The New Testament does not hide the fact that nearly every church in the Apostolic age experienced conflict. As the New Testament writers addressed these matters, they provided invaluable instruction on how believers are to think, act, and treat one another when conflict arises. By studying the churches in the New Testament and the instructions given to them regarding conflict, we can learn biblical principles for handling conflict in a constructive, Christ-honoring way.
A Key Principle to Remember
One of the most important principles I have discovered to guide me when engaged in conflict of any kind is found in Paul's letter to the Galatians. It is this: when conflict arises, our attitudes and behaviors should reflect our new life in Christ given by the Holy Spirit who lives within us. We are to display the fruit of the Spirit and not the works of the flesh. We are to be Spirit-controlled and not flesh-controlled or out of control. Serious discord threatened the life and unity of the newly planted churches of Galatia. So Paul warned the new believers: "If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another" (Gal. 5:15).
If these new Christian believers did not stop fighting, no one would survive the carnage. After Paul warns of the potential for mutual destruction within the believing community, he charges his readers to "walk by the Spirit" and not to gratify "the desires of the flesh" or display "the works of the flesh."
Do Not Display the Works of the Flesh
Much of the contentious infighting that plagues many churches today results from believers acting according to the flesh and not the Spirit. In Galatians, Paul focuses on eight social sins of the flesh that ruin relationships and divide churches: "Now the works of the flesh are evident . . . enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy" (5:19–21; see 2 Cor. 12:20 for a similar list).
As you consider these eight "works of the flesh," know this: the Holy Spirit is absolutely opposed to each of them. Galatians 5:17 states, "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other." Paul's catalog of social vices stands as an objective check to our behavior. So the next time you are involved in conflict, stop and think. You know you are yielding to "the desires of the flesh" if any of the above sinful vices are displayed in your behavior or attitude.
The one thing Christian believers are not to do when engaged in conflict is to revert back to our old, pre-conversion, flesh-driven ways of behavior.
Display the Fruit of the Spirit
When facing conflict, instead of biting and devouring one another and displaying the destructive social sins of the flesh, we are to "walk by the Spirit," be "led by the Spirit," "live by the Spirit," "sow to the Spirit" (5:16, 18, 25; 6:8). Nothing but the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is sufficient to enable believers to resist the desires of the flesh and to live Christlike lives.
The Spirit seeks to form Christlike character qualities in the life of every individual Christian and every local church body. These qualities promote right attitudes, godly conduct, and healthy relationships—the very qualities the strife-torn congregations in Galatia desperately needed. Paul's nine descriptions of "the fruit of the Spirit" form a composite picture of Christlike character and conduct: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (5:22–23). We know that we are walking by the Spirit and being led by the Spirit when we see "the fruit of the Spirit" displayed in our daily conduct and inner attitudes.
"The fruit of the Spirit," then, provides an objective guide to our attitudes and behavior when dealing with conflict. So we should always ask ourselves: "Am I displaying a Christlike character and the life of the Spirit when I deal with disagreement or someone who opposes me?" Hopefully, we all can answer, "Yes."
When caught in a storm of conflict, one fruit of the Spirit that is especially needed to navigate safely through the storm is "self-control" (5:23). Lack of self-control is a major problem during conflict, but the Holy Spirit provides power over the fleshly excesses generated by sinful passions of anger, jealousy, hatred, and the spirit of revenge.
Christian believers who control their emotions and thinking by the power of the Spirit are best able to handle conflict constructively and bring about a just resolution. They are Christians who don't bite and devour their brothers and sisters in Christ.
In contrast, when people act according to the flesh, they are out of control emotionally. They do not display the fruit of the Spirit and have the potential to do terrible damage to other people and to the name of Christ.
Conflict presents one of the toughest challenges to walking by the Spirit. If only we would recognize that every conflict is a test as to whether or not we will display Christlike character and the reality of the gospel in our lives. Will we as Christians display the beautiful fruit of the Holy Spirit or the ugliness of the flesh?