If another person sins against you…just talk about them in the parking lot after the meeting.
If another person sins against you…call a bunch of people to complain about them. You may even want to start an anonymous letter-writing campaign to discredit them.
If another person sins against you…just send them a nasty email, copied to several other people.
If another person sins against you…don’t say anything about it. Just seethe privately about it at home and avoid them. Un-friend them on Facebook. And, if you can’t avoid them on Sundays, then just leave the church.
All of these reactions sound completely ridiculous, right? Everyone knows these are not great ways to solve problems, right? Great. Amen. Sermon over.
Just kidding! Because even though we know these aren’t the most helpful ways to deal with conflict, let’s be honest – I’m guessing every single one of us have done something like one and maybe all of these things. Conflict is tough to deal with, and it’s tempting to do…well, pretty much anything other than confront it directly. Ironically, sometimes we do these things because we have good intentions. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or escalate the conflict, or cause a scene.
So instead we vent our anger behind their back. Or we lash out later, from behind the safety of our computers. Or we quietly cut them out, or disappear.
Jesus talked a lot about how we should treat one another. He said a lot of things about loving each other, and sharing what we have, and living together well. But Jesus was a realistic guy. He knew human beings. And he knew that human nature being what it is, as hard as we might try to love each other well, there would still be conflict. You can love someone and still hurt them deeply. Actually, we often hurt the ones we love the most, because those are the people we’re around the most and know the best. And conflict in itself is not bad; it just is. It’s the natural result of all of us being unique individuals who have different ideas, desires, and needs, and who process and react to emotion very differently. We’re going to have conflict, and that’s not a bad thing; conflict can help us understand each other better, and it can help us grow as individuals and in relationship. What makes conflict bad is when it’s addressed in unhealthy ways that make it worse instead of solving it.
In human relationships, things are going to go wrong. So, Jesus spent a fair amount of time talking about how we love each other when things go wrong – what we ought to do when we’re hurt or upset or disappointed in something someone else has done. The life of Christian discipleship has as much to do with how we treat each other, especially in the midst of conflict, as it does with our devotion to God. Jesus and and the biblical authors are clear over and over and over that our love for God is not genuine if it doesn’t lead to love for other people.
So what does it look like to deal with conflict in healthy, loving ways? Well, we’re in luck, because this is one of the few instances in which Jesus tells us exactly what to do if someone has wronged you. But there are a couple of things we need to remember about this passage. The first is that the NRSV translates it as “a member of the church,” but the original was “brother.” While I am in favor of the inclusive language, in this translation you lose some of the sense of intimate relationship that Jesus intended. We’re talking here about what happens with people who are in close community.
The second thing is that he was talking specifically about people who “sin against you.” So, the general principles here apply to other situations, but it’s also wise to step back and consider whether someone is actually committing a sin against you, or you just have a difference of approach. Let it be known that I am not telling you to bring the entire church in on a difference of opinion. Proportional response is good.
Steps of addressing conflict
– individual, private
– small group
– larger group
I think the most significant thing that stands out about this approach is that we are to address conflict directly – not by talking to other people about it, not by making it public anonymously, not by avoiding it – but openly, with both compassion and honesty. This approach also assumes that the goal is to restore and strengthen the relationship.
Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about these things (yes, because it’s my job), and also because I’ve seen how human relationships, whether it’s family, friendship, or the church, hinge on how we set ourselves up to have as little unnecessary conflict as possible, and to deal with the conflict we do have well. So, when I first arrived, I put out a little booklet of information about myself, and one of the things in that booklet was a list of things called “Leadership Principles,” which probably should actually be called “relationship principles” or “human principles,” because I think they apply to more than just how we lead the church. I adapted them from a document that was written by Bill Levering, the senior minister at my last church. I’ve already gone through these with the Session and some other groups, but I wanted to spend a little time talking about them this morning because I think they can help us envision a culture of communication like the one Jesus was talking about.
Openness – Church information is available to everyone, with the exception of sensitive pastoral care and personnel information, and individual financial contributions. Decisions are made in the open. You can expect me to share my life with you. I hope you will do the same with me.
Honesty – We tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. I will take responsibility for my mistakes, and I hope you will forgive me and take responsibility for yours as well.
Loyalty – We speak kindly about and to one another. We actively stop destructive criticism or gossip and route feedback directly to the people involved. We act in accordance with the decisions of boards and committees, even when we didn’t agree with or vote in favor of them. We do not stir up dissent or discord. I will have your back, and will not allow people to speak badly of you to me. I hope you will do the same for me.
Healthy Conflict – We are responsible for our opinions and take our complaints directly to people involved. We do not draw other people into problems, or expect them to bring our complaints anonymously to someone else. Anonymous feedback or reports that unnamed “people are saying” are not considered. If I need to speak with you, I will do so directly and respectfully, even if it scares me, and I encourage you to do the same with me.
Positive Attitude – We spend much more time supporting and praising what is happening than criticizing. We tell stories of success and envision bright pictures of the future. We report problems as opportunities for growth, not evidence of incompetence. I look forward to cheering you on, and look for encouragement from you.
Faith Sharing – We apply our faith to personal and church situations. We do not rationalize our feelings with scripture or use it to punish or manipulate others. We strive to follow Jesus’ example and to embody the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self control. We pray for each other, especially when we are at odds. I will share with you how my faith helps me navigate all aspects of life, and I eagerly anticipate learning from you
Of course, the hardest thing about all of these principles is living them when things are actually going wrong. They look easy and reasonable when we’re pretty happy with each other. When they tend to get derailed is when we’re not emotionally at our best and we react out of our pain instead of our principles.
But that’s why communicating well is a practice, not a “done.” We have to practice it, and we can always get better. We set out the principles that we want to use with each other, and we talk about them together, and we help each other get used to living in them while things are going well, so that we have the emotional muscle memory to keep living in them when something goes wrong. And then sometimes we mess up and we sort it out and try again. And we trust that somehow, in the midst of the trying and the mess and the growth and the love, God is there, holding all of us together – because that’s ultimately what Jesus promised in this passage: that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” May we be people who live as though God is among us.