Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Resolving Conflict

I Corinthians 1:10 gives a wonderful "big G" goal for any group of believers. "Brothers, I urge all of you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to be in agreement and not to have divisions among you, so that you may be perfectly united in your understanding and opinions."

Unfortunately, real world experiences in the body of Christ indicate that conflict is inevitable.

The trouble is that when any of us get into conflict situation (or a potential one), we create a version of the situation that…

A. Makes me a "victim"
1. not to blame
2. justifies all sorts of evil because “I was mistreated”

B. Makes someone else the "villain"
1. they are to blame, reinforcing my blamelessness
2. justifies even greater acts of evil (I can kill Abel)

C. Seeks a "rescuer"
1. an advocate that will right the wrong on my behalf
2. or at least confirm the victim and villain roles I have created
3. justifies gossip as a coalition building strategy

That's humanity's plan A for dealing with a conflict. If you carefully consider human conflicts from minor disagreements to marital spats to world wars, you see that we use this approach all the time. It is not God's plan at all.

Matthew 5:23, Matthew 18:12-17, and Galatians 6:1, detail three times when you absolutely must drop everything and go talk to a member of the body one-on-one to get things straightened out; (1) when you have offended the other (Matt. 5), (2) when the other has offended you (Matt. 18), and (3) when anyone has been doing anything wrong (Gal. 6). It reminds me of something my grandfather used to say. "I'm only afraid of 3 kinds of snakes; live ones, dead ones, and any other kind."

Anytime there is any conflict, potential conflict, or brewing conflict it is a Biblical command that the people involved must talk about it immediately, and face-to-face.

It does not say "wait until the worst of the storm blows over." The reason delay never works is that "giving it time" accomplishes little more than letting the "victim-villain-rescuer" version of the situation, that both sides are creating, have time to become entrenched. Don’t delay. Drop everything. Address it at once. That's not my comfort level. That's the Bible.

It does not say "talk to 4 or 5 other people and ask them to pray about it." Or "double check that you're not just making something little into something big." As we have said, talking to anybody other than the person involved is continuing in the "victim-villain-rescuer" version you are creating. You are most likely looking for people to be rescuers or at least supporters that will reinforce your version of the situation.

It does not say "send an e-mail" or "send a letter." It says, seek them, find them, and talk to them. (I prefer the more distant and detached e-mail... But I am wrong.)

The Bible also makes it clear as to the attitude we need to have. Matthew 7:3-5 says to "look at the log in your own eye first, then you can see clearly to deal with the speck in your brother's (or sister's) eye." Notice it does not say, look at the log in your own eye and then don’t worry about whatever problem the brother may have.

We have talked about the "victim-villain-rescuer" version of the situation that we all create and have said that we need to challenge the "victim" portion of the tale we construct by asking the question "what is my role and my contribution to this conflict?" That's because while we must talk face-to-face and immediately, we must also do it humbly, with our own faults in clear perspective.

We must approach the other person recognizing our own faults which refutes the “victim” role we prefer. We must also approach the other person in kindness, gentleness, and respect, assuming the best in them. Which refutes the “villain” role we like to assign. We suggested asking yourself the question. "Why would a decent and reasonable person act this way?" It may help you see the other person's perspective more readily.

An example is the potential conflict between Paul and Philemon. Paul was in prison and could not go to Philemon face-to-face. A letter was the best he could do. Philemon would be well within his rights to severely punish Onesimus, his runaway slave. Paul did not say to Philemon. "I know you can be harsh and demanding, and you're within your rights to be very harsh here." Paul said "So, although I have quite a lot of confidence in Christ and could command you to do what is proper, I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love…. Since I was confident that you would obey, I wrote to you, because I knew that you would do even more than what I am asking you to do." Paul assumed that Philemon was well-intentioned and wanted to follow Christ.

This is another reason to address conflict and potential conflict immediately. The longer you allow you version of the situation to remind you what an unreasonable jerk the other person is being, the harder it is to approach that person assuming them to be well-intentioned and genuinely seeking to follow the Spirit.

Because we all fear that these things won't go well. The next question is always, "what do I do when they won't listen and things just escalate and get worse? Matthew 18 answers the question. You call a halt to the meeting and then meet again with one or two other people. These people do NOT need to be witnesses to the entire potential conflict. They need to be witnesses to the discussion between the people directly involved. They need to listen to both sides with both sides present. They need to help each side see how they are contributing to the conflict. They need to help each side see how the other is well-intentioned and trying to follow the Spirit. They may need to mediate a resolution. Or simply help lead to amicability and restored trust in the disagreement. Sometimes complete harmony is not possible and the disagreement accomplishes the purpose of God (Like Paul and Barnabas who separated over Mark) as long as it is done with loving and prayerful support for the heart and intent of the other.

But sometimes, none of that works. What do you do then? Again, the Bible gives us clear instruction, but that's for next time.

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