Someone has said “If two people always agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” If this is true, then human relations will inevitably involve conflict. We have different needs/wants/goals; different priorities for these; and different ideas on how to satisfy them. The alternative to conflict is “peace at any price” or “group-think” which stifles creativity, demeans persons, and leads to less-than-optimal decisions. It would be most helpful to learn how to handle conflict constructively in relationships that matter in both church and home.
Conflict Is a Basic Biblical Theme
There are many individuals and groups in the Bible who are at odds with one another, and who deal with their differences variously: Cain and Abel; Hagar and Sara; Isaac and Esau; Leah and Rachel; Joseph and his Brothers; the Hebrews and the Egyptians; the Hebrews and the Canaanites; David and Goliath; Saul and David; Elijah and Jezebel; Jesus and the Religious Authorities; Jesus and the Politicians; Paul and the Apostles in Jerusalem; Paul and His Opponents; New-Self Paul vs. Old-Self Paul; Jewish Christianity vs. Gentile Christianity; John the Seer (the Visionary) vs. the Cult of the Roman Emperor; etc.
Conflict Is Often Misunderstood
As implied in the Intro, “Conflict Is”; “Conflict Is Natural”; “Conflict Is Inevitable”, Conflict Can Be Constructive or Destructive”–It All Depends. . . . For many Christians, conflict appears dangerous--especially if they were raised in a home where no open conflict was allowed, or a home where conflict was violent, chaotic, and where people blamed each other in self-righteous ways. Other Christian persons seem to have a vested interest in not recognizing, acknowledging, or assertively engaging in conflict. The approach seems to be: “If we don’t notice it, it will go away. If we shove it under the rug, it’s gone. We have to “be nice” and “get along”–no matter what!
Clarifying Our Approach
Conflict cannot be addressed helpfully until it’s recognized. There’s a big difference between acting “nice,” and being kind; pretending and being real, ignoring problems and “speaking the truth in love.” Therefore, if hostility/aggression is not the answer, and being submissive is not either, we’ll mostly have to learn to “split the middle” with a godly assertiveness that listens for deep-seated concerns and talks in ways that bless self and others.
Christian Conflict Management
As I see it, there are at least four goals of Christian Conflict Management: To honor God with the ways that we respond to conflict; to solve most problems and manage those that can’t be solved; to deepen and enhance the relationship with the conflicted person or group; and to learn to depend on the Spirit of Jesus in new ways–to trust that Spirit instead of giving in to the high levels of anxiety that non-addressed and non-resolved conflict generate.
Let’s Look at an Old Testament Passage (Hebrew Bible)
Jeremiah 6:13-15–This scene sounds very current. Greed and corruption are rampant. Unethical conduct raises no shame or embarrassment. “The wound is healed lightly”, i.e., not taken seriously, and the words, “Peace, peace,” are spoken and heard often, when there is no peace! (How much of our current conflict in church and home is processed in this way? Denial is not just a river in Egypt!)
And One From the New Testament (Christian Scripture)
Matthew 18:15-17–We need to notice the sin–take it seriously–by going to the person who has wronged us and by speaking to him/her, one-on-one, first. If that doesn’t work, we are asked to share the conflict with a few trusted others–in hopes that consultation/counseling/mediation will resolve the matter. If that doesn’t work, we file a formal grievance with the larger congregation (or its representatives), so as to resolve the problem there. Honesty, directness, and a willingness to submit the problem to mediation will solve most conflicts. (Has it ever occurred to you that there would be no sitcoms, no Shakespearean drama, and not nearly as many break-ups in important relationships if people were honest with each other from the very start of things?)
We Need to Work For Win-Win Outcomes
There are at least six Conflict Resolution Styles–all of which have their usefulness in certain situations: Yielding, Withdrawing, Attacking, Collaborating, Compromising, and Trading-Off.
Among these six, only three result in No-Lose or Win-Win outcomes–the last three. These are the preferred ways of problem-solving for people and groups who seek to “speak the truth in love” to each other. Learning specific skill-sets for these three is crucial to successful relating in both church and home
If These Are Unsuccessful . . .
If we find that none of these approaches work, we can always agree to disagree, without being disagreeable. Conflicts that have to do with taste and temperament and preference do not have to be divisive.
Sometimes (rarely, in my experience) we might have to initiate formal procedures to get things right. Hiring an outside Counselor, Mediator, or Lawyer might be necessary to come to a just conclusion of a difficult conflict.
Sometimes (even more rarely) avoidance and exclusion are necessary. We recognize that there are toxic people with whom a temporary “cut-off” may be necessary. Separating people from those who perpetrate emotional, physical, and sexual abuse–and from those who peddle other anti-social behavior may be the only way to preserve life, health, and wellness. This may involve child protective services, the legal system, or the criminal justice system.
A Mini Course in Conflict Resolution
Whenever I teach a course in Conflict Resolution, members of the class consider some practical skills that will make for better problem-solving. These include writing a “Time-Out” Contract, following helpful Rules of Engagement, and practicing the Speaker-Listener Technique–with its “I-Statements” and “Reflective-Listening Affirmations.” We also take a look at the complex reality of Anger, and learn how to turn this emotion into a positive energy for growth. We then conclude our study by choosing “Principled Negotiations” instead of “Positional Bargaining,”by learning how to do “Conflict Resolution in Church Organizations,” and by practicing non-violent communication with the help of a 2013 article in The Christian Century entitled, “Beyond Anger and Blame: How to Achieve Constructive Conflict.”
Whether you join us for such a course; whether you take advantage of a similar curriculum offered somewhere else; or whether you author your own self-directed study on resolving conflict successfully, you’ll find yourselves honoring God more often by helping people with greater confidence and effectiveness.
Werner K. Boos (Bose) PsyD, STM, MDiv
PCD Clinical Director 1998-2016