Ask any Christian how to deal with conflict and they will pull out Matthew 18 because it lays out what many see as THE way for Christians to deal with interpersonal sin. For years the church has laid out the process of talk to the person individually, then if things don’t work out bring someone as a witness. Then, if things still don’t work out, bring the matter before the church and if that doesn’t work out then expel the person from the church. It’s pretty standard but what if I told you that this wasn’t the only biblical way that God’s people deal with sin? There are actually countless examples of other ways of doing the same thing that may be more relevant in other cultural contexts.
Because different cultures do indeed have differing ways of dealing with conflict. Indirect communication, through concepts such as pahiwatig [hinting] and pakikiramdam [sensing non-verbal cues], are at the core of communication and conflict resolutions of some Filipino and First Nations peoples. The Lupon tagapamayapa, or peacemaker board, is a key part of Philippine society and is one effective way in keeping peace in our communities.
Duane Elmer’s 1993 book Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry is a great biblical theology of conflict resolution that doesn’t limit itself to Matthew 18:15-20.
For Elmer, the Matthew 18 approach is especially useful in so-called Western societies where confrontation and frankness are cultural values. As Elmer says, even though “directness, confrontation, forthrightness and candid outspokenness are valued and expected in Western culture, in most of the world these same values, even when demonstrated respectfully, are considered rude, unrefined, ill-mannered, discourteous and even contemptuous” (p. 62). This approach is less useful in other culture settings where confrontation and frankness actually create more conflict. I would add that focussing solely on Matthew 18 provides excuses for those who are caught in sin because it can be used as an excuse to reject any process of reconciliation.
Elmer divides his approach into four categories. I will give a brief outline of Elmer’s argument including a definition and biblical example or two of each category. Elmer’s book goes far beyond this by giving real-world examples of how these various methods have worked effectively in cross-cultural settings however I should point out that Elmer approaches most of these situations as a cultural outsider. However, this doesn’t impact the biblical theology that he also develops in the book.
Mediation and the Mediator. One set of bible passages talks about how conflict is sometimes resolved through the use of an intermediary. Mediation is in fact a big theme in all of scripture, as we can see below.
1 Timothy 2:5-6 explicitly states — “There is one God. There is also one mediator between God and humans—a human, Christ Jesus. He sacrificed himself for all people to free them from their sins. This message is valid for every era.” Jesus’ role as mediator is expanded in John 3:17, Romans 5:10-11, and Hebrews 7–8.
Moses was a mediator in delivering the law, as Paul mentions in Galatians 3:19-20, and as outlined in Exodus 32:30-32 and Numbers 12:6-8.
Job wants a mediator to help him with his case in Job 9:33 — “There is no mediator between us to put his hand on both of us.”
Joab sets up a mediator between David and his son Absalom in 2 Samuel 14:1-4 in an effort to achieve peace.
Prophets (Deuteronomy 18:18-23) and priests (Exodus 28:1; Leviticus 9:7; 16:6; Hebrews 5:1-4) also served as mediators between God and humans.
Elmer says a mediator is a third party who is “respected, neutral, and objective” and who acts as a bridge between the two parties in conflict with the goal of achieving a win-win solution. According to Elmer, the use of a mediator when seeking reconciliation is normal in many cultures. As Elmer says, “many cultures of the world prefer indirect methods for handling conflict and potential conflict. One of the more common indirect methods is the use of a mediator. Neither the existence of a mediator nor the functions of a mediator are foreign to the scriptural account. While society may have contaminated the role of the mediator or used it for selfish, even evil purposes, it is still a legitimate role that needs to be understood and appropriately employed by Christians.”
The one-down position and vulnerability. Another set of Bible passages talk about how resolution sometimes takes place when one or both of the parties place themselves in either a vulnerable or a lower position. For example, when Abram and Lot’s shepherds have a conflict over grazing rights in Genesis 13:8, Abram takes the one-down position in seeking resolution by offering to transfer to another area.
Later on, Lot was in the one-down position because he had been captured by some rampaging kings in Genesis 14:5-12. Abram comes to rescue Lot from this position in Genesis 14:13-20.
David, in his conflict with Absalom, also assumes the one-down position. In 2 Samuel 14:1-4 Joab prompts the woman to say, “Help ⌞me⌟, Your Majesty” because this would put the woman in a one-down position to the king, who would then be obligated to help her.
Elmer says, “Taking the one down position means you make yourself vulnerable to another person or indicate that without their help you are in danger of being shamed or losing face.” “It is important for you not to cause another person to lose face or be ashamed, but if there is danger of this happening to you, you may call on another to protect you from losing face. In fact you may call even on the very one endangering your honor to save you from the same shame that may befall you” (p. 80). Elmer gives God’s dealings with Abram and David as examples.
Story-telling and proverbs. A third set of Bible passages emphasise stories as tools for resolving conflict.
