Sin wrecks lives. Think about your own life for a minute. How has sin messed you up? Sure, sin has separated you from God, but when you look at Genesis 3 when mankind fell to sin, you can see how sin not only messed up our relationship with God, it messed up our relationship with each other. Sin messes up everything, so when we put a bunch of sinners in a small group, the potential for conflict and the overflow of messy relationships inevitably exists.
Sometimes, that boils over into litigation. As an attorney, some of my most emotionally challenging cases were those in which a small group was involved. My clients were responsible for splitting small groups because of conflict. Some of them caused people to leave the church. Some of them killed small groups. When I think back on some of those cases, I see each affected small group either respond inappropriately or not at all. So what should small groups do?
Let's start with what small groups should not do. It is absolutely imperative that you do not take sides. A friend of mine once said in response to such conflict, "no matter how thin you slice the bacon, there are always two sides to every story." Now sometimes conflict exists within your group, such as when a couple talks about getting divorced or two business partners run into financial difficulties and need to dissolve their business. But many times, one of them will stop coming to avoid the awkwardness or won't talk about it under advice of their attorney. Either way, you very rarely get both sides of the story. If your group doesn't have the whole story, you may be taking a side you shouldn't.
If that isn't enough, when you take one side over the other, it is near impossible to do some of the things that small groups should do when conflict arises. When you pick a side, you make a judgment call, and the person whose side you are not on feels judgment. How do you show grace in that? When you chose a side, the person whose side you are not on is not just angry at the other person, they're angry at you. So how do you work to resolve the conflict when you have inserted yourself into it by choosing a side? Put simply, the best thing you can do is avoid choosing sides.
So what should small groups do? Put simply, you should be a peacemaker. Make peace between people who have conflict with one another in your group. Make peace between someone in your group with someone not in your group. Be a peacemaker.
Why? Because "blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." Matt. 5:9. Because you follow Jesus and He is the prince of peace, not the king of conflict. Because if you don't, it could split your small group, or worse - kill it. Be a peacemaker.
How do you do that biblically?
Far too often, blog posts offer a three step solution without bringing God into the solution. The truth of the matter is that in conflict, you're probably not going to know what to do. This is probably one reason small group leaders do not respond to conflict at all - they simply don't know how. James says in those situations to pray, saying, "if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him." James 1:5. Pray for wisdom for yourself as a small group leader. Pray for wisdom for those involved. Encourage those involved to pray for wisdom. Don't leave prayer out of the conflict resolution equation.
Christians must do everything they can to avoid litigation, especially against other Christians. A lot of people think that the Bible only prohibits litigation between fellow Christians. Certainly, Paul had a lot to say about that in 1 Corinthians 6. But Jesus said, "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. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison." Matt. 5:23-25. The first admonition is to make peace with your brother before making an offering, but verse 25 is clear - make friends with your opponent at law. Not just your brother - any opponent at law. We cannot remain true to Scripture and encourage litigation.
That said, there are times when litigation is inevitable. We should not discourage people from answering a lawsuit that someone else brought against them. We should not discourage them from protecting themselves. So how do you both discourage litigation but avoid discouraging protecting themselves?
If a member of your small group has been sued, they still must file an answer and prepare for litigation. That doesn't mean that you can't encourage them to seek reconciliation. Jesus commanded as much in Matthew 5 (see above). The least we can do is encourage people to seek reconciliation with their opponent. If two people in your small group are in conflict with one another, encourage them to reconcile, and remember - you cannot do this effectively if you have taken sides. Encourage counseling. Encourage solution focused mediation. Encourage a private session of binding arbitration. Encourage people do everything they can to avoid a public courtroom and potentially bring discredit or dishonor to Christ.
If someone in your small group has been wronged and conflict ensues, understand the great opportunity this is to demonstrate the grace we all as Christians have been shown. This is a great opportunity to show forgiveness. This is a great opportunity to share the gospel.
Conflict in small group is messy. We've talked about what not to do and what to do, but we haven't addressed some of the procedural things you can do. Read Matthew 18, and be looking for future posts on that procedural approach to conflict resolution within the church. And if you need help, let me know.
I follow Christ. I have a beautiful wife Megan and three wonderful children, Harrisen, Rebekah, and Carter. I am a candidate for a Ph.D. in ethics from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, have an M.Div. from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and a JD from the University of Arkansas, am licensed to practice law in several state and federal courts, and live in Rogers, Arkansas. I write a blog and produce a podcast. And I do it all that others may know Christ.