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Fighting for Unity: 12 Practices that Lead to Family (and Church) Harmony

Where two or three are gathered… there is conflict waiting to happen. So reads the back of Peacemaking for Families. But we can create a home culture where peacemaking is practiced. In fact, I would argue that we should fight for unity.

I originally put the following list together for life together in the church. But as you will see, it also applies to the family as well. These are things to practice in our family and teach others. I cover much of this in Chapter 13 of The Disciple-Making Parent.

1. Pray for unity. Jesus is praying this way. In John 17 he prays that the Father would protect us from the evil one and sanctify us by the word. Then he prays, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you loved me.” Jesus prayed and is praying for the unity of his people. It is a witness to the world.

2. Forbear in small matters. (Ephesians 4:2, Col 3:13). To bear with or forbear means to overlook small things that will not change. Faultfinding is a real and common sin (see Jude 16). Replace it with thanksgiving and forbearance based on how much God has overlooked with you.

Charles Spurgeon said,  “We have all our own angles and edges, and these are apt to come into contact with others. We are all pieces of one puzzle, and shall fit in with each other one day, and make a complete whole; yet just now we seem misshapen and unfitting. Our corners need to be rounded. Sometimes they are chipped off by collision with somebody else; and that is not comfortable for the person with whom we collide. Like pebbles in the river of the water of life, we are wearing each other round and smooth, as the living current brings us into communion: everybody is polishing and being polished, and in the process it is inevitable that some present inconvenience should be sustained; but nobody must mind it, for it is part of a great process by which we shall all come into proper shape, and be made meet for endless fellowship.”

3. Get the log out of your eye first. (Matt 7:3-5). Are you demanding perfection of yourself or are you excusing your own sin? Can you point out the speck in your family member’s eye and miss your own? Be the first to ask forgiveness. Here is a penetrating quote from In Paradise Lost, Milton wrote regarding Adam and Eve’s relationship, post-Fall. I’m guilty. Are you?

“Thus they in mutual accusation spent
The fruitless hours, but neither self-condemning,
And of thir vain contest appeer’d no end.”

4. Forgive true offenses. Jesus placed forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer as a daily need (Matthew 6:12). There are things we must mark as forgiven based on how much we have been forgiven.

C. S. Lewis comments on the need for family forgiveness: “It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life—to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son—how can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it means to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what He says.”

Commands to All Three Parties – Offended, Offender, Observer
The next three commands are vital for unity. When there is a conflict there are often three parties who know about it. The offended, the offender, and third parties. Jesus speaks to all three parties by giving them some responsibility.

5. Resolve you will move toward hard conversations with pleasant words when someone sins against you.
Mt 18: 15 may be one of the the most violated verses of church and family life. “If your brother sins against you, go to him.” Do not go to other people. Do not let it simmer. Do not avoid conflict. If it is serious enough that you cannot over look, then Jesus commands you to go. The purpose is not to win the battle but to win your brother or sister back to the Lord or back to you. Make sure you practice this and are teaching your children this.

A simple way to start the conversation for something you have observed is this.

“I’ve noticed that you ___________ . Can you help me understand what’s going on? I am concerned about it.”

6. Resolve you will not let relationships wither when you feel someone pulling back. If we accidentally offend someone and we feel the relationship start to wither, Jesus commands us to go. Matt 5:23 – “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift.” Again, if we feel someone distancing themselves from us, we may need to ask them about it.

7. Resolve that you will be a peacemaker, not a gossip. Unfortunately too often, the parties involved in a conflict will not or cannot work it out on their own. Inevitably they end up talking with someone else. Jesus even gives a command to us when we are the third party. Blessed are the peacemakers (Matt 5:9). Once we know about a conflict we can either calm it by urging the person to overlook it or work to see that they resolve it biblically. You might say something like, “Let’s go see your friend about this and see if we can work it out.”

Final Principles
8. Understand the difference between “good gossip” and bad gossip. Bad gossip seeks to tear down someone’s reputation by talking about them behind their back. This is not equivalent to “good gossip.” “Good gossip” is talking to a legitimate spiritual authority to seek resolution. It is not gossip to seek coaching from a spiritual leader. There are times we need to talk with spiritual authorities for help in the home.

9. Adjust your expectations and assumptions. Come ready to give to a sinful group of people – whether church or family. Agape love gives in spite of the attractiveness of the recipient. Jean Vanier’s quote on community applies to our families as well: “Too many people come into community to find something, to belong to a dynamic group, to find a life which approaches the ideal. If we come into community without knowing that the reason we come is to discover the mystery of forgiveness, we will soon be disappointed.”

10. Discern the level of the issue. Mark Dever in the Compelling Community differentiates between several levels of issues. Some are issues of truth. But even these do not all have the same weight. Clear and Important issues are historically seen as essential to the gospel and gospel preservation. On these unity is secondary. However on other issues they may be either not clear or not important. Al Mohlers article on Theological Triage is particularly helpful here. A similar principle applies to issues of practice. There are practices that are primary, secondary, and tertiary. Most church and family squabbles are around third level issues.

11. Resolve to submit to mistakes on unimportant matters. Many times we balk at submitting. But all of us- men and women, boys and girls, church leaders, church members, employees and employers- are called to submit to others at times. Submission by its definition is doing what we don’t want to do. It is consciously (and happily) yielding to a decision we disagree with. This came home to me clearly a few years ago. On a church road trip to an event, the leader of our caravan insisted that if we drove through NYC we would not hit traffic. I resisted, preferring the more prudent route around the city. Ultimately, I did yield. And we did hit traffic. But at that point, it did not matter to my spirit. I had submitted to our caravan leader. We can teach our children to learn appropriate submission which is by definition doing what we don’t want to do.

12. Don’t equate niceness for unity. Too many Christians say nice things to each other while conflicts go unresolved. Niceness is antithetical to Christian love. Paul confronted Peter. We are commanded to admonish each other.  We pursue holiness together and sometimes that means speaking to each other and listening to each other.

A Baker’s Dozen – One More
As leaders realize that our job is to calm conflicts that are unimportant and create conflicts that are important. Whether parents or church leaders, our sheep will squabble. We need to teach them to see issues correctly. Most conflicts in family and church are over unimportant issues. Our job as shepherds is to calm those. Help everyone symmpathize with the other person, seeing things from the other point of view.

On the other hand, as spiritual shepherds our job is to lead sheep to change. And none of us like change. So part of our job will be to lead our family and our church members to embrace change that God requires of his people.

Unity is important to our family and church. Unity is not lack of conflict but rather handling it biblically. Let’s pray that our families and churches will honor the Lord in this area.