Conflict: A Simple, Biblical Framework For Handling It Well

Funny that today’s post, about conflict, is going live on Election Day after a particularly rancorous political season.

For me, at least, I find myself less concerned with who wins and more with how we get there.  Can we find a way to disagree with respect?  To preserve – and maybe even deepen – relationships even when we can’t see things eye to eye?

Joe Frazier\'s Red Boxing Gloves

Not Just A Political Issue

This post isn’t really about politics, though.  (That’s not why you come here!)  It’s a reflection, from scripture, on how we can do conflict better.  On how we can share our concerns and still be friends.

Do you have any conflict going on in your life right now?  Maybe it’s a difficult neighbor. A disrespectful child or spouse.  Or a boss that is impossible to please and tears you down.

If we’re alive, there’s going to be conflict.  So how can we do it better so that God’s purposes in it can be accomplished?

Help From An Unlikely Source

OK, I’m going to shift gears here, but it’s relevant – I promise.  Time for a two-question pop quiz:

  1. Where in the bible is the Book of Philemon located?  (Name either the book it comes before, or, after.)
  2. What’s it about?

How did you do?  No judgment here if you struggled.  Philemon is found after Titus and before Hebrews.  It’s only 25 verses long.

Its theme and occasion is a bit more complicated, but relevant to our discussion.  (I’d like to give credit to a biblical counselor, Jeff Stark, who shared this much of this framework with me and agreed to let me share it with you.  If you live in Philly and need a seasoned counselor, he’d be a great place to start!)

In a nutshell, the Apostle Paul had led Philemon, a wealthy believer, to Christ at some point during his ministry in Ephesus.  Onesimus, one of Philemon’s bondservants, had escaped to Rome and become a fugitive there (a capital offense).  Miraculously, Onesimus came into contact with Paul and became a Christian. As he matured in his faith, he became very helpful to Paul, who was limited by his imprisonment.

Although Paul wanted to keep benefiting from Onesimus’s help, he knew that his fugitive status and offense against his master Philemon needed to be addressed. So he wrote the letter as an appeal to Philemon to recognize the transformation that God brought about in Onesimus, and, to welcome him back not just as a bondservant but as a “beloved brother” (verse 16).

I haven’t heard too many sermons on Philemon, but we can be grateful to God for it because it shows us how we can work through our own conflicts in a much more redemptive, healthy way.

A Simple Framework For Conflict

As we begin, I’d like to ask you to identify someone who you have conflict with. Someone who gets under your skin so that Paul’s framework for handling conflict becomes very practical.  (By the way, it can be low-level, or relatively passive, icy conflict.  Not just the explosive kind.)

#1 Remember who they are in Christ.  Paul begins by addressing Philemon as his ‘our beloved fellow worker’ (2).  Then, he goes on to offer Philemon ‘grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ (3).  (As John Piper points out, all Paul’s letters begin this way, as do both of Peter’s.)  Paul defines Philemon not by the challenge at hand, but by the great realities of God’s love, grace and peace for him in Christ.

Challenge:  Do you define the person who annoys you by what they’ve done, or, by what God has done for them in Christ?

#2 Sincerely encourage them.  Paul tells Philemon ‘I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints’ (4-5).  He starts with genuine, thoughtful, and specific gratitude for Philemon.  

I have to admit I’m not good at this, especially with my children.  Just yesterday, actually, I gave my youngest son a really hard time because he had (mistakenly) lost his new jacket.  I want to be thankful for him, even in moments of frustration.

Challenge: Continuing with our example of the ‘person of annoyance’, find 3 things about them that you could appreciate.  Pray that God helps you call them to mind when conflict comes up again.

#3 Be vulnerable and open up your heart.  Paul, by this time ‘an old man’ (9), has learned to go first and show his heart.  (See 2 Corinthians for another great example.)  The tone of the entire letter is warm, kind and filled with open-hearted love for Philemon.

Challenge: Ask God for the grace to ‘be for’ the person who annoys you, rather than defensive and attorney-like.

#4 Address the issue directly and kindly.  Although Paul’s letter is filled with grace and kindness, it’s also direct.  He asks Philemon to view Onesimus ‘no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother…’, then continues: ‘so if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me’ (16, 17).  Addressing kingdom conflict is both loving and direct, all at the same time.

Challenge: Being direct may be the hardest part for some of us.  If that’s you, ask God for the courage and love it will require to directly challenge the difficult person you’ve identified above.

#5 Make your appeal, then let the other person respond.  Paul strongly encourages Philemon to treat Onesimus with grace, but he doesn’t force him to. ‘Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you’ (8, 9).  Although Paul wasn’t the one offended, the principle of letting the other person decide on their response – without manipulation or coercion – is important, and will ensure that their response is genuine.

Challenge: When you confront the person we’ve been thinking about, do you allow him/her to respond freely, or, do you use tactics like anger or ‘the silent treatment’ to get the response you want?

#6 Affirm the relationship and end with more grace.  Paul closes his letter to Philemon by telling him to get a guest room ready (22) and warm wishes: ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit’ (25).

Challenge: When you next have conflict with the person in view, find a way to finish by valuing the relationship, and extending God’s grace.

Failing In The Right Direction

I’m going to be honest with you and say that handling tension like this feels like climbing Mount Everest to me.  Only God can help me treat someone who’s wronged me deeply like this, and I suspect the same is true for you.

We won’t get this perfect, and we don’t have to remember all this in the moment.  It’s probably fair to simplify it like this:

  • remember who they are in Christ, and encourage them;
  • deal with the issue directly;
  • end with grace, not the problem.

I hope that sounds encouraging to you.  Yes, it will require God’s grace, but imagine how differently difficult conversations would go if we begin taking that approach.



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • JT

    Great post, Bryan. Grace hurts.

    Do we know how Philemon responded to Paul’s letter?

    • Hey JT, thanks for your encouraging feedback. And yes, grace really does hurt!

      As for Philemon’s response, no, I don’t think we know for certain, but I’m thinking Paul was very hard to turn down, esp. since it seems Philemon had come to faith under his ministry. And, he made it clear that he anticipated a positive response.