A casual reading of the New Testament reveals the early church in conflict and turmoil. Not long after the glorious Day of Pentecost whereby thousands of souls were added to the church we read, “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration” (Acts 6:1). Most of the Pauline letters were written to resolve conflict within the local assembly based upon doctrinal principles.
To the church of Galatia the apostle Paul gave wise counsel on how to resolve conflict in a church, especially if a spiritual transgression is involved. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). Consider from these words some Pauline principles of dealing with individuals.
The first principle in Paul’s counsel is that others in the church be considered as “brethren”, and not as an enemy. It is within the human heart for us to think that, “A person who is not with me on every issue is against me.” Such a position is unkind and untrue. It is self-destructive for it makes a person paranoid. It is other destructive for it denies creativity.
In British culture, there is a healthy concept known as the “loyal opposition”. This term is derived from John Hobhouse’s use of the expression in 1826 in a debate in the British parliament. Americans could benefit by embracing that cultural concept, especially Christian Americans.
Of course it is wonderful to find people of like mind and faith. It can also be refreshing to have new thoughts, new ideas, and differences of opinion, or life would be very boring and there would be no advancement anywhere.
Being in the ministry for many years I have encountered a lot of “loyal opposition”, mainly because I have always encouraged God’s people to think for themselves. My exhortation to God’s people has always been, “Be a good gospel Berean (Acts 17:11). Listen to what is being said and then appeal to the Scriptures if a question arises, or if there is a difference of opinion.” The Scriptures are to be the final arbitrator of any issue within the church. It is through sound doctrine that a position or practice must prevail (Titus 1:9).
A second principle Paul establishes is the need to make certain a matter of concern is legitimate. This is reflected in the word “if”. It is a word of uncertainty. Sometimes a situation is not as it appears. Christians are to avoid a rush to judgment.
Prior to confronting someone, every effort should be made to gather accurate information, and for a good reason. Without wisdom, without understanding, without proper knowledge, without context, the human tendency is to approach a matter with fleshly anger.
The Lord has a different way of dealing with a situation. The way of the Lord involves gathering objective information prior to bringing an accusation. This is especially true when dealing with spiritual leadership. “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19). Christian, make sure your concern over a matter is legitimate “If a brethren be overtaken in a fault.”
The third principle Paul lays down is to establish whether or not a matter of concern is a biblical “fault.” The word Paul uses for fault primarily means, “a side-slip (lapse or deviation), i.e. an (unintentional) error”. The Greek word for fault can mean a willful transgression, but there are many things in life that come under the category of a “side-slip”, a “lapse of judgment”, or a “deviation from an acceptable social norm.”
Why is this principle important to remember? It is important because the human heart tends to magnify a situation. As a child my mother would tell me, “Do not major on minor details.” She would say, “Do not make a mountain out of a molehill.” “Do not overkill a situation.” My mother was wise.
Unfortunately, our personal preference for something can easily cause us to be needlessly angry, sinfully angry, if someone else has a different point of view, or a different way of dealing with a situation. We consider what they think, say, write, or do, a fault, when it is not a fault at all. It is simply a difference of opinion, or preference.
God does not want His people running around trying to correct every perceived wrong, and playing Holy Spirit. If there is a biblical fault, then the fault can be addressed. However, it must be addressed on gospel terms.
The fourth principle Paul lays down is that the spiritual person, the person who is in fellowship with the Lord, the person whose own life is sanctified, must approach a matter with the right spirit. The right spirit is defined as meekness.
What a contrast the spirit of meekness is to the flesh. The flesh delays addressing an issue until brooding anger leads to something being said. Then, like a volcano erupting, exploding words are expressed that are not fair or true. The meek spirit is patient.
There is another difference. The flesh rallies support from others, much like Korah, who found allies in Dathan and Abirim, before he opposed Moses (Num. 16:1-49). God would have His people avoid forming unholy alliances and unspiritual triangles, pitting one person against another. Nor does God want individuals to speak from a position of fleshly authority by issuing ultimatums. He wants those who are spiritual to approach others with meekness.
The fifth principle Paul establishes is that the objective of any discussion is to be restoration to fellowship. “Ye which are spiritual, restore”, which means “repair, or adjust” the matter. The objective is to restore a person to fellowship with the Lord, and with self, and with His church.
“A few years ago, an angry man rushed through the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam until he reached Rembrandt’s famous painting “Nightwatch.” Then he took out a knife and slashed it repeatedly before he could be stopped. A short time later, a distraught, hostile man slipped into St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome with a hammer and began to smash Michelangelo’s beautiful sculpture, “The Pieta”. Two cherished works of art were severely damaged. But what did officials do? Throw them out and forget about them? Absolutely not! Using the best experts, who worked with the utmost care and precision, they made every effort to restore the treasures” (Chuck Swindoll, The Quest For Character, Multnomah, p. 49.). Each Christian is a treasure to be valued and esteemed. And, if something has gone wrong, if someone has said or done something that is not right, let the goal be restoration.