Churches that want to follow Jesus Christ desire to follow the tenets of the Bible. But this becomes tricky when it comes to church conflict. It is important Christians take the necessary steps to promote reconciliation and peace rather than strife and tension.
God is a God of reconciliation and restoration, not one of division. He desires for the members of his body to be in unity with one another. But as humans sometimes do, a person may make an inappropriate comment or commit an action that may cause another Christian to become offended.
When church conflict arises, many pastors agree that we should follow the tenets outlined in Matthew 18. but what does Matthew 18 say, and why is it important to follow this when it comes to conflict resolution?
What Matthew 18 Says
Matthew 18:15-17 gives some guidelines as to the proper steps to take when a fellow brother or sister in Christ commits a sin against you:
“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.”
The sin that Matthew addresses can be any sin. It could be a grandiose sin like adultery or a small sin like gossip or lying. The point of the passage, however, is for the restoration of the sinner to be reconciled to the body of Christ.
If someone sins against us, it is our obligation to point out that sin to them so that they may be reconciled. If not, this could allow any hurt feelings to become grudges and hinder our walk, both with Christ and with each other.
The current church model, however, is very far away from this. We often mistake grace for silence. We believe if we simply don't say anything to someone, we are being gracious with them.
Additionally, when we go to someone because we feel convicted of our sin, the person who was offended may try to sweep it under the rug and say something like, “Oh, that's okay.”
But this does not help the body of Christ grow and mature as people or as a church. Silence is not allowing grace to occur, but rather a cowardice to pervade the church body.
Ephesians 4:15 has something similar to say when it states, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”
When we point out someone else's sin, we are allowing ourselves to partner with God in caring for our church brothers and sisters enough to help them grow in their spiritual maturity. Failure to do so robs the church not only of mature believers but also robs us of the opportunity to be used by God.
Having said this, pointing out someone's sin or speaking the truth to them does not mean we can assassinate their character or use harsh comments under the guise of “telling the truth.”
It is only after careful prayer and consideration for the other person should we go to and point out their sin in the hopes they will be restored. In its biblical context, sin was treated more harshly than it is today.
Most churches today take a more grace-based approach to sin. Paul was harder on sin because he cared so much for the body of Christ. He didn't want to see a person stuck in sin but instead enjoy the freedom afforded to them through Christ Jesus, just as he had experienced.
Christians, however, fail to use this approach. They sometimes gossip to their friends about the person or sin, causing further derision and disunity. They may also take their concern to a pastor or other superior, shirking their responsibility to deal with it directly.
While this may sound correct, given this is appropriate in a secular work environment, churches need to adopt a Matthew 18 conflict resolution strategy when it comes to reconciling with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
What Are the Steps Outlined in Matthew 18
1. Approach them directly. Pastors can train their leaders to take a Matthew 18 approach when a person comes to them with a problem concerning another member of their church. The first question a leader should ask is, “have you brought your concerns directly to the person?”
If the answer is no, encourage them to go directly to that person in a private manner. This will spare that person any humiliation or embarrassment when it comes to someone pointing out their sin.
As Christians, we want to treat people as we would want to be treated. If we do not want to be publicly humiliated for our sin, especially if we have not been given the opportunity to repent, we should take a private approach to go to someone in love and let them know of their error.
2. Take a leader or two along. If the person with the concern has confronted the other, and that person denies it or the sin’s severity, take the next step and intervene on their behalf. Take one or two fellow elders and inform them of the situation.
Set up a meeting with the person in a private setting and allow the pastor to confront that person with at least one witness present. The pastor should approach it from the perspective of wanting to get the person’s side of the story.
It is never appropriate to decide on discipline without hearing both sides of the story. If the person is still not repentant, bring it before your elder board.
Seek to reach a unanimous decision on what to do next. Make sure the person has been confronted by all the members of the elders before taking it to the next level.
3. Take it to the church. Although step three of Matthew 18 says the person should go before the church, this should be the church's last resort when it comes to resolving this issue.
This person may receive undue shame, embarrassment, and humiliation and may fall away from the faith as result. This is the opposite of the objective Matthew 18 seeks to achieve.
Although Matthew 18 outlines these steps as a model for reconciliation and restoration, Matthew 7:12 also has something to say about how we treat to people around us: “so whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Because this model of putting people up in front of the church is only used in extreme circumstances, your congregation may find it unhealthy or offensive to put someone up in front of the church for a smaller sin, such as gossiping or lying.
However, in extreme circumstances such as adultery or other sexual sin, leaders may decide putting them up in front of the church may be the best bet to protect the flock and to maintain their safety.
Conflict resolution is never easy. But by following the steps outlined above, you can have a clear, biblical approach and how to confront someone, point out their sin, and achieve the reconciliation God desires for all of us.
For further reading:
What Does Biblical Conflict Resolution Look Like?
What Is the Biblical Way to Confess Your Sins to One Another?
What Does the Bible Say about Resentment?
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Michelle S. Lazurek is a multi-genre award-winning author, speaker, pastor's wife, and mother. