Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Does the New Testament Say About Interpersonal Conflict?

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I have recently finished reading the New Testament and I am collecting my thoughts about what I read in this series of posts. Today I am writing about what the New Testament says about Interpersonal Conflict. Other entries in this series:
Pic found here
  1. Slavery
  2. The Apocalypse
  3. Women
  4. Violence
  5. Sexuality
  6. Obedience
  7. Fear
  8. Blasphemy
  9. Wealth
  10. Binary Thinking
  11. Faith
  12. the Afterlife and Free Will
  13. Suffering
  14. Family
  15. Forgiveness
  16. Love
When it comes to dealing with interpersonal conflicts, the New Testament has a fair bit to say. As is typical with the Bible, the quality of that advice is somewhat of a mixed bag, some is good, some is bad, and some is contradictory. We'll start with what is probably the most cited in my experience, the golden rule (Matthew 7:12). This is great advice, and many would argue that it is the basis of all morality, we are basically just talking about empathy here, putting yourself in someone else's shoes and treating them like you would want to be treated in their place. The mistake many Christians make is that this originated with Jesus, which is just ludicrous. Not that this is such a bad thing, the fact is the golden rule is in the bible and it is a good thing, but an honest person has to acknowledge that it was around before Jesus.

In addition to simply stating the golden rule, there are a number of verses which I would argue are good corollaries it. Titus 3:3 tells us to remember the mistakes we have made in the past, and give other people leeway when they make mistakes. James 3:10 reminds us that a thoughtless word can be really harmful to someone and and urges caution. Colossians 4:6Titus 3:2, and 1 Timothy 2:8 tell us to be polite to people and to avoid quarreling, even when we disagree with people (I like this as long as we still allow friendly disagreement and discussion). Phil 8-9, 14 tells us that polite requests are better than orders, and finally Matthew 18:23-34 tells us that when people are kind to us, we should pay it forward. I think all of these things make sense through the lens of the golden rule, and I like them all.

The next most often quoted verse is turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). While there are situations where this is the appropriate action, I think it is poor advice for everyday life. I agree that if someone "strikes" you it is usually not the best idea to "strike" them back, if we do that we are going to be retaliating all the time and getting into endless cycles of violence. But allowing someone to repeatedly harm you just sets you up for a lot of pain, and telling people that this should be their default move sets them up to be taken advantage of. Turning the other cheek is of course in contrast to eye for an eye (Matthew 5:38), which Jesus is saying is not the right thing to do. If we look at what the rest of the new testament says about eye for an eye, we can find verses agreeing with Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:15 and 1 Peter 3:8-9), hilariously enough though, there is a verse (2 Thessalonians 1:6) which disagrees with him. 

1 Peter 2:12 tells us to act honorably, even in the face of slander. This verse I like much better than turn the other cheek as the idea is more to rise above the bad things other people are doing to you, rather than telling you to let them keep doing it. Another verse that is also commonly quoted and sort of fits into this narrative is Matthew 5:44 which tells us to love our enemies. I've never been entirely sure what this means, if it means you should allow them to keep harming you like "turn the other cheek", then I hate it. If it means that you should rise above your differences, and try to consider your enemies as people and try to make peace, then I like it.

There are quite a few verses that tell us not to judge one another. I think this is good advice to a point, in life we come in contact with a huge number of people, and we make snap judgement of them. Largely this is simply by necessity, we have to judge who is trustworthy, we have to judge which situations are safe (which is largely dictated by the people who are around), and we have to judge who we think is the most capable to  accomplish whatever task is at hand. While we judge people very quickly, it is important to allow our initial impressions to change with new evidence, you don't want to think someone is crap because they were having a bad day when you met them. If that kind of thing is what the bible was talking about I would like it, but it doesn't read that way to me, Matthew 7:1Luke 6:37Romans 14:1-12, and 1 Corinthians 4:3 all simply say to not judge people. It's possible it is supposed to mean what I said, but I read it as not to judge at all, and I'm not even sure how to function that way, you simply have to make judgement about people to survive in society without being taken advantage of. Hilariously, 1 Corinthians 2:15 goes back on all of this, and says that if you are spiritual you can be judgmental of everything, and you are not subject to the judgement of others. Basically, we will judge you but you can't judge us back. This is the religion that I recognize. Of course, the bible tends to try to have things both ways, and in John 8:7 we are told to not judge people by different standards than we judge ourselves (he who is without sin should cast the first stone). This is a good message, and to the credit of most Christians it is the one they tend to focus on, but you have to acknowledge that both perspectives are in the bible.

I have heard Christians say to each other a number of times that they have to "get good with God", which just may be a reference to 2 Corinthians 7:12. While this might sound like a good thing initially, I would tend to ask why they need to "get good with God". Did they do something wrong? Many people interpret this to mean they need to ask God for forgiveness, when what they should be doing is fixing things with whoever they have harmed. Indeed, the verse itself suggests that we don't need to worry about the person who was wronged, but getting good with God is the primary concern. This is crap. Another idea that sounds decent until you look more closely comes from Matthew 5:25-26 and Luke 12:58 which tells us to try to settle legal matters out of court. On the surface this seems like a good idea as going to court is costly for the individuals involved as well as society at large. If we can solve our conflicts without the court it is better for everyone. But if we look at the verses more closely this is not the purpose here, they are in a situation where going to court will likely result in being thrown in prison. Once that reason is removed the command in the verse loses its meaning.

Given that this post was a little more schizophrenic than I would like, I would like to take a second look back at it. If you look at the concentration of verses, it becomes pretty obvious to me that the New Testament is overall pretty good on interpersonal conflict. More than anything it talks about variations of the golden rule, which is great. Also, most of my problems here are subtleties which can potentially be interpreted in different ways. In fact, in my experience, most Christians do interpret them in the reasonable fashion, which either means I'm being too nitpicky, or the average Christian is better than their holy book (I imagine it is a bit of both). But you have to admit that some of the verses I've highlighted here are pretty ridiculous.


  1. Given how complicated human relationships are, I can't fault the Bible to much for looking like a mixed bag here. I mean, I can't think of any rule that would apply to every situation. Guidelines, sure. But not solid rules. Still, I would have hoped for some overall better guidance than what is collectively presented in the NT.

    1. That's a good point, no set of rules is going to be perfect. In fact, I would bet that as soon as the players know the rules (no matter what the rules are) there is potential for them to game the system. Rules of thumb would probably be more appropriate in general.

  2. Replies
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