There are five major sources of conflict in churches:
1) Emotions. People can feel strongly about something. Feelings and emotions are stronger than reason or thought.
2) Opinions. Often there are two or more valid positions.
3) Personalities. Different people process information, conversation, emotions differently.
4) Sinfulness. "Unvarnished human cussedness, sinful cantankerousness."
5) Faith commitments. People can share the same faith but disagree over the implications of their faith. From: Shawchuck & Heuser, Managing the Congregation, p.251
Complaining, criticizing and conniving are sources of conflict, and they contribute to perpetuating conflict. They are evil activities. God showed his extreme displeasure with all three of these behaviors in the Old Testament. Here is a quick review:
Complaining - The Israelites in the wilderness complained against God’s provision of manna. The complaining began with some rabble and spread to a large portion of the people. God responded by striking the people with a plague. (Numbers 11:33)
Criticizing - Aaron and Miriam criticized Moses for his choice of a wife. But, their criticism merely cloaked their real problem with Moses: they wanted his level of authority. They were not content with the leadership and ministries God blessed them with and they wanted more. They attacked Moses through criticism to get it. (Numbers 12:1-5)
Conniving - Korah moved beyond complaining and criticizing to connive, or manipulate, to get his way. He was rude, recruited a following, and rose up against Moses. He manipulated people and circumstances to try to gain more power.
These are all evil behaviors. In each of these three stories God intervened to rebuke people, strike them with leprosy and even kill them.
Despite God’s decisive actions against complaining, criticizing and conniving, these three behaviors still occur in our churches today. We haven’t seen the last of the Aarons, Miriams and Korahs.
I do want to say that even though complaining, criticizing and conniving are sinful behaviors, not everyone who does these things are necessarily evil! We all engage in some kind of sinful attitude or behavior but that doesn’t mean we are all evil. I don’t believe that bad behavior necessarily makes a bad person. Some people may do these things because they are evil, but others can do them because of ignorance or hurt.
Why Do These Personalities Go to Church
You may have a few people in your congregation who complain, criticize and connive. You may have been hurt by their behavior. They may consistently complain to you and dampen your spirit. They may criticize your leadership and rob your enthusiasm and energy. They may have even connived against you, pulling a power move to take your leadership or ministry, leaving you very hurt, even broken. Gossip is one weapon used to connive and manipulate.
If you have been the victim of any of these behaviors you may have asked of these people, "If things are so bad here, why do they go to church with us?" That is a good question. There are several reasons that people with these kinds of wearisome personalities go to church. I will first consider two reasons that are negative and dangerous and then two reasons that are more benign.
1) Church is a place to hide their flaws.
What is the first impression we have of someone we meet at church? They are Christians so they must be good people. We naturally ascribe the highest motives to people we meet at church. Haven’t you been so excited to meet a new family visiting worship for the first time that you automatically regard them as operating from noble intentions and motives? But, the sad truth is, such an assessment may be premature. Sometimes people attend worship with less than noble intentions. They may want to hide.
M. Scott Peck wrote, "Evil originates not in the absence of guilt but in the effort to escape it." (People of the Lie, p.76). He then identified a number of ways that people hide their evil:
1) Deny or ignore it
2) Project it onto others
3) Hide it (as in church, the Boy Scouts, etc.)
4) Control others
5) Lie (possibly a function of hiding it)
6) Present the perfect pretense or appearance (perhaps another form of hiding).
7) Destroy others.
M. Scott Peck, the author of People of the Lie, would be most displeased if we used his book to judge everyone who complains, criticizes or connives as being evil. He makes it very clear in his book that though many people are irritating and annoying that does not make them evil. At the same time, we need to be aware that even if the intentions are not evil the behavior can be evil. If it is, it can cause tremendous harm.
2) Church is a place to achieve power and control.
People often seek to exercise power or control over others because their own lives are so out of control. They may have family issues that go back to their childhood when they were made to feel insecure, violated and scared.
Chronic complainers, criticizers and connivers would deny that they are on a power kick and want to control others. And, on one level, they might be right. I don’t think most of them have a hidden agenda to seize the control from the elders or other designated leaders and reproduce a church in their image and under their control.
