We are all familiar with conflict in unhealthy relationships. But conflict occurs in healthy relationships as well. Here is a key difference. In unhealthy relationships/churches/ministries, the one with the authority squelches conflict effectively. They don’t endure conflict; they crush it. And the one getting crushed is usually the one without the power. In a healthy ministry/relationship, the one with the power and authority lays down his life. He endures. He absorbs the injustice. There is still conflict, but if there is outright injustice, authorities bear the weight of the injustice, not vice versa.
Before you write me off as suggesting the acceptance of sin and rebellion by those under our authority, consider Jesus, who epitomizes healthy ministry. At His trial, He is falsely accused. Great injustice is committed against Him. But He who had all the power, took it. He restrained His power and authority and absorbed their injustice. Scripture calls it gentleness, and it is a crucial piece of imitating Christ in healthy conflict. Jesus says of Himself, “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and in 2 Tim. 2, Paul emphasizes it as well.
24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
Gentleness isn’t weakness, and it isn’t a feminine virtue. Gentleness is strength under control. Babies aren’t gentle. Babies are weak. But when the man who has the strength to crush the baby instead tempers that strength to protect it, that is gentleness.
Conflict often arises between parties of equal strength, power, or authority. But it is conflict between parties of unequal power or authority that is my focus here (though these principles similarly apply to conflict between peers). Paul warns fathers in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3 to not discourage or exasperate their children. John Stott notes in his Message of Ephesians commentary that when Paul outlines how parents should behave towards their children, it is “not the exercise but the RESTRAINT of their authority which he urges upon them” (p. 245). Often such conflict arises over the very issue of authority, the most tempting situation to rouse ourself in the full manifestation of our power or authority. Yet Paul calls us to a different way.
When conflict arises between me and those under my authority, do I want to humiliate my opponent? To take them down a notch? Some sin makes me so angry I want to rip into the offender and verbally tear them apart, but acting on that is sin. According to James, the anger of man NEVER accomplishes the righteousness of God. I must take my anger to God, pray through it, and ask Him to transform it from anger that will accomplish nothing for His kingdom to resolve that stands against injustice and sin in righteous ways. I’ve transitioned from unrighteous anger to healthy resolve when I move from wanting my opponent destroyed to wanting him or her freed from their sin. I don’t want to figuratively shoot them. I want God to heal them. As Paul teaches in 2 Timothy 2, my opponent is not my enemy. They are a captive of my true enemy. We will never win a war when we aim our warfare at prisoners of war. No, our war is with principalities and powers, not flesh and blood (Eph. 6). Healthy conflict understands this difference. I must stand in the gap FOR my opponent even as I stand against their injustice, patiently enduring evil, correcting with gentleness. If you hate sin and injustice, believe that God’s explicit instructions on such conflicts really do work His righteousness.