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.