During years of consulting, I have found that the most commonly view of conflict in church circles as sin. In this way of thinking, conflict demonstrates that people are falling from the straight and narrow way. Working with and through conflict becomes a matter of making sure people “get right with God.” My experiences have led me to question this rather spiritualized view and to appreciate a different biblical and theological understanding of conflict. Typically, we have not looked into conflict as a theological issue to be explored; usually we simply count a party in opposition to “our group” to be also in opposition to God. We don’t envision conflict as constructive for church life; rather, we notice it for the pain and division it causes.
Yet conflict represents a normal part of any human relationship, a normal part of life. Conflict creates opportunity to understand and engage more deeply. It creates opportunity to sit up and take notice, to listen more carefully, and to express more clearly what matters to us. And church unity in its fullness is not a form of obligated social unanimity and uniformity. In fact, the body of Christ includes the many gifts, the many parts, and the many faces, hearts, and minds that make up our extraordinarily diverse human family. Unity includes constructive engagement of difference and diversity while walking together.
But the patterns that we tend to develop do not always lead toward open and sustained dialogue and constructive engagement with those with whom we disagree. In fact, many of our patterns create unspoken rules. After you have read the excerpt from Reconcile below, have a conversation with someone about your own congregational experiences. Do these commandments reflect your experience with the church’s approach to unity and conflict?
When faced with conflict, many of us in the church operate by a series of understood but unexpressed rules and guidelines. I call them the “Unspoken Ten Commandments of Conflict in the Church.” The Unspoken Commandments are not exclusive to church circles; social scientists would suggest that they are rooted in a series of common dynamics that accompany conflict as it escalates.
This list looks with humor at our behavior, but I believe these Unspoken Commandments describe many people’s experiences. Such patterns may even come too close for comfort. In part, that is because these commandments connect with some typical responses that form the underpinnings, not of what we say we believe, but of what we actually do with conflict. What we actually do is our practice, or praxis.
Conflict is painful and messy. We may deal with the uncertainty of messiness on a theological level by suggesting that conflict is primarily a question of sin, “their” sin. At a personal level, we deal with the pain and anxiety by finding a variety of clever ways to avoid facing the conflict. We find justifications for moving away from rather than toward conflict. Too often we adjust our theology to match what we actually do. To support avoidance, we cite biblical clauses, using them detached from their context: “Have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions” (Titus 3:10).
Unspoken Ten Commandments of Conflict in the Church:
1. Thou shalt be nice. Always be nice. Yea, I say unto thee, “niceness” is the essence of Christianity.
2. Thou shalt not confront each other in public. Confrontation is nasty and unmanageable. If ever in doubt about confrontation, refer to commandment number one.
3. Should thou ever have the distasteful experience of confrontation, thou shalt not listen to thine enemy, but shalt prepare thy defense while the enemy is still speaking. Yea, I say unto thee, listening raises questions that weaken thy defense and may lead to compromise, impurity, and, heaven forbid, self-reflection. It is dangerous to change thy mind or admit that thou wert wrong. Truth is unchangeable.
4. Speak not with contentious folks who disagree with thee or who have raised thy “righteous” anger. Thou shalt seek out and talk to others about them. Yea, more, dear brothers and sisters, speak only with nice people who agree with thee. By speaking only with those with whom thou dost agree, thou wilt experience the true support of community.
5. Remember that thou art of noble and decent character, and thou shalt not show thine emotions in public.
6. Men, be rational. Do not show weakness through emotions like crying or anger. It is better for thee to disengage from a situation of conflict and remain silent than to show uncontrolled emotion.
7. Women, thou shalt not defend thyself vigorously, nor “nag” incessantly, or they may call thee the dreaded “B” word. Thou shalt be prepared to have thine opinions ignored, realizing that those same opinions may be accepted as valid if later stated by a man. Thou shalt not gripe about this in the presence of men.
8. If thou dost not like the way things are going in the church, thou shalt blame the pastor. Most problems can be traced to the pastor. If the pastor is a saint, then blame the church council. If the church council is clean, then blame “them.” Keep it a generic and undefined “they” or “some people I know.” If thou cannot find anyone to blame, leave the church. Verily, I say, a church where there is nobody to blame is not worth staying in.
9. If thou must confront, save thine energy, frustration, and irritation for the annual budget meeting. God gave annual budget meetings to bring congregational catharsis.
10. Dear Christian sisters and brothers, in a holy nutshell I say unto ye all, thou shalt not have conflict in the church. Conflict is a sign of sin. Yea, should conflict emerge, pray that God may convict and convert thine erring enemies.