How Shall We Handle Open Conflict?

May 18, 2012

In a three-part series starting with today’s post, my plan is to put forward thoughts on what is happening in the PCUSA and the short- and long-term scenarios playing out.  The most recent, jarring event is the open refusal of Redwoods Presbytery to go along with the GAPJC’s decision in Spahr v. Redwoods and rebuke her for conducting same-sex marriages. The fine points of the judicial ruling are being debated (for an excellent discussion, see Steve Salyards’ GA Junkie post), but the “spirit of the law” most definitely was violated by the ambush perpetrated upon a presbytery. In the same week, we have witnessed two presbyteries (Tropical Florida and Mississippi) graciously dismiss a total of thirteen congregations to other Reformed bodies.

These events, and coincidentally my topic with seminary students Monday night, prompted me to consider the behavior of various groups and people dealing with the conflict in the PCUSA. We can say more emphatically than ever that we are experiencing open conflict now crossing the lines of orderliness and covenant-keeping into anarchy and betrayal. In general, this behavior does not commend Jesus Christ to the world, does not promote the peace, unity, and purity of the church, and does not solve the Big Problem we have as a denomination.

So today I would first like to offer some insight from conflict mode analysis, in the terms used by the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. People handle conflict differently: some can be very confrontational and others can be conflict-avoiders. A most frustrating profile involves passive-aggressive behavior. The Thomas-Kilmann instrument identifies five modes of handling conflict: 

Avoidance, Competition, Accommodation, Compromise, and Collaboration. Each of these modes finds its place on a matrix formed by two axes: An Assertiveness scale, measuring the extent to which an individual attempts to satisfy his own concerns and a Cooperativeness scale, measuring the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy the other’s concerns. My seminary professor David Augsburger named these axes the Assertiveness scale and the Relational scale, as I have done here.

Avoidance is a common response of pastors to conflict, and we see this throughout the church in reference to the Present Troubles. On an individual level, avoidance seems the path of least resistance when time is short and local ministry needs are pressing. Pastors and their congregations burrow down, keep their heads low, and protect their fellowship simply by not getting involved in the yard fight their brothers and sisters are having. Sometimes based on the false assumption that what happens over there won’t upset our sandbox over here, conflict avoiders isolate themselves (hence, low-relational). But then,  if required to emerge from their isolated corner, they are surprised to discover blood on the pavement, twisted playground equipment, and bullies yelling at each other.  And back to their safe corner they go.

Accommodation belongs to those who, at the expense of asserting their own concerns, seek to please those with whom they disagree in order to keep the peace. Its name suggests that this group seeks to blend in, to refrain from differentiating (which would be assertive), and go with the flow wherever it carries them.  The PCUSA is struggling with (and perhaps has succumbed to) cultural accommodation; just compare the rhetoric/arguments related to California’s Prop 8 legal case with the pro-gay-marriage presbyters to see that the church has capitulated to cultural values and adopted its vocabulary.

Competition is the conflict mode that seeks to win, to get the prize, and to render powerless the opposition. We have seen this mode in play, on both sides of the aisle, for years. And no, I don’t think we have Robert’s Rules to blame for this, for it is quite possible to conduct a thoughtful, nuanced, and compassionate debate by following the rules, which do in the end help us as a body to make a decision. The problem has become the introduction of ungodly choices to our options list and a vocal minority who have elbowed their way onto the playing field not only to change the rules but to change the game.

Compromise as a response to conflict is the result of the two parties willing to give up some things in order to attain others. “The objective,” according to the Thomas-Kilmann website, “is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. . . . In some situations, compromising might mean splitting the difference between the two positions, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground solution.” In the current PCUSA landscape, I think the Mid-Council Commission Report represents a compromise in its recommendations, not to say other compromises might not also be introduced at the GA. Evangelical/orthodox Presbyterians consider some doctrinal issues to be non-negotiable, which makes compromise a dirty word to them, by definition a relinquishment of “purity” as a goal for our fellowship.

