Keys to Effective Conflict Resolution (Pt.3)

Mark McCleary
The following is part two of a multi-part series on the keys to effective conflict resolution. If you missed parts one or two click here and then read this. Be sure to keep an eye out for future submissions in the conflict resolution series.

This post focuses on the Biblical hub for my conflict resolution praxis. This part one of a two-part narrative for understanding of social conflict and God’s way for resolving it within a church context. Review my last submission before proceeding with this one (Part One, Matthew 18:15-20).

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

Regrettably, this passage has had fragment application as a conflict resolution intervention among congregants that adhere to the Bible as their rule of faith and practice. Some, such as Kenneth Newberger (2008), refer to this passage as the most “misapplied passage on church conflict” (p. 3). His reasoning is rooted in a judicial procedural analysis he posits would tend to escalate rather than resolve church conflict. I believe Newberger’s reasoning is myopic because he, like many others, seem to lack confidence in human capacity to deal with conflict constructively.

If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone [negotiation]: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established [mediation]. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it

unto the church: but if he neglects to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen men and a publican. Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven [arbitration]. Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matthew 18:15-20, KJV).

In contradiction to Newberger’s (2008) position is the following analysis of this passage. It was authored by a Jewish publican, Levi Matthew (Matthew 9:9, KJV), who wrote primarily to a Jewish audience concerning intra-synagogue, intragroup, or interpersonal conflict. Its pre-text includes the encouragement of competing disciples to be altruistic by using non-threatening children as illustrations of kingdom eligibility; then warning against inter-brother offenses; and subsequently a how to recover a lost sheep via the themes of mission and reconciliation. This pretextual material is focused on horizontal relations between actors and not judicial top-down mandates to determine interests, rights, or values between conflicting parties. Thus, the pre-textual material provides a foundation for Matthew 18:15-20’s conflict resolution-like vision of hope and restoration for conflicted congregational actors.

Trespass is at the heart of this passage. Its connotations include lying, theft, deception, injustice, or uncharitableness—all of which indicate divergence at the interpersonal level of social interaction. Trespass (asham) is rooted in the Old Testament offering ceremony for atonement and reconciliation with God and fellow man which means debt or bill unpaid.  

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, If a soul commit a trespass, and sin through ignorance, in the holy things of the LORD; then he shall bring for his trespass unto the LORD a ram without blemish out of the flocks, with thy estimation by shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary, for a trespass offering: And he shall make amends for the harm that he hath done in the holy thing, and shall add the fifth part thereto, and give it unto the priest: and the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering, and it shall be forgiven him. And if a soul sin, and commit any of these things which are forbidden to be done by the commandments of the LORD; though he wist it not, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity. And he shall bring a ram without blemish out of the flock, with thy estimation, for a trespass offering, unto the priest: and the priest shall make an atonement for him concerning his ignorance wherein he erred and wist it not, and it shall be forgiven him. It is a trespass offering: he hath certainly trespassed against the LORD.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the LORD, and lie unto his neighbor in that which was delivered him to keep, or in fellowship, or in a thing taken away by violence, or hath deceived his neighbor;   Or have found that which was lost, and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely; in any of all these that a man doeth, sinning therein: Then it shall be, because he hath sinned, and is guilty, that he shall restore that which he took violently away, or the thing which he hath deceitfully gotten, or that which was delivered him to keep, or the lost thing which he found, Or all that about which he hath sworn falsely; he shall even restore it in the principal, and shall add the fifth part more thereto, and give it unto him to whom it appertaineth, in the day of his trespass offering.  And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD, a ram without blemish out of the flock, with thy estimation, for a trespass offering, unto the priest: And the priest shall make an atonement for him before the LORD: and it shall be forgiven him for any thing of all that he hath done in trespassing therein (Leviticus 5:14-6:7, KJV).

Next week, I will conclude with Part II of my analysis of Matthew 18:15-20 and how it is implemented as a structural essential for my Congregational Conflict Resolution Procedural Training Manual (CCRPTM).



Newberger, K. (2008). Matthew 18:15-18: The most misapplied passage on church conflict,  Retrieved from  www.resolvechurchconflict.com/church_discipline_matthew_18.htm.

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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