Honest talk here. Christians can be some of the worst managers of conflict. This would seem to be the farthest thing from what should be true, as Jesus called us to be peacemakers and Paul exhorts people to live in peace. But the all too common reality is that many Christians can be pretty bad at addressing conflict. Managing conflict entails addressing the circumstances that provoke long-standing conflicts, but this typically entails at least three things: 1) the ability to express grievances, 2) the skill of listening to opposing views, including those against you, and 3) arrangements to address the issue of the grievances. But there are a few reasons why Christians have a tendency to be poor at this.
1) The often implicit assumption that Christians are to be polite and never hurt the feelings or anger other people. If being a Christian is about love, then people should always feel warmly greeted and honored. Of course, this wasn’t true of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who was bold enough to call the Pharisees and scribes white-washed tombs. Nor was it true of the Apostle Paul, who in the very same letter where he talks about the fruit of the Spirit, he calls down the behavior of the Galatians in the most blunt way that would be considered rude and “un-Christlike,” although it actually bears close resemblance to the way Jesus would sometimes correct his disciples. But the belief that Christians are “nice” has a way of creating pressure, both in people’s minds and from others, to not express grievances.
2) The language of “forgiveness” gets co-opted into a way to guilt people into not addressing conflicts. If you are angry at someone, then you aren’t being a good Christian, who should forgive. Forgiveness has been frequently co-opted to be a way to control people so that they don’t address conflict and so that those responsible for their behaviors are immunized from the consequences of their behavior, rather than an attitude of the offended party of dealing with conflict with openness to the perpetrator and without vengeance. Forgiveness is more about the way you address the conflict rather than a denial of the conflict. But the way forgiveness is used, it is commonly employed as a way to stifle the expression of the conflicts and to pressure people to accept arrangements, regardless of the merit of the arrangement.
3) The way many churches talk about their relationship of God as that of “unconditional acceptance” and treat God as a never disappointed in the behaviors of others, the Church has a way of shielding people’s egos from the responsibility of their actions, with the belief that they should not be held to account. While it is important to remind people that our sins and failures does not mean God is not going to discard, and therefore that we shouldn’t either, this doesn’t mean God unconditional accepts all that is going on with us. There is commonly a latent narcissism that is formed by the way the Gospel has been therapeuticized; the ideals of unconditional acceptance in a therapeutic relationship was formed around people whose lives had been obliterated by the repeated presumption and judgment such that people could not function. It wasn’t originally intended for the majority of people, who while we experience struggles and can see the injustices done to us, are also capable of adapting and functioning. As a result, people who are perfectly capable of emotionally handling conflict have had their egos shielded in cocoons of narcissism. The end result is that Christians who have been spiritually formed in such environments are hyper-sensitive to emotional tension and conflict and it leads them to handle conflict in immature, if not manipulative or destructive, ways. Such styles of dealing with conflicts hinders listening to people’s grievances and forms people to think any arrangement or agreement that places responsibility upon them is unfair.
4) Churches in the evangelical/conservative direction, have a tendency to be hierarchical and authoritarian in its communal ethos, but this can be true in all flavors of Christian communities. Such authoritarian attitudes have a predilection to try to control conflicts so that there is never any disarray, chaos, or drama. But they are often incompetent because their goal is simply to get people to be quiet, simmer down, and comply with little concern for the actual issues within the conflict. Conflict can be handled in rather arbitrary manners based upon criteria such as favoritism, siding with those who have more status, the first one to complain, stereotypes, etc. because the main concern in such settings is the appearance of peace rather than truth and fairness. Communities with such an ethos have a predilection to control the expression of grievances, are poor at listening because their lack of concern of the truth, and refuse to treat the offended parties in an appropriate manner.
5) Because Christianity is deeply intertwined with a sense of ethics, there is a common tendency for people to not simply judge the actions of people but to judge people for their actions. The more the ethical way of life in the Christian life becomes a tool for either a) controlling others or b) assuring us of our own self-righteousness as better than others, the more Christians tend to develop extreme judgments about other people. These sort of attitudes prevent the appropriate listening to the parties of the conflict, with a tendency to make oversimplified judgments of the different parties of either good and innocent or bad and malicious. Furthermore, because people as persons are judged, it has a way of distorting what sort of arrangements people think are just; rather than arrangements based upon the types of behaviors that cause the conflict and their consequences, people make arrangements based upon how good and deseriving or bad and undeserving they think the people are.
I would suggest each of these five problems rest upon some problematic theological assumptions about love, forgiveness, grace, power, and righteousness, where these fault theological ideas have become embodied and enculturated in such a way that we have become blind to the effect they have on ourselves and others, including in how we deal with conflict. Consequently, because these theological definitions have formed us to be poor at expressing our conflicts, poor at listening, and poor at creating arrangements, Christians can have rather dysfunctional conflict styles. The direct style of expression tends to be avoided. This leaves covert manipulation and avoidant styles of conflict.
