Conflict Resolution in the Body of Christ

Matthew 18

 

15 If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Our text today is about conflict resolution in the body of Christ. Now when we encounter conflict in the church between us and someone else, we do not typically take the approach we just read. A normal reaction to what Jesus says here is to think that this is too extreme, too hard, or just plain unworkable for the situations in our lives. The issues may be too petty and we think we can just get over them by ourselves, given time and personal prayer. Or perhaps the issues are too serious, the wounding too deep, the other person too hostile to be approached in this manner. We tend to think (whether we admit it or not) that Jesus must not understand our world, that his way won't work for us, so we turn to counseling or therapy or some other method that seems like a more realistic approach than what our Lord gives us here.

 

But we need to try to understand and practice the biblical model for conflict resolution, otherwise we're living in disobedience. You see, Jesus is not making suggestions here, he's giving instructions that he expects us to follow. He's not offering one method among others we might try, he's giving us the one way to become the kind of community he is building. If we think about it, we know that he created us, he does understand us, and he loves us. We can trust him as our Lord and God and we can have faith to obey him, even when his way seems strange to us.

 

What we're faced with, then, is a simple choice: will we follow the method Jesus gives us, or will we reject his way for something else that is man-made? If we're going to be his disciples, his followers, we have to follow his way, which means we need to understand it and then put it into practice. And we can begin to understand it by carefully looking at the first and most basic command Jesus gives us here: If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.

 

If your brother sins against you: this tells us right away that Jesus is dealing with conflict within the church, specifically between two of his followers. We can't expect this method to work between a believer and an unbeliever, or even between a believer and a false believer or a false teacher. There are biblical models for dealing with those relationships as well, but they lie outside the scope of this text. Here, Jesus is dealing specifically with typical, hurtful, sinful issues that come up between fellow believers brothers and sisters in Christ. We might assume that we know what brother and sister names, but Jesus tells us right here in the immediate context what he wants his followers to look like, and it is crucial to understand who they are who we are if we are to resolve conflict well in the manner that Jesus gives us.

 

If you look back in 18.3, Jesus tells us that in order to be a subject in his kingdom we have to become like little children. We might be tempted to think that Jesus has in mind the innocence of little children, but he prevents us from making that mistake by specifying in v.4 that it is the humility of little children that he has in mind. He helps us more in 18.12 by comparing his followers to lonely, lost sheep.

 

You see the whole teaching in ch.18 follows an argument the disciples had about who the greatest of them was (more on this later). Jesus responds that the greatest in his kingdom really all who actually get into his kingdom are those who humble themselves like little children; the ones he really cares about the most are the lost. Jesus ends this discussion with another parable where a servant is forgiven a vast sum of money by his master (again, more on this later). So, his followers are those who are humble like little children, who know they were once the lone lost sheep, and those who understand just how much they've been forgiven from. Jesus' method of conflict resolution presumes that both parties have this basic self-understanding; without this common ground, we're not talking about conflict resolution within the body of Christ.

 

If your brother sins against you: Jesus clearly assumes that this will happen. Even among people who fit the description I just gave, there is going to be conflict, there is going to be real, genuine hurt. Jesus is responding to a perfect example, the argument his disciples were having. This was neither the first nor the last time they had this argument, a strange argument to have given that Jesus has told them at least twice by now that he's going to Jerusalem to die. Do you think they were jockeying to be the one in charge after his death? Matthew (who was one those in the argument) doesn't give us the details of their discussion, but it seems unlikely that they could've gotten very far in such an argument without saying hurtful things to each other. But Jesus is not only picking up on their sinful behavior of the moment, he also knows we will sin against each other because he understands that we live in a condition of sin. Remember, he was there when Adam and Eve fell he knows that it's in our fallen nature to sin. All of our relationships are characterized by a pre-existing brokenness that we can never fully get beyond in this life.

 

This brokenness manifests itself in hurtful things we say or do, and also in things we fail to say and do. Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan: the command being taught there is to love your neighbor as yourself. Of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, the Samaritan is the only one who did not sin, because if we fail to show love to each other, we have not kept that command; in other words, we've sinned. It's important we understand this, because in the culture of our day, sin has been replaced with other, nicer sounding terms like: differences of personality, mistakes, lapses in judgment, personal choices, and so on. But Jesus uses the word sin to refer to anything that arises from the brokenness between us rather than the love and unity we share anything that amounts to conflict that needs resolving between us, anything short of loving one another. Anything less than love comes from our sin and has to be dealt with as Jesus commands.

