Keys to Effective Conflict Resolution (Pt.4)

Mark McCleary
This submission is the final portion on the Biblical hub in the conflict resolution praxis. This narrative climaxes what I began in part I for understanding social conflict and God’s way for resolving it. Review my previous three submissions before proceeding with this fourth submission on conflict resolution.

Matthew 18:15-20 as Conflict Resolution Framework – Part II

In the previous post, I began to share my reasoning for using this passage and a voice of dissent from my Ph.D. peer, Kenneth Newberger (2008), who views applying to a judicial proceeding alone. Contrary to Newberger, I view individuals interacting and retaining the capacity to resolve their interpersonal problems in light of the values of recognition and empowerment of each other without judicial oversight.

The potential avoidance or misapplication of this passage to which Newberger (2008) refers might be attributable to the traditional label of this passage by Bible redactors as “Church Discipline.” This label seems to rest on a reactive rather than proactive view. In spite of this traditional labeling, an eye for social science conflict resolution theory and practice can notice conflict resolution intervention concepts and practices within the passage. For example, direct and private negotiation is the recommended course of action for a party or parties who experience relationship dissonance (Matthew 18:15, KJV). Obviously, the concept and not the actual term negotiation is described in the passage. The passage then suggests, if reconciliation is unattained at this point, community mediation as an alternate to the initial negotiation effort (Matthew 18:16-17, KJV) should be attempted. Lastly, if these attempts fail then a church-wide arbitration approach can be used to resolve the issue or determine organizational sanctioned disfellowship. This is what I understand as large-group arbitration and what concludes the procedures described within the passage.

Newberger seems to view the potential for or decision to disfellowship a member as discrediting the entire model for solving church conflicts because he believes it is a preemptive judicial decision with punitive overtones that result in member disconnection. I disagree with him and do not see this outcome as the passage’s failure as a conflict resolution model. Rather, I view it as a functional outcome that expresses a conflict management rather than conflict resolution situation. Thus, in practical terms, sometimes conflict resolution or settlement means reduction or modification of the original conflict. In such cases, I see the passage suggesting, why not use the passage’s final procedure to deal with a real-life situation rather than view it in pejorative sense or with terminus frustration because complete resolution was not attained?

Conflict [disharmony]→CCRPTM engagement (rooted in Matthew 18:15-20:

  1. Negotiation [private/interparty]→ or Resolution [peace restoration]
  2. Mediation [group facilitated]→
  3. Arbitration [church decision/binding]

Failure at the third level yields settlement to disconnect fellowship [conflict management] until future procedures TBD.

Figure 1: A strategy for reviving social harmony in a church setting—CCRPTM.

Instead of a punitive judicial conviction, I see the passage acknowledging that some situations are not resolvable as far as conflict resolution is concerned. In such situations, the passage seems to intonate co-existence between two former organizational allies that must now continue with one inside and the other outside the church’s fellowship. When this occurs, rather than a failure, I view the conflict resolution format of Matthew 18:15-20 (KJV) as a realist and practical formula for dealing with social interaction. Some might be resolved with negotiation or mediation, while others will go full term through arbitration. Wherein Newberger (2008) sees this as a cold war between former co-church members that aborts Matthew 18:15-20 (KJV) as a conflict resolution model all together, I view it as using conflict resolution practices, without coercion, until all else fails, then “treat him [irreconcilable party] like a heathen” (Matthew 18:17). This potential conclusion does not mean active conflict, but conflict management for the present state of the relationship. Are not heathens “worthy” of new church mission and ministry reclamation activity?

The point of this discussion is that Matthew 18:15-20 has been available to help congregants deal productively with their social problems. My Congregational Conflict Resolution Procedural Training Manual (CCRPTM) offers an academically grounded rationale and strategy for using it as the procedural framework for helping whomsoever deal with their conflicts toward its resolution.

I hope you have learned thus far (I-IV) that conflict and conflict resolution theory and practices have potential for informing and inspiring congregants with knowledge and skill for constructively dealing with social conflict. With this awareness the phenomenon of social conflict should not appear as an impasse to be avoided or denied, but a social reality that can be intelligently processed in a win-win fashion.

Mark McCleary


Dr. Mark A. McCleary holds both Doctor of Ministry and Doctor of Philosophy degrees, and brings with them a passion for conflict management, church renewal and social justice. Having been born in Baltimore, he recently returned to his hometown to pastor the Liberty SDA Church. He is the author of several books including The Gospel Presentation. You can contact him via Facebook or email.

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