But, I do think some people have this as an agenda. If there is a group of critics and connivers, it is at least a good chance that the leader of that group is scheming for a regime change, and he sees himself as the initiator of that change. That is why he has his group assembled; these people are his infantry, his front line troops. He inspires them with his disdain for the direction of the church, the present leadership, the Sunday School classes - anything! - and he infuses them with his level of dissatisfaction. He now has multiplied himself with other disgruntled people who will add to the discomfort level of the church with their complaining, criticizing and conniving.
But I still think that many of the infantry don’t realize the nature of the battle they have been called to. Their present disgruntled group gives them something to feel connected to. They feel energized, they have a purpose, they are inaugurating the kingdom in its fullness! That they use negative means to do so is inconsequential; it is just what must be done.
The net affect of a group of people complaining, criticizing and conniving can be absolutely debilitating to an eldership, preacher and even an entire church. The church can feel like a battle zone when you assemble with these folks for worship or a fellowship dinner. Tensions are high and nerves are frayed. Whether they meant to do it or not, the complainers, criticizers and connivers have essentially gained a degree of control. While the leader may have meant to create this scenario, I’m not sure the ground troops he has recruited still understand what is going on.
Frequently the leader of this group has a personal life that is out of control. Leaders of hostile groups like this are often wounded people. At some point in their lives, usually during their childhood or teen years, they were deeply hurt, abandoned or even abused. They did not grow up in a home with security and peace. Their inner lives are in turmoil because their developmental years were spent in turmoil. These emotions create instability in their lives, so they try to create stability by controlling circumstances and people around them. Unless they receive counseling and help, they will likely go through life expecting turmoil, even producing it in places where they don’t find it.
Ironically, the very place where they thought they could hide the dysfunction that has tormented their life, the church, becomes another scene of conflict for them. In many cases it is conflict they have created.
There are two more reasons why complainers, criticizers and connivers go to church. These two reasons are a bit more benign.
3) They are ignorant of their negative behavior and its ramifications.
Remember the five reasons for conflict: emotions, opinions, personality differences, sinfulness and different faith commitments. People can complain for any of these reasons, and they will feel quite justified in doing so. Do we ever think our emotions opinions or faith commitments are wrong? And when they get challenged, one possible response is to complain.
Further, some complain because they grew up in a home with complaining. Some complain because it gets them attention. Some complain as a cry for help.
I doubt if the people who complain for these reasons know how draining it can be. I doubt if they realize complaining is horribly displeasing to God, and that, left unchecked, it can lead to rebellion in the form of criticizing and conniving for control.
They just don’t understand all this. They may simply want a place to belong. They may feel disconnected from the world Even though these reasons for complaining, criticizing or conniving may seem benign, they still have harmful effects for the ones behaving this way and for those who must endure it.
4) Church is a place to connect and transform (hope).
I’d like to think that at least some people who engage in these destructive behaviors have the chance to experience connection and transformation. Church is one of the best places for that to happen for them.
Lauren F. Winner is the author of Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. In the book she talks about her struggles with sexual purity. Three practices helped her live purely as a young single. The first practice was prayer. She prayed that God would shape her heart to desire what God wanted for her. She prayed to not be led into temptation, emotionally and sexually. The second practice was reading. Lauren read the Bible but also the classics of the early church fathers. Thirdly, Lauren leaned upon the church. Lauren writes, "We, one another’s siblings in Christ, are meant to instruct and nurture, and we are also meant to reprimand and hold accountable ... Sometimes I have been bowled over by the harm the church has done ... But other times I have been stunned by the generosity and compassion and firmness fellow Christians have shown me as I have wrestled with chastity and sexual sin." (Pp.23-24).
Lauren was fortunate to have found a church that could be patient with her as she struggled through her worldly concepts of sexuality and embraced the perspective of God and the Bible. One of the key ingredients to help steady her journey and keep her on track was the body of believers called "the church."
We owe that same kind of support system to anyone seeking to follow Jesus. Even the complainer, critic and conniver deserve our attempts to provide a place for them where they can lay down their defensiveness and over time open their hearts to acceptance of themselves, Jesus Christ, and the body.
Lauren’s story is not about one of the three issues we are discussing here, but it is equally profound. Here was a struggling young woman looking for a place to connect. She was looking for hope. She found it at church. We can hope the same for people who’s lives are spent in complaining, criticizing and conniving.