In the 1982 Report on the State of the Judiciary, then Chief Justice Warren Burger observed, “One reason our courts have become overburdened is that Americans are increasingly turning to the courts for relief from a range of personal distresses and anxieties … . The courts have been expected to fill the void created by the decline of church, family, and neighborhood unity.”
More than 25 years since this report was released not much has changed. Society around us recognizes the need for effectively resolving conflict, but peace seems more elusive than ever.
Sadly, as Burger accurately observed, the Church wrestles with its own problem of disunity. Our hymns sing of peace, and we agree with Jesus’s admonition that, “They will know that you are my disciples by your love for one another” (John 13:35). Yet the Church has largely failed to demonstrate that peace can be a reality.
Consider the following:
• On average, 1,500 pastors leave their churches every month due to unresolved conflict, burnout, or moral failure.
• Christian couples file for divorce at approximately the same rate as their unbelieving neighbors.
• It is estimated that professing believers initiate four to eight million civil lawsuits annually, often filing against one another, at a cost between $20 and 40 billion.
• Twenty-five percent of all pastors will be fired or pressured to step down at some time during their careers, and one-third of all pastors serve in congregations where the previous pastor was forced to resign.
• Every year many congregations become damaged, sometimes even destroyed, over a spectrum of issues, ranging from personal disputes to worship formats and music to how to finance building programs.
Which begs the question: Why, when Jesus promised, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27) is the Church so beset by strife?
The Reality of Conflict
Dr. Alfred Poirier, senior pastor of Rocky Mountain Community Church (PCA), suggests there are several causes.
“When you pick up the Bible, how many chapters have nothing to say about conflict? Four—the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two chapters of Revelation,” Poirier points out. “If that’s true, what do you think the pastorate is really going to be about?”
And yet, he notes most seminaries have little in their curricula that speaks to resolving conflict. “Seminaries focus on preaching, church planting, evangelism, counseling, and missions, but not interpersonal relationships.”
So Poirier, whose pastoral career has spanned 27 years, is not surprised by many of his peers who express deep frustration over the conflict fomenting in their churches, even when it is not directed toward them.
Another problem, he says, is that peacemaking is typically treated as a tool, rather than a “habit of being.” It is viewed as corrective rather than constructive, as ideological rather than biblical. People would rather get [conflict] out of the way and move beyond the issue rather than doing the hard work of making peace.”
But the most fundamental factor in the pervasiveness of unresolved conflict in the Church, according to Poirier, is a narrow understanding and application of the gospel.
“The gospel is not just an entrance door and an exit door: ‘Christ’s death…got me into the kingdom, and when I die I will go to heaven.’ The gospel also concerns what happens in between, in a minute-by-minute, moment-by-moment living dynamic. At its core, the gospel is about reconciliation—not only with God, but also with one another.
“As it says in Colossians 1, ‘For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things … by making peace through his blood,’” he states.
This is why Poirier has written The Peacemaking Pastor and also serves as chairman of the board of Peacemaker Ministries, a non-profit dedicated to resolving conflict among individuals, churches, and other Christian organizations. “Peacemaking is more than just a plumber’s tool, something you use to fix a leak and then put away until the next leak occurs. It’s the healing alternative to conflict in the Church,” Poirier asserts. “If we are really under the influence of the gospel, each encounter we have with another person should be an expression of that.”
Addressing a Centuries-Old Dilemma
Peacemaker Ministries’ roots date to the early ‘80s, when the Christian Legal Society created the Christian Conciliation Service to help believers resolve disputes without going through the legal system. Its desire was to address a problem that has persisted since the first century. The apostle Paul chastised the church in Corinth, “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? … Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another—and this in front of unbelievers!” (1 Corinthians 6:1-6).
Today, Peacemaker Ministries not only provides mediation and arbitration services, but also certifies trainers and mediators, and produces materials to help churches, parachurch ministries, and individuals understand biblical principles and practices of peacemaking.
Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries, worked in medical research and development as a mechanical engineer before returning to the University of Montana to earn a law degree. After serving one year as a clerk for a federal judge, he founded Peacemaker Ministries in 1982. His 2004 book The Peacemaker was published “to help Christians see the gospel as a practical, day-to-day motivation and method for resolving conflict and reconciling broken relationships.”
One of the problems in the Church today, according to Sande, is confusion between peacemaking and peacekeeping. “I call peacekeeping ‘peace-faking.’ It’s putting on the veneer of civility, keeping things looking good on the surface. Pressure in the Christian community to maintain the appearance of peace is tremendous. We know what the Bible says about loving one another, and we try to love everybody without knowing how.
