“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. 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.’ 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.”(Matthew 18:15-17)
When I was in college and working as a volunteer youth group leader, I was very enthusiastic and my mind was brimming with ideas. Our small youth group was close-knit and eager to learn how to study the Bible and reach out to the community and share the Gospel. I had one young married couple that had volunteered to help me lead the group. They were new to the church, but wanted to get involved in active service right away. I had all kinds of exciting plans that I wanted to see implemented, so I shared them with this couple. They seemed to agree that I was on the right track as far as what needed to be done and what role they would play.
Then I got a phone call. The pastor and one of the church elders (who was also my uncle) said they wanted to meet with me to discuss some church business. I wondered what was on their agenda, but assumed it was to get a progress report on what what I was doing with the youth. That was not the reason for the meeting. The pastor and my Uncle Chuck had some words of correction for me! Apparently I had said or done something that had offended the young couple or made them uncomfortable working with me and they no longer wanted to help with the youth group activities.
Needless to say, I was very confused and hurt by this conversation. I also wondered why this couple (or at least the husband) had not come to me privately to express their displeasure and concerns. I was reprimanded for my actions and told that if there were any other complaints I would no longer be leading the youth group. When I asked if I could initiate a conversation with the couple, the pastor said, “No, because neither the husband nor the wife want any further contact with me you, but they will still attend regularly.”
I nursed a grudge over this incident for many years. How cowardly and immature for two fellow believers to not have a conversation with me, but instead go over my head and complain about my leadership to the pastor! And even worse, I had no opportunity to clearly hear and address their concerns!
A few years after I stopped attending this small church, I discovered the verse written at the top of this essay. Whether it’s a sin of commission (you do something sinful), a sin of omission (you don’t say or do something that you should have) or just a strong disagreement or misunderstanding, the "Jesus Way" of resolving the issues is laid out very simply and clearly in Matthew 18:15-17. The first step is to have a one-on-one meeting with your brother or sister to raise the issue and work things out privately.
We can infer from reading the passage that Jesus sees most conflict resolved at this stage. Quite often a person is unaware that they have offended or sinned against someone or even a whole group of people. So how can they acknowledge sinful behavior and ask for forgiveness when they don’t even know that others are hurt or offended? And if they are covering up a known sin or hurtful action, then the right and proper thing to do is to lovingly confront them and give them an opportunity to either defend themselves or repent and ask for forgiveness.
So why are our Lord’s instructions so important for the modern American church? Because it is not unusual for church leaders to be accused of misbehavior in order to punish them for real or imagined slights or over strong disagreements concerning the direction or manner in which ministry is being conducted.
Jesus goes on to say that if the conflict is not resolved at the first step, then the offended person should bring one or two others along to confront the offender and try to resolve the issues a second time. All of us have blind spots in our thinking and communicating, and sometimes it takes more than one person to show the offender that a problem exists and needs to be dealt with in an open, honest, and kind manner. In many cases, this second meeting will restore fellowship and solve a problem that might otherwise lead to a rash of hurtful rumors and arguments.
Only in situations where the charges are found to be true by the testimony of two or more witnesses and the offender is unrepentant is the matter be taken to either an entire leadership team or congregation. Few things in life or ministry are as humbling as having one’s dirty laundry aired in front of the whole group, and Jesus teaches that this is the last step in conflict resolution, not the first.
If the offender is still unrepentant after all three of the above steps are taken, then it might be one of those situations where the person must be asked to leave the church and be "treated as a pagan or tax collector." (Tax collectors were despised in New Testament times because they were Jews who were hired by the Roman government to force their fellow countrymen to pay taxes, and they often extorted additional money from people to keep for themselves.)
So why are our Lord’s instructions so important for the modern American church? Because it is not unusual for church leaders to be accused of misbehavior in order to punish them for real or imagined slights or over strong disagreements concerning the direction or manner in which ministry is being conducted. This type of behavior is in itself sinful, because it does not follow the conflict resolution pattern Jesus outlined for his disciples.
Life in a church should follow the New Testament model; it should not be modeled on corporate business or secular government. Jesus is not only "the Way," but He also offers a better way to build and maintain positive, godly and productive ministry relationships. And His lessons are not to be found in psychology, leadership retreats, or self-help books. The pages of Scripture contain all the answers we need.
I can only wish that the couple who was helping me in that first youth group had known the Scriptures and come to me privately first, before going to the elders. It would have spared me quite a bit of pain and we might have worked things out.
Let’s Pray Together: Lord, whenever I am confronting a tough situation,help me to always go and talk to people privately first, before going over their heads to other leaders. Give me the right words and demeanor to bring light, life, and healing into hard situations. Keep me from gossiping or hurting others needlessly and give me the courage to speak to people honestly and address the issues in a loving way. Help these other leaders that I bring before you now….
Sad but True – A large church of over 3,000 members split because some staff members did not like the way a pastor was leading the congregation that he had founded ten years before. Instead of sitting down to have a private conversation with the pastor, these individuals went to the church board to complain. The pastor was suddenly called before the board and was told that some staff members had concerns about his leadership style and direction. The board determined that there was no infidelity, no financial mismanagement, nor any integrity issues involved but that there was simply disagreement over the ministry and direction of the church. However, instead of sitting down with the parties involved and trying to bring conflict resolution in the way that Jesus taught, they instead took the side of the pastor’s accusers and eventually asked him to take a leave of absence. Both he and his family were blind-sided by the actions of the board and ultimately the pastor resigned. He was well-liked by the congregation and nearly 1,000 people left the church hurt, angry and confused. The saddest part is that all that pain was not necessary. The staff members could have approached the pastor privately as outlined in Matthew 18:15 and tried to work things out. Even if they had failed to win the pastor over to their point of view, everyone would have known where they stood with one another and been able to begin to work out a graceful, loving way to part company and do what God was calling each one to do. Maybe it would have led to a healthy church multiplication or the birthing of new ministries. Maybe it would have led to some of the leaders doing some soul-searching and character growth. Sadly, we will never know what might have been. The Biblical pattern for conflict resolution was tossed aside in favor of a corporate-style takeover and hundreds of people were hurt and disillusioned with the church as a result.