 

Because he understands our sinful condition, Jesus doesn't seek to eliminate the conflict between us; he doesn't try to have us avoid or prevent the inevitable. Instead, he teaches us how to deal with it properly when it does happen. In fact, he has made it so that learning to deal with conflict well is a key ingredient for us becoming the kind of community he wants us to be. Jesus is always good at turning our sin around for his glory and our good.

 

But Jesus also knows we have the ability to really hurt each other. In that parable I mentioned (starting in 18:21), Jesus talks not only about a servant who is forgiven from a huge debt, but about another servant who owes money to the first servant. Servant 1 owes the master 10,000 talents; servant 2 owes servant 1 100 denarii. These monetary units were based on yearly and daily wages, so, I recalculated the amounts in terms that make sense to us. The US Census Bureau tells us that the median income in this country in 2006 was about $48,000. Based on this, 10,000 talents would equate to around $7.6 billion and 100 denarii would equate to $18,500.

 

Notice what Jesus does here. The amount owed to the master is well it's infinite really; it's so much that for someone to be just outright forgiven over $7 billion is shocking the forgiveness God grants us is truly amazing. And while the smaller amount is a lot smaller by comparison, the comparison is only part of Jesus' point. He's also careful not to trivialize the hurts that we do to each other. I don't know about you, but I think $18,000 is a significant amount of money, and if you owed me $18,000 I would really want you to pay it back to me.

 

Jesus knows that sometimes we really hurt each other, and the Lord wants me to stress to you this morning that he knows some of you have suffered serious wounding from your brothers and sisters, from your fellow believers, people you were close to, people you trusted, which has made the hurt all the worse. Jesus knows you and he knows you have been hurt and he wants to heal that hurt. We've made the mistake, however, of thinking that these hurts are something within us that Jesus will just heal individually, apart from each other, and without us doing what he has told us to do. In cases where the other believer has died I think we can ask the Lord for such healing, but in normal circumstances, where the opportunity to obey Jesus remains, his healing comes through us obeying his command.

 

The command is simple: go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. Jesus calls for a controlled confrontation between the two believers. As followers of Jesus, we should get used to the fact that his way is usually completely different from our way that is, the world's way of going about things. If it was up to us, we'd look for the one in the wrong to do something, but Jesus places the responsibility squarely on the injured party. You have been wronged, you have been hurt, you have been sinned against: to you Jesus says go.

 

Also, like so much of Jesus' teaching, we find this command echoed in the law he came to fulfill. In Lev. 19.17, the Lord commanded the Israelites, Do not nurse hatred in your heart for your brother. Confront people directly so you will not be held guilty for their sin." We have to confront each other, whether we think it's too petty or too painful, because when one of us sins, we all suffer the effects; not only the one sinned against, but also the one who sins, and all of us as a body as well. The hurt doesn't reside within the one who has been wronged; it exists between the two parties, hurting them both and potentially the whole community.

 

Jesus makes clear that this brokenness between us is something that we must struggle together to overcome. This requires hard work, honest real love, a commitment to unity, and serious confrontation. We are one body. If you catch a virus by breathing it in, or if bacteria gets in through a cut on your finger, you don't have a sick finger, or a sick nose you have a sick you! If someone has sinned against you, you can't abandon your brother or sister in their sin, you have to go to them because you love them, and your love for them, the relationship that you share as members of one body is so important, so necessary, that it's worth the risk, whether we risk seeming petty, or even if we are risking further hurt.

 

And we have to be honest about this, if you confront someone who has hurt you, the chance exists that they will hurt you again and perhaps even worse. But is it so surprising that Jesus would ask us to make ourselves vulnerable like this? Not only is his way unlike the world's way, and not only is it the fulfillment of the OT way, it's also the way that he embodied, the way he himself took. We're his disciples, his followers, because we follow his example; we do the things he has done in the way he has done them.

 

Remember the parable of the two servants we just talked about Jesus is the master in that story. He is the one to whom the $7 billion is owed, he is the one we've all sinned so deeply against. And how did he respond to our hurting him? He went to the cross and died. The verse in Leviticus we read he did hold himself guilty for our sin and he sends his Holy Spirit continually to us to confront us when we sin. This is our example. We sin against Jesus he sacrifices himself and then confronts us by his Spirit. Someone sins against us we sacrifice ourselves to confront them to rescue them from their sin.

 

We also have to understand that this is why we confront them we are not seeking restitution, we are not looking to get even, our goal is not to be proven right we go in order to forgive them and be reconciled to them. The whole point of the parable of the two servants is that for one who has been forgiven of so much to withhold forgiveness from another is scandalous. Scandalous because not only do we exist in a condition of sin we also exist in a condition of forgiven-ness, we forgive each other because we've already been forgiven by Jesus. One of the hardest things about becoming a disciple of Jesus is learning to be forgiven, to accept our own forgiven-ness.

