What does Paul teach us about resolving conflict?

Slide02We appear to be in a cultural moment where conflict dominates every aspect of life. It is not just the green benches of Parliament, laid out in opposition to one another on two ‘sides’, that communicate this—though the discussions about Europe (and just about every other political issue) seem to exemplify this. Social media has allowed perfect strangers virtually to walk up to one another and trade insults, and that seems to have affected the way we hold all conversations about difficult issues. But the paradigm of conflict runs even deeper. Since the shift in our thinking about economics in the 1970s and 80s, everything is characterised by conflict and competition. If you want to buy something, you need to engage in ‘competitive tendering’. Public services need to compete with one another for efficiency. And the purpose of education now seems to be to equip young people to fight more effectively for their own success in the ‘jobs market’—which we are told is highly competitive.

But conflict and competition always leave the competitors and combatants bruised and wounded. Politicians feel threatened; many feel disillusioned; and conflict in churches and families takes its toll. Some time ago Justin Welby observed the pain caused by unresolved conflict.

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.

At St Nic’s where I am Associate Minister, we are currently working through Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and I preached on Gal 2.1–10 at the weekend. Paul models four things that are key to resolving our conflicts—but it is curious that he devotes so much space to giving a quite measured account of how he has handled his differences with others. Given that this is quite a short letter, that writing was a demanding and expensive thing to do, and that he has much to say about the gospel, why does he give over this precious space to talking about resolving conflict? Could it be that it is intimately connected to the very gospel that he is so keen to proclaim? This will become clear as we explore his four principles.


1. Take your time—or rather, take God’s time

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…’)

I wonder how often we think to ourselves ‘I will just wait 14 years before I talk to this person about this awkward situation?’! If we do, it is because we want to put off a difficult conversation and avoid trouble! But most often we are pulled in the other direction—an instant provocation produces and instance response. But Paul is ready to wait until God’s moment—and listens to God for the prompt. It is almost as if Paul views the conflict as God’s problem rather than his!

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

If you are playing cricket, and are batting, and the bowler bowls a ball straight at your wicket, the cardinal rule is that you play it straight back. If you try and do something ‘clever’ and play across the ball, you are likely to miss, and the ball will hit your wicket. The same is true in resolving conflict: when someone confronts us with an issue, we are too often tempted to try something clever to get out of it or get one over on them.

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.  It is an example of what some people have called ‘undefended leadership’; he does not try and protect himself, but holds out his position openly before others for scrutiny. I think it is significant that he mentions both Barnabas and Titus. Barnabas was a well-established Jewish leader known to the leaders in Jerusalem who has earlier commended Paul; mentioned him supports Paul’s case. But Titus is a newer convert, a Greek, and someone that Paul is supporting (tradition says he became the first bishop of Crete); mentioning him might be a risk, but Paul does not hide this as a way of making his case look better.

And playing with a straight bat also means being ready to stand firm on the issues that matter (Gal 2.5.); Paul is ready to tackle difficult issues head on when God has prompted him too.


Slide083. Give due respect

One of the consistent marks of conflict in contemporary debate is the way people seek to put down their debating partner, rather than focus on the argument. The technical term for this is ‘ad hominem’, the Latin phrase for addressing or attacking a person rather than addressing the issue. Time and again, we hear someone put the other down as a way of attempting to win an argument.

Not so with Paul. 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’. Much of Paul’s energy in his later ministry is devoted to the collection for the Jerusalem church (which we read of in 2 Cor 8)—a collection which was for the benefit of the very people who are opposing him here!

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.

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.

But more than that: the gospel is the very thing which heals our conflict. If two people are each drawn closer to a third, then they are drawn closer to one another. If we are reconciled to God, then it is impossible for us not to be reconciled to one another as well. In Ephesians 2, Paul makes it explicit that God has reconciled the two bodies (of Jews and Gentiles) into one body by the cross of Jesus. That is why the different New Testament writers consistently connect our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Jesus, in his so-called ‘high priestly prayer’, prays to the Father that his followers would be ‘one‘, unified because they have been sanctified in the truth. That is why resolving conflict is so important for Paul and is central to his proclamation of the gospel: there is one God, one truth about what he has done in Christ, and so one body. We cannot be satisfied to merely ‘agree to disagree’ and settle for a thin veneer of politeness. Paul longed for his readers to have one mind in Christ (compare Phil 2.1–5).

How we resolve conflict, with ourselves and with others, will testify to the reconciling work of God in Christ by his Spirit in our lives.

(Earlier versions of this were published in 2015 and 2018. You can listen to the sermon itself on the St Nic’s website here.)


Additional note: As an introduction to the background of Galatians, I briefly addressed the key questions that arise in the study of the letter: 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.

2538.mapUntil 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, who offers a convincing scenario of relating the accounts in Acts and in Galatians.


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2 thoughts on “What does Paul teach us about resolving conflict?”

  1. Some will know the book “Passionate visionary: Leadership lessons from the Apostle Paul” by Ascough and Cotton and published by Hendrickson in 2006. Both writers are I think Canadian.
    It is an interesting study on Paul as a leader, and includes a chapter on abrasive encounters though it focuses on Galatians 3 rather than Galatians 1.
    I think it is worth reading both for its insights on Paul and for its insights on leadership.

    How we resolve conflict is really important as is how we stand up against what is wrong and abusive / oppressive.
    Picking up the cricket metaphor, I wonder what we do when someone is bowling bouncers at us or even chucking rather than bowling. In many church conflicts people do not play fair. Or when they are intimidating others with their greater skill and power?? It might be legal, but at one level it is not cricket.

  2. Im a bit of a wimp when it comes to conflict, even a minor one. I sometimes wonder if it goes back to my childhood of witnessing my parents’ seemingly constant bickering, which caused fear and anxiety in me. A therapist would no doubt have a field day. I admire those who remain calm in such situations – my heart thumps.

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