(Note: This article was posted on the Coram Deo blog.)
About six months ago, I was asked to reflect on a difficult situation at work. Although I was not personally involved, I gave it some thought. The individual asking had a pretty stressful few months as he or she had a sharp dispute with a coworker. They both apologized for the way it was handled at the time, but ever since, it has been difficult to move on. It is still awkward to be around each other as the issue was never truly resolved. He or she was wondering how to approach this situation in a such a way that it would bring glory to God and would be in line with the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
The challenge to maintain harmony in the workplace is one of the most difficult for all of us to deal with successfully. Business problems cannot be totally separated from personal problems. They say, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” However, it always seems to become personal, doesn’t it?
Without knowing any specifics about this conflict, I believe I can provide some biblical principles that may help this individual. Let me begin by summarizing several workplace conflicts in the Bible and attempt to offer a gospel-centered and practical approach which may give some things to consider.
Biblical examples of disagreements with colleagues
It is not long before we see the first work conflict described in Scripture. In Gen. 4:1-5, we read about Cain and Abel. In this newly formed agrarian society, these young men worked together to help their parents. However, there was jealousy among brothers, which did not end up so well for one of them.
The next one we read about is between Abraham and Lot (Gen. 13:5-11). The Lord had begun to give both men success, but they outgrew their workspace. They came to the conclusion that their large operations could not remain together, so they amicably decided to go their separate ways.
In the NT, we find a workplace conflict between Paul and Peter, regarding circumcision for Gentile Christians (Acts 15:1-20). Paul summarized a key meeting with Peter in Gal. 2:1-10. However, we see in Gal. 2:11-14 that it took a direct personal confrontation with Peter to resolve the disagreement.
Later, we see a conflict between church members, Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2), which may have driven Paul’s call for unity in the church (Phil. 1:27). Paul exhorted them to imitate Christ’s humility, to consider others more important than themselves, and to look out for others’ interests (Phil. 2:3-4).
What can we apply here?
Obviously, the way that Cain and Abel handled their dispute is not the way I would recommend. Let me revisit the other three examples listed above to see if any of them might shed some light here.
Abram and Lot’s going their separate ways could be an option for you and your colleague, depending on how big your organization is. You might consider a transfer if you are getting in each other’s way too frequently. If you are salesmen in the same department, for example, this might be amenable.
The method provided by Paul in his disagreement with Peter is also worthy of consideration. Would a one-on-one meeting with the two of you to discuss the issue in more depth bring lasting resolution?
With regards to the situation I listed above with two ladies in the church, we do not know the nature of their disagreement. We do not know how or if it was resolved. What we know is that it seemed to affect the entire church. Your conflict may also have an impact on others within your organization.
There is much wise guidance in the books of Proverbs, Ephesians, and Colossians, for both employers and employees and their relationship to one another. However, there is not much directed specifically at relationships between employees. Perhaps we can find some biblical guidance elsewhere that could be helpful in your particular situation with your colleague. Let me suggest three gospel-centered approaches that may help you move through this difficult time: reconciliation, humility, and love.
One of the primary messages of the gospel of Jesus Christ is reconciliation. Jesus calls people to repent and be reconciled to God. Christians are to be messengers of reconciliation as we present the gospel (see 2 Cor. 5:17-20). Another facet of God’s work of reconciliation is to bring diverse groups into unity, such as Jews and Gentiles, male and female, all races, and all nations. If this is Jesus’ overarching desired end state for the church, perhaps we can bring those same efforts elsewhere.
We are not only called to pursue reconciliation between unbelievers and God and between members of the Body of Christ, but we are also called to reconcile with those whom we have sinned against.
Jesus taught that if we were in the wrong, we should go and make things right with the one that we offended (Matt. 5:23-24). Jesus also taught that if we were the one who was wronged, we should reconcile with the one who offended us (Matt. 18:15). If we can pursue efforts in the power of the Holy Spirit to keep open lines of communication with coworkers among whom we disagree, we open the door to let God work in them, either through us or in spite of us, to see the love of Jesus Christ.
In addition to wanting to walk past the awkwardness into a greater understanding and openness to work in harmony, the next most important key to your success will be to pursue a humble attitude.
In 1 Cor. 12:14-20, Paul reinforces this humble Christ-like attitude. Just like the human body, each member of the Body of Christ has a valuable function. All members are essential. None are to be looked down upon. All need to stay connected to the head and to each other to function properly. In your case, both of you are members of the same team. You must figure out a way to stay connected.
As was mentioned above, regarding biblical examples of workplace conflict, we have a great passage about humility. In the context of Christ’s example of servanthood, we are to consider others more important than ourselves; we need to look out for their interests as well as our own (Phil. 2:3-4). This exhortation goes beyond the church walls. When we do this at work, people will see Jesus in us.
As you pursue reconciliation with your colleague with whom you disagree along with a spirit of humility, perhaps there are a few more things to consider doing that may bring peace at the office. In Rom. 12:9-21, Paul gives us a few essential things that are counterintuitive, but transformational:
- “Honor one another above yourselves” (v. 10)
- “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (v. 14)
- “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (v. 17)
- “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone’ (v. 18)
- “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21)
Treating your colleague in the radical ways described above will make a difference. But Paul is also realistic. He acknowledges that sometimes we cannot be at peace with everyone. It takes two to make a relationship. If one is cooperative and the other is not, efforts to solve problems may not succeed.
I am trusting that some of what I shared will be helpful to you in your endeavors to work with your colleague and not against him or her. I trust that others in similar situations would benefit as well. I was reminded myself to be more proactive in pursuing reconciliation at my own workplace. There are a number of things I could work on that would glorify God as I put these principles into practice.
As you focus on reconciliation, an attitude of humility, and a commitment to demonstrate Christian love through honor, I encourage you to pray for your colleague, that he or she would see Christ in your attitudes and actions, and that others would take notice of how the God of peace is present at work. As you press on through these waters, I also strongly encourage you to remember that God is present with you at work. He is more involved than you realize, working with, in, and through you for His glory.
About the author:
Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 41 years, father of three, grandfather of five, and author of the book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. Russ received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth minister. He served 20 years on active duty. Russ works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Since 2015, he has written over 180 articles on faith and work topics. One hundred of these articles have been published on several Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, The Gospel Coalition, and Christian Grandfather Magazine. (See list of published articles on Linktree.)