 

You see, Jesus told the parable of the two servants in response to Peter's question in v.21: Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Peter reacted to Jesus' method of conflict resolution the same way we do he thought it was unrealistic and needed some boundaries, some limitations, some qualifications. Do you also notice that Peter assumes that he's the one being sinned against, and not the other way around? Do you suppose he kept quiet during the argument that started this whole episode? Yeah, me neither. What Peter wants and what we want too is to retain the power to give or withhold forgiveness when a brother or sister has sinned against us. We want them to repent first, to be really sorry for hurting us.

 

But in telling Peter, not seven times, but seventy times seven, Jesus refuses to let him or us keep the power to withhold forgiveness from each other, because it is never the case that Jesus withholds his forgiveness from us. He died for us before we repented, his forgiveness comes to us before we ask; we only become aware of our sin as the Spirit reveals it to us, we only repent as the Spirit enables us. Hear me carefully here: forgiveness precedes and makes possible true repentance. Do you remember the story of the prodigal son? What did the father do? He was on the lookout for his son, saw him while he was still a long way off, ran out to meet the wayward boy and cut him off in the middle of the speech he had prepared. The father had forgiveness there waiting for him just as he had that fat calf, that ring, and that robe waiting for him.

 

Now you might argue that the boy had to get up out of the pig sty and walk back home, but that story uses humans as an analogy, our Father doesn't live far away, He leans over the rail of the pig sty and begs us to let Him lift us out. And when it says [the prodigal] came to himself that in itself is the work of the Holy Spirit. I hope I don't have to convince you any further that there is nothing we do to earn or merit the forgiveness Jesus gives us.

 

So the question is, do we offer forgiveness like the father of the prodigal son, or like the older brother? The older brother wanted what was fair, he wanted judgment, he wanted restitution; the father wanted reconciliation he wanted his family back together. He ran out to forgive the younger son, and in the middle of celebrating their reunion, he left the party to go to the older son. The father is our model for going to each other with forgiveness at the ready.

 

Once we go, Jesus commands us to tell him his fault. This telling is no ordinary speech. It must adhere to the highest standard we as Christians have, which Paul describes in Eph. 4.15 as speaking the truth in love. Truth-telling is crucial here, but alone it is not enough and will only make matters worse to speak truth without love is no better than speaking a curse. Speech that is loving, but not truthful is a lie and we know that love can't be based on a lie, so there can be no such thing as speech that is loving but not truthful. But settling on speaking the truth in love as our goal and standard is easier said than done. This requires careful, deliberate concern for the quality of our speech. This further means that we must make the effort to remember truthfully.

 

The problem is that careful memory and speech are often the first casualties of sin. The one who has been sinned against must be diligent in interrogating their own memory and must exercise constant vigilance over what they say and when and to whom they speak, to make sure it is truth spoken in love. Just a few weeks ago we heard how James warns us about the destructive power of the tongue (ch. 6). Speaking the truth in love means we don't tear others down to build ourselves up, we don't throw around casual accusations, we don't spread gossip, and we don't create scapegoats. These are all normal patterns of speech in the world around us; but as followers of Jesus we must unlearn them or they will destroy us as a body.

 

Practically speaking, let's think about what sort of limitations speaking the truth in love places on us. If the one sinned against is going to speak only loving truth, what can they say? They can tell what happened, you know just the facts, ma'am (from their perspective of course). They can tell how that made them feel, either at the time, or later, or now, or all three. They can tell how what happened is at odds with what Christians are supposed to say, do, or not say or do (when appropriate, and based on their reading of Scripture).

 

Is there anything else they can say and remain strictly truthful? Can they speak of the other person's motive or frame of mind or intent? Probably not. Can they speak about anyone else or to anyone else about this? No, but more on that in a minute. What happened and how it made them feel, that's pretty much it and that ought to be enough if they are talking to a brother or sister in Christ. Right?

 

Maybe or maybe not, which leads us to the last part of the initial command but bear in mind that this loving truth-telling kind of speech is required from beginning to end, at no point can the standard for Christian speech be lowered in what follows. Also bear in mind that the person who did the sinning has their own perspective; they will often have a different take on what happened. This means that speaking the truth in love is only possible when both parties are present; no step in this process can rightly occur when one party is absent. The two should be able to work the matter out most of the time, but it will most likely involve a give and take, with each speaking the truth in love and seeking to reconcile of course, but a real live confrontation all the same.