Collaboration is high in assertiveness because it requires full exploration of one’s own needs or concerns in order to find bridges to the other, and is high in cooperativeness because it requires active engagement relationally to empathize and to find a creative solution in which both parties “win.” This of course is the arena that seems to have broken down completely, especially in the Redwoods Presbytery example, where covenant with each other (by orchestrating an ambush) and with the PCUSA (by defying an order of a higher council) has been violated. Collaboration requires a level playing field, equal access to the playground structures, mutually agreed upon game rules, and a firm referee.

The circumstance we have is of deep-seated conflict around theology, values, and philosophies of life that are incompatible with each other. It is time for two irreconcilable bodies within the Body to separate, as a sign of mutual respect, to facilitate renewed mission in the name of Jesus Christ, and to promote healing of congregations and members. This I would consider the Great and Necessary Compromise for the PCUSA. If we do not find an amicable and humble way to do this, our members will seek their own healing in other bodies rather than subject themselves to the abuse that afflicts them in ours. I understand these feelings to be held deeply by members on both sides of the aisle. So it seems to be that we all have a stake in finding a way to break up this schoolyard fight, acknowledge our irreconcilable differences, and move on to separate areas to flourish according to the rules we can live by. Perhaps Tropical Florida and Mississippi have gotten it right; I am pretty sure that the departing congregations will flourish, and the remaining churches will be able to gather their energies around a more unified understanding of their call, too. In the end, the Kingdom of God is served while its citizens are chastened and challenged to live out their repentance as the true sign of God at work.


14 Responses to “How Shall We Handle Open Conflict?”

  1. Linda Lee, mukilteo Says:

    I agree with your conclusion.
    Redwood was exercising their conscience in disobeying
    the mandate of the GAPJC. However, they were in contempt in relationship to the courts and church law.

    The outcome of the GAPJC decision on the ordination of Lisa Largess put us in a similar position regarding participating in the ordination of practicing homosexuals. We are backed into a corner of either disobeying the courts and not participating or we must leave so as to not be in disobedience to the church courts.
    In a real sense there is no longer a theological or belief basis to hold us together within the framework of our conscience to be obedient to God. The GAPJC made that clear when they allowed different interpretations of scripture to be lived out in our midst as acceptable. The house is divided ……. a house divided can not stand, because neither side can be true to their conscience with in the boundary of this denomination.

    The only compromise is a gracious separation so that each party can live out their conscience before God with integrity.

  2. Renee Guth Says:

    I agree.

  3. Jodie Says:

    “It is time for two irreconcilable bodies within the Body to separate”

    Imagine that. People who dedicate their lives to the message of reconciliation between God and all of humanity speaking of irreconcilable differences between factions of God’s people within the same denomination.

    Is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ suddenly insufficient even for such small matters? To even speculate on such a thing is a betrayal of Jesus Christ and His Gospel.

    It is almost funny.

    No, the root of this fight is self righteousness, arrogance and pride. The putting of one’s self above God, above the Gospel and above God’s reconciling work with the World through Jesus Christ. It’s a complete loss of touch with the roots of our Faith.The subject of homosexuality merely draws this ailment out of hiding because it peals back all veneers of civility and respect.

    What I see here is a zero on the relational scale, and a max score on the assertiveness scale. Specially among the Evangelical conservatives, but not limited to them. But it is so ironically so with the Evangelicals because they are the ones claiming orthodoxy, purity, and coherence with the authority of Scripture.

    O that they were indeed so.

    (Didn’t the Suffering Servant, God’s strength and wisdom, chose a zero on the assertiveness scale, and a maximum on the relational scale?)

    No, true disciples of Jesus know of no such thing as “irreconcilable differences” .

    • Bruce Byrne Says:


      You wrote: “…true disciples of Jesus know of no such thing as ‘irreconcilable differences’ .”

