Change is a part of church experience. People are always coming and going. We welcome new people to our congregation and we work to build relationships with them. We say goodbye to those who have been part of our lives. We have new leaders rise up and old leaders sometimes move away. Ministries are also changing.
Change in our churches also means that our relationships are constantly changing. As our relationships change, we may experience conflict. We have to adjust to changes and that takes work. How we respond to conflict is an important thing. There are several “typical” responses to conflict.
Overlooking can be a very helpful response to some conflict. Sometimes conflict is a matter of personal preference and there isn’t a right or wrong at stake. Proverbs 19:11 even says we can gain glory by overlooking an offense.
Ken Sande, in his book Peacemaker points out helpful questions that can guide our thoughts on whether or not to overlook an offense. He asks: is it dishonoring to God? is it damaging your relationship? Is it hurting others? Is it hurting the offender? If we answer yes to these questions then the offense is too great to overlook. If we overlook these offenses we are leaving the other in a behavior pattern that is damaging and will cause ongoing harm.
Dietrich Bonhoefer, in his book Life Together writes “Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.”
Withdrawal: I will forget you to escape pain
Another common response to conflict is withdrawal. In this response we pull away from the conflict and the other parties in the conflict. At the heart of withdrawal is the decision to avoid pain, even at the cost of losing the relationship. In some cases we withdraw quietly and the others may not know we are distant. Central to this choice is the decision that if staying in relationship with you means I have to hurt, I am willing to lose you as well as the pain. This attitude denies the Biblical truth that all people are precious and deserve both respect and engagement. Even in abusive relationships we do not withdraw without clarifying that the abusive party is valuable. The truth is that the abusive person needs to hear a call to repent and then boundaries must be established that prevent them from continuing their abusive behavior at will. They are too valuable allow to continue in their sinful patterns.
Winning: I will get my way at any cost
Some of us respond to conflict as if it is a war to win. I am bound and determined to get my way. I am not going to listen to you and find out what you want. I will not see you as a valuable person whose desires also matter to me. You are simply an obstacle to my goals and my pleasure. I am not going to treat you as an image bearer and work with you to bring healing. I am going to treat you as an object that is making my life difficult and I will move you out of my way.
Giving In: I will lose me to keep peace with you
Some of us when we are in conflict simply do everything we can to make the other parties to the conflict happy. Their goals and desires are important but ours are not. Our goals, if we are prone to giving in, are to have peace and an absence of the pain of conflict. This approach is similar in many ways to withdrawal, but instead of clearly losing the relationship, we lose ourselves. We either honestly accept the other’s view and desires, or we pretend to accept their views and desires. In any case, we have lost ourselves and as a result we cannot give ourselves honestly to another.
Working Through the Issues: I care about you enough to engage
The healthiest response to conflict caused by changes is to work through the conflict and resolve it. We take the time to listen to each other and we take the risk to share our thoughts and feelings. In this conversation we demonstrate our faith in the safety we have in Christ and with each other. Fear does not control us. We will go through difficult times in order to have a solid and honest relationship with each other. Some passages that shape this response are: Genesis 9:6, James 3:9, John 13:34-35, and Hebrews 12:6.
Every person we meet is an image bearer and has tremendous value. We cannot treat anyone as an object to be used or avoided. We must treat both others, and ourselves, with respect. On the night of his arrest Jesus commands us to love people as He loves us. We are to love sacrificially and completely. We can overlook offenses and differences, or we can resolve them. When we follow Christ we are not free to disrespect others by withdrawal, winning, or even giving in. If the problem is too important to overlook, we are called to the serious work of resolving.
There is much more to say about how to pursue resolution, but that is for a later blog.