Whatever else we learn about church life, we learn quickly that it will at times come with conflict. We are, after all, sinful people attempting to share community with other sinners. It’s inevitable that problems will arise, inevitable that there will be angry words, unfortunate misunderstandings, unintentional insults. While there will be many great blessings that come through the local church, there will also be real sorrows.
Thankfully, God has not left us unequipped when it comes to dealing with those conflicts in a healthy and healing way. Solomon says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense,” while Peter echoes, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (Proverbs 19:11; 1 Peter 4:8). The great majority of offenses are to be overlooked, covered in love and forgotten. But sometimes the offense is serious and the harm grave, and in these times we are to follow the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20.
This text establishes the God-ordained process through which a person who has been sinned against can identify that sin to the offender and see a strained, separated, or full-out shattered relationship restored. It’s a simple process. First approach the person alone, describe the offense, and give him or her the opportunity to express remorse and seek forgiveness. Failing that, bring it to the attention of two or three witnesses, and then to the whole church. If even then the person does not repent, the lack of remorse should stand as proof that he or she is not a Christian and should be removed from the membership of the local church. Christians, after all, are to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Those who refuse to seek forgiveness from others prove that they have not experienced forgiveness from God.
This process should be familiar to any member of any local church. When a pastor is approached by church members who have been aggrieved in one way or another, his first response should be to direct them to this text, trusting that it is God’s means to achieve relational reconciliation. And most often it does just that.
Yet we need to be careful, as this process can sometimes be used improperly. It can be used too often and a culture of hen-pecking can grow up in which no one is willing to overlook any offense. It can be used too seldom and a culture of fear-of-man can grow up in which people refuse to confront even the most egregious sin. It can be used too widely so it is applied to criminal offenses that are rightly the jurisdiction of the state, not the church. It can be abandoned altogether in favor of worldly methods of peacemaking that eschew the divine wisdom behind this one. But it can also be used heavy-handedly, and this is where it’s important to set it within its context.
While we sometimes summarize this process as “Matthew 18,” as in, “Have you followed Matthew 18?” it’s actually just one small part of a larger chapter and a much larger book. Though it is helpful to excerpt these verses and to follow them as a self-standing process, it’s a process provided within a context and it’s crucial that we don’t lose that. As we back up to the beginning of the chapter, we see Jesus addressing the disciples as they bicker about which of them is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He calls them to be counter-culturally humble and child-like. Next we see Jesus calling for the kind of self-examination and radical action that would see us prefer to lose a hand or an eye than to use either one for a sinful purposes. Then we come to the parable of the lost sheep which describes the broken-heartedness and loving care of the shepherd who seeks out his lost little lamb and who rejoices when he finds it.
Then, and only then, do we come to this process or method of reconciliation. When Jesus tells how to restore relationships, he has laid a table of tenderness. He has established a context of gentleness. He has told of the necessity of a kind of healthy-self doubt that acknowledges how blind we can be to our own faults. He will soon go on to tell that we must be willing to forgive others not once or twice, but an infinite number of times. The process in its context looks very different from the process torn from context.
As we consider this process as part of a wider text, we see that it is all about love. It’s not a hammer to be smashed down on the head of an offender. It’s not a means of gaining power over another person by demanding or withholding forgiveness. It’s not a means through which a church’s leadership can manipulate its members with the threat of excommunication. Rather, it’s a form of love, the tender pursuit of another person’s good with the offense merely providing the necessity and opportunity. It’s imitating the loving shepherd as he sets out to find and bring back his sheep. It’s expressing humility and protecting unity. It’s love and to be done in love.
Thus, if the process is carried out in a heavy-handed way, it’s being carried out wrong. If it’s being carried out in a threatening or unloving manner, it’s being carried out wrong. It’s only right and only consistent with the words and will of Jesus if it’s marked by love.