“Christian Conflict Management” by Gustav Adolfsson

photo of eucalyptus trees in Scotland

Christian Conflict Management
by Gustav Adolfsson

In order to build a Christian Conflict management model, we will take an existing conflict management model and re-interpret it using a Christian Worldview lens. So let’s look at a prevailing model of conflict styles by Thomas and Kilmann. This model identifies 5 common styles of responding to conflict. These styles are arranged into quadrants along two axes. The vertical axis denotes the degree of concern you may have for your own interests or goals, while the horizontal axis represents the degree of concern you may have for the goals and interests of others.
Traditional Conflict Styles Model

The five styles in this model can be summarised as follows:

Avoiding: Unassertive and uncooperative. You don’t pursue your own concerns or that of the other party and the conflict remains unresolved.
Accommodating: Unassertive and co-operative. The opposite of competing. You neglect your own concerns in favour of those of the other party.
Competing: Assertive and un-cooperative. You pursue your goals at the expense of those of the other party.
Collaborating: Assertive and co-operative. An attempt is made to find a solution where both parties’ goals are met.
Compromising: Intermediate in assertiveness and cooperation. No optimal solution is found, but both parties sacrifice their goals to some extent.
It immediately becomes apparent that this model does not have, at its centre, man’s relationship to God. It is all about the goals of the two parties in conflict, and God is has been neatly removed from the picture. The five conflict styles are given merely as a taxonomy, a morally neutral list. The model does not provide us with guidance as to which conflict styles ought to be preferred and when. The assumption is that some people favour one style above another, but that no one style is right or wrong in terms of morality.

The model concerns itself merely with balancing your own goals over and above that of others. The tacit implication is that a well-balanced response to conflict would place a high value both on your own goals as well as those of others (i.e. Collaborative). But what if the other’s goals are morally wrong? Or worse still, what if both your goals and the other’s are morally wrong? Should you resolve the conflict through collaboration, or are there better responses in this situation?

So what would happen if we put God back in the centre of this picture? What if we build a conflict response model not based on what you want against what others want, but on what God wants?

Let’s look at the two most important commandments given by God in the Bible; Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself (cf. Mark 12:28-34). From this statement, we can identify two primary kinds of conflict that can occur. Firstly and most importantly, conflict between man and God. This sort of conflict can be specialised into two sub-categories; the conflict that occurs between you and God, and the conflict that occurs between your neighbour and God.

The second type of conflict is that between you and your neighbour. The two kinds of conflict can be illustrated graphically as follows:

Christian Conflict Role Players Model

Conflict between man and God
What does it mean when there is conflict between man and God? It simply means that man is outside the will of God. Consequently man’s goals and concerns are not aligned with that of God. At the time of creation, this conflict did not and could not exist because man was in the perfect will of God, and man’s desires were aligned with the desires of God.

Since the fall, this situation has changed, and man is now pretty much in conflict with God 24/7. However, we still have our consciences that bear witness of God’s will and what we ought to do, and we are still image-bearers of God, capable of rational thought and moral judgement. For those of us who have accepted Jesus as our saviour, we have the Holy Spirit in our hearts to guide our thoughts and actions, and He also gives us the strength to listen and obey His guidance.

For all the reasons given above, one can imagine a scale that places our goals closer to the will of God or further away from His will. For example, if I am tempted to tell a lie, but tell the truth instead, I might safely conclude that my actions are in line with the will of God (Provided my motive was to honour Him and not some selfish, prideful or malicious motive). On the other hand, if I deliberately lie when I know I should have told the truth, I know my action is on the other end of the scale.

Conflict between you and your neighbour
The second type of conflict is slightly more interesting. One might imagine that if your actions are in line with God’s will, there would be no occasion for you to be in conflict with your neighbour. However, because your neighbour’s goals might be out of line with God’s will, this would result in conflict. We see this with Adam and Eve; Eve’s goals were out of line with God’s will, but Adam was still in the will of God. This resulted in conflict. Adam responded by accommodating Eve’s desires, which resulted in conflict between God and Man. This type of conflict is encountered often in the Psalms, where David was in line with God’s will, yet he was pursued by Saul.

