While conflict often has negative implications for the lives of those who experience it, this is not necessarily the case. Conflict itself is a natural and unavoidable result of the interaction of different people with different ideas and desires. Although these differences have historically led to all kinds of harmful consequences ranging from divorce to genocide, a God-centered worldview can render conflict a welcome and useful way to engage each other and glorify God. However, even in those situations where one side or the other will not embrace a God-centered view of conflict, one can still behave in such a manner as to reflect the glory of God.
A Biblical Example
A prime example from the scriptures of how this interaction can play out is found in Galatians 2:1-21. The apostle Paul describes how after a fourteen-year stint of ministry he returned to Jerusalem with his protégés Barnabas and Titus only to find that there was a growing influence of Jewish legalists who “slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Jesus Christ, so that they might bring us into slavery.” Paul himself was outspoken in his criticism of and separation from these people, allying against them with influential leaders in the Jerusalem church such as James, John, and Peter. Not long afterward, however, Paul encountered a very different attitude from his ally Peter while ministering at Antioch:
But when [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
A number of things should be noted here. First, two believers were in conflict and one of them felt very strongly that the other was in the wrong. While conflicts can come in many forms, it is common in all of them for people to assume that they themselves are correct even if they do not possess full understanding of the other person’s perspective. However, in this particular case, Paul is clearly in the right, yet he still reacts to this conflict in a Christ-like manner, as will be demonstrated.
Second, Paul was concerned first and foremost about the glory of God. Paul was disturbed by the doctrinal underpinnings of Peter’s behavior and goes on to describe why Peter’s behavior was so reprehensible – which turns out to be primarily on theological grounds. Specifically, Paul asserts “if righteousness were [possible] through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” While God does not need us to defend him, it is telling that the rest of Paul’s reaction is rooted in his zeal for an accurate idea of God and his grace.
Third, Paul is also clearly motivated out of love for his friends. Titus was Greek by birth, and even though initially the Jerusalem church did not expect him to embrace circumcision, he would have been deeply offended by his coworker Barnabas so quickly abandoning support of him and switching sides. Barnabas himself, being in Jewish in background, was particularly susceptible to this Jewish legalism, but of course it was Peter himself that began the defection. Paul would have wanted to encourage Titus by showing support for him while feeling alienated, and his tone indicates he wanted to rescue Barnabas from the aftermath of Peter’s failure.
Finally, Paul acts. Instead of letting the offense go and causing resentment and faction, he deals with the problem. In dealing with Peter himself, Paul also shows respect by addressing the problem at the same level; instead of gossiping about it, Paul dealt directly with the offender:
But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to [Peter] before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews? We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
While we do not know what became of the legalists who caused the initial heresy, it is clear that Peter and Barnabas were receptive to Paul’s rebuke, as Peter himself later acknowledged the divine authority of some of Paul’s writings. Had Paul failed to embrace the conflict in a way that glorified God by either refusing to confront or by failing to do so in a spirit that reflected a love for God and for people, the letter to Galatians might have recorded a much sadder outcome.
Responding to Conflict in a Way That Glorifies God
While the relationship between Peter and Paul (and the account of these two men representing the tension-ridden transition from Judaism to Christianity in the first century) may be more momentous than any relationship conflict that one might encounter today, the principles of how to glorify God remain the same. The simplest way of understanding how to glorify God in conflict is that we must operate in a frame of spirit, mind, and behavior that accurately represents who God is and how he would have us live.
First, we must examine ourselves before passing judgment on other people. Conflicts are rarely one-sided, and conflicting human desires are often the result of idolatry – that is, one or more parties in conflict are valuing something or someone more than the glory of God. Any time we seek to meet our needs in anyone or anything other than God himself, we will ultimately come up short and use other people for our own ends.
Second, the one who first realizes there is a conflict has the obligation to begin the process of reconciliation. To do otherwise is both to disobey Jesus Christ as well as risk bitterness and resentment building as each blames the other while also waiting for the other to solve the problem, often gossiping in the process. Instead, Jesus insists that the two sides privately take up the matter and attempt to solve their differences between themselves before taking the conflict more public.
Third, any communication must be done in a spirit of humble kindness. Having already illustrated his principle in the previous Biblical example, Paul writes a few chapters later in Galatians 6 that “if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you also be tempted.” When healing rifts between people, there should never be a desire to win an argument or put the other person in his or her place, but rather direct and private action motivated by the good of the other person and the glory of God.
Conflict occurs between all people, but it is always possible to glorify God when settling differences between other people. Rather than seeing conflict as a thing to be buried or avoided at all costs, believers should view conflict as an opportunity to better understand each other as well as God’s purpose in their lives. By dealing with conflict Biblically, quickly, and in a spirit of love for God and each other, Christians can model the glory of God in conflicts with each other.
 Alfred Poirier, The Peace Making Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 58.