How to Diagnose and Resolve Christian Conflict
This article is dedicated to all the dear servants of Christ who have encountered difficult people in their churches and organizations. I have often thought that there might be some type of special recognition, among the rewards Jesus will bestow when his Kingdom comes in its fullness. Maybe a sort of ‘purple heart” will be given to his servants who have been wounded in the line of duty. Whether this is the case or not, Hebrews 4:13 promises that nothing will remain hidden. God knows all and will not fail to deal with every deed: good or evil.
The truth is that most interpersonal problems in churches result from misunderstanding and poor communication. Such problems can be solved by cutting other people some slack, taking the trouble to talk things out and affirming one another ‘s faith. However, there are those problems which are not caused by simple miscommunication. So, let me list a few basic categories of folks who typically cause confusion and hurt within the body of Christ. Before I do so, I must acknowledge that this list is a huge oversimplification of reality. However, its value lies in this very oversimplification. Understanding some basic things at work when people get hurt among groups of Christians can help Christ’s servants cope when they find themselves the target of attack or caught in the crossfire of controversy.
The Clueless Christian. Bless their hearts, there are those people in most churches who are not fully aware of the feelings of those around them. They may be unaware that their words and actions are having a negative effect on the people they associate with and hindering Christ’s work. Because of this, they often find themselves unintentionally offending the people they worship and fellowship with and quite surprised at the reaction they receive. People who have known these folks for awhile may often say things like, “Oh, that’s just the way he is.” or “She doesn’t mean any harm.” The best way to cope with such people is to develop a tough skin to their insensitive behavior.
At the same time you should consider your role in making them aware of how their behavior affects you and others. Proverbs 12:15 provides some guidance when it says, “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.” You will soon know which type of person you are dealing with if you fairly and lovingly approach the person with how their words and actions are perceived. It may be that you will of great help to them in realizing what is happening and altering their way of dealing with people. If offending behavior persists, even after your loving efforts to deal with it, the person may need to be given opportunities to serve in way which minimize the damage caused by their words and actions.
The Mean Christian. It is sad to say, but there are people in churches who seem to derive some sort of satisfaction from demeaning others. Motives are always very difficult to discern, but it may be that at least some of these disagreeable people are attempting to bolster their own egos by tearing down people around them. They may be perpetually insecure or angry. They may have a grudge against a particular individual or a certain type of person. These folks will eventually build a reputation of being hard to work with, grumpy and just plain ornery. They may even have a handful of people around them who are impressed with their ability to achieve goals and who don’t seem to mind the difficulties of associating with them.
The remark often made about such people (out of earshot of course) is that someone ought to stand up to them. The reason people hesitate to do so is that most church folks desire to be agreeable and are intimidated by the prospect of a confrontation which almost certainly will not be received graciously by the difficult person. Indeed, if you are of the strong opinion that such a person should be lovingly confronted, it may be your privilege to do so. If so, be sure to spend time in prayer and confession of your own sins as well as receiving impartial (and confidential) counsel before proceeding. Matthew 18:15-17 gives the procedure for handling this type of thing. Again, if the personal interaction does not work, leadership may need to become involved. This will depend, of course, upon the magnitude and scope of the damage being caused by the individual in question.
The Divisive Christian. Some folks aren’t so much mean or clueless as they are intent on creating controversy. They may actually be quite charming and agreeable while fomenting confusion and creating parties within the church. I will mention doctrinal and stylistic divisions in later paragraphs. What I am thinking of here is the person who through comment and innuendo, fans the flames of hurt and jealousy between people for the very purpose of creating factions. This person thrives on the manipulation of people in order to divide the otherwise harmonious body of Christ.
I am reminded of James 3:5-6, which says,” Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” In some ways the divisive person is far more dangerous than either the clueless or the obviously mean person. He or she can cause extensive damage to a church or organization through gossip and suspicion before anyone in leadership is aware that a situation exists. This type of person must be dealt with immediately by appropriate leaders .
The Agenda-Driven Christian. Unlike the person whose main motivation is the creating of factions, the agenda-driven person is bent on achieving a particular goal. In the process, he or she may gather followers, devise a plan and pursue a course of action in order to accomplish the desired objective. Goals can include issues related to church facilities, styles of music, controversy over current leadership and many other possible scenarios. Often this will mean that factions will arise based on their stance toward the agenda being pushed.
Agendas are not necessarily bad things. Sometimes these folks are of a visionary nature and feel strongly about a certain policy or direction for the church or organization. The problem comes when the normal, reasonable give-and-take within the body is replaced by a determination to achieve the goal without consideration for others. Philippians 2:3 puts it like this: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” The ideal would be to achieve some biblical and reasonable compromise which meets the needs of all concerned. Otherwise the situation quickly becomes divisive and counter-productive.
The Purist Christian. Ah, the righteous remnant! The truth is, I appreciate these dear people very much. Many of them are sincerely dedicated to the teachings of scripture and to the Kingdom of God. They love the Lord and want to please him in every area of their lives. I affirm their devotion and assume their motives are good. Yet, they can create tremendous havoc among God’s people through their uncompromising stand on what theologians call the second and third tiers of doctrine. Here I am not talking about the deity of Christ, the inspiration of scripture or the Trinity, etc. I am committed to what I believe are the clear teachings of scripture on these “first tier” doctrinal issues. I also have my views on second and third tier doctrines. My purist friends, however, don’t share the viewpoint that, while first tier doctrine is non-negotiable, the less central teachings of the Bible, and especially those for which biblical arguments can be made from several doctrinal positions, should not become issues for accusation and disrespect within the body (Romans 14:4-5).
What to do about the objections and commitments of the purists? I keep coming back to the word ‘reasonable’. One would hope that, even among those committed to having Christian truth taught correctly and in detail (as they understand it), there would still be some reasonability toward the legitimate views of others. Of course, some reasonable purists do exist. These folks are able to balance their personal convictions with the concern for the views of other sincere believers within the congregation.
In my experience, however, true purists come up short in the reasonability category. To them, holding fast to some interpretation of the timing of Jesus’ return or some point of view about how believers should relate to the wider culture is of equal importance with the doctrine of Christ’s deity. It seems to me that the best scriptural guide in situations like this is found in 1 Corinthians 10:28, which says in part, “…For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?”. It is ultimately unwise to allow someone whose conscience is weaker on a variety of issues to set the agenda for an entire body of believers and to insist that everyone else conform to their scruples. Giving into them for the sake of appeasement is, in effect, to hand them the agenda. It only encourages such folks to take a stand and force an issue every time something is said or done of which they don’t approve. In that situation, churches spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy dealing with matters of conscience, often with little remaining for constructive things.
The Annoying Christian. Then there are people who sort of rub you the wrong way. It is hard to say just why they do sometimes. It could be that your personality is opposite to theirs in many respects. They may come from a culturally different background from yours. You may think they talk too much, or that they are stuck up, or that they crave being the center of attention. As much as the behavior of certain people bothers you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a substantial problem. It may just be that you don’t hit it off together. As far as I can tell, there is no place in scripture which commands that believers like one another. There are plenty of places where we are commanded to love one another, but love and liking are not the same thing at all. Consider the words of Ephesians 4:2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” The bottom line is that you just put up with some folks in Christian love.
It is my hope that this brief overview will be helpful to those facing difficult people in their churches and Christian organizations. There is no easy or fool-proof methodology, but perhaps knowing what may be driving various types of people will be a help. Then trusting God to work through us as we follow the mandates of scripture will be a bit easier.
Europe from Rome to the Renaissance
The Middle Ages are also sometimes called the Medieval Period of Western Civilization from medium (middle) + aevum (age). The Medieval Period extended from the late 400s to the late 1300s CE (around 900 years). Medieval civilization was created by a combining of three primary elements: Judeo- Christian religion and values, Classical (Greco-Roman) civilization and barbarian culture. To a lesser extent, the neighboring cultures of the Byzantine east and Islam also made contributions to Medieval Civilization.
The Fall of Rome. Roman Civilization began to deteriorate from about 200 CE onward, though in the Fourth Century (300s) there were several successful turnarounds of this trend. In the late 400s the weakness of the Empire, caused by corruption and various other stresses, combined with barbarian pressure from the northeast, culminated in a catastrophic collapse of the Roman government. The eastern portion of the Empire continued until the 1450s as the Byzantine Empire with its own Greek-based civilization.
The Dark Age. The collapse of Roman civilization in western Europe was followed by a Dark Age of barbarian invasion, settlement and supremacy, lasting around 300 years. The new barbarian kingdoms included Visigoths (Spain), Ostrogoths (Italy), Lombards (Italy), Franks (France) and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain. These Germanic kingdoms all eventually converted to Catholic Christianity and formed an alliance with the Church. The main civilizing factors during this dark period were the Christian Church and the manorial system.
- The Church preserved learning and the arts, mainly in the cathedral cities and in monastic houses, which began to form after the year 500. It also supplied strong leadership and organization during the dark years of chaos and deterioration.
- Manorialism was built around the nucleus of wealthy and powerful estates, called manors, which usually contained a fortified villa and surrounding lands with the associated industries. Together, these elements formed a unit which was virtually self-contained.
The Holy Roman Empire. The Frankish kingdom which replaced much of the former Roman province of Gaul, was at first ruled by a line of kings founded by the warlord Clovis and known as the Merovingian Dynasty.
Several centuries later, the Frankish kingdom became the model for the formation of medieval Europe through the leadership of Charles the Great. Charles conquered the nearby lands of the Lombards and Saxons as well as aiding the Christian rulers of northern Spain in pushing the Muslims further south. He was an able administrator and kept his diverse kingdom together through tight organization and supervision. Charles fostered a renewal of the arts and learning, known as the Carolingian Renaissance. For his successes and service to the Church, Charles was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800.
Charles’ success in reuniting a considerable portion of Rome’s former territory caused some people to hope that Rome could be revived permanently. Charles’ Holy Roman Empire began to weaken, however, during the final years of his reign and, in the time of his grandsons, was divided into three portions. In the late 800s the Carolingian attempt at reviving Rome’s empire was much reduced and fragmented, so that by the Tenth Century, Europe was again in survival mode as Magyars, Turks and Vikings raided, settled and spread havoc.
In this new situation, leadership was not provided by kings, but by local nobles who ruled their domains semi-independently. The exception to this rule was Tenth Century Germany, where Otto I dominated his nobles and recreated a version of the Holy Roman Empire for a time, until the nobility was able to re-assert control over their own domains.
The system under which order was established and maintained is known as feudalism. Lords awarded portions of land, called fiefs, to noblemen in exchange for oaths of loyalty and service. These men were called vassals and ruled their fiefs and the serfs (peasants and common people) living on them. Noblemen often served as heavy cavalry, or knights, in the service of a lord or vassal. In time, knights developed a code of warfare and behavior, called chivalry (the code of the horseman), in which the ideal Christian gentleman lived in courtesy, honor and religious devotion.
The High Middle Ages. By the Eleventh Century, strong leadership and stability began to re-emerge in several places, notably France and England. For example, in 1066 Duke William of Normandy invaded Britain and conquered the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom, making himself king. He awarded fiefs to his Norman and French knights, largely replacing the Anglo-Saxon nobility. His strong central government made Norman England the most stable kingdom in Europe.
The time between 1000 and 1300 are often thought of as the High Middle Ages. During these years, kings and nobles provided enough stability so that people could think beyond simple survival. New land was reclaimed from swamps, forests (and in Holland, even from the sea). Agricultural production increased. Trade flourished. Trade guilds were formed to regulate commerce and ensure the rights of merchants and tradesmen. New products were introduced from the Middle East and beyond. Large annual trade fairs were established throughout Europe. Coinage began to replace barter as the means of exchange. Castle building made attacks on neighboring lands difficult and costly. Technology advanced, along with basic civic planning.
During this time, the Papacy and the Catholic Church rose to a height of power and prestige. Popes and clergy could enforce their will upon nobles through the threat of excommunication. From Rome, the Vatican administered a vast empire including most of Western Europe. Gothic architecture expressed worship through ambitious new designs and building techniques. Catholics from across Europe were able to unite around the common venture of the Crusades (1099 – 1297).
Scholasticism. Re-contact with the Byzantine East and the Muslim world during the Crusades, the writings of the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, were re-discovered, studied and debated. Scholars were attracted to the life of learning, centered around major cathedrals. This advance in scholarship developed into scholasticism, which attempted to understand and explore all subject areas under the guidance of theology. Jewish scholasticism (Maimonides) and Muslim scholasticism (Averroes) interacted and argued with Catholic scholastics, like Thomas Aquinas, over the meaning and application of Aristotelian thought to contemporary issues. Christian scholastics debated whether Aristotle and other Greek thinkers could be helpful (or even compatible) with Christian thought and teachings. Major universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Paris were founded through the work of the scholastics.
During the High Middle Ages, feudalism began to lose its important function as the basis for society. Cities were re-invigorated and began to expand. Peasants began to leave the land, moving to cities to find a new life. Strong kings and nobles could afford to raise standing armies through tax revenues. This allowed kings to be less dependent upon vassals for military support, enabling them to gain greater control over their domains.
The Late Middle Ages. The Fourteenth Century saw several setbacks to the progress of the High Middle Ages. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337-1453) drained both countries of resources. The ravages of the Bubonic Plague (1347 – 1350) killed between a quarter and a third of Europe’s population. These things, along with series of serious natural disasters, caused the population of Europe to decrease and social progress to slow down drastically.
In this period, the power of the nobility was reduced as kings imposed their will and made alliances with the merchants of the growing middle class. These strong central governments gave rise to the nations of modern Europe. At the same time, the power and prestige of the Papacy was damaged by popular reaction to the set-backs of the later crusades and by the refusal of kings to be intimidated by Vatican threats of excommunication. Movements like the one led by Francis of Assisi to criticize the wealth of the Catholic Church, began a rethinking of Christian practice and church allegiance. The revival of the classical viewpoint known as humanism began to take hold in the universities and other places as theological views were questioned and debated. This would give rise to the humanistic Renaissance beginning around 1400 in Italy.
The Middle Ages came to a close through the innovations of Renaissance, the discovery and exploration of the Americas and the drastic rethinking of Christianity in the Protestant Reformation. By the mid 1400s, with the Renaissance in full bloom, the Middle Ages would effectively come to an end.
The last book of the Bible was written 1,900 years ago. In that time, empires have risen and fallen: Rome is gone; Charlemagne’s empire has vanished; mighty Britannia has given her children their freedom. Major wars have been fought. New philosophies have come into vogue and have declined. Electronic technology has improved and become common place. In light of all this, the Bible may seem like a quaint but archaic book, good only for gathering dust on the shelf or for analyzing in a classroom.
What could the Bible possibly have to say that would be relevant to us and our particular needs in the Twenty-first Century? Surprisingly, it has a lot to say! This is partly because fundamental human needs haven’t changed at all in 2,000 years and partly because God inspired scripture to speak to people in every age. So, the Bible we have today continues to answer the basic questions people are asking. You can look up the scripture references yourself and see what you think. For example:
- Is there a God, and if so, what is He like? (See Psalm 14:1, Romans 1:19-20, John 3:16, etc).
- How did the universe come into being? (See Hebrews 11:3, Genesis chapters 1 and 2, etc.)
- Why do humans have a strong tendency to hurt others, break widely accepted rules and live for themselves? Is there some basic flaw in us? (See Genesis chapter 3, Romans 1: 18ff, 3:9-18, etc.)
- Is there some way to correct this flaw and have acceptance with God? (See John 14:6, Romans 3:22-23, Galatians 5:24).
- Is there any basis for real brotherhood among people? (See Genesis 1:27-28, 10:32, Romans 10:12, etc.)
- Does life have any meaning or purpose? (See John 10:10, John 17:3).
- Is there life after death? (See Revelation 20:11-15, Luke 23:40-43, John 14:2, Revelation 7:9).
These questions and many others are answered in the book of books, known as the Bible. I challenge you to search for its answers yourself. You might just be delighted by what you find!
An Appeal to Those Who Prize Tolerance
It has occurred to me as a Christian that, in some ways, secular people don’t really “get” us. When I refer to “secular” people I include both those who have no use for religion at all as well as those who may have private religious beliefs, but who feel that such beliefs have no place in the public forum. To the secular mindset, God and religion are often seen as irrelevant to the routines of everyday life and inappropriate for public discourse. With such an outlook, it is no surprise that these folks don’t understand those of us whose lives are focused on God and his will as we understand these things.
I have often heard people say words to this effect: “You Christians are totally free to believe and practice your faith as you please, just keep it to yourselves.” They are uncomfortable when followers of Jesus speak out on social issues or apply their faith in the arena of politics. They bristle at the least hint that religion as practiced and acted on by others, might infringe on their lives in the slightest way. Their attitude toward Christians who bring their faith with them into the public sphere ranges from puzzlement to outrage.
Secular people may be confused when Christians make an issue out of something which seems to them to have already been decided through some legal ruling or political maneuvering in the past. They are puzzled when we don’t just “lighten up” and go with the flow of our times. They cannot visualize why anyone would care about ideas and values which come from an ancient book, representing the teachings of a religion which they consider to be fit only as an item in a museum or a topic for historical discussion.
When these religious ideas become the motivation for actions which actually affect business decisions, political choices or personal relationships, the confusion can turn to anger on the part of secularists. The question is often asked, “Why should your religious views affect the rest of us?”. On the surface this sounds like a valid concern. After all, why should religious people be allowed to make choices which affect others? A little further thinking will show the fallacy of this objection. The public sphere of life is, by definition, the very place where decisions are made by all sorts of people, impacting all sorts of other people.
In the public arena, a decision might be made to expand or close down a business. As a consequence, jobs are created or lost and people’s lives are affected. Laws can be made by elected officials who may clearly have a particular agenda in mind affecting religious people and secular people alike. Such laws will inevitably determine whether people are free to make one choice or another. The opportunity for any group of people to exert influence over others is what makes a pluralistic society what it is. It is part of the give-and-take which, when accompanied by a sense of fairness and mutual respect, ensures that all groups may live out their beliefs with a certain reasonable measure of freedom.
It is disappointing and counter-productive when a lack of understanding toward religious points of view is followed by demands that a certain segment of the citizenry be excluded from the debate and blocked from any opportunities to affect society. It is even worse when it degenerates into mere name-calling. In my own involvements where my religious views have been expressed in public, I have occasionally been called “bigot”, “dinosaur”, “naïve”, “narrow-minded” (and a few worse things) by offended secularists. I understand that sometimes it has been Christians who have hurled the insults. That is regrettable. Our job is to confidently and graciously speak the truth as we see it, not insult people out of fear and hatred. Insulting people only reveals the smallness of the one making the comments.
But this is also true for the secularist who may claim to have a more enlightened point of view just as much as for the Christian who is supposedly stuck in the confines of an outmoded superstition. Surely an angry secularist who accuses Christian believers of all sorts of preposterous motives and attitudes, shows that they are bigoted, narrow-minded and backward as well, since they disdain us without bothering to really understand us. Given the current social climate, it is a wonder that people who slur followers of Jesus so frequently are not held legally accountable. No other racial or religious group in the country would stand for such slander.
So what is it that really motivates Christians? It is simply our faith in Jesus and our commitment to the Bible as God’s revelation. We believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God himself. We believe the New Testament when it says that the purpose for God taking on humanity was to suffer on the behalf of those who have offended him. We believe that the gospels are recording true happenings when they assert Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead. We look forward to the time when he will return to judge and rule the earth. Because of these things, we owe him our very beings. Life now is lived differently because of him. Jesus for us and in us, means new eyes to see reality and new power to live as we may have always wished to. It means new values, new attitudes, new loyalties and new relationships.
It is very simply, Jesus. Not conservative politics; not the traditional values of our society; not religious experiences, spiritual encounters or strong feelings. It is just Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son, who has come into the world to save us and make us new. It is his almost unbelievable love which compels us to live differently and to invite others to a new and better life. It is Jesus we live to honor and whose pleasure we look for when the end of all things comes. Perhaps these insights into the motivation behind the bulk of those who call themselves Christians will enlighten those who put such emphasis on enlightenment, empathy and tolerance.
Have you ever had the experience of going through a very difficult time in your life and after struggling through that period you began to wonder whether God was really there at all? Maybe you may have had very few doubts about your faith before this time of uncertainty. Although your relationship to God has been secure in your mind for years, during this trial, you have begun to wonder, “Is God really there? Am I still OK with Him? Have I somehow gotten off-track in my Christian life?” If that is or recently has been your experience, then you can take some comfort in the fact that you are in good company. Practically every Christian goes through something of this kind at one time or another. But how should you deal with these feelings? Allow me suggest a couple of possibilities:
First, this may be a good opportunity to do some serious spiritual self-evaluation. It is possible that there really may be something amiss in your faith. For example, sin which has not been repented of always blocks fellowship with God, and should be taken care of immediately. Prayerful examination of your life in light of scripture will reveal whether this is the case.
It could also be that the problem is more far-reaching. Perhaps you have never really turned from a self-oriented life and trusted completely in Jesus Christ. In that case, in order to be right with God there must first be that basic step of faith in Christ. This is neither as mysterious nor as complicated as you might think. All God is asking is that you admit your need for him (“Lord, I am a sinner who has lost my way.”) and put your fundamental trust in him to save you from yourself and the judgment for your wrongdoings. Then you make up your mind to allow him to teach you through the Bible how to live for him in this new life you have chosen.
Another possibility is that you may not be out of fellowship with God at all. You may be quite sure of your faith in Christ and there may be no known sin to turn away from. What then? The problem most likely is in your feelings. Feelings sometimes are not related to reality. For example, in a marriage affectionate feelings may come and go with surprising regularity. However, this usually has little to do with the actual love given by both partners, based on their commitment to one another. As in a marriage, a relationship with God is based on a commitment, rather than on feelings which can change due to temporary circumstances.
The fact is that dark times of doubt and despair may come upon us for a variety of reasons, some of which may be beyond our control. They can be an annoyance or even a trial in the lives of very strong believers. When these periods occur, we need to remember the words of David in Psalm 23 when he says, “…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because you are with me…”. No matter what you may be facing or how you are feeling at the moment, you can trust that God is actually walking with you through these things. So, don’t rely on your feelings for your sense of what is real or true. Instead, trust the Lord and his sure promises to those who through belong to him through faith.