      Jesus said to the church at Ephesus: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”

      Question: If Jesus removed the PCUSA’s lampstand from its place, would you remain within the PCUSA?

      Bruce Byrne

      • Jodie Says:


        I am not sure I understand your question. As John Stott commented, the admonition to which you refer was to a church that, other than having fallen out of love with Jesus Christ, was “energetic in their service, patient in their suffering, and orthodox in their faith”.

        Is this how you see the PCUSA?

      • Jake Horner Says:


        Do you consider the PCUSA “energetic in their service, patient in their suffering, and orthodox in their faith? Is being in love with Jesus important? How do you see the PCUSA?

    • Truth Tolife Says:

      Jodie’s right: our irreconcilable differences–our break in unity–do reflect a failure. Analogize to divorce, which both Moses and Jesus tell us is not preferred but permitted to provide relational relief needed precisely because we have failed.

      Thus, Mary’s also right: our denomination has failed and needs relational relief. Only by separating can the two sides stop focusing on each other and again focus on the God’s purpose for his church; that is (lest we have forgotten), to spread the Gospel to all the world.

      If even Jesus, who’s righteousness is unbending, graciously permits divorce to allow us to move on from our failure, shouldn’t we consider doing likewise?

      Separating removes the bone of contention between us without requiring either side to swallow hard, and let’s us all advance the Kingdom in a way each side sees as faithful. Ironically, it is in separation that we may find unity of purpose.

  4. presbynext Says:

    Feel better Jodie?

  5. presbynext Says:

    oh sorry– presbynext is Dave Moody

  6. Bruce Byrne Says:


    I believe your failure to understand lies not in the unclarity of my question, but in your desire to avoid answering it.

  7. Jodie Says:

    Thanks for replying, Bruce,

    I am afraid you are projecting on to me something of your own imagination.

    You used a Biblical term that requires context. I was checking to see if you were using the Biblical context of the term, or creating a new one. I suspect you are creating a new one, because the Biblical context does not seem to agree with Mary’s assumption in this post. If you are creating a new one, I need to know what it is before I can engage in dialog using it.

    I don’t want to be rude, but I really have no idea what you are talking about.

    However, if I were to assume that you stayed in context, I would have to say that in my own experience – which is limited to the congregational level – Jesus does not take his presence away from churches. Even in the case of the church in Ephesus it was only a hypothetical, since we know from history that it never happened. Ephesus remained in Jesus right up to the day it was murdered by invaders.

    As His disciples, we should never give up on a relationship that He is unwilling to give up on. As human beings we sometimes do, but it is not out of purity and holiness, rather it is out of our own inadequacy. Sugar coating it with the rationalizing of self righteous indignation only serves to shield us from God’s redemptive love and grace.

    It’s a poison we all too often choose to drink.

  8. Bruce Byrne Says:


    Jesus said (through John) to the church at Ephesus: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”

    Do you think Jesus would want you to choose to continue affiliation with a group who, having been called by him to repent of sin “x”, had failed to do so?

  9. Jodie Says:


    I don’t think I go along with your exegesis of Revelation, or with your scenario, but to answer your question, I’d have to say “yes, absolutely. Either that, or become a hermit”.

    In the case of the Ephesians, they were being called to turn back from walking away from their first love with Jesus. The threat was to remove their angel, their messenger of Good News.

    Some churches do from time to time loose touch with the Message of Good News. And it usually goes along with loosing touch with the joyous sense of first love that leaves you light on your feet when you think of Jesus. When rancor and insults fly, instead of holding hands and tender loving whispers, it’s a good sign the angel has already left the premises.

    But he’s usually just right outside the door. When I find myself in that kind of situation, I don’t try to get out, I try to get him back in.

  10. Bruce Byrne Says:


    I’m not exegeting Revelation, I’m quoting it.

    If Jesus were to withdraw from a group, I’d think it okay to do the same. And it just might be the most faithful thing to do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s