When Matthew 18 Isn’t Enough: Developing a Deeper Model for School Conflict Resolution

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:

  1. Consider how to enhance school policy beyond Matthew 18, and consider how to provide education and training on how to achieve the model.
  2. Consider how to empower specific individuals within the school to competently serve as conflict resolution mediators for those cases that truly need significant reconciliation.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 maxx@renewalconciliation.org.


The Redemption and Promise of Service-Learning

The Redemption and Promise of Service-Learning

You may think that Christian schools—whose missions can often be boiled down to “Serve God, Serve Others”—may be leading the way in implementing service-learning. However, in their new book, Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, authors Lynn Swaner and Roger Erdvig say that often the power of service-learning is unrealized in Christian schools. Instead, it’s more likely that Christian schools have been doing some service activities, instead of genuine service-learning.

Serving or Service-Learning—What’s the Difference?

I am convinced that the phrase service-learning needs redemption—a basic reboot! When I mention service-learning to others, I hear the same mixed and often-confused responses that I mentally conjure up in response to those words. To this end, Swaner and Erdvig draw some helpful distinctions between what is serving versus service-learning. Service-learning is not any of the following service activities:

  • Service hours with no link to the curriculum;
  • Service limited to the inside four walls of the school community;
  • An activity or project that does not provide direct contact with those being served;
  • A one-time event instead of ongoing service (which helps facilitate relationships); and
  • Service that is done from a “charity” perspective, as opposed to community-minded.

 If these kinds of activities—though potentially valuable for students, teachers, and the community—are not service-learning, then what is? According to Swaner and Erdvig, it is “a pedagogy that intentionally connects classroom learning with service opportunities outside of the school.” They explain that service-learning:

  • Connects community service or outreach with classroom learning and the curriculum;
  • Takes students outside of the school setting and into the local community, to address real community needs;
  • Creates authentic, meaningful relationships between students and those being served; and
  • Increases and enhances student learning, as well as students’ desire and ability to serve others.

 They further suggest that the true purpose of service-learning is “to address real needs of the community partner” (bold emphasis mine).

They also provide two key questions for administrators to help us differentiate and further develop our understanding of service-learning:

  • The first question is, “Are the service opportunities offered by the school also available to students in other settings, such as their churches, youth groups, or families? (Food and clothing drives are good examples of fairly universal service activities.)” If the answer is yes, then what’s being offered might not be genuine service-learning, as it does not harness the educational power of the school.
  • Conversely, and second, “Is there a meaningful connection between current service opportunities at the school and ‘real work’ of learning in the classroom?” If the answer to this question is yes, then the odds are that true service-learning is happening.

If as faith-based schools this is a critical outcome of our missions, we need to redeem the term service-learning and do it right.

The Promise of Service-Learning

With this clearer picture of service-learning in mind, we can better answer the question of why exert the effort of engaging in service-learning (which the authors do not shy away from saying is resource- and time-intensive). Swaner and Erdvig present research that points to multiple benefits to students who engage in service-learning, such as positive gains in: 1) academic achievement, 2) civic engagement, 3) beliefs and values, and 4) leadership, spiritual, and personal development. All of these are in line with the mission statements and desired student outcomes of Christian schools.

Along those lines, I appreciate that, in the section on national service-learning standards, the authors have also formulated supplemental standards appropriate for Christian education. These standards articulate four additional areas: 1) Christlikeness, 2) worldview development, 3) servant-leadership, and 4) lifelong service. While service-learning is well-practiced in many different educational settings, it not only can find a place in Christian schools, but also is well-suited to what we wish to see in students’ learning and spiritual formation.

Ultimately, service-learning can help students to grow in their identity in Christ, and in their ability to be His agents of restoration in a broken world. They can learn about how they are uniquely created for good works (Ephesians 2:10) and can gain practical experience in walking in those works, with Christian school teachers as helpful mentors and guide.

In fact, I will take the risk to suggest that genuine service-learning exemplifies the best aspects of deeper learning—learning through real work—the endpoints of project-based learning and what is called FLEX (Formational Learning Experiences) in the TfT (Teaching for Transformation) model. Christian schools serious about increasing student engagement and mission distinctiveness through deeper learning for their students would be well served by this book, in shaping and re-shaping service-learning at their schools.

[Editor’s Note: This post is co-published by the CACE blog and the ACSI blog in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.]

About the Author

Dan Beerens is an educational consultant, author, international speaker, and educational leader. Before starting DB Consulting in May 2010, he served as vice president of Learning Services and director of Instructional Improvement at Christian Schools International. Prior to that, he was the director of Curriculum and Instruction for Holland Christian Schools. Dan has also worked as teacher and principal in urban and suburban public and Christian schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. Dan regularly presents on teacher evaluation and professional growth, curriculum design, school improvement, technology integration, faith integrated learning, and student faith development at regional, national, and international conferences. He is the author of Evaluating Teachers for Professional Growth: Creating a Culture of Motivation and Learning published by Corwin Press. He can be reached via email at danbeerens@gmail.com.

Innovation: Moving Beyond Debate to Constructive Action

Innovation: Moving Beyond Debate to Constructive Action

What is Innovation?

When you think of the word “innovation,” what images or ideas come to mind? This is not a rhetorical question! Invoking the word “innovation” in education is a bit like challenging someone to a Rorschach test. When you look at the inkblot formed by the letters of that word, what do you see—and what do you feel?

