15“If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16But 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.’ 17If 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.
18“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.19“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
Jesus said “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:24-25) That makes a lot of sense doesn’t it, and I would argue that those words can also be applied to the context of the wider Church. I think that the sheer number of different Christian denominations was for so many years divisive and impeded the proclamation of the Gospel. It is a genuine joy for me to see the desire for unity and cooperation across churches in this area, and it is very significant that many of the ministers from these churches faithfully gather for pray every week.
Disunity hasn’t only been a challenge for the wider Church. It is also something that we might experience in an individual Church, times when unfortunately, people come to a place of profound disagreement. It is my sincere hope that you might have had little experience of such conflict or division in the Church; or that if you have, you might have come through that experience with grace, humility and forgiveness, and your faith intact. In my experience the track-record of the Church in dealing with matters of conflict or division leaves a lot to be desired. It is such a critical issue that we should be prepared to do some soul searching and look to what guidance we might find in the Bible.
With that in mind, we turn to today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel. When there is a disagreement in Church, the approach that Jesus suggests is as follows:
- The person that has been offended must first go and point out the fault of the offender
- The person who has been offended must be absolutely certain of the facts and the context
- When the offender is confronted, it must involve speaking the truth in grace and love, giving every opportunity for reconciliation
- There is no space in this for resentment, hatred, gossip, slander, or revenge
- If this is done properly it will involve love, integrity, honesty and will bring glory to God
- If this first important step bears no fruit, and the offender does not listen or respond, and has no desire for reconciliation, then again they can be confronted but this time the person that has been offended must take one or two others along
- The people that we might ask to accompany us should ideally have some measure of impartiality and a great deal of wisdom and maturity. If they are not impartial, how can they give constructive support?
- They are not there to “take sides”; they are there to help foster reconciliation and be peacemakers
- If they still refuse to listen and come to a place of reconciliation, the matter can be brought before the whole church
- It can be all too easy if we are confronted to dismiss it and say that the fault does not lie with us. If other people begin to get involved who recognise that an offence has been caused and graciously hold that before the offender, it is harder for the offender to dismiss it.
- It is helpful to remember that the Church is the body of Christ. If a member maintains sinful and offensive behaviour there are consequences which don’t simply affect that member.
- If the offender still refuses to acknowledge the offence and wrongdoing, then there is no further recourse but to disassociate from that person
- This is not ‘excommunication’; it is more being clear to the offender that their behaviours cannot be sanctioned, that they are loved and would be welcomed back with open arms – but only if there is true repentance and reconciliation.
A few points seem clear from Jesus’ words:
- We are accountable, first and foremost to God, but also to each other
- We must not avoid conflict. It is healthy to hold each other to account in love and grace
- A genuine wrong must have been committed for these steps to be followed. Sometimes love can be tough, and we need to make tough decisions which might not prove popular, but are for the greater good and the glory of God
- It is helpful to remind ourselves how many times we are called to forgive
- Confrontation should not be vindictive or involve point scoring. It should bring glory to God. If that confrontation is not edifying to the Church and doesn’t bring glory to God then I would suggest that the person bringing the accusation could possibly have other motives (such as a power struggle, pride, sin in their own life etc.)
- These matters must be handled in a Godly way. That means there is no room for backbiting, backstabbing or gossip
- We do not always get things right; none of us have a monopoly on the truth
- When we have exhausted all possibilities for reconciliation we then and only then need to be prepared to dust off our feet and walk away
I have witnessed such matters being dealt with in a Godly way; I know it CAN work, especially if Christ is at the centre of everything. I have also witnessed such matters being dealt with in a very divisive and destructive way – both by the people who were offended (who showed an absence of grace and love, and who were seeking to pursue their own agenda or carrying their own baggage) and the people who were causing the offense (who refused to acknowledge their wrong) – neither of those brought glory to God.
But bear this in mind…these matters are serious because:
- “…whatever [we] bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever [we] loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18) As the people of God we are called to be united in Christ. We have a “continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” and to “Love [our] neighbour as [ourself] because love does no harm to its neighbour.”
- We do not have the luxury of being able to mess about and “play” at this – our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. If we seek to live out each day is if it were our last, as if Jesus was going to come tomorrow – would we behave any differently?
“So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”