Ethics: Fights worth fighting

I’ve been talking with people lately about conflict in church. I’m not talking about disagreements based on preferences, aka “They should paint that wall a different colour” or “The music is too loud.” I’m talking about two people in the body of Christ working against each other; in particular, two people working within the same ministry who have opposite opinions about it.

This blog is not going to explain how to decide who is right in such a circumstance. Rather, as my focus is on relationships, I will be addressing the relational consequences of church disagreements and some possible guidelines for resolving differences of opinion.

It can be hard to understand another person during a disagreement. We may believe whole-heartedly that we are in the right. We may feel driven to pursue the matter, convinced that it is a fight worth fighting. Our cause may be noble, but sometimes this inclination to fight precludes us from really listening to others – even if we are right.

We may believe that God wants to take the ministry in one particular direction, and become frustrated with those who do not share this conviction. We can feel compelled to start a campaign in an effort to win others over.

Such campaigns can become more about us than about God. They may be losing battles, requiring an enormous amount of sustained effort, for little result. And they may cause harm to the relationship.

Those of us in worship ministry have the added blessing of working with passionate, emotive people who tend to take things personally. It’s not a weakness – it’s a personality type. Creatives tend to be more sensitive and more attached to their work. (I am generalising here.) While not inherently a bad thing, it can lead to unique challenges when it comes to communicating effectively and working well together.

We as humans tend to react to disagreements in one of three ways:

  1. Passively. This is the backing-off, keep-the-peace, sweep-it-under-the-carpet approach. It works well in the short-term because it looks like everyone is getting along. In the long-term, however, it breeds dissatisfaction and resentment. Passive people often blow up without warning because they have remained passive for a long time.
  2. Aggressively. This is the I’m-right, run-roughshod-over-everyone-else approach. It is the opposite of passive. It works well for the aggressive person because they get what they want out of other people. The only problem is that no-one else stands a chance of getting what they want from the aggressive person. Aggressive types often wind up alone.
  3. Passive-aggressively. This style is widely accepted and used in Australian culture. It’s the I-have-a-problem-but-I’m-not-going-to-tell-you-about-it approach. It involves hinting to others what it wrong without having to come out and say it. This style typically incorporates a lot of sarcasm, silent treatment, slammed doors and “Nothing-I’m-fine” retorts.

All three styles can be incredibly frustrating to work with. The passive-style person never tells you what they want. The aggressive-style individual doesn’t shut up long enough to listen. And those who default to passive-aggressive behavior always seems to have something bubbling beneath the surface – but you can never find out what it is.

The ideal response to conflict is assertiveness, where everyone gets a say and everyone’s opinion is equally valued. This is a contrast to the three styles outlined above, where someone always ends up being devalued. In Christ’s family, all are valued and no-one misses out on love. Assertiveness – the process of ensuring equity – maximizes the chances of everyone being loved through a difficult process.

Assertiveness takes courage. It means speaking up when it is easier to go with the flow. It means listening when we have plenty to say. And it means being honest with ourselves and others when there is a problem.

There are many unique disagreements that can arise in the life of a church, far too many to discuss in a single blog. But one thing is clear. Regardless of the nature of an argument, regardless of whether we are right or wrong, our disagreements must be handled in a Godly way.

We must love one another as a matter of top priority. When we disagree, we must come back to the foundation of mutual forgiveness and servitude. We must keep our familial state in the forefront of our minds, even during the fights worth fighting, because the one thing worth fighting for is our family in Christ.

Our foundation for all relationships is the love Christ showed for us. Let us enter conflict with this in mind and make His love our campaign. Because no matter how right we are, it means nothing without love.

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