Posted by: Mike Willoughby | January 27, 2012

Can’t We All Just Get Along (Part 3)

Is there really such a thing as positive conflict?

Last week I proposed that conflict has a vital place in the process of improving conditions within human relationships and within organizations and sometimes progress is simply not made without using conflict to bring an issue to everyone’s attention. Beginning with this article, we are going to see “positive” conflict in action in Acts chapter 15 as we learn conflict management and resolution lessons from the Bible.

One of the biggest sources of conflict in the early church revolved around the treatment of non-Jewish converts to the Christian faith. Jesus had indicated the church would be inclusive of all people and the Holy Spirit through Peter ushered non-Jews into the church in Acts 10 with a miraculous sign. However, even after the church began accepting believers from non-Jewish backgrounds into the faith, there was disagreement about whether these new converts had to obey the strict requirements of the Old Testament Law of Moses. Even the leaders of the church were not in agreement on the matter. The issue became so divisive that the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17 was seriously endangered and the potential of the entire church was threatened.  In an effort to manage and resolve the conflict, a church council was called to consider the issue.

As you read the following passage, notice the way everyone was greeted and welcomed in Jerusalem prior to the council meeting.  Remember that positive conflict always assumes that everyone in the organization is seeking the best interest of the organization (and hopefully each other) even though there is a source of disagreement.  It is clear that there was a sense of unity around finding a solution to this huge source of disagreement within the church.  This willingness to work honestly toward a solution is the foundation of a healthy conflict management process.

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.  So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.  When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.  But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.  And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up…   Acts 15:1-7a

Notice how Luke uses the words “dissension and debate” to describe the conflict within the church.  Even after the council came together to discuss the matter, there was conflict among the council members as clearly indicated in verse 7.  This passage contains the first conflict management lesson for us – when a problem exists within an organization that threatens to retard the progress or limit the potential of the organization, the leadership must provide a venue and create a forum for the problem to be discussed and debated.

In my experience, this is where the conflict management process usually breaks down – before the process can even begin.  Many people are inherently conflict-averse and “dissension and debate” just feels wrong to them.  Hopefully you don’t get a thrill out of dissension and debate, but even for the conflict-averse, there is a time and place for healthy debate though it may feel awkward or stressful.

Notice in the passage that a special meeting was convened to consider the matter.  It is a leader’s responsibility to provide a venue and create a forum for discussion and debate and to work to ensure everyone with a stake in the matter (including the conflict-averse) has a place at the table.  It is also very important when dealing with a potentially divisive issue that the issue be the sole agenda item for the meeting.  These issue deserves to be center stage in a discussion and not “tucked in” to the agenda with other matters.  During the meeting, every participant should have an opportunity to present their views on the issue and everyone should be encouraged to debate with passion and enthusiasm.

It is clear from this passage that those present in the council meeting passionately lobbied for their position and presented arguments supporting their view.  It is possible that passions rose to the point that it started to get personal.  It is a natural tendency for emotions to begin to get out of control in a passionate debate and this is where leaders in the organization must help reign in the passion level and remind everyone to avoid getting personal.  Ideas and positions are to be debated without destructive personal attacks.

Once a venue is provided and a forum for open and honest discussion and debate is created, then the work of conflict resolution can begin.  The forum is a vital starting point, but it is just the starting point.  The debate is the critical ingredient that really creates the opportunity for resolution.

In this example, we have already discussed two responsibilities of organizational leadership in managing conflict – creating a venue and a forum for discussion and debate of just the one issue and moderating the debate when passions start to boil over.  Next week, we will consider a couple of other things a leader should and should not do in the process of managing conflict through debate.

Until next week,

Meet me at the intersection!

Copyright © 2012 Michael Willoughby. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to author and/or owner with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


  1. This essay makes sense–good sense. I don’t like debates where two persons seek to disparage and disagree with one another. But when differing views are presented without anger and with respect for dissenters, much good can ensue.

  2. Hopefully when you are personally involved in situations like this that you will be able to influence the dissenters to seek the higher ground. It is one difficult task.

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