Conflict-Management in God's Kingdom

We've been going through 1 Corinthians on Sunday nights at Journey Church, and this past week found us in Chapter 6. Here are some of the verses we discussed:

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? . . . In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that . . . . Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? 

These words were timely, to say the least, as last week there was a public discussion about some legal action one church took against another. (I won't rehash it here, but you can read about it on my blog if you're really interested. The good news is that it was resolved out of court.) As applicable as this situation was to the verses at hand, sadly I do not believe they are out of the ordinary. If our political system has been reduced primarily to yelling, our religious systems aren't much better. Because conflict can arise over a blog post or Twitter or any number of media outlets, we not only know about more conflict but we have to do a whole lot of discerning in how we engage it. How do we confront issues that need a voice while still adhering to grace and forgiveness? How do we speak prophetically when we feel it is needed without careening into a posture that can become vindictive or overly aggressive? It is to these issues that Paul speaks well in 1 Corinthians 6.

I believe Paul's main purpose in writing to the Corinthians here was to explain the stark and irreconcilable difference between the realms of the legal justice system and the practice of Christian reconciliation. One is intent on exacting punishment, while the other is intent on finding a way forward through forgiveness and grace. One is about revenge, while the other is about mercy. And it's crystal clear which one we ought to choose as followers of Jesus. If we are wise in our approach to conflict, we begin by having a clear end-game in mind. It is not punishment, or revenge, or meanness, but reconciliation. It is a call for change.

I would be so bold to say that if we boiled down the purpose of the church into three things we ought to be modeling for the world, the practice of reconciliation would easily make my list. When Paul said, "Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?" I think at least part of what he means is that we are the people meant to be living in the approach in which the whole world will be judged. When we practice confession, repentance, and reconciliation, we are modeling what the entire cosmos has ahead of it. Why on earth would we eschew that for a court of law?! Why would we leave that behind for a fine and some hours of community service, or worse, for time behind bars?

To stare this one directly in the face, why are churches often terrible at practicing reconciliation? If we don't teach this revolutionary, counter-cultural approach, which is the basis for the Gospel we follow, why on earth are we not surprised that society isn't either?

We had a robust conversation about these things on Sunday. Jen Wilson is the Principal at an elementary school. She shared, "Conflict resolution is a skill we've failed to teach or practice. I see it all the time in our school setting. Students get in conflicts with each other and they don't know how to resolve them. They resort to name-calling, punch-throwing, or vows to never talk again. We need to teach students how to identify conflict and then how to deal with it in a civil manner. Our district uses a peer mediation program to help our students work through their disagreements. It's the job of parents and educators to teach these skills to our children."

It's our job to teach this, and we don't. We ignore things, or stuff them under the rug, or passive-aggressively talk about them to others, or leave without saying why. Paul asks, "Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another?" If so, what does that say about our level of maturity and spiritual wisdom?

Hillary Spragg added, "The reason we need to be taught to confront someone when we are hurt by them (and not to go to our friends and complain about it) is because we see that pattern all around us. Adults often have reasons for not sorting out conflict that go beyond fear of confrontation. For example, if someone makes a hurtful comment, we might not confront them on it for a number of reasons. Maybe they are in a position of authority over us and might retaliate if angry (i.e. a boss, an instructor) or we feel they might belittle us further or it might exacerbate the problem. Maybe we are afraid to hurt an overly sensitive or martyr-type person or we convince ourselves we are over-reacting." Hillary rightly pointed out that if we want to teach reconciliation, we need also to teach self-awareness so that we can understand why we react the way we do to conflict.

I'm struck by Paul's words at the end of this section. He's so adamant about keeping conflict out of the realm of the legal system that he says, "Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?" It's better to let yourself be wronged in your attempts at reconciliation than to settle the issue in a court of justice based on punishment and reward. Those are difficult words to swallow, even harder words to put into practice. But I wonder what it would be like if the Church was committed as passionately to reconciliation as it often has been to building campaigns, doctrinal debates and calls for ex-communication?