What are the keys to resolving conflict?

2538.mapA while ago I preached on Galatians 2.1–10 as part of our sermon series on this letter. Stranded on a train at the weekend because of a landslide, I spent some time wrestling with the main question that has dogged study of Galatians in recent years: to whom was it written and when? There are two main issues here:

  • Was it written to those who were ethnic Galatians, in the northern area of the Roman province (the ‘North Galatian hypothesis’? If so, then the letter must be quite late, since Paul is writing to people who know him, and he has not visited this region in his early ministry according to Acts (which doesn’t make any clear reference to a visit at all).
  • Or was it written to those in the south, including Lystra and Derbe, who were not ethnic Galatians, but did live in the Roman Province named Galatia (the ‘South Galatian hypothesis’). This would mean the letter was (as is usually thought) one of Paul’s earliest, and prior to Romans.

Until the modern era, everyone believed the North Galatian hypothesis. But that all changed when archaeology and epigraphic evidence made it clear that it was quite possible for Paul to address those in the south as ‘Galatians’, even though that was not true ethnically. (Think of the practice of addressing people in the UK as ‘Britons’ even though ethnically many of us come from different racial stock, including Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian, before you even consider more recent immigration.)

(As part of my preaching in the evening, I included an ‘Only Connect’-style quiz: what is the connection between the name Fiona, the city of Vienna, Turkey’s capital Ankara, and Galaxy milk chocolate? The answer is: the Celts, or Galatikoi as they were known in Greek. Originating in the Danube basin, they emigrated south-east into the middle of Turkey, where their capital was Ancyra, modern-day Ankara, and north-west to France, Britain and Ireland. Both Fiona and Vienna mean ‘fair’ in Celtic, and they were known in Greek by the corresponding term derived from the word for milk ‘gala’. ‘Galaxy’ in English comes from the Greek ‘milky way’.)

Even given the now-majority consensus on the South Galatian hypothesis, there still remains the question of how Pauls’ two visits to Jerusalem in Galatians 1 and 2 relate to the three visits recorded in Acts 9, 11 and 15. Did the visit in Acts 9 actually happen? Is Paul’s first visit in Gal 1 in fact the same as the two visits in Acts 9 and 11 combined? Is Paul’s visit ‘again’ in Gal 2 his second visit in Acts 11, or his third visit at the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ in Acts 15? Do both Acts and Galatians offer reliable accounts of Paul’s travels, or are one or both of them disconnected from any historical reality? The arguments are finely balanced, though there are some helpful explorations by Richard Fellowes and my colleague in this diocese, John Allister.


Slide02Whatever the resolution to these questions, Paul’s account in Gal 2.1–10 offers some key insights into the resolution of conflict. Justin Welby recently commented on this question in relation to social media. He starts by speaking from his own experience about the damage that conflict does:

In a process of reconciliation in which I was involved recently, one of the questions that people were asked (quite a standard question in these circumstances where the disputes are within the church) was, “What has this dispute done to your soul?”

You could adapt the question to different sorts of disputes, not least by changing the word ‘soul’ to ‘spirit’ or ‘inner self’ or something like that. But it is a very valid question: the impact of conflict is not only external, but deeply internal. It causes trauma and lasting damage even where there has been no physical violence.

I will remember for a long time a letter I received in the last few years from someone who’d gone through a particularly difficult conflict in the church. It was full of what can only described as deep trauma and sorrow. It had been deeply damaging.

Paul offers us four key principles in our own approach to resolving conflict.


Slide061. Don’t rush in, but trust God’s timing

In his account, Paul emphasises the time elapsed before he comes to Jerusalem, whichever occasion we understand this to be. 14 years has gone by (Gal 2.1), and Paul’s visit is prompted by a ‘vision from God’ (Gal 2.2). If this second visit corresponds to Acts 11, then this ‘vision’ might be the prophecy of Agabus; if it corresponds to Acts 15, then it looks as though Paul is referring to something revealed to him. (It is worth noting here that Paul was in the habit of sharing whatever vision he has received with those around him—see the episode in Acts 16.9–10; ‘After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once…’)

There are times when we need to take the initiative to be reconciled (Matt 5.23–24, 18.15), and we are not to carry resentment from one day to the next (Ephesians 4.26). But there are other times when our desire to resolve conflict is actually driven by our own anxiety to put others right, or to avoid a situation we find too painful. The danger here is that we think God is not as interested in resolving conflict as we are. And yet it is God who gave himself, in Jesus, to ‘reconcile the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5.19).


Slide072. Play it straight

Despite debates about the way Paul uses language later in this letter, at this point his engagement is by (to use a cricketing metaphor) playing it with a straight bat. In a rather unusual turn of phrase, he talks of ‘setting before’ others his understanding of the gospel (Gal 2.2); it is as if he and his dialogue partners are sitting across from each other around a table, and Paul has simply arranged his ideas on the table in front of them all, open to discussion and scrutiny. Initially, he does this in private; this is not an exercise in manipulating public opinion. It is not about scoring points, but about honest engagement—including an honest account of what others have and have not done (in this case, in relation to Titus).

And playing with a straight bat also means being ready to stand firm on the issues that matter (Gal 2.5.)


Slide083. Give due respect

Three times in this passage, Paul describes his discussion partners with respect: they are ‘those esteemed as leaders’ (Gal 2.2); they are ‘held in high esteem’ (Gal 2.6); and they are ‘esteemed as pillars in the church’ (Gal 2.9). I think it is unfortunate that, along with Paul’s apparent qualification of this (‘God shows no favouritism’, Gal 2.6), most English translations make this sound slightly sarcastic—those ‘thought to be’ of standing. In fact, commentators are broadly in agreement that Paul is here giving genuine credit. And this of course supports the case he is making to the Galatians: those of standing in the early Christian community support his ministry and agree with his understanding (‘they added nothing to my message’).

I think this is supported by Paul’s slightly odd switch in referring to ‘Cephas’ in Gal 2.9 when he has just, twice, referred to him as ‘Peter’. The most plausible explanation is that he is remembering that Peter was commissioned by Jesus own words. Paul recognises the importance of the person who is potentially his greatest rival, and emphasises (as does Luke in Acts) the parallels between his ministry to the Gentiles and Peter’s to the Jews (Gal 2.7–8).

Paul does not make his case look good by trying to make others’ look bad. He doesn’t make himself look taller by making others look smaller. It has been said that humility is standing at our full height next to God at his full height—and that means standing next to others at their full height too.

When you are in a situation of conflict, are you ready to give due credit to your (actual or potential) opponents? Paul is clear that this is not about fawning to people; God does not pick and choose favourites. But it means being open about the value of other people’s situation as you are about your own.


Slide094. Keep the main thing the main thing

Paul finishes this section by agreeing on a central concern of the gospel—‘to remember the poor’ (Gal 2.10). Some have argued that this is about remembering the Jerusalem church, often known as ‘the poor’. And the Ebionites, a Jewish Christian group that many think derived from Paul’s ‘Judaizing’ opponents in Jerusalem, derive their name from the Hebrew ebyonim, the ‘poor ones’.

In fact (as Bruce Longenecker has persuasively argued) concern for the poor was a consistent feature of Paul’s ministry, and was in line with Jesus’ own teaching. He who was rich for our sakes became poor (2 Cor 8.9); it is the poor (in spirit) who know their need of God and are open to the grace of God in Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom (Matt 5.3).


So Paul offers these key insights into resolving conflict. So far, so business school common sense. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about these insights is not so much what we ought to do, but what God has done for us. In defending his preaching about the freedom we have in Christ, Paul is actually exercising this very freedom.

All too often, it is the things which imprison us which prevent us from doing what Paul does here. Trapped in our anxiety, we rush in to set things right. Trapped in our insecurity, we try to manipulate the truth. Trapped in our lack of self-esteem, we are tempted to belittle others. And trapped in our pre-occupation with our own interests, we take our eye off the ball. That is why this morning’s Thought for the Day on Radio 4 from a Buddhist was mistaken—the speaker claimed that being virtuous was a learned skill like any other, a belief which denies the powerful grip that sin and failure have in our lives.

For Paul, the good news about God’s grace in Jesus liberates us from all these fears, anxieties and insecurities. We can let go of our own limited perspectives as we have been called to a bigger vision of what it means to be whole in Christ.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Gal 5.1)—that we might be free to proclaim to others the freedom we ourselves have experienced.

(First published in 2015)


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7 thoughts on “What are the keys to resolving conflict?

  1. Hmm. Paul may give due respect to his discussion partners in this section of Galatians (Gal. 2), but the actual immediate conflict is with (according to most commentators) Judaising Christians. And he gives no respect to this group, but attacks their motives (cf Gal. 6:12). And the other partners in the conflict are the Galatians themselves – to whom again he gives little ‘respect’ – but instead has a go at them (‘who has bewitched you?’).

    This isn’t to decry respect in conflict – but finding it in Galatians feels a little strained.

    • Indeed, Chris Bishop.
      I’m not sure how concerned Paul was over how his dispute affected their souls with his verbal attack on their bodily appendages. His concern was for the Gospel and he was opposed to their gospel, which was no gospel at all. At a deeper level this dispute had and has eternal consequences for the soul (leaving aside what is soul).

    • The jury is out on whether (soooo tempting to miss-spell as ‘wether’ ?) it would offend the community standards of Facebook…

      Anyway…was it Paul merely speaking a sharp retort to those who were, literally, wanting to get converts under the knife? Or did he, literally, mean it?

  2. Thank you.

    I’ve an aversion to conflict. I can identify part of the cause as traumatic ‘church’ events of the past. Sometimes because the task of leader has put me in a tight corner for, I believe, the good of Gods’s church. And, of course, there is the level of personal inadequacy we all have on some measure.

    Conflict avoiding, handling and resolution is much better when one is not alone. It’s a strong (further) argument for real team working in churches. They are not a cheap alternative to clergy and they shoud not be merely an extention of the ministers personal power circle, a group -think bubble.

    There is a lot to be said about the importance of taking time and listening to opposing voices in taking decisions that might lead to serious conflict. By ‘listening’ I don’t mean that survey approach which has no intention of taking what it hears into account.

    And there’s a lot of trusting in God to be learned when the cause of a conflict shows no sign of beng resolved. On some occasions is the conflict so deep and hurtful that, whatever we may want, the only way to mentally handle it is walk away, until God acts further?

    Ps…on “and they were known in Greek by the corresponding term derived from the word for milk ‘gala’.” Aleppo (Arabic ‘Halab’) also means ‘milk/milking’ and is said to refer to Abram milking his cows there.

  3. I thought that the Cathy Newman and Jordan Peterson interview was interesting, simply for the ways in which he engaged in the debate and the contrasting ways in which she chose to. It was interesting despite which side of the debate you find yourself on. He was very straight, self-composed and unflustered. I think he imputed to her credit where he could. She was less able, undoubtedly.

    • I think he started from a position of aiming to be truthful and see things in the round. This meant he avoided any of the cliches and stereotypical stances, and just analysed reality. She saw things through her ideological specs, no doubt imparted at university.

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