This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
Ask Mission Central: Question Seven
“What should healthy conflict resolution look like from a biblical perspective? And why are Christians so bad at it sometimes?”
Glendale Heights, IL
We Christians bring our own uniquely creative dysfunctions to the world of disagreement and conflict, don’t we? Like with bad movies, the best way to make bad conflict even worse is to add religion to the mix. That being said, Christians are vulnerable to the same pitfalls as everyone else when it comes to conflict. Consider these three:
Fear of Conflict
Imagining how the other person will respond can be worse than actually finding out. We may be afraid of someone else expressing strong emotions, whether of anger or disappointment. Conflict requires vulnerability; the less we trust someone, the less likely we’ll be willing to speak our mind with them.
When other people’s behavior and ideas bother us, we end up responding in some way even if it’s not by engaging in conflict. We may be used to gossiping, stewing, or mentally rehearsing the perfect comeback (which we’ll never say out loud). When we’re used to “dealing with” the problem in these ways, we may feel the harder road of confronting the other person is unnecessary.
Going on the Attack
On the other side of the spectrum from withdrawing due to fear is going on the attack. Attacking someone else, verbally or even physically, provides a false sense of superiority and power. If we’ve habituated an unhealthy conflict response, we’ll have to unlearn it in order to pursue conflict in a different way.
Besides these prosaic patterns of avoiding conflict or dealing with it poorly, I can think of at least three modes of conflict resolution that are bad in a distinctively Christian way.
We Spiritualize Conflict
Rather than showing genuine humility by opening ourselves to others’ feedback and offering our own with a grain of salt, we may be tempted to play “the God card” to get our way. This problem has been around since the beginning of the Christian movement: When the apostle Paul confronted the divisiveness of the first-century Corinthian church, he not only called out the partisans who said “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” but also those who spiritualized their view, pretending they were above it all by saying “I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12 NIV).
We confuse form (being nice) with substance (loving each other).
In any religious community, there are certain social boundary lines that represent deeper moral and spiritual matters. People don’t cuss at church. It’s not nice to cuss. But it’s easy to confuse the social symbol with what really matters. Although cussing is rightly a matter of concern because of how often it goes hand in hand with contempt, cussing as such is not a profound sin. God is much happier when people cuss but don’t gossip than when people gossip but don’t cuss. Along the same lines, it might not seem nice to tell someone the truth about a problematic behavior. But “speaking the truth in love” requires us to say “not nice” things to one another (Ephesians 4:15).
Love makes conflict costly.
Some people are unafraid of conflict because they just don’t care about other people’s feelings. If you’re a jerk, conflict is emotionally easy. If you genuinely love other people, not so much. Initiating conflict because we love someone doesn’t insulate us from the pain we may feel in response to their pain. In this sense, unease with conflict can be a fruit of Christian affection and empathy. Even so, if we stop there and refuse to engage conflict when needed, we’ve just traded being jerks for being cowards.
Jesus Teaches Conflict
It’s small wonder that Christians haven’t developed a stellar reputation for practicing conflict well. But following Jesus requires us to step into conflict intentionally and skillfully. Jesus particularly speaks to confrontation, which is just one kind of conflict, but an essential one. Jesus’ guidance on confrontation is simple: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15 NIV). Go to the person. Be direct. Keep it private. What worlds of hurt could be avoided if just this one commandment were obeyed consistently!
Although Jesus is addressing how to respond when one disciple sins against another, his wisdom proves helpful in other scenarios, too. The Theology of Work Bible Commentary notes that Jesus’ “method is a remarkable precursor to what is now recognized as best practice in the workplace.” Even when someone’s behavior is not sinful, just at odds with what’s needed for a given endeavor, the best way to help them improve is to address the behavior directly. Consider the popularity of Kim Scott’s book (and now organization) Radical Candor, which offers a simple framework premised on the idea that leaders need to give their teams specific, clear feedback couched in an attitude of care. As in many other cases, social science and leadership theory bear out the truths revealed in Scripture.
Setting Boundaries in Community
Confronting Sin in Christian Community
Jesus goes on to say that bringing others into the conversation may be needed if someone doesn’t listen the first time around. If someone shows hard-hearted persistence in sin even when the community works to win them over, a line needs to be drawn; Jesus says to “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17 NIV).
We need to hear that directive with Jesus’ treatment of pagans and tax collectors in mind. He welcomed them into his Father’s kingdom, saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12 NIV). Jesus is not saying that we should condemn or shame those whose behavior is destructive and unyielding to appropriate confrontation. He is saying that we need to recognize sin for the sickness that it is. If someone refuses treatment, certain boundaries are needed for the sake of the whole community’s well-being.
The Apostle Paul puts it like this: “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” (1 Corinthians 5:6 NIV). If we refuse to confront sin, we will see it propagate.
Confronting Problematic Behavior in Any Community
Again, Jesus’ wisdom can apply even beyond the context of confronting sin. Research has validated the idea that any problematic behavior, whether sinful or not, will propagate through a community if it goes unchecked. In any community where we function as a leader, we need to develop a habit of checking bad behavior. That check can and should include a chance for someone to improve while retaining their current place and position in the community, except in the case of certain serious offenses like abuse, embezzlement, or (for someone in spiritual leadership) a profound moral failure.
But if improvement is too slow in coming, we need to call a spade a spade and ask someone to step down. What this looks like will vary based on context. In a church, it means that there’s a process for asking someone to leave a leadership position. On a work team, it means that there’s a process for firing someone, whether for character or performance reasons. In more informal interpersonal settings, it means standing up for yourself or for others: “We can’t keep hanging out if you keep talking to me like that.”
Obviously, asking someone to leave any kind of team is an emotionally fraught and difficult thing to do. There are other steps that can and should be taken first. The good news is that, the more we foster a culture of direct, healthy feedback on our team about small matters, the less likely things are to boil over to a point where more drastic measures are needed.
Cultures and Personalities in Conflict
While we work to foster conflict in the right ways, we also need to remember that different cultures and different personalities perceive and engage in conflict differently. A sensitivity to cultural differences for the sake of love is part of biblical wisdom; recall the apostle Paul’s claim that he “[became] all things to all people,” adapting his communication to both Jews and Gentiles in the course of his ministry (1 Corinthians 9:22 NIV).
For example, in a cultural setting where face plays a strong role in social interactions, those of us who come from cultures where face is less prominent may need to reconsider how we confront others. Confronting in private, even about something relatively benign, can help someone else save face, while still honoring Jesus’ teaching. At a more personal level, each individual person has conflict preferences that influence how they give and would like to receive feedback. Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to conflict as a leader, consider doing a team exercise to get to know what your team members prefer, and adapt to meet them where they’re at.
So that’s our biblical recipe for healthy conflict: When someone else is engaged in a behavior that’s problematic (whether spiritually or just for the team effort), go to them one-on-one. Be direct, pointing out what’s wrong. Let them respond. If you need to, pull in others from the team. Set boundaries that protect the community from toxic actions or chronic dysfunction, giving teammates chances to improve but also being willing to ask someone to step down when necessary. Adapt your style of communicating when in conflict according to others’ cultural and personality preferences.
Like any difficult task, conflict becomes easier over time as we practice it. These basics are not hard to remember or understand; it’s the emotional effort that’s the most draining. But there’s also a joy on the other side of these difficult conversations. As we see our teams and communities becoming healthier, we’ll give thanks for the grace of conflict. People thrive in environments where the conflict that’s needed does happen, and where unhealthy patterns of conflict are restrained. They’re able to serve together more effectively and truly have each others’ backs. Instances of genuine sin and forgiveness, while painful, also embody the gospel in the microcosm of human relationships, and ultimately build trust.
You owe it to whoever you’re serving, and whoever you’re serving with, to prioritize doing conflict well. It’s part of truly Christian leadership, because as we become more adept in conflict, we’re becoming more skillful not only in leadership, but also in love.