Perhaps the best example of this in the Bible is when the prophet Nathan confronts King David over his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1-9). Nathan tells an elaborate story of a rich man who steals a poor man’s beloved lamb. When David is enraged, Nathan stuns him by saying, “You are that man.” The result is David’s repentance.
Jesus also used this many times when he told parables in order to teach the values that he wanted taught. Conceivably, he could have directly gone around challenging people with their sin and saying, “Repent!” Rather he chose storytelling as his main form of interaction.
There are countless examples of Jesus telling parables, but some significant examples include Luke 18:10-14, when Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in an effort to both present hope to tax collectors and encourage repentance by the Pharisees.
Jesus also uses this method when confronted by the leaders in Matthew 21:23-27. When asked, “By whose authority do you do these things” Jesus replies by posing a puzzle that allows him to avoid a direct confrontation.
The effectiveness of this method is shown later on in Matthew 21:33-46 when Jesus tells the story of the man who rented his vineyard. His servants, sent to collect his portion of the produce, are mistreated and his son is killed. When the story is over we learn that the chief priests and Pharisees knew Jesus was talking about them — meaning that Jesus was able to indirectly get his message across.
Elmer again: “Storytelling in this sense is not simply the use of stories but … the instructional, corrective and nuanced use of words …. to socialize the younger members of a society into the norms and values of that society. Yet these same tools are easily crafted into responses in conflict situations.”
Note also the progression included in this option: One is allowed to become more direct if the intended targets of the story don’t quite make the connection with themselves.
Inaction, misdirection, silence, and indefinite persons. The final set of Bible passages we will look at talks about how conflict is sometimes resolved using indirect means. Some cultures emphasize more indirect forms of interaction and this leads to another type of conflict management that emphasizes indirectness.
Shiphrah and Puah are two Hebrew midwives discussed in Exodus 1:8-19. After being ordered by the Pharaoh “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth, look at the child when you deliver it. If it’s a boy, kill it, but if it’s a girl, let it live,” the midwives respond to the Pharaoh’s request in several ways: silence in that the passage doesn’t record any direct answer from them to the Pharaoh’s order; inaction (v17) in that “they didn’t obey the king of Egypt’s orders”; and misdirection (v19) in that they blamed the Hebrew women’s health as the reason why they couldn’t obey. This story may seem odd, at least from a Western perspective that might interpret the midwives as being dishonest. However, the fact that “God was good to the midwives” tells us that he approved of their methods.
We also see these principles in the stories of King Saul (1 Samuel 10:27) and in Esther.
In Mark 9:33-37 we read that Jesus’ disciples “were silent.” This is because they wanted to save themselves from the shame of having to confess what they were discussing on the road. Jesus doesn’t confront them about this but rather uses an indirect object lesson to help them better understand the very question they were arguing about.
Jesus himself uses silence when the Pharisees tried to force him to condemn the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11. He then uses misdirection to turn the question back to the accusers when he says, “The person who is sinless should be the first to throw a stone at her.”
And of course Jesus also remained silent in Matthew 27:14 when being questioned by Pilate.
In talking about silence Elmer says, “silence does not mean the issue is settled or that some agreement has been reached. It usually means a delay until another appropriate strategy can be employed…. There is a time for silence and a time for forthrightness. It seems that the gravity of the issue is one indicator for choosing, as is timeliness.”
Some concluding remarks. One key to these alternative biblical forms of conflict management is to realise that none of them are exclusive. Rather one can cycle through various forms of these approaches with the goal of arriving at a win-win situation in the end. It is also important to note that we need to use culturally appropriate forms of conflict resolution, with the goal of actual resolution. We don’t just want to pick and choose the method that will best support our side of the issue. We need to choose the approach that will best lead to resolution.
This might seem like an opportunity to go “conflict resolution shopping” and choose the option that will best serve our side of the conflict. That isn’t the point of this exercise. What this is trying to show us is that sometimes using Matthew 18’s approach solidifies the conflict rather than resolving it because it is intended to be used in a particular cultural setting. Choosing one of the other options may lead to better results in other contexts.
It is also a good place to mention, at least in passing, that so-called Western theologies are hegemonic. This means that they have, by virtue of the volumes written by westerners taken predominance and exterted power over the Other. This needs to change as other cultures enter into the conversation with their own contexts and systems. The result will be a theology that is richer in the end.
What do you think of Elmer’s assertions? Do you think this provides the church with some better options for dealing with and resolving conflict? Are there unresolved issues that you have with someone that would be fixed if you had followed another process?
I want to hear your voice. That’s why feedback is always welcome.
Sharing is what friends do.
Image by Charl Folscher on Unsplash.
Scripture is taken from GOD’S WORD®.
© 1995, 2003, 2013, 2014, 2019, 2020 by God’s Word to the Nations Mission Society.
Used by permission.
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