What Rules Govern Your Interactions with Others (Especially in Your Church Conflict)?

In the October 16, 2012, Wall Street Journal there was an article titled Big Explosions, Small Reasons.  The article reports recent research on “Why Social Rule Breakers Spark Angry Outbursts.”  I have written previously on this site about how secular research in the behavioral sciences can contribute significantly to our understanding of one another if we remember that any findings must be set within a context that accounts for God. Our Creator made a universe filled with creatures of both complexity and order. Because of that amazing order secular researchers can make faithful observations; what they typically don’t do is set such observations in the larger perspective that recognizes God’s sovereignty and creative orderliness: the bigger picture.

After recounting several stories of sad but common interactions of conflict with strangers over relatively minor matters (the delivery of a wrong restaurant meal order, being cut-off in traffic, an annoying noise emanating from a fellow bus passenger’s I-phone, etc.),  the article asks,

“Why do adults throw tantrums over seemingly trivial provocations?”

The answer given:

“Their findings suggest we are reacting to a perceived violation of an unwritten yet fundamental rule. It’s the old, childhood wail: ‘It’s not fair!’”

Breaking “social exchange rules” (unwritten laws of behavior), one researcher explains, leads to major social consequences:

“We can’t have successful interactions in relationships, mutually beneficial to both people involved, if one person violates these rules. And we can’t have a beneficial society if we can’t trust each other not to lie, not to be unethical, not to watch out for our general well-being.”

“There must be something critically important about unwritten social rules if we feel so deeply violated that we need to let the world know when someone breaks one.”

Then comes the most insightful comment that summarizes why this occurs. It is not the specific, frequently trivial incident itself that leads to the angry outburst:

“It’s that you are doing something that makes me not trust you, that you may harm or disadvantage me because you are not playing by the rules.”

As a Christian, what are the rules that govern your interactions with others–especially your interactions in your church conflict? Merely the unwritten rules of general “fairness?” Or should there be something else in your life as a believer in Christ that mediates your behavior when you feel someone hasn’t “played by the rules?” I am sad to say that in most cases of church conflict that I have observed that what is at work is nothing different from what these secular researchers report. That means that people who have been called out of the world to be part of a holy kingdom have usually been unintentional about their behavior. They react no differently than other human creatures and that is not the plan God reveals:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” 1 Peter 2:9-12

This passage is our call to be intentionally different. How is your church doing to make sure that this message is part of the life you share together in the church? If we are not intentional about the commitments of our faith then what is the point? Even common wisdom from secular research reveals the obvious truth that we feel bad about ourselves when we lose our temper:

“The feelings that linger after an angry outburst usually make the person who exploded feel worse.”

If your goal is to simply not feel so bad about yourself following your behavior the researchers have some good coping tips for you:

  • Picture a scenario that is likely to trigger your anger, and imagine a calm response. Think about the consequences of your anger. Anger can make you feel bad.
  • Ask your spouse or significant other to help you calm down in the heat of the moment. Create a password—a hand on your arm, a funny look—that will diffuse your tension, not escalate it.
  • Empathize. Remember a time when you inconvenienced someone. What’s wrong with being nice?
  • Talk yourself down in the heat of the moment. Tell yourself a coping statement, like “It’s not the end of the world.” It’s important to decatastrophize the incident.
  • Don’t react to rude or inconsiderate behavior. If someone cuts in front of you at the grocery it’s not about you.

But, if your goal is to represent the King of Kings as his new creature, then you are called to go beyond those surface-level, behavioral changes and live in line with the new heart you have been given as a forgiven, adopted, child of God.  As you intentionally remember your Lord, your identity in Him, the brevity of this life, and your future home with your eternal family in Heaven to come, your interactions with others will change at a heart-level. You will glorify God through your unity:

“For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Romans 15:3-6

For the glory of God’s intentional church,
-Dave Edling

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About David V. Edling

Dave Edling is an experienced Christian conciliator who has worked with many conflicted churches. During his decade of service on the senior staff of Peacemaker Ministries, he participated in over 200 mediation and arbitration cases and worked with nearly twenty thousand Christians engaged in conflicts affecting churches of almost every denomination. Dave holds several graduate degrees in addition to his Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State University. They are: Master of Arts in Human Behavior, United States International University (now Alliant International University); Juris Doctor, California Western School of Law; Master of Arts in Religion, Westminster Seminary California; and Master of Arts in Biblical Conflict Resolution, Birmingham Theological Seminary. Dave has served as a trustee on the Board of Directors for Covenant College and Westminster Seminary California and has taught in the Doctor of Ministry programs for Reformed Theological Seminary, Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. In addition, Dave has been a lecturer in practical theology for several other Christian colleges and seminaries.
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