Monday, 8 September 2014

Jesus' advice on dealing with conflict- Matt 18

We sometimes have the impression that if the church was what it was supposed to be then there should be no conflict in it. Jesus speaks about his followers as salt, which preserves and brings out flavor. Jesus speaks about his followers as light that shines into a dark world. His followers are the ones who put Jesus’ profound teachings on love into practice. And if not us, then who? We are to be a people shaped by God’s love.  This means that, as Christians, we are God’s missionaries in this world. As Abraham’s spiritual ancestors we are to carry the blessing of God into the world as inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis that his ancestors would bless all the families of the earth.
So we might assume that the church would be a kind of utopia where everyone always gets along and a smile is always on every face. …Sometimes it can be that way. Sometimes everything seems to go well, but it often doesn’t last very long. We often see drama and conflict among members of the church. Sometimes it can seem so bad that we are left wondering, how we are supposed to bring blessing to the world when we can’t even get along ourselves?
The first thing I find encouraging about Jesus’ teaching in our gospel passage is that Jesus anticipates that there will be problems. Jesus gives us a way to deal with conflict. We sometimes think the church should be a utopia, but Jesus never had that illusion. Jesus’ own disciples argued about who was greater. One of them betrayed him into the hands of those who killed him, and Peter denied knowing him. I’m sure there were all kinds of squabbles that happened between the disciples, especially considering they were with each other day in and day out for around three years. We could also look at Paul’s letters, most of which seem to have been written in response to a conflict in a church. This was nothing new for God’s people.  They squabbled under the leadership of Moses, under the prophet Samuel, under King David. The thing that matters isn’t if there will be conflict, it is how we deal with conflict as followers of Jesus.  Conflict is expected, so Jesus gives us some guidance. Even though it is expected, and even normal, there is also potential for a lot of harm to be done, so how we deal with it is important. 
The process Jesus gives us is this. If someone sins against you, first, bring it up with them just between the two of you. If they won’t listen to you, then bring along one or two others. If they still won’t listen then bring it before the church. If they still won’t listen then treat them as you would treat someone who is outside the church- a Pagan Gentile, or a traitorous tax collector.        
This seems like a pretty cut and dry process, even a bit stark and cold, but that is only at first glance. We get a hint as to what our motivation should be at the end of Jesus’ first step in dealing with the conflict. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one”. The actual motivation isn’t justice for the offended person who was sinned against. The motivation is “regaining that one”.  No doubt Jesus cares about the person who was sinned against, but Jesus asks us to endure all kind of wrongs. … Jesus is more concerned about the person who was able to sin against another, and then to not seek forgiveness and reconciliation. That person has wounded their own soul and they need healing. Otherwise they are beginning to separate themselves from God and His people.
So first we begin with our motivation, which is concern for the soul of the other person who committed the sin.  Again, we don’t want to ignore the person who was sinned against, but the assumption is that they are still in a good position before God and are able to endure wrongdoing because they are united to Christ. The person who has sinned has begun cutting themselves off from Christ and is the one in more danger.
The early Church Father Chrysostom points out that Jesus does not say, “’accuse him’ or ‘take him to court’. He says ‘correct him’. For he is possessed, as it were, by some stupor, and drunk in his anger and disgrace. The one who is healthy must go to the one who is sick… be earnest toward his cure, not toward satisfying your anger and hurt feelings”.[1]
  Similarly Augustine says, “If you fail [to confront him], you are worse than he is. He has done someone harm, and by doing harm he has stricken himself with a grievous wound. Will you then completely disregard your brother’s wound? Will you simply watch him stumble and fall down? Will you disregard his predicament? If so, you are worse in your silence than he in his abuse. Therefore, when anyone sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves. For it is a glorious thing to forget injuries. Just set aside your own injury, but do not neglect your brother’s wound. … for the harm he has done is not primarily to you but to himself.”[2]
The first step, once we have corrected our motivation, is to confront the person directly. We might assume that we should wait for the person to come to us to seek forgiveness, but surprisingly the person with the burden is the person who has been sinned against. We humbly and lovingly point out the sin of the other, not to satisfy our own hurt feelings, but out of concern for the wound in the soul of the person who has sinned. We come to them alone. We don’t gossip to all our friends about it, or yell at them, or attempt to humiliate them- we go to the person alone. We also aren’t supposed to merely be “nice” and pretend the sin never happened, which is an equally powerful temptation for some of us who don’t like confrontation and would rather avoid it at all costs.      
