When Matthew 18 Isn’t Enough: Developing a Deeper Model for School Conflict Resolution
Have you experienced conflict within your Christian school? How were you instructed to approach it? Were you encouraged to use the model described in Matthew 18:15–17? How did that work out for you? In my ministry of providing Christian conciliation services, I have become painfully aware that this excellent teaching of Jesus has been misunderstood and misapplied in many schools. Thankfully, the Word of God has the remedy for such a difficult situation, if we are prepared to lovingly look hard at our own hearts and commit to stepping closer together and pursue true peacemaking.
The Entrenchment of Matthew 18
I have been hard pressed to find a Christian primary or secondary school that sufficiently addresses how to handle relational conflict. Most schools simply encourage their faculty, staff, students, and parents to embrace and employ the teaching of Matthew 18:15–17. I have also been unable thus far to uncover scholarly and professional literature to explain why this is so. What I have discovered are three things, in general: 1) we don’t have a proper definition of what conflict is in regard to the school environment, and how conflict is different from other disagreements that are faced more often; 2) we have not encouraged a journey to understand other biblical models for conflict resolution; and 3) we have not put into practice real steps to reconcile and grow a peacemaking culture.
Defining Conflict and Applying Within the Matthew 18 Context
Judy Dabler, a Certified Christian Conciliator who has been a pioneer in biblical peacemaking for decades, presents a thoughtful working definition of conflict as, “the righteous, sinful, or fallen desires of one person (or group) competing with the righteous, sinful, or fallen desires of another person (or group)” (Dabler 2015). We learn definitively from the Bible where conflict comes from when James asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you” (James 4:1, NIV)? While we remain on this earth, then, we will wrestle with the desires of our heart which can so often be sinful.
Are these desires within us always the sin that Matthew 18:15 describes? Not necessarily. When Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (NIV), what does that sin or fault consist of? Christian schools are using a very clear model regarding church discipline without digging sufficiently into the understanding of what is actually at dispute. If a student is offended by the way a teacher talks to him or her, or a parent is angry that a coach isn’t letting his or her child get enough time on the court, or a teacher is bitter about an evaluation process from the administration, has an actual sin been committed that requires this kind of confrontation?
Dabler (2018) offers some vital observations to consider. Within a Christian school environment, many times there occur instances that are in reality concerns or complaints, which ought not to be treated as conflicts. Learning the difference is important because with a concern (a matter of interest or importance to a person) or a complaint (a concern rising from a perceived violation of policy), it is entirely possible that no sin has occurred, just competing desires which may or may not be sinful to the extent of requiring church discipline.
Even if a serious relational conflict happens in which the competing desires of two or more parties causes anger, bitterness, resentment, anxiety, depression, and/or a breakdown in ability to communicate, seeking biblical justice may not only be unwise but also potentially disastrous for a school community. This is because the ultimate goal of Matthew 18—the eventual reconciliation and restoration of the unrepentant sinner back to God and back to the church—is often overlooked. Biblical justice without making room for biblical reconciliation is unloving and invokes the truth of Proverbs 10:12, “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs” (NIV).
Another Model for Resolving Conflict
Though many of the disputes within a Christian school will be concerns or complaints, real conflict can still happen and needs to be worked out biblically. How is this done? We are blessed to have God’s Word to guide us in this process, and we are doubly blessed because this enhanced model for conflict resolution also works for concerns and complaints!
We have to first remember that even before Jesus taught us the Matthew 18 model, He commanded all believers to be reconcilers. From the sermon on the mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus clarifies many aspects of Jewish law for those who would become His disciples. After working through the issue of murder, Jesus immediately says in verses 23–24 (NIV), “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
It is fascinating to consider how the direction of sin is treated differently here than in Matthew 18:15—not going to someone who has committed a fault against you, but rather you going to someone you realize you have wronged. For me personally, I am instructed by this passage that in the midst of my service to God through my profession, my family, and my inward life, if I realize there is conflict between me and someone else —no matter who is at fault—I am to put aside that work (leaving the gift at the altar) and reconcile first with that brother or sister, then resume my service to God.
The final passage to consider in our new model is Philippians 4:1–9. Here, Paul instructs the church of Philippi in the reconciliation process between two beloved Christians, and we discover some amazing attitudes to adopt. We are exhorted to rejoice in the process of conflict resolution (again I say, rejoice!), to be gentle, to present our case to God first, and to, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (v. 8, NIV). If we adopt the attitudes of Philippians 4 and apply them in a loving manner toward those with whom we share conflict, what might that look like?
Practical Steps Toward Reconciliation
Ken Sande’s (2004) foundational book, The Peacemaker, presents a compelling set of actions with which to approach conflict resolution. First, we are to attempt to handle the conflict personally (within ourselves) by:
- overlooking and forgiving an offense;
- not jumping to conclusions about the meaning of the other person’s words, actions, and intentions;
- remembering what we know to be good about the other person; and
- reminding ourselves of how blessed we are to already be forgiven by Jesus Christ.
If, however, the conflict cannot or should not be handled internally, we are to handle the conflict privately (involving only the two involved parties) in a way that:
- brings glory to God as we recall the attitudes of Matthew 5 and Philippians 4;
- gets the “log” out of our eye before confronting the other person’s “speck”;
- gently helps the other person see their part in the conflict; and
- makes every effort to reconcile as quickly as possible.
However, should the conflict not be able to be handled privately, we are to seek the help of one or two others by meeting togetherwith a trusted leader, or else seek the assistance of a trained Christian conciliator, counselor, or other third party that both individuals agree to consult.
Continuing the Conversation
There are four additional recommended steps to continue this conversation toward investing in a culture of peacemaking:
- Consider how to enhance school policy beyond Matthew 18, and consider how to provide education and training on how to achieve the model.
- Consider how to empower specific individuals within the school to competently serve as conflict resolution mediators for those cases that truly need significant reconciliation.
- Invest in further training on the crucial elements of biblical reconciliation—repentance, confession, and forgiveness (Sande, 2004)—which we have not had room to discuss here.
- Invite stakeholders from the school community (e.g., leaders, teachers, parents, students) into a dialogue about ways to create an intentional culture of peacemaking at your school.
I deeply believe that conflict can bring new opportunities to draw closer to God, to ourselves, and to one another. The love we show to the world in how we deal with conflict is what I believe Jesus desired when He prayed to His Father in John 17:22–23 (NIV): “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
- Dabler, J. 2015. Peacemaking Principles. Training seminar. Creative Conciliation, www.creativeconciliation.org.
- Dabler, J. 2018. The “4 C’s” in organizational life. Education module. Creative Conciliation, www.creativeconciliation.org.
- Sande, K. 2004. The peacemaker: A biblical guide to resolving personal conflict. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
About the Author
Maxx Godsey is a Christian conciliator and founder of Renewal Conciliation Services (www.renewalconciliation.org). He is also a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who recently worked within the Christian K–12 school environment as a teacher and administrative intern. He will complete his Master of Arts in pastoral counseling with Liberty University in December 2018. He is passionate about seeing peacemaking cultures grow, particularly in Christian schools. You can reach him via email at email@example.com.