Some think of innovation in terms of frenetic activity fueled by technology, commercialism, and globalization, accompanied by feelings of apprehension and wariness (and perhaps weariness!). Others may envision our seemingly boundless human potential for creativity, problem-solving, and continuous improvement, along with a sense of confident hope and even expectant exhilaration. Still others will skeptically concur with the author of Ecclesiastes 1:9 (ESV) that, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Thinking Constructively: Moving Beyond Debate

When we discuss the need for innovation in Christian education, we often encounter a mix of these responses. And, unfortunately, we’ve found that they typically “cancel” each other out—meaning that conversations about innovation rarely progress beyond debate about whether innovation is bad, good, or indifferent. This is problematic, because regardless of where we may locate our individual thoughts and feelings about innovation, there is no denying that schools in general—and Christian schools specifically—face a number of complex challenges and opportunities that demand a response.

These are presented in detail in the article, “What is the Future of Christian Education?”, and include:

  • societal changes (increasingly secular culture and value sets),
  • market changes (proliferation of schooling options and decline of middle-class families choosing private schools),
  • changes in learners’ needs (diversification of student populations, learning approaches, and target skills for 21st-century life and work),
  • generational changes (toward more integrated views of life and career, and a valuing of collaborative leadership), and
  • changes in educational delivery models (mediated by technology, including online/hybrid approaches, personalized learning, and soon-to-proliferate virtual and augmented reality).

Therefore, we need to think more constructively about innovation if Christian education is to adapt and thrive into the future. To this end, we propose that innovation simply means developing adaptive solutions to current challenges and opportunities. We innovate when we look at the current state of education and develop these adaptive responses, because doing the same things the same way is inadequate in meeting the needs, demands, and opportunities of the world in which we live.

To be clear, that response is far from directionless. In her keynote address for the Kuyers Center, “Redeeming the Buzzwords: A Distinctively Christian Approach to Innovation in Education,”  Dr. Beth Green (Cardus Education) not only talks about innovation as a “posture”—composed of both a mindset and specific practices, and shaped by cultural norms—but also asks the all-important question, “What is innovation for?”

We propose that the goal of innovation in Christian schools is a dynamic and excellent education for students, which is aligned with the way they are created—in God’s image, uniquely fashioned, and called to good works (Ephesians 2:10)—and prepares them for God’s restorative work in their generation.

How Do We Catalyze Innovation?

In our work in Christian education, this is a question that we continually confront. We are always asking how we can spur ourselves toward transformative change, as opposed to fiddling with technical solutions that don’t address the adaptive challenges listed above. In keeping with Beth Green’s helpful language, first we must inspire a “posture” of innovation. Such a posture is open-minded yet purposeful, curious yet thoughtful, challenging yet grace-filled, and ambitious yet humble. It involves asking tough and often uncomfortable questions—and considering out-of-the-box adaptive solutions that may come from all corners of the education profession, as well as from other fields.

Of course, catalytic innovation rarely happens in isolation. Although we’ve found many schools and educators that are engaged in innovation as we’ve defined it, it’s rare that they do so on their own. Instead, out of intrigue or discontent, they have met others who are like-minded along their journeys and engaged in dialogue that sparked generative ideas. And so we need to provide strategic spaces for that posture of innovation to develop, through collision with the ideas and expertise of others. In short, we need to bring people together around the question of innovation in Christian education.

An Opportunity and an Invitation 

Along these lines, we have been enormously blessed to be involved with planning the 2019 Global Christian School Leadership Summit (GCSLS), to be held in San Antonio in late January. The first GCSLS, which was innovative in bringing together eight Christian school associations for the first time, occurred in 2017 and drew over 700 educational leaders from around the world. The 2019 iteration of GCSLS is focused on innovation as an opportunity to respond to current challenges and opportunities, in a way that results in an excellent education commensurate with how our students are created and aligned with God’s plans for them, and the subsequent growth of Christian schools worldwide.

Future blog posts in the fall will explore the summit’s strands (teaching, learning, and spiritual formation; missional use of technology; engaging the culture for gooddiversity and inclusion; and next generation leadership; along with catalyzing innovation), target outcomes for the event, innovative ways the summit will convene and engage participants to achieve those outcomes, and a focus on emerging and next generation leaders. In the meantime, we invite you to visit the summit website to learn more and to register.

As GCSLS presenter and futurist Rex Miller explains in his book, Humanizing the Education Machine“There are no silver bullets…Complex problems are never solved but can only be navigated or reframed” (18, emphasis in original). Consider joining fellow leaders as we work together to navigate and reframe our work in Christian education through innovation.

About the Authors

Dr. Lynn Swaner is the director of Thought Leadership at ACSI USA, where she leads initiatives to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Prior to joining ACSI she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. A published scholar and conference speaker, she is the lead editor of the book PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, co-author of Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning (forthcoming 2018), and editor of the ACSI USA blog. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. She can be reached via email at lynn_swaner@acsi.org.

Erik Ellefsen has served in education for 21 years as a teacher, coach, consultant, grievance chairman for the American Federation of Teachers, dean of Academics at Boston Trinity Academy, and as principal at Chicago Christian High School. He currently serves as an academic and college counselor at Valley Christian High School (San Jose, California), a senior fellow for CACE, a senior fellow for Cardus, podcaster for Digital Education, and as vice president of CCEI. Erik regularly organizes Christian school leadership seminars and speaks on issues pertaining to academic programs, student leadership, and organizational development. He can be reached via email at eellefsen@vcs.net.