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Church conflict: The context decides its outcome

If an American pastor was sentenced to death by an American court because he refused to recant his faith, we would be shocked. Such a verdict would stand in direct contradiction to the First Amendment of the Constitution which states that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

Religious freedom has flourished in our country for 235 years. Given this backdrop, a sentence of death because of one’s Christian faith is unlikely.

But such an outcome is not far-fetched in other parts of the world. In October 2011, regrettably, one newspaper reported, “The self-styled Islamic Republic of Iran has sentenced to death by hanging a Christian pastor, born to Muslim parents, for apostasy. At the time of writing, Youcef Nadarkhani, head of a network of Christian house churches in Iran, is on death row for refusing to recant and convert back to Islam.”

The difference between these two scenarios is context. In one, Christianity is freely permitted. In the other, it is not. Context impacts outcomes.

Consider something as simple as your car key. The only reason it makes sense for you to carry around this oddly shaped piece of metal is because it fits into the ignition switch of your car. It makes sense to you.

Stumble across some weather-worn key buried in the sand at the beach, you ignore it or throw it away. There is no larger context (car) into which it fits.

Church conflict
Conflict in churches is usually viewed in the same way as the lost key. People don’t know what to do with it.

It doesn’t positively fit into a larger context. Members view it as an aberration to the way a church is supposed to be. There is no value associated with it. To the contrary, it is viewed as destructive. This leads to an attempt to suppress it, but the ability to do so successfully is rare. Too often, both people and ministry are hurt for months, if not years.

Conflict finds fertile ground in churches because of another contextual reality universal in all organizations: bad news gets filtered out on the way up. This means that those in leadership have a rosier picture of reality than is warranted. The CBS television show, “Undercover Boss,” provides graphic evidence of this. The CEO of a large company puts on a disguise to work with front line employees for a week. Invariably, the program shows how clueless the

CEO is to the actual difficulties employees face in their jobs. The show typically ends up with the CEO returning to his board with a list of changes he or she wants to see happen based on that firsthand experience. This reality would have otherwise remained outside his or her purview.

A whole host of problems get filtered out on the way up in churches as well. The larger the church, the more pronounced this becomes. In this context, conflict escalates. Pastors are among the last to know about an issue that has been brewing. When it finally explodes onto the scene it may be too late to prevent real damage.

A healthy church
Conflict can have a healthy impact on congregational life if it occurs within the right context. With the help of the accompanying diagram, reflect upon what a healthy church looks like.

Leaders set forth the vision of the church. Policies and procedures are established to support the attainment of this vision. Within this structural framework, staff and volunteers engage in the work of the church to make the vision a reality. Conflict inevitably emerges. The question is, “Is there an in-house peacemaking process in place, one that is based on solid biblical theology and best practices for organizations?” If the answer is no, the work and fellowship of that church are in unnecessary jeopardy. If the answer is yes, conflict will more likely be resolved. But this should not be the end of the story.

Healthy churches not only have a pre-existing blueprint to deal with conflict, but built into the overall process is a feedback component for leadership. In the plan I personally advance, the First Responders Initiative (based on the theological Judeo-Christian Model of Peacemaking), the director of the initiative intermittingly reports to the board (without breaking confidentiality) the kinds of conflicts that have been addressed by volunteers who have been trained to resolve in-house disputes among members and staff.

The board is now in a prime position to determine if policy or procedural changes need to be made so that the same problems don’t arise again. Within this larger system, conflict gains new meaning. It becomes the fuel for long-term ministry improvement. In this environment, disputes are positively transformed.

Fellowship becomes stronger. Ministry becomes more effective. Members become more loyal because leaders have become more responsive at the point of their need. This is the practice of “servant-leadership” at its best.

Conflict’s larger context is a major factor determining whether its impact will be for good or ill. For it to take on a constructive meaning, a regenerative framework needs to exist into which it is integrated.

Chances are your church does not have such a framework. Why not establish one? In the same way God established his peace plan before any of us ever sinned and entered into conflict with Him, should we not do the same to make and maintain peace with each other? The answer is obvious.

Dr. Ken Newberger, a former pastor and living in Fort Myers, FL, has a doctorate in conflict analysis and resolution. He is a leading authority on resolving church conflict and facilitating congregational health. www.ResolveChurchConflict.com

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Judeo-Christian model of peacemaking vs. Matthew 18

Matthew 18:15-18 is a passage that outlines the process of church discipline. For it to be carried to fruition, a number of conditions have to be met (notice the five “if” clauses). The first condition is that there has to be chargeable “sin.” Differences of opinion, for example, do not come under this category (see Acts 15:36-41). Additionally, for this process to advance, there must be “witnesses,” not to the accusation of sin, but to the act of sin itself (see Deut. 19:15, the passage Jesus cites in Matt. 18:16, cp. Numbers. 35:30).

Being a witness to the accusation of sin proves or disproves nothing. Being a witness to the act of sin is required (cp. Mark 14:56 with Mark 14:61-64). When two or more people are witnesses to another person’s sin, Matthew 18:15-18 takes precedence over any other process. However, Matthew 18 cannot and should not be used if these two conditions do not exist, lest one misapply the text.

What then do you do when there is conflict in the church and Matthew 18 cannot be used? This is when the Judeo-Christian Model of Peacemaking is utilized. This model mirrors the process that God used to make peace with mankind (which was not Matthew 18). To learn the model’s specific contours, I have authored Hope in the Face of Conflict: Making Peace with Others the Way God Makes Peace with Us (Three Sons Publishing, 2011). — KCN

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