If the person is unwilling to listen to you when you are alone, then Jesus advises bringing along one or two more people. Bringing in others who aren’t immediately involved in the conflict can give some level of objectivity. Perhaps no sin has taken place and it is really in the imagination of the offended person, or it is a misunderstanding. Bringing along one or two others can help clarify the situation and help to determine if a wrong has actually taken place. If the other person is respected by both people then it is more likely that a person will admit their fault, repent, and seek forgiveness.
But involving others from the church isn’t just about gaining objectivity. Sin in the church is also a spiritual matter that has an effect beyond just the immediate people effected. The sin of Christians presents a particular image to the rest of the world.  Sin within the church also effects the culture within the church. It changes how much we trust each other and how safe we feel with each other. So really every Christian has an invested interest in the sin of other Christians for a variety of reasons, including concern for the sinner. Paul talks about the Church as being the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). We are all parts of that body and we have an effect on one another. If we stub our toe the rest of our body reacts.
I know a theologian and pastor named Gordon Smith who served a church where two people had a long standing feud that stemmed from a church split over 30 years before he met them. The two did not interact at all, but still came to the same church. They just avoided each other.  On one level they might have believed that their issue was between the two of them and it was no one else’s business. But, he and others at the church were convinced that their feud was a sickness in the church that had a spiritual effect far beyond the two of them. Sin has an effect on the church that runs deeper than our individualism wants to lets us believe.
So first we confront them alone, and if that doesn’t work then we bring along one or two others from the church.  If that person still refuses to listen, even before one of two others, then we are to bring it to the broader church. We involve more people in the hopes that the person will see the wrong they have done as they see the will of the body of the church in agreement on the matter. Again, this is not in order to shame the person, or to get the church to take sides, all of this is out of concern to regain the one who has sinned- to help the person to see the wound in their soul so it can be healed. As long as the person does not believe they are wounded, their wound cannot be tended to. No medicine can be given as long as they deny the illness. 
If the matter is brought before the church and the person still refuses to admit it then they have cut themselves off from the direction of the body of Christ. They essentially have made themselves equal to someone outside the church and should be treated that way so they have no illusions about where they have placed themselves. So they are to be treated like a Gentile who was usually a Pagan that did not follow the Jewish God. Similarly, they are to be treated like a tax collector who betrayed their own people to make a profit for themselves while working for the occupying forces that were oppressing their people.
This sounds very harsh. Treat the person that sinned and refused to listen to you like a gentile or a tax collector. It sounds like we turn our backs on them and refuse to have anything to do with them, but then we have to think about how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. The Apostle Matthew, who tradition tells us wrote this Gospel, was called by Jesus when he was a tax-collector. Jesus was primarily called to Israel, but he also worked miracles of healing for Gentiles and applauded their faith. After the resurrection he commanded his followers to go to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all people. So, to treat a person like a tax-collector or a Gentile is to love them and go to great lengths to help them be restored to a strong and healthy relationship with God.          
            Jesus also promises that this isn’t just an unspiritual political process. The actions of the church have an effect in heaven because the church is the body of Christ, and the church in heaven exists in union with the church on earth. And so, as the body of Christ, there is a certain level of authority given to make decisions that bind a person’s behavior for the benefit of their soul. Now this has to all be done carefully, compassionately, and prayerfully because this kind of authority could be quite easily misused. But Jesus says that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” So heavenly realities can even be effected by our own choices here.
            This process is really about radical love. How do we live a life of compassion for everyone around us, even when they hurt us? Can we love the sinner even when their sin burns us? It we think about it from the other side, isn’t this exactly how we would want to be treated if we were the sinner? How would it feel to have someone genuinely approach you with compassion when you have harmed them through your sin? The church may not be a utopia, but if we learned to treat each other with this kind of love then we would truly be light shining in a dark world.      

[1] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Matthew II p 76
[2] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Matthew II p 77, 79

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