Dealing with Conflict- Matt 18

I find encouragement in Jesus’ teaching in our gospel passage because Jesus anticipates that there will be conflict and disagreement in the church. This is not a surprise to him, and 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 (Lk 22). One of them betrayed him into the hands of those who killed him, and Peter denied knowing him (Lk 22).

Later, in the book of Acts, they are in conflict about the place of Gentiles in the church (Gal 2; Acts 15). Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark argued about whether Mark should accompany them on one of his missionary journeys because he had left them prematurely on a previous journey (Acts 15). 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. 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 when you talk to them. 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.

The first thing to do here is to first get our motivation right. Jesus says, 
“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”. 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.

(It is maybe worth pointing out that it is not always clear who was sinned against. Two people who are in conflict will likely both think they have been sinned against, and they are in the right. That is the nature of conflict and especially of anger, which is almost always self-justifying. That makes the second and third steps important. Regardless, the process is the same.)

So first, we begin with our motivation, which is concern for the soul of the other person who committed the sin. The early Church Father Chrysostom points out that Jesus does not say, 
“’accuse him[/her]’ 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/her], 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]
This is a hard thing for us to hear in a society that is so obsessed with being offended.

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. It is them who should be seeking forgiveness after all. Surprisingly, the person with the burden to approach the other is the person who has been sinned against. We gently 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- we go to the person alone. We also aren’t supposed to 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.

(Of course, we also want to do this with wisdom. For example, if someone is likely to be violent towards you it is probably not wise to meet with them alone. This is not a law Jesus is giving us- It is wisdom. It is general guidance.)

If the person is unwilling to listen to you when you are alone, then the next step is to bring along one or two more people. This isn’t about bringing along your best friends who are so loyal to you that they would agree with you if you were right or wrong. This is about witnesses. 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.

Now, we don’t want to be coming after each other for every little thing. There is way too much of that in our world. After all, Jesus tells us to remove the log in our own eye before we try to pick out the sliver in another person’s eye. He warns us about the danger of judgement. So, this kind of confrontation should really be about quite serious matters. Sin matters, and shouldn’t be ignored. Though I know even defining “serious” is problematic.

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 or two others, then we bring it to the broader church. We open the circle a bit wider. Remember that the church in the first century were often house churches. Jesus here isn’t saying to make an announcement on Sunday morning, or send out a mass email (unless we are talking about dangerous criminal behaviour). I think an appropriate place to bring this would be to Parish Council which represents 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. It is a kind of intervention. 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 have done anything wrong, 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 see their sin, then they have cut themselves off from the community by being unwilling to live in the way of life of the church. They essentially have made themselves equal to someone outside the church. 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. … In this statement there is an element of respecting the person’s free will and the consequences that come from their decision to reject the direction of the church.

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.

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? … If 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. AMEN

[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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