Between you and him alone. The rest of the instructions that Jesus gives us following this verse come from his desire to protect the body his body from the damage that comes when we sin against each other. It would be a serious mistake to think that the sin between two members of our body was somehow not an issue for the whole body; Jesus does not instruct us to keep the matter discreet because it is private; this command is for the protection of the body. If there is sin in our body, we have to deal with it as a body, but the first step is to keep it from spreading to the rest of the body if possible.

 

This means quite literally that the one sinned against is not to mention the offense to anyone except for the offender whom they are obligated to confront as we have already seen. If the one sinned against tells of the matter to anyone else in the community this itself is sin and under no circumstance are we to take these matters outside our community. Jesus clearly details who we are to tell and when we are to tell them, and he never instructs us to go outside our body with these matters. This is serious and Jesus expects us to follow his plan. He tells us to deal with the matter between the two alone to keep us from falling into a cycle of sin, where we compound sin on top of sin, which it makes it much harder to heal the situation.

 

The way we stop a cycle of sin from starting is to commit ourselves not to listen to anything of the sort. If someone comes up to you and begins to tell you how someone else in the body has hurt them you need to stop them before they get started. Don't listen to their story first, it's none of your business (yet) and if you listen to it, you have sinned as well. Cut them off and tell them to go to the person directly and follow this plan. Also encourage them to go ready to forgive and be reconciled; remind them of the prodigal's father. If they tell you they've already done that and it didn't work well, we'll get to that in a second, but most of the time, you're going to send them back and do tell them that if they can't work it out one on one to come back to you then.

 

The matter only goes beyond these two believers if somehow they can't come to an agreement. They may disagree about what happened, they may have radically different perspectives or theologies, or a genuine personality conflict, one might be exhibiting rebellion maybe trying to say it wasn't sin or doesn't need forgiving, could be any number of things at this point, but they're unable to come to agreement on their own. Until this point they will be the only ones in the know, but now others must be brought in. Jesus instructs us to take one or two others and in Gal. 6.1 Paul adds that these should be people who are spiritual and go in a spirit of gentleness.

 

Let's say someone comes up to you and tries to tell you how someone else hurt them. You cut them off, turn them around and point them back to that person, only to have them tell you that they did go to them first, just as Jesus told them to, and it didn't work. At this point, you still refuse to hear the details for two reasons: 1. you may or may not be the right person to mediate between these two, and 2. the other person is not present yet, making it impossible to ensure everyone is speaking the truth in love. So, at no point should you allow someone to tell you privately of how someone hurt them; and do I need to mention that you shouldn't be engaging in any conversations about how someone else wronged another someone else?

 

As for who should mediate, even if the two in conflict can't agree on anything else, they at least need to agree on who they are going to ask to mediate for them, both the number of people (as few as possible) and who they're going to be. The people chosen should be recognized leaders in the church, not necessarily staff, but those to whom authority has been entrusted by the community. They should also be people that both parties feel comfortable with and who are in a position to be neutral. Since neutrality would be compromised if they hear one side first without the other party present (and since we want to speak the truth in love), the telling should be done only when everyone has come together. Given our busy lives, such an event would probably have to be scheduled, but we shouldn't be afraid of being deliberate and careful with such matters we should be afraid of the opposite.

 

If the person who has done the offense is unwilling to agree on who should mediate, the one sinned against must still take one or two others. They should try to be as neutral in their selection as possible, and they should still not tell them any details until the other person is present. All that should be conveyed to these mediators ahead of time is that there is an outstanding conflict between the two parties that needs help resolving. This is very different from the man-made practice often called an intervention, because in that method everyone is fully in the know except the person being targeted, whom the rest have been talking or gossiping about for some time, and often the target is even led to the meeting under false pretenses. Here, everyone must speak only the truth in love and all must come with forgiveness at the ready and true reconciliation as their one desire. From reading Acts and Paul's letters, we can expect this sort of thing to happen sometimes and not create a major crisis. In Galatians, Paul is even able to use a past , resolved confrontation with Peter as a teaching example, which goes to show that Jesus knows how to build his body with resistance training.

