Reconciliation – does the Bible help us?

When Irish Presbyterians come to resolve conflict they turn to the Bible and specifically to Matthew 18 where a process is clearly set out and to which church members are first referred should there be any disputes between them. The verses are entitled Dealing with sin in the church:-


15 ‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18 ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 ‘Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’


The verses follow from a section specifically about not tripping up young or not yet mature followers of Jesus. Those verses follow from an account of a dispute between the disciples about who was going to be greatest and have the best place when they were all in heaven. Leading into the verses about causing others to stumble are a couple of verses about searching out the one that wanders away, even if there are ninety nine left in the fold. After the verses about dealing with sin in the church, or resolving conflict, there is a story about mercy and forgiveness – about how one man found himself at the mercy of a powerful king to whom he owed much and when he begged for mercy he found himself forgiven the debt. Going out into the street, his heart and spirit light, he met another man who owed him a small amount and when this man threw himself on the forgiven servants mercy he found himself thrown into jail. So the verses about conflict and its resolution are set inside a whole series of thoughts about power and how it is used, about the role of mercy and forgiveness in relationships and about the power of example to trip others up or, it is implied, to inspire more from them. Clearly what matters to the author is good relationships and so when those relationships break down there is a clear path for their resolution.

1 Try to resolve the differences quietly and between yourselves, if that doesn’t work –

2 Bring some others along with you and try to work it out and if that still doesn’t work –

3 Its time to go to the wider church community

4 If there is still no hope of restoring the relationship then there is no alternative but to treat the ‘sinner’, the one with whom the relationship has broken down, as a pagan or a tax-collector.

Lederach takes this passage and effectively unpacks it into the life of the church community, critiquing it from within the practice of his own Mennonite tradition and as I read I discover that Mennonite practice isn’t that far off Presbyterian practice. It’s a good read for church people who want to be Biblical in the way in which they approach the broken relationships within all our church communities.

But Lederach takes this passage further and inquires into what it can offer by way of model and guide to those involved in conflict resolution in other scenarios and situations. There are some helpful thoughts and they have provoked me in my thinking. What does it mean, for example, to move a process of resolving conflict beyond a room where there are two people working it out or a small group trying to address it? What does it mean to roll out the conflict before a whole community and seek there its resolution? And if there is no resolution we are to treat the other, the enemy, as a pagan or a tax collector – is that a good thing?

There are those who resist any notion of dealing with our history in the context of Northern Ireland and certainly a resistance to dealing with our history in any kind of organised way. They argue that there is enough going on, that there is enough disturbance and sharing of information and dragging this community down with truth-seeking and they want lines drawn in the sand, under the past and across the pages of inquests and inquiries. There are all sorts of good reasons offered into the argument for this ‘line-drawing’. Society has had enough; it costs too much; the truth would do no good; the truth could never be found anyway; we need to move on. Most of us, if we’ve been paying any sort of attention at all, have heard all the arguments rehearsed. But I have to wonder as I listen and I as look at those who make the draw-a-line arguments if it hasn’t more to do with feeling that truth is a one way process and it’s time that one way process ended rather than go on in an unbalanced way. So the resistance is more about balance than about truth itself and truth can always be sacrificed if it has become a weapon against one section of the community.

The Matthew passage and Jesus urging about what to do when there is conflict tells us that we are to move toward the person who has set themselves apart from us, become ‘enemy’ to us. We are urged to move towards them, to talk directly with them and if we find that we can’t make ourselves understood then we are to take others with us. There is no immediacy in the breaking off of the relationship. Should talking with the person in the company of others still be ineffective in developing understanding and remaking a relationship then the wider community becomes involved. While the passage is written for individual situations or internal community disputes there are still important aspects to this for a process of national reconciliation.

  • move towards the other, the one considered to be the enemy. There is no standing back, no hanging out in the shadows waiting to see if something happens. There is movement and it is movement towards the enemy. It is up to the peacemakers and the conflict resolvers and those who want something better and believe in something better to move towards the enemy. It’s up to everyone to identify the enemy and move towards them.
  • move towards the other in the hope of a new relationship. Matthew 18 sets out the new relationships in terms of new understandings about power, new insights about who is important and sought out, new visions of mercy and forgiveness. (If you want it in the Biblical sense it is to give the chance to discover that in the Kingdom of God those who think of themselves as the greatest will be surprised then the least step forward ahead of them; it is a chance to discover that in the Kingdom of God the one is sought after even if there are already ninety nine safe in the fold, everyone counts; it is to provide the learning that example matters and everyone shares responsibility for the weak and the vulnerable and the easily swayed so that they do not stumble and fall; it is to open up the windows onto the issues of power and mercy and forgiveness that transform and reset relationships putting people into different and new and exciting places that they hadn’t imagined possible.) The process of resolving conflict is not only to move towards enemies but also to offer surprising and life-changing experiences of mercy and forgiveness to people who thought they didn’t matter to you or who imagined they wouldn’t register on your radar.
  • allow enemies to move towards one another in a way that is witnessed by the wider community for their healing, hope and change. There is a wider community to bear witness and to itself be changed.
  • if there is no new hope from moving towards the enemy then they are to be treated as ‘pagans or tax collectors’. Whole books have been written about what that might mean but in the Biblical sense it can be argued that what Jesus did with pagans and tax-collectors was to have dinner with them. They weren’t put so far from him that they suffered utter exclusion. The relationship can never quite be an easy or comfortable one but neither is it one that is cut off without hope.


This third area, the wider community, is one worth considering further and I will do that at another time. It has begun to run around in my mind that this wider community of whatever and from where ever it is constructed, might be something like a Commission of Witnesses to Transformation. We don’t need a Truth Commission here, we are never going to agree on one. There are all sorts of thoughts around as to how we become a society more defined by how we are reconciling than we are by our divided past. There are things that need to be done and there are those who are able to identify those things and even ask for them. We are more constrained in what we can do than we were a few years ago, before the economic downturn. But still we need something, a process, a dealing with the past, a way for enemies to lay down the burdens of the past in the best way that they can so that the tools for building the future can be held in their hands. Wider society needs to become part of it but the process is fraught with danger, with justice concerns, with sell-out concerns, with moral murk and emotional despair and maybe a Commission of Witnesses could help with that and enable those who are already being transformed to put that clearly into the public domain, to work further into their transformation and to have it borne witness to in a manner which will help all of society to bring energy to its own transformation. I’m not quite sure how it would work but somewhere in here there might be a grain of guidance and hope. From the Bible, after all – the book about God’s mission as reconciliation.



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