On the other hand, both you and your neighbour may have goals out of line with God’s will. For example, you may both be competing for a position in a company for selfish reasons. Both of you are in conflict with God as well as each other.

Finally, both you and your neighbour may be in line with God’s will, yet be in conflict. This happens because we are in a fallen world and therefore often misunderstand what motive lies behind our neighbour’s actions. We often see this in marriages, where both parties could act with the best intentions in the world, within the will of God, yet conflict somehow still arises.

The Christian Conflict Model
From the preceding discussion, we see that the conflict styles model could be re-interpreted from a Christian perspective with God at the centre. The two axes for this model, rather than representing your own self-interest or the other person’s self-interest, would reflect the rightness (i.e. righteousness with God) of your goals and that of your neighbour’s.

Christian Conflict Model

Given these axes, let’s consider what the correct conflict response styles should be for each quadrant.

Q1. Both you and your neighbour’s goals are in line with God’s will
In this scenario, we have to follow the example of Christ, and sacrifice our own interest for that of our neighbour. Therefore the accommodating style should be our first response. However, as often happens, our neighbour would also wish to sacrifice his or her interest, especially if both parties are Christian. In this case an attempt should be made to employ a Collaborating style, where a solution is sought that meets the goals of both parties.

What would happen if you use the Avoiding style? In this case, you would be disobeying Christ’s command that if you have anything against your brother, you should first have it resolved before coming before the Lord (Matthew 5:23-24). This would impact on your spiritual life and adversely impact your relationship with God.

If you choose to employ the Competing style, you would be contravening the principles of charity. You would probably achieve your goals, but at the cost of your own spiritual progress, your relationship with God and with your neighbour.

A good example of this scenario from the Bible would be the conflict between Mary and Martha (cf. Luke 10:38-42). Even though both were within the will of God, conflict arose because Martha thought that Mary ought to have helped her with the chores. Jesus resolved the situation by assuring her that Mary had chosen the better part, and that she was within the perfect will of God.

Q2. Your interests are not in line with God’s will, but your neighbour’s are
In this scenario, we have to humbly admit our mistake and sacrifice our goals in favour of that of our neighbour (i.e. The Accommodating style). This should probably be accompanied with a plea for forgiveness from God and perhaps even an apology to our neighbour.

By pursuing conflict in this quadrant, you would be prolonging your own interests at the cost of your relationship with God. You might also cause your neighbour to stumble since you are unwilling to accommodate their righteous goals while favouring your own goals even though they are against God’s will.

Competing in this quadrant is probably the worst possible response, since that would imply you are forcefully and arrogantly pursuing your own goals whilst fully aware that they do not conform to the will of God.

A Collaborating style would imply that a solution could be found that would meet both your goals and your neighbour’s, even though yours are not in line with God’s will. This is probably the least damaging incorrect response, but it is highly unlikely that such an accommodation could be found without compromising your neighbour to some extent.

A good example of this scenario from scripture would be the conflict between David and Bathsheba’s husband (cf. 2 Samuel 11). Although the husband was completely ignorant of the conflict, David was fully aware of his wrong-doing. Unfortunately, he chose to pursue the conflict by choosing a Competing style of response, which caused the husband to be killed in war and damaged David’s relationship with God.

Q3. Neither your interests, nor your neighbour’s are in line with God’s will
In this scenario, we should try to avoid the conflict altogether, while we get right with God. Hopefully, both parties will repent and move the conflict into Q1. Or at the least, you will repent and the conflict will move into Q2. However, you might find that after repenting, your goals and concerns would probably have changed and the conflict between you and your neighbour may therefore no longer exist.

