Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dealing with Conflict

Just hours away from the arrival of our small group members, I sat reading passages of 1 John over and over again. This book, riddled with messages of love and fellowship, was not clicking with my reality from the week. Having dealt with some very difficult professional and personal relationships just days before, I did not feel much like putting together a lesson on loving others.

As my friends arrived and we finished dinner, I reluctantly sat down to begin our study on 1 John. After taking turns reading through the first chapter, I began with a confession: I don't always think loving others is as easy as 1 John makes it sound.

From this confession launched a fantastic conversation on what it means to be a Christian in the midst of conflict at work, at home and in the church. As I have continued to deal with my own conflicts and also been invited to join Facebook groups and hashtag campaigns for other conflicts, I have found our conversation from small group particularly relevant.

First, the Bible

Matthew is a great starting place for how to handle conflict. Matthew 5:23-24 points to the importance of reconciliation between two parties in distress. Matthew 18:15-17 makes it explicitly clear that the first step for resolving a conflict is for the one who was hurt to go speak one-on-one with the one who did the hurting. If that doesn't work, then the one who was hurt should take 2-3 along with and have another private conversation on the matter. Only then should the matter be taken to the church body as a whole and the church should address the one in the wrong together.

The church in Corinth had a lot of conflict! Paul calls these Christians mere infants in 1 Corinthian 3 because of their quarreling. In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul explains that if there is a dispute (presumably one that cannot be settled between the two parties themselves) then specific judges in the church should be appointed to settle the case. 

I don't think I have to show evidence from other texts here how important loving your brother and sister in Christ are, or how important it is that we speak to each other in love by the grace of God. Those things we know.

Second, the Psychology

Allison, my wife, shared some reflections during our small group from a study she recently learned about. The study suggests that when people speak negatively about life or another person and receive a response of affirmation from those they're talking to, it feels good. It becomes this chemical loop where we complain because we want affirmation about our complaints. Our brain literally craves this feeling, propelling us to continue with negative speak.

There is the desire that we (humans) possess to belong or fit in. When someone is speaking negatively about an issue or individual and we have had similar experiences, the natural thing to do is to join into the conversation and find solidarity in our shared negative experiences. While this might create a bond between these individuals, it does nothing to solve the problems discussed. Additionally, the bond is formed over a negative issue and resolving such an issue may threaten the solidarity.

Finally, I have found it incredibly true that most people do not like to confront a conflict head on. Rather than going to the person who who has hurt you or that you have a problem with, it is much easier for you to send an e-mail, avoid the person all together, pretend that nothing's wrong, or talk about the person behind his back. It is incredibly difficult (and seemingly extremely rare) to find people who will immediately set up a one-on-one conversation with the individual and hash out the problem. It's a lot "easier" to try to let time mend the wound.

Third, the Application

There's a conflict in this blog. The way of love is to speak to a person one-on-one and to seek reconciliation in the midst of conflict. The conflict resolution plan we usually experience, though, is one of avoidance, public conversations on the issue and taking sides. These two responses cannot occupy the same space of a Christian response to conflict.

In the Church, this less loving way is often disguised. It might look like charitable public discourse, sharing the facts and calling brother and sisters to action on behalf of the hurt party. These things look, sound and feel like justice. In some ways they are. In other ways, they aren't the most loving way to deal with conflict.

Christians should seek out reconciliation in the midst of broken relationship. When a conflict occurs (assuming personal safety is not at stake), the appropriate response is to encourage the two parties to prayerfully talk through the issue and reconcile. It will take time. It will take prayer. It will not be easy. This is the way that we are called to. If one party is at fault, Matthew outlines a great response for that situation that can be carried out quietly and effectively. If the dispute cannot be settled, leaders in the Church can be called upon to look at the dispute and make a judgement.

Charitable discourses at the water cooler, in email and through social media really don't move the two parties towards reconciliation. Often, they cause the church to take sides, perpetuate the negativity and demand solutions without all the facts. Likes, Retweets and Comments can become affirmation for conversations that do not restore fellowship.

Some Caveats

Even with this way to deal with conflict, there are two issues I want to call attention to:

First, just because parties are able to have grace-full conversations and reconcile does not mean that there are not consequences in the conflict. This is especially true when disputes aren't settled between the original two involved. Some of these consequences may be formal, such as those consequences related to employment or service. Others might less formal, such as damaged relationships or reputation. While these consequences will have to be worked through, the parties can still be a peace with one another. Sins and wrongdoing can be forgiven.

Second, conflicts do sometimes point out issues that need to be discussed. What is important with this case is that the broader issues (theology, processes, administrative structures, etc.) be the matter of conversation and not the specific conflict itself. 


One of my friends in my small group shared a story from his childhood. He explained that his sister often hit him and he would hit her back and look to his dad to get after his sister. His dad explained to him that he doesn't think he should discipline the sister because my friend already did by hitting her. 

In both Old and New Testaments, God says that it is his to avenge and not ours. 

I often think that when we cry out for some type of formal reaction against someone, particularly when we are neither in the conflict nor in the place of authority to make such decisions, it is us saying that we have the right action for vindication for the hurt party. It is us hitting our sister back. The only problem is, when we look to God to make things right, He explains that we already responded and took away the necessity of His action.

Wrap Up

Two of the most important ideas I learned from my small group are that healing & forgiveness take time and that the Church should be the most supportive group of people for two people trying to work things out. 

"So from now on we regard no one form a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself in Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 

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