Tony is an author, professor, and pastor- you name it, he’s probably done it! He’s the lead pastor of Imago Dei Church in North Carolina, Director of Theological Training with Acts 29, and the author of several books and commentaries, including an upcoming commentary on the book of Romans. Today on the Sermonary podcast, however, we’re going to be talking about his latest book, Christ-Centered Conflict Resolution: a Guide for Turbulent Times.
Josh: Christ-Centered Conflict Resolution is such a great resource for pastors and church leaders. Can you tell me why you decided to write this book, and what the feedback has been so far?
Tony: I was actually writing another book when the publisher called me and said, “Hey, would you consider writing a book on conflict resolution?” They wanted someone who was a pastor and parent to write it, because both those roles mean you deal with a lot of different kinds of conflict. It to be short and accessible, and they wanted it drafted in a month. So basically, they asked me because they knew I had the capacity to get it done quickly. We were right in the middle of COVID, so I had more time than normal. I said yes. Then, I started by studying Ken Sande’s classic (and much larger) book, The Peacemaker, and identifying some of the key ideas out of that book. After that, I tried to pull out key Biblical texts that speak about conflict and apply them, practically.
One of our pastors here on staff says, “When you’re in conflict, you don’t want a big book, and you don’t want a lot of steps.” So I wrote a book that you could read in a couple of hours. You can also re-read it quickly and work through the passages if you’re in a conflict or mediating a conflict with someone else.
Josh: So who were you thinking of as you were writing this book? Is it primarily for families?
Tony: Originally, the focus was on families, because COVID restrictions put people in closer proximity. They were spending more time together and dealing with a lot of frustration. At the time, I had nine people under my roof and two dogs- so when they said, “Can you write a book on conflict?” I thought, “I NEED a book on conflict!”
What we didn’t anticipate was the racial tensions that also came during 2020. The book speaks to those, as well, because it’s based on God’s timeless Word and the gospel. Applying the truth of Scripture to our relationships is always timely.
Josh: For sure. Right now, we’re having new kinds of arguments and conversations within the church. So, as you were writing this book, what were some of the things that you learned about handling conflict?
Tony: I think what I learned, or what was made more significant to me while studying for and writing this book, was just how much of the Bible and the New Testament focuses on relationships. I think we can miss that. We can be a very doctrine-centered people as evangelicals, without seeing really the primacy of healthy relationships, or just how much the Bible values this. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says the peacemakers will be called the “Sons of God.” Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the focus on maintaining harmony. Because the goal is not the absence of strife and just getting along or coexisting, but rather, it’s harmony. It’s being unified, and that’s gonna take work. That’s gonna take a lot of awkward conversations, forgiveness, and overlooking minor grievances.
We’re an easily-offended culture, and in the book I give some categories for how to deal with conflict. One of them is the “minor category.” If something is a minor offense, then Scripture teaches me to overlook it. So that would be one big takeaway. It’s not anything new, it’s just how much the New Testament talks about healthy relationships and peacemaking.
Secondarily, I was also reminded of how the Biblical storyline lines up with this idea of peace and harmony and emphasizes its importance. If you go to Genesis 3 with the fall, you see that one of the consequences of the fall is that there will be strife within the marriage. The very next chapter, in Genesis 4, we read about one brother killing another brother. These are massive illustrations for how conflict is the result of sin. But in the middle of that chapter 3 is also the promise of redemption, of a Savior who will crush the head of the serpent. In the Old Testament, the people of God are waiting for the Messiah who will do that, who is called the Prince of Peace. And He comes, and he is reconciling alienated people from God, to God (Colossians 3), and to one another (Ephesians 2). And then Paul, of course, concludes Romans by saying, “The God of Peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”
Right now, we have an “already-not-yet” reality, where we experience peace, but we’re also waiting for total Shalom in a new heaven and a new earth. In many ways, conflict is pointing us to a new creation. It’s pointing us to the fact that one day, we won’t need to lock our doors. We won’t police, and there won’t be blood in the streets. All of that is made possible through Christ. And so, what I need to do in my present conflict is to bring my future into the present, as it were, to live as a kingdom citizen under the King’s rule and according to His values. Just understanding conflict within the grand narrative of Scripture is very important to handling it well.
Josh: How would you counsel a pastor who’s in the midst of conflict- and maybe it is over some of these minor things- to work through that conflict in the church?
Tony: There are several angles I think you could take with this. One would be, just preaching through, “What are healthy relationships?” For me, a lot of this has been just reminding our people consistently that, look, we’re not going to divide over service times or masks. We have to overlook these things. This is part of Christianity- bearing with one another. That means there will be things you don’t like. It also means understanding that this is just a little blip on the historical timeline. We’ll get through this.
Overall, I think churches need to talk about relationships, especially in today’s society with social media and all the other things that distract and divide us. I told our congregation that if the apostle John showed up today, he might actually preach a series on loving one another. First John is laced with that message of loving one another. We don’t think that we need to be taught that again, but we do.
Then, I think we need to go beyond the sermon and work it out in small group settings. You might have to use books to facilitate these things. A lot of people simply haven’t been taught the New Testament way of dealing with conflict. We usually act in the way that we’ve been taught, following the models we grew up with. We don’t really have good models for how to have a conversation with someone who’s offended you, or with someone who’s been offended by you. So there needs to be some space where you can also have dialogue in a discipleship setting.
Finally, for pastors, they need friends. They need counselors. And, they need people who can speak truth into their life and not see conflict always as a negative. Sometimes, conflict is an opportunity for growth and to put the gospel and forgiveness on display. You can’t really do longsuffering if you’re not currently suffering. I actually see pastoring a lot like parenting- it’s sticking it out over the long haul that makes an incredible difference. We have to trust that there is a cumulative effect to long-term sticking with things and being faithful. To do that, we have to learn to bear with one another and endure these hard seasons and have tough conversations. Also, based on the storyline of Scripture, we should expect conflict- it’s a natural part of life in our fallen world.
Josh: That’s so true. We’re really good at being keyboard warriors, but we still don’t know how to handle conflict in everyday life. We tend to write people off if they don’t agree with us, and pretend like everything’s fine when we see them in person.
Tony: Yeah, I think about in Romans where it says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Right now, there is a lot of volleyball back and forth, returning evil for evil. Christians are called to something much greater. We’re called to bless those who are different from us, and to forgive those who may have offended us. We have to work that out in our own hearts, which is where much of this book focuses. We’re very good at pointing out the flaws and failings of others without doing a good bit of self-examination.
However, when we self-examine, it shouldn’t lead us to despair, it should lead us to the cross. We should see that our righteousness is in Christ, and we don’t have to be destroyed over what someone says or thinks. I can live out of that identity that I have in Christ. That’s really key, along with living by the fruit of the Spirit, who produces fruit in us to live out gentleness, and self-control, and all of the glorious characteristics of Jesus. So, at the end of the day, the work of conflict resolution is really heart work.
Christ-Centered Conflict Resolution: a Guide for Turbulent Times is a great resource for you personally, for your church board, or for small groups. You can get a copy through Lifeway publishers, or on Amazon if you prefer a Kindle download. If you’d like to connect with Tony, here’s where to find him online:
Grimke Seminary– a local church-based seminary with twice-yearly intensives in Richmond, Virginia, based on the models of pastors training pastors. In two years, you can graduate with a Master of Theological studies for only 10,000 for the entire degree.