It should be clear that Accommodating, Collaborating and Competing are all completely unsuitable in this scenario. They all imply that some attempt will be made to knowingly pursue goals that are not in line with God’s will.

A good scriptural example for this form of conflict is the scene where Jesus’ disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven in Mark 9:33-36. Jesus set them straight by declaring that those who wish to be the greatest should be the least.

Q4. Your interests are in line with God’s will, but not your neighbour’s
In this scenario, we have to exercise Christian courage and stand our ground (i.e. Competing style). Since our neighbour’s goals are not in line with God’s will, we should point it out and be assertive in order to avoid being dragged into something that will cause conflict between ourselves and God.

A collaborating style would have a similar, but inverse, impact as discussed in Q2; you may find a solution that meets both your goals, but this would be highly unlikely and would probably compromise your relationship with God to some extent.

To adopt an Accommodating style would be highly unsuitable, since that would imply that we are to some extent condoning our neighbour’s goals despite the fact that they are not in line with God’s will. The same argument would hold for employing an Avoiding style.

A good example of this style in practice is the conflict between Peter and Paul (cf. Galatians 2:11-13), when Peter withdrew from the Gentiles because of his fear of the circumcision group, he was clearly out of line with God’s will. If Paul had merely avoided the issue or accommodated Peter’s goals, we would have had a very different Christianity today!

Before launching your conflict style…
Pray. Bring your situation prayerfully to God and seek His will. Also remember that it is part of being wise to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11 “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense“). So even if your neighbour has offended you and you believe it was unjust, try to understand the purposes behind the offense and then see if you can overlook it. Forgiveness is a big part of being a Christian, and we are often called to forgive rather than pursue conflict. Remember Matthew 5:9; “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God“.

And finally, remember that revenge belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:19). The Lord doesn’t want you to get even, nor does he want you to avenge injustice. Wait on the Lord. Often, He will handle the conflict without you having to do anything.

When you are uncertain as to whom is in line with God’s will and who is not, the correct response style, regardless of the situation, would be to Pray. Prayerfully ask God to clarify the situation for you and to show you how you should respond.

Prayer is the one response that acknowledges the centrality of God in our lives and should be our first response, regardless of the contextual circumstances. The complete Christian Conflict response model should therefore be drawn as follows:

Christian Conflict Model With Prayer

The Prayer response also addresses a conflict scenario that has not been discussed yet. This is the scenario where there is no conflict between you and your neighbour, but conflict exists between you and God. Since our original model was taken from a model probably resting on theories viewed from a naturalistic world-view, it only covered conflict situations between human role-players.

Our Christian model, however, should account for the conflict that can exist solely between a created being and the creator. Since God is just and righteous, any conflict that exists between us and God can only have one correct response, and that is the Prayer response, followed by repentance.

A very good biblical example of this sort of conflict can be found in the book of Job. Job suffered at the hands of God, and came into bitter conflict with God. Yet when God answered him, he was willing to repent and ask for forgiveness and his relationship with God was restored.

After reading this article, you might compare the models and decide that they are very similar. So what have we achieved by using the lens of the Christian Worldview? Have we simply gone on a long journey, only to return again to the very point from which we have departed?

Not at all. Firstly, we have added rich meaning to the conflict response styles. The question is no longer simply whether I value my own goals or those of others. Rather, the question now is whether my goals are intrinsically or objectively more valid than those of my neighbour. To what extent do they align with God’s will?

This resolves the ambiguity of whether I should value your goals even though I disagree with them, and yet I still value you as a person. From a Christian perspective, it is important that you always value yourself and your neighbour; “love your neighbour as yourself”, but that does not mean that we automatically value their goals or interests, especially if we perceive that these may be out of alignment with God’s will.

Finally, the new model proposed here sheds light on the subtle interplay between my relationship with God and my relationship with my neighbour. It informs our decisions relating to conflict and what our responses ought to be in our day-to-day lives as Christians.

— Copyright 2011 GustavAdolfsson —Delight in The Lord