My central thesis in preaching and teaching on Matthew is that one of the author’s major concerns in writing the gospel was teaching his readers how the community of faith was supposed to live together.
Being part of the faith community is a non-negotiable for Jesus. As I have said in the pulpit recently, there are no Lone Ranger Christians. You can’t follow Jesus all by yourself; the path of discipleship wasn’t designed to be a solitary road.
Sometimes we wish we could walk it by ourselves, because it’s not always easy to be part of a community. We might discover we are called to follow Jesus alongside people whom we may not particularly like. Or we may protest we are too “different.” Or we might say, “I’m not comfortable around people like that.” We might not like the way another member of the community prays or sings; we may disagree with their politics, or find their wardrobe distasteful.
But that’s all beside the point in the faith community, or “church,” if you like. When God calls us to follow , there is always a group of disciples ready to accompany us on our journey of faith. And these disciples are just as flawed and imperfect as you and I are. We learn on the road together. That’s the beauty and the struggle of church.
Fortunately, the Gospel of Matthew also gives us some great advice on how to navigate the conflict which will ultimately confront any church. In the eighteenth chapter, Jesus gives us a three-step process and one guiding principle by which disciples are supposed to handle conflict.
The three-step process goes like this:
1) “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister.” (Matthew 18:15)
This step is the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard, and as a pastor, it is the primary way I advise all staff and laypeople to act towards each other: if someone has wronged you, then you are supposed to go to that person directly and speak to them about it. Not to a third party, nor to Facebook, nor to anyone else.
This is also the least-followed piece of advice I have ever given. It’s difficult to confront people with whom you are in conflict. I know that because it’s hard for me, too. However, it’s the best way to address conflict, and it prevents things from circulating on the rumor mill or gossip circuit. Most conflict in the church would immediately cease if this practice were followed as a general rule by everyone.
However, Jesus recognized that this tactic wouldn’t always work …
2) “But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.” (Matthew 18:16)
If the situation escalates, Jesus recommends that you take one or two friends with you to confront the person with whom you feud. The presence of others keeps everyone honest, and can de-escalate tension.
But if that doesn’t work …
3) “But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)
This step sounds extreme; in fact, it sounds as if it can be used as justification for kicking someone out of a church. But is that a bad thing?
Let me suggest some moderating thoughts about this passage:
First, I believe that this is an extreme step to be taken only when and if someone’s behavior is harming someone else. We can all think of situations in which a church member’s actions could be so destructive that we would have to take drastic measures to keep them from hurting people in the congregation.
However, this process ensures that there would be no arbitrary and punitive measure taken against anyone. If there is a problem, the offender is confronted privately first; if he or she doesn’t respond to mend the problem, only then is the matter widened to a larger group of people.
And third, scholars have argued that treating people like Gentiles and tax collectors isn’t as bad as it sounds. After all, we know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors — he ate and drank with them! He treated them as people worthy of his time and attention!
Finally, there is one overriding general principle that Jesus preaches about community life — forgiveness. Just after teaching this process of conflict resolution, Peter asked Jesus, “But what if the same person keeps sinning against me? How many times do I have to put up with it? How many times do I have to forgive — as many as seven times?”
We all know how Jesus answered: “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Forgiveness is the heart of church life. This is the only thing that will hold us together in the end. For we will offend each other, we will sin against each other, and we will say harmful things and do hurtful things. That's just the way humans do each other.
But as the redeemed disciples of Jesus, we have a remedy for reconciliation — the ability to say, “I forgive you.”
Let’s learn to say that a little more frequently.