Conflict resolution

Pentecost 13 – 2014

Matthew 18:10-20

Marian Free

In the name of God who models relationships that are authentic, open and honest. Amen.

No doubt there are a number of ways to look at conflict resolution. This was the topic at the Northern Region Clergy Conference led by Tim Dyer of John Mark ministries[1]. Tim began pointing out that people approach conflict in a variety of different ways that could be easily characterized by their similarities to different animals. For example some people deal with conflict head on, determined to win the battle. These are the bulls. Other people retreat into themselves and seek to avoid the conflict altogether thus leaving it unresolved. These are the turtles. Foxes are cunning and those who behave like foxes aim for compromise. They want a solution and will give way in order to get a result. Koalas are warm and cuddly. They are full of compassion for the other person in the dispute and so will often forgo their own needs and allow the other to “win”. Wise old owls are prepared to invest the time and energy required in order to find a solution that best suits all parties.

All of these approaches have something to offer because different situations demand different strategies to conflict resolution. There are times when an immediate decision is required (bull) and times when the most appropriate thing to do is to walk away (turtle). On some occasions compromise (fox) is the best way forward and on other occasions conceding ground is the best solution (koala). Most people have a preferred way of dealing with conflict – avoidance, confrontation, putting the other first. People in leadership positions can learn to operate in all of these modes though in difficult situations they might still revert to their preferred mode of operation.

Few people (except the bulls) relish conflict, and church communities tend to be particularly conflict averse. This is because we place a premium on love and forgiveness and as a result view conflict as failure, if not sin. Unfortunately a failure to acknowledge that there is a problem does not make it go away. In fact, ignoring a problem can lead to a situation that is worse than the original discord. If conflict is avoided or denied it can simmer below the surface and finally bubble up in ways that are much more serious and therefore much more damaging than the original conflict would have been had been allowed to be aired. By continually avoiding conflict, church communities become not more united but more fractured and by failing to recognise conflict as a part of community, church families are losing an opportunity to develop ways of dealing with conflict, of building bridges and of forming honest relationships.

The reality is that rather than achieving the ideal of being loving and forgiving, church communities have a tendency to be conflict prone if for no other reason than that they bring together a diverse range of people who are expected to know and share similar beliefs. Sometimes people who are damaged or hurt come to the church seeking healing and peace, however they are unable to let go of the baggage they have brought with them and unconsciously generate tensions with their demand to be loved. The fact that church communities are made up of volunteers rather than a paid workforce can lead to a sense of obligation towards those who give generously of their time and an unwillingness to tackle behaviour that would not be accepted elsewhere. (Again the desire to be loving and forgiving hampers rather than assists our ability to deal with conflict as it arises.) More than any other community, churches are like families – with all the expectations and disappointments and frictions that living in such close quarters can engender. Sources of conflict include a failure to communicate clearly, a need to control, a dislike of change, a past conflict that has not been properly dealt with and a tendency for people to congregate in sub-groups of people with similar interests (which in turn exclude others from belonging).

Conflict is a normal aspect of group life. For that reason it is important that churches develop strategies to deal with differences rather than to pretend that they do not exist.

The Bible does not suggest faith in God leads to a life in perfect harmony with other people of faith. In fact, apart from parts of Acts in which the early church is idealized, there nowhere in the New Testament is there a picture of a community that is free from conflict or disagreement. Paul’s letters describe communities that are experiencing real tensions between members and even the gospels show us that even among the disciples there is a degree of competition between the disciples. In fact chapter 18 of Matthew begins with the disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The New Testament does not gloss over the difficulties faced by those trying to become the church. Instead it provides an honest account of the tensions that arise as a normal part of community life, when people bring their different needs and expectations into a group situation. If the New Testament can acknowledge the difficulties of community life and the conflicts that arise in group situations, then today church would be wise to recognise that conflict is not a sign of failure, but just one aspect of our life together. Rather than ignoring it, we should find ways to address it and to work together to bring it to some sort of resolution.

Matthew’s gospel is sometimes called a Manual for the Church. It is Matthew more than any other gospel writer who provides specific instructions for community life. This is particularly clear in today’s gospel that addresses conflict resolution in the church. There is no suggestion here that conflict be avoided or swept under the carpet as if it didn’t exist. Instead disputes are to be brought out into the open so that everyone can help to bring about a positive result. If two people disagree, they are first of all to discuss the issue with each other. If they are still unable to resolve the issue, they are encouraged to enlist the help of two or three others. If that doesn’t have the desired effect then they are to take the matter before the whole church. As a last resort a trouble-maker might have to be considered as a Gentile or tax-collector (someone who hasn’t yet fully understood the gospel).

Most people do not like conflict, but pushing it aside or burying it does not solve the issue. At best ignoring a problem leads to hypocrisy, to a façade that all is well and to relationships that are essentially dishonest and superficial. At worst avoiding an issue allows it to fester until it can no longer be contained and unspoken hurts spill over into acrimony that leads to lasting damage.

In our personal lives and in community, conflict is always best addressed rather than pushed aside. If we can learn to talk things through, to put our cases gently and firmly, to listen patiently and without prejudice then we will build robust and honest relationships that more truly demonstrate the love of God in and between us.

[1] I am heavily reliant on Tim’s content but hope I have put it in my own words. ( Northern Region Clergy Conference)


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