The avoidant style of conflict entails people pretended the conflict doesn’t exist. Sometimes, there are reasonable reasons people can avoid addressing conflicts, such as fears and concerns for their own safety and well-being. In cases of manipulation and abuse, people may have been “brainwashed” to think there isn’t any problem and that they shouldn’t cause a ruckus. But very commonly, avoidant styles of conflict stem from mere discomfort with the idea of being in conflict. This reason is especially prominent amongst people who believe being Christian is about being nice. I have pastorally counseled people who felt bothered by something someone else did; they would repeatedly ask “is it wrong?” when it comes to not complying with people’s request and putting up boundaries, as if they are not being a good Christian for not going along with everything of another person. The net effect of avoidant styles is that it can either lead to unhealthy compliance to other people’s actions, manipulations, and/or demands or the failure to adequately express concerns so that people can know what is wrong. In the long run, avoidant people continue to get caught up in conflict, as they will flee and acquiesce.
Covert aggression and manipulation, on the other hand, has a way of muddying up the waters. According to Dr. George Simon Jr. in In Sheep’s Clothing, covert aggression can happen with the following tactics: Minimization, Lying, Lying by omission, Denial, Selective Inattention/Attention, Rationalization, Diversion, Evasion, Vagueness, Covert Intimidation, Guilt-tripping, Shaming, Playing the Victim Role, Vilifying the Victim, Playing the Servant Role, Seduction, Projecting the blame (blaming others), Feigning Innocence, Feigning Ignorance or Confusion, and Brandishing Anger. I would also add from experience that covert styles of conflict employ veiled expressions, where they make statements with implied meaning that can plausibly be denied so that they are not accountable for what they mean. What rarely happens with covert aggression and manipulation is the actual expression of the conflict. Furthermore, in my observation of people engaging in covert aggressive manipulators, they primarily listen to others to find information which they can use to manipulate; there is little concern to understand why other people feel aggrieved so as to accommodate their own actions. Also, because such a style doesn’t lead to clear expression of one’s concerns and expectations, covert aggression and manipulation tend to heighten conflicts with confusion, leading fear and anger to fill in the blanks of the ambiguity. In my experience in religious circles, this tends to be the style of conflict amongst leadership and administrators who have not learned how to address conflicts appropriately, since people with avoidant styles would be run out of authority real quick.
However, even with the more direct style of expression, there are a couple temptations within Christian circles: 1) thinking being direct and truthful readily warrants verbal aggression and 2) the expectations that conflicts will be resolved, particularly between Christians.
Pertaining to the first, there are many a Christian who have justified accusations, incriminations, and threats for the slightest of offenses because Jesus wasn’t always nice. For them, Jesus’ own willingness to be direct towards the religious leaders of his day, who were absolutely failing in the God-given concern to lead the people, is enough pretense for them to rail off against any people for the slightest of reasons. While sometimes, accusations, incriminations and even threats to create boundaries are necessary in specific circumstances, this is the exception to address particularly dangerous and/or genuinely toxic conflicts. But most conflicts are not at this point. But sometimes Christians can take the truth-telling aspects of the Biblical narrative to justify any and all aggression. Prophetic style discourse is not a justification of a conflict-oriented personality style, nor for the expression of any and every social media outrage.
Secondly, the expectations that all conflicts should be resolved for Christians can lead to controlling behaviors to get people to resolve conflicts. As a consequence, there can be a temptation to continue to continue to try to dialogue about the conflict, thinking that more dialogue is the solution. For instance, the division in the United Methodist Church, amongst other denominations, continues to be attempted to be addressed through more dialogue. While certainly, dialogue should be an option, to constantly try to create dialogue after the stances are clear is at best virtue-signaling to oneself and one’s cohort and at worst a controlling attempt to paint those who resist in a negative light. However, sometimes, going to one’s separate corners is the only option when a conflict persists, even when communication is attempted. There is such a thing as over-communication. As a result, Christians should think more in terms of conflict management, not conflict resolution. Peace can emerge amongst appropriately managed conflicts; perfect resolutions are not a necessary prerequisite for peacemaking. Hence, Paul says in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
In summary, many of the beliefs and expectations we derive from our reading of the Bible and our theological education can lead us to dysfunctional beliefs about and behaviors in conflicts. However, with more theological clarity around love, forgiveness, grace, power, righteousness, truth, and peacemaking that then becomes embodied and enculturated, we as Christians can be formed to be more effective and appropriate in how we address conflicts, so that our knowledge and habits come into conformity with the life and peace the Spirit directs us towards.