 

If the matter escalates beyond this level we have a serious problem. This means at least one party is unwilling to receive counsel and is in open rebellion to those over them in the Lord because if we have chosen spiritual people to mediate according to Jesus' teaching, we need to submit to what they tell us to do. If they tell us to repent, we should repent; if they tell us that in their judgment, what we have done is sin, we need to stop doing it. Could they be wrong? Of course. But didn't Paul tell us it was better to give up some things for the sake of our brothers and sisters? Of course, if they really are spiritually mature, we're probably just wrong and blinded to our own sin. A very serious situation to be in, but not a position unknown to most of us, and not a corner of the pig sty that the Father can't reach us in, right? Remember, we are all forgiven sinners that's what makes us brothers and sisters. Almost always, taking along one or two is going to result in reconciliation.

 

But, if the person refuses the attempt at a discreet mediation, the next procedure Jesus gives is for that person to be brought before the whole church. Now I can't tell you what this looks like from experience, because to my knowledge this is only seriously practiced by groups like the Mennonites, but a few things are clear from Scripture.

 

First, this step is still characterized by speaking the truth in love.

 

Second, the offender needs to be present when the matter is addressed and he or she needs to have the opportunity to tell their side to the church since the only reason we've gotten this far is because there is still a fundamental disagreement that needs to be decided on.

 

Third, we have reached the point when the whole church is to know fully this level entails a full disclosure of the matter to the entire community; anything short of this any partial tellings fails to follow the command Jesus is giving. The church must then decide the matter, just as it did in Acts 15 and the body must come to a decision to which it can say, It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us. This is no simple majority, super majority, or any other sort of human parliamentary procedure or bureaucratic mechanism; this is unity, the church is one body and can only speak with one voice.

 

Fourth, once the whole body decides the matter, that is it, the person must submit to the decision of the body to remain in the body. It almost goes without saying that this sort of scenario should be extremely rare.

 

Still, Jesus presses on because he know us and he knows just how stubborn we can be. There is the remote possibility that the person can still remain rebellious there is no other word for it at this point despite the great lengths the body has gone to in order to show him compassion, forgiveness, and love. Such a person is to be removed from the body and treated as a tax collector or a Gentile.

 

Even here, we need to consider what Jesus is telling us carefully. First, remember this is Jesus talking: how did he treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Pretty good, very friendly, cared for them a lot. So, even if we have to take this most drastic of measures, the goal is still forgiveness and reconciliation. This came up in Corinth, where a man was having an affair with his step-mother and some in the church thought it showed how mature they were that they enjoyed such freedom. Paul wrote them his first letter and ordered them to remove the rascal. Then the man reforms and is seeking reconciliation and Paul has to write them a second time and tell them to restore him. We shouldn't need to be told when to restore someone.

 

Second, Jesus is telling us that removal from the body should only be done in the most extreme cases in fact, only when a person refuses to accept forgiveness; if the person is willing to accept forgiveness and is willing to repent and seek reconciliation, they are by no means to be removed from the body because forgiveness and reconciliation can only occur in the body between the one who has sinned and the one they have sinned against.

 

None of us is able to go off by ourselves and heal the hurts we have caused or received, it would be like sending part of your body off for surgery. I promise, if a surgeon wants to operate on some part of your body, she's going to want your whole body to show up at the hospital that day. You're going to want that too. This is no different. I know it goes against the logic of our culture, where we think we can take care of everything by going to therapy and fixing ourselves. But this is what Jesus teaches and he is either right or he's wrong. I'm not saying those things don't have their place, especially when dealing with hurts outside the body of Christ, like those from our past, when we're dealing with people who are not brothers and sisters in Christ, or are no longer living, but in normal, everyday relationships within our community this is how we have to deal with them if we are going to follow Jesus. A person can only be removed from the community if they refuse to submit to authority, and as soon as they are willing, they must be immediately restored.

 

By the way, you will notice that the next thing Jesus says is about binding and loosing and two or three agreeing in his name asking for anything and receiving it. The false teachers of prosperity gospel have stolen these words from their context to teach their heresy, but here is where we find them and here is where they belong.

 

The community that is willing to follow Jesus and obey his teaching will find that it becomes the kind of community where people are healed of those past hurts that fall outside their kingdom relationships, where sinners become forgiven sinners otherwise known as saints or disciples, where the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit flow freely, where the lame walk and the blind see, where the hungry are fed and the captives are set free, where the poor find that they are blessed and the sick have hands laid on them and they recover.

 

Haven't you read what James said in 6.15-16: And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. Forgiveness and healing go together, they cannot be divorced from each other, you cannot have one without the other. And we can have neither so long as we persist in our disobedience to Christ. Forgiveness, reconciliation and healing and I mean all forms of healing, emotional, relational, spiritual, mental, and physical only occur in and through the body of Christ which is held together by the real working out of love that Jesus calls us to in this passage. There is no other way for us to be his body.