Monday, February 11, 2008

Biblical Social Structures

One way to analyze a particular conflict involves focusing on whether or not the behavior of conflict participants is connected somehow to "structural change issues", so says researcher, Jane Docherty. Structural change issues usually go beyond what is at stake in a specific situation, relating instead to the bigger picture of the "rules" that govern the behavior, strategies, and tactics of conflict participants. In other words, structural change issues take into account the "social structures" at work in a particular conflict. "Social structures" involve the various identities, roles, and relationships that exist among conflict participants, along with what is or isn't "institutionally appropriate" for each.

I realize this is a little technical, but I urge you to keep reading since there is a very important application of all this coming.

It is possible for a particular conflict to change social structures in unintended ways. For example, in churches and other Christian contexts, there is a definite biblical standard that is supposed to govern the various identities, roles, and relationships among believers, along with what is or isn't appropriate for each. We refer to this standard as biblical same-mindedness in the Lord. In reference to this standard, the term "brother" is used in the Scripture as a way to define the identity, role, or relationship one Christian shares with another as they work their way through conflict. Jesus said in Matthew 5:23: "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember your brother has something against you, leave your gift their in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." One of the take-aways from this verse is the importance of letting what the Scriptures indicate is appropriate or not appropriate for interaction between two brothers in Christ govern our conduct in conflict.

Here's the dig. When Christians are allowed, or when they allow themselves, to behave like the world during conflict, they are in effect changing the "social structures" that Jesus says should govern our behavior, strategies, and tactics when differences arise. Sustained over a period of time, in some church settings, Christians stop altogether relating to each other as brothers. They might still be willing to call themselves brothers. But, on a practical level, they have altered the biblical social structure to include behavior, strategies, and tactics in conflict far removed from what Jesus taught.

Thankfully, it also is possible to alter social structures intentionally. In other words, for Christians, it is possible to recognize when existing social structures stand against what Jesus taught--when the "institutional" rules that govern behaviors, tactics, and strategies in conflict do not reflect biblical teaching. Once recognized, it is possible to recalibrate to reflect identities, roles, and relationships as Jesus taught they should be.

The application then is this: every conflict becomes an opportunity not only to biblically resolve some issue in particular, but also to reinforce what is appropriate for the identities, roles, and relationships we have with each other in Christ. Allowing exceptions to this will have a way of altering the social structures taught in the Scriptures over the long run, and sometimes also in the short run. Therefore, every conflict should be viewed as the opportunity it is.

Similarly, for those who are in churches or other settings where social structures already contrary to the identities, roles, and relationships taught in the Scriptures, every conflict becomes an opportunity to reestablish what is appropriate.

Discussion and Application Questions:
1. Think of the last conflict you experienced in your sphere of ministry. What impact would your behavior, strategies, and tactics have on an understanding of biblical identities, roles, and relationships?
2. Other than Matthew 5:23, what other verses can you think of that either explicitly state or hint at some corresponding expectation of a Christian's behavior, strategies, and tactics in conflict?
3. If you were in a church or other Christian setting with others who had stopped reflecting biblical social structures, what specific steps might you take to reestablish what the Scriptures teach?

Note: For more information on the process of biblical same-mindedness, check out "Where Do We Go From Here: The Path To Biblically Resolving Conflict" by Randal L. Gilmore. Available here.

See also "The Unstated Models In Our Minds" by Jane Seminare Docherty in The Negotiator's Fieldbook, edited by Schneider and Honeyman.


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