when really, the opposite is true.
Another roadblock for the Christian when it comes to healthy conflict is that it’s not something that is really talked about in the Church. We are taught to forgive, to turn the other cheek, but not necessarily to confront. Most of us have a misconception that being loving is equated with being passive.
I certainly did.
I harbored anger and hurt feelings toward my friend, but said nothing. I wrote her off in my heart without even giving her a chance to repent. Months passed before I addressed the conflict with her, meanwhile I fumed inside whenever I saw her around. She gave me the cold shoulder and I ignored her right back.
Perhaps the most inconspicuous reason for the lack of healthy conflict among believers is that it’s unpopular. In today’s cancel culture, it’s perfectly acceptable (and actually encouraged) to cut people out of your life when they upset or offend you. Our self-centered society tells us to do what’s best for ourselves and reject anything that isn’t adding to our happiness. We expect this from the world, but as believers, we are commanded by Jesus to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34-35). While that doesn’t mean being best friends with everyone or even remaining friends with a person, it definitely doesn’t mean leaving a brother or sister in the dark and denying them an honest conversation.
I want to acknowledge that it’s not always this simple. Sometimes there is serious harm inflicted, or even abuse, to the point where cutting ties with a person is necessary for our safety. In these cases, pursuing healthy conflict should not be prioritized over our wellbeing.
Betrayal and Conflict in the Bible
There is a unique pain that comes with the betrayal of a close companion and member of the faith, and David articulates it well in the Psalms (Psalm 38:11, Psalm 41:9, Psalm 55: 12-14, Psalm 55:20-21).
Dissension cuts deeper when you’ve witnessed that person’s love for the Lord, grown in faith alongside them, and shared your heart with them. My friend and I did life with each other for years – praying, rejoicing, grieving, and worshiping together. The fact that a single dispute would cause her to shut me out was heartbreaking.
Jesus knew the acute sting of this particular offense better than anyone. Not only did one of his friends offer him up to be killed, but all of the twelve abandoned him when he was being arrested in the garden – even his three closest friends, Peter, James, and John (Matthew 26:56).
We can find comfort when we are betrayed and misunderstood by other believers that our Savior experienced this kind of treatment while being the perfect friend. He understands how real that pain is, and he promises to never abandon us.
We can also observe how Jesus engaged in healthy conflict. He didn’t ignore the hurtful actions of his companions, nor did he cast them out for their disloyalty. Time and again, we see Jesus directly address the wrongdoing while also showing compassion and grace.
When Judas arrives at the garden, leading the soldiers to arrest his friend, Jesus asks him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48). Here, Jesus confronts him in his sin. But we can’t forget that just a few hours earlier, Jesus humbly washed the feet of his betrayer, knowing full well what he was about to do (John 13:2-5).
In my own situation, I failed in this area. I didn’t confront my friend immediately when she backed out of my wedding party, but I allowed the wound to fester. I talked about it with others rather than with her, and I did not speak kindly of her. This only deepened the divide.
How to Have Healthy Conflict
What I would discover in time, and what I wish I had known sooner, is that Jesus prescribes a clear model for healthy conflict within the body of Christ. In Matthew 18, he lays out for the disciples what we are to do when a brother (a believer who we are in community with) sins against us. There are three steps:
Step 1: Confront
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15).
We are commanded to do the uncomfortable thing – not to wait and see if they figure it out, or to avoid them at church. This is not a request or a suggestion, but something we must do in obedience. But like Jesus, we approach the conversation directly and with mercy, honestly sharing our hurt and the action that caused it.
Although I eventually did this, too much time had passed, allowing for misunderstanding and bitterness to grow.
Step 2: Bring in Another Believer
“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” (Matthew 18:16).
If they are unwilling to hear us out, then we are to further enter into the discomfort by bringing another believer into the conversation. This can certainly feel counterintuitive, like we’re ganging up on our friend, but a mediator can help to clear up the disagreement, or act as a witness if we need to take the next step.
I attempted to involve my fiancé – now husband – but later realized a more objective person would have been better.
Step 3: Bring it to Church Leadership
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17).
The next step is to make church leadership (a pastor or elder) aware of the dispute and the person’s unwillingness to discuss it. After that, it is in their hands and they are called to approach that person, assuming they are a member of the church.
This part was very difficult for me because it felt a lot like tattling. But a leader in my church who caught wind of the situation admonished me and insisted that we all meet to settle the dispute.
Aim for Reconciliation
“If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matthew 18:15).
We are to aim for reconciliation. I realize in some instances there is deep, repeated pain caused to the point where friendship is no longer possible. But reconciliation does not mean resuming a friendship, it simply means restoring peace. After the conflict is resolved, we should be able to participate in community alongside that person without feeling the need to avoid them or gossip about the situation.
“And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).
Aim for reconciliation – but we won’t always “win them over”. Unfortunately, in the end, my friend and I were not able to reach reconciliation. After I imperfectly but sincerely attempted to follow Matthew 18, she refused to hear me out and left our church before we could meet with leadership.
When this is the case, we are relieved of our responsibility to love them as we would a member of the faith. Of course we are still called to love everyone, to bless and not curse, and to live at peace with all as much as it is up to us (Romans 12:18). However, we’re no longer expected to engage in fellowship or remain in community with them.
Although it may not be an ideal outcome, we can still glorify the Lord in our obedience as we strive to maintain unity in his Body through healthy conflict.