“Peacemaking, on the other hand, is rolling up our sleeves and digging into the underlying issues of the heart—jealousy, anger, bitterness. We are called to do this because of what Christ did on the cross. He asks us to confess, forgive, do justice, to be truly reconciled—but this takes work.”
The first two editions of Sande’s book captured many of the biblical principles pertaining to peacemaking, but the third edition places “a much stronger emphasis on the gospel itself as our motive and guide,” he notes. “The longer I have been involved in peacemaking, the more I have realized the focus must be on the gospel and not on the ‘shoulds.’ Our focus must be on what God has already done for us—forgiving us for our sins, freeing us from the bondage of sin, and empowering us through the power of Christ to live out the gospel in a practical, everyday manner.
“There is a growing appreciation for the need of a gospel-driven approach to peacemaking and reconciliation. Unfortunately, it’s not being taught. And this is despite the fact all of the top causes for leaving the pastorate involve some form of conflict.
“Pastors are very hungry for practical teaching on this. They are not looking for symptomatic relief—they realize only the gospel can change the heart. As the Bible tells us, ‘What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God’ (James 4:1-2).
“I have never seen a pastor lose his pulpit for poor Hebrew or Greek skills. The issue is how well can he deal with conflict that is triggered by sin in a fallen world? And for pastors, their number one conflict is trying to anticipate how their leadership board will try to stab them in the back that week.
“It breaks my heart, but Satan loves it. If he can get the leadership fighting with each other, the church is immobilized.”
A Unique Opportunity for the PCA
Peacemaker Ministries is not directly affiliated with any denomination, but Sande thinks PCA churches should find a biblically-based approach to peacemaking especially appealing.
“I believe the PCA, because of its solid theological stands, is in a unique position to live out and embrace biblical peacemaking and serve as an example to other churches in how to exercise the power of the gospel in redemptive ministry. Our PCA churches have a unique opportunity and responsibility to model and to teach this.”
In fact, preliminary steps have already been taken. In 2007, the PCA Advisory Committee, which included Dr. Harry Reeder of Briarwood Presbyterian Church, and Dr. Niel Nielson, president of Covenant College, approved a vision and strategy statement for working with Peacemaker Ministries toward “building a culture of peace in the PCA.” That action was preceded in 2003 at the PCA General Assembly when a six-page appendix on biblical conflict resolution was approved as an addendum to the Book of Church Order. In its preface, it states, “… Biblical peacemaking is one of God’s highest priorities (Matthew 5:23-24; Romans 12:18; Galatians 6:1); therefore it must be one of our highest priorities.”
How the denomination as a whole proceeds is yet to be determined, but a number of individual PCA congregations have availed themselves of Peacemaker Ministries resources and training. Peacemaker’s Institute for Christian Conciliation division offers two levels of training for people who desire to be certified as instructors and mediators in peacemaking.
The first level—foundational skills training—spans three days, including one day in conflict coaching (designed to help individuals resolve conflict in a biblical manner), and two days in mediation and arbitration. Over these days, questions are addressed, such as how to build a culture of peace within a local church and what it means to act as a reconciler within a congregation.
A second level of training focuses on techniques for resolving conflicts in marriages, churches, and other organizations, and the formal arbitration process.
Peacemaker Ministries also conducts an annual peacemaker conference where training and workshops are presented.
Providing a Female Perspective
Tara Barthel is a wife and mother who accumulates thousands of frequent flyer miles each year to take the message of peacemaking to a very specific group—women.
“I try to accept no more than two invitations to speak per month, and I still see myself as a stay-at-home mom, but I see peacemaking as a calling from God. In John 17, Jesus prayed five times that we would be one, and in Ephesians 4:3 we are told to ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ But in reality we don’t have unity,” Barthel said.
“We see women competing, and cliques and factions within the church instead of cultivating an atmosphere of grace. So many of us are performance-oriented, believing that we always have to look good. We act as if we are not called to faith in Christ and grace, but to works. AA meetings and local bars offer more grace than most churches. We need to discover the things that divide us and where we can find unity.
“I call on women to remember who they are in Christ, even in suffering, and remind them that they can trust in Him no matter what.
“I have been involved in church interventions where I have seen dead marriages come back to life. This proves to me that the gospel is real, that it truly is the answer to any conflict. Being engaged in peacemaking is fun, because you get to watch what Jesus can do.”
Taking Peacemaking to the World
Since 2001, an international division of Peacemaker Ministries has been taking the message of biblical peacemaking to other parts of the world. Chip Zimmer, who became vice president of Peacemaker’s international ministries in 2001, said the demand for teaching is as great globally as it is in the United States.
“One unintentional result of our Web site was international visibility. Since peacemaking is so central to Christianity, leaders in other countries of the majority world—what we used to call the developing world—have clamored for material that gives a biblical perspective on how to live in peace,” Zimmer says.
While there is agreement that the Bible speaks clearly on peacemaking, the challenge is how to implement its teachings within the framework of established traditions.
“Context and culture are not an issue as far as what the Bible says,” he observes, “but the hard part is in learning how to apply it within a cultural setting.”
For instance, implementing one of Peacemaker’s principles—“gently restore”—has been a challenge within the Asian, African, and Latin American cultural contexts of authority.
“It can be very difficult when such thinking is not part of the culture. In Asia, for example, the idea of ‘saving face’—preserving my dignity and standing—challenges the notion of going to another person for forgiveness,” Zimmer says. “The same applies to Africa, where in an honor-shame culture it is difficult to admit being wrong, and in Latin America, where ‘machismo’ puts a premium on an image of strength, rather than humility.”
This does not mean peacemaking principles are useless in other cultures, but he and other Peacemaker representatives must function as both teachers and students, seeking to understand how to help leaders model the peacemaking principles.
With a small staff to focus on international needs and an equally small budget, Peacemaker has had to limit its scope. But there are now two major projects underway—one in Peru, testing small group study materials in conjunction with the Christian Missionary Alliance. The other is in the Philippines, where Peacemaker has aligned with the Philippines Council of Evangelical Churches to take counseling and reconciliation services into local churches.
In addition, Christian colleges in Liberia, Zambia, South Africa, Venezuela, Cuba, Guatemala, and Sri Lanka have received training from Peacemaker Ministries and are introducing bachelor-level coursework in peacemaking. The International Graduate School of Leadership in Manila, Philippines, is preparing to offer a doctorate of ministry in biblical peacemaking.
In writing an endorsement for The Peacemaking Pastor, renowned theologian J.I. Packer envisioned one day when the local church would “become the community of peace and safety it is called to be rather than the hotbed of hostilities that it too often is.” Perhaps soon Christian colleges and seminaries in the U.S., like their international counterparts, will integrate practical studies in biblical peacemaking, and denominations like the PCA will take to heart Jesus’s assurance, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). Then this “community of peace and safety” will become reality.
Robert J. Tamasy, a member of North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tenn., is vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., an Atlanta-based ministry to business and professional leaders; author of Business at Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace, and co-author of The Heart of Mentoring with David A. Stoddard.
One Peacemaker’s Perspective: Richard Pettit
Richard Pettit, an elder at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church near Chattanooga, Tenn., has been a veteran litigator since 1990. He discovered a new passion in 1998 when he heard a presentation on biblical peacemaking by Sam Casey, then national president of the Christian Legal Society.
“It was frustrating that so many of my clients were Christians—and their adversaries also were Christians. The idea that God would have something to say to people in conflict resonated with me.”
Since then Pettit has become a certified Christian conciliator for Peacemaker Ministries, while maintaining his Chattanooga law practice. The legal system provides leverage to settle disputes, but biblical peacemaking can change lives, he observed.
“Peacemaking is not just damage control. It informs everything about the Christian life. It shows the world what it means for relationships to be right.
“Any situation that gives us the opportunity to ask, ‘What is the best thing that can happen next?’ is an occasion to find answers in biblical principles, and through careful, intentional engagement.”
Conflict and the Church have been strange bedfellows through the centuries. But Pettit remains an optimistic emissary of peacemaking. “It’s not the size of the task that excites me, but the size of the One I am working for. There is nothing better than having a front-row seat, seeing the Holy Spirit at work in people’s lives.
“When people look at us, they ought to see what the ministry of reconciliation really is. This is an untested evangelistic tool—to be known by the way we relate to each other. I have seen people come to faith in this process as they observed the presence of Christ in their adversary.
“Peacemaking is the gospel,” Pettit said. “It’s about reconciliation—continual and constant. It’s fierce, difficult, engaging work—but also rewarding. It’s an opportunity to confront people with the gospel of reconciliation where they most need it.”
Pettit has taken this message to 11 countries, but carries a special burden for his own city and denomination. “I would love to be a resource for PCA churches, helping parties in conflict find the best possible outcome. I think the PCA would benefit from becoming known as a denomination of reconciliation.
“The Reformed tradition is where the stewardship of providential circumstances should have the most traction. God is sovereign and He is good. So let’s get to work in light of these truths.”