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Paul's Conflict Resolution System

I really don't like controversies. I know some people who love to debate, but I'm not one of them. It's not that I always try to avoid conflict, and there are times I'll jump into the fray and try to make my point. But I've been around long enough to learn that most people don't change their minds based on arguments but on persuasion.

I was thinking about this when I read the Apostle Paul's words to Timothy: "Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness" (2 Timothy 2:23-25a).

Paul's words are quite remarkable considering they are coming from someone who didn't shy away from a good fight. In Galatians 2:11 we read that Paul opposed Peter to his face, "because he stood condemned." To those who were turning to a "different gospel," Paul wrote, "Let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8-9). Paul warned Timothy to stay away from "Alexander the coppersmith" who did him great harm (2 Timothy 4:14). Paul stood his ground and overcame that great conflict by the strength of the Lord, so that he "was rescued from the lion's mouth" (v. 17). And yet elsewhere Paul exhorted early believers not to get worked up over those who were trying to discredit him by proclaiming Christ "out of selfish ambition" (Philippians 1:17). His only goal was to see Christ proclaimed "whether in pretense or in truth" (v. 18).

When someone tries to pick a fight with you, what do you do? How do you respond? Do you jump right in with your comebacks? Do you get into defense mode and try to win the fight? Or do you avoid the fight altogether?

We learn a great deal from the way Paul responded to conflict, and how he instructed Timothy to deal with quarrelsome people.

First, is the issue about the core or about the peripheral? Paul never yielded if the issue was the core of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But Paul also recognized that some people get caught up in "foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels" (Titus 3:9), and it's not even worth engaging them in debate. As Paul wrote, "They are unprofitable and worthless" (v. 9).

Second, is the issue about you or about Jesus? When people attacked Paul, but they continued to preach Christ, he let it go (Philippians 1:18). But if they began teaching a "different doctrine" and "wandered away into vain discussion" (1 Timothy 1:3, 6), he warned that they should be rebuked sharply (Titus 1:13).

Third, is the issue going to help build up the body of Christ or tear it down? In Paul's conflict with Peter, it resulted in greater unity among church leaders and the edification of the church. However, those who followed Hymenaeus and Alexander in their dispute with Paul were tearing down the body of Christ, and Paul wrote that he "handed them over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Timothy 1:20).

In all of this, we are instructed to be kind to everyone, patiently endure evil, and correct our opponents with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:24-25a). This is where I struggle. It's hard to be kind to those with whom I disagree. It's difficult to be patient and gentle. When someone is in "attack mode," I feel my blood pressure rise, and I too easily start to fire back with my quips, verbal defenses, and rhetoric. I need to remember that my goal is not to "win" but to edify, serve, and help people open their hearts to the One who can "grant them repentance" that they might be led "to a knowledge of the truth" and be freed "from the snare of the devil" (2 Timothy 2:25b-26).

We would all do well if we followed the admonition found in Titus 3, "to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people" (v. 2). And in case we need to be reminded as to why, Paul added, "For we ourselves were once foolish" (v. 3). At some point in your life, someone was gentle with you, and now you have the opportunity to pass it forward. 

Potholes - Symptoms of an Eroding Foundation

When we lived in New Orleans, we had the perpetual problem of potholes.  The local paper, The Times Picayune, even included a section on their website called, "Pothole Patrol" which was a place people could "discuss [their] area's countless cavernous street creatures."

The reason for the voluminous potholes is, of course, that the ground underneath the roadways continues to shift and sink.  When road crews come along and simply fill in a pothole, inevitably another one appears further down.  If you drive over a deep pothole, you know how jarring it can be to your car and your spine.  But the real problem is not the pothole.  The pothole is just an indicator that a deeper problem exists: eroding foundations.  

Right down the street from where we used to live were a number of potholes, and it got to where I memorized their location in order to veer around them like an obstacle course.  But every so often, a new pothole would appear, and I would get jarred once again.  

I'm amazed at the number of people who experience potholes in life, but rather than deal with them--and, more importantly, the core issues causing them--they simply ignore them.  They find ways to steer clear of the gaping holes for as long as they can, but then the issues become so colossal they take a nose dive in and can't find a way out.  In a wrecked marriage, finances or job, they wonder how they got there in the first place. 

A young couple early in their marriage might recognize they have some potholes, but rather than deal with them, they go around them or just apply a thin layer of asphalt and hope the cause of the pothole just goes away.  If the core issues are left unattended, however, the surface of the marriage begins to give way, leaving deeper holes and problems.  

A church might recognize it has some potholes, but if it does not deal with the systemic issues that caused the potholes in the first place, more potholes will begin to show up wreaking havoc on the spiritual spines of the church members.  

Churches, like marriages, need to be built on a solid foundation.  When things aren't going well on the surface, it's time to go below the surface and check on the condition of the core.  And what is the core?  According to the Apostle Paul, it is "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27).  Paul goes on and writes, "Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving" (2:6).  We are to hold "fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God" (2:19).  "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (3:2).  In another letter, Paul lays out his goal to see Christ formed in the lives of others (Galatians 4:19).  To the church in Corinth, Paul wrote, "For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:11).

Every time I make my marriage about me, I start finding more potholes.  Every time I make our church about my wishes and desires, more potholes seem to surface out of nowhere.  My primary calling is not to preach, teach, or lead.  It is to become like Jesus Christ.  Your primary calling is not to your job, your spouse or even your children.  It is to have Christ formed in you.  The Core comes first, and then we can start filling in the potholes and move on down the road.  When you and I continue to be shaped by the Spirit of Christ into conformity with Christ, we will exemplify Christ in what we say and do.  May St. Patrick's prayer be ours as well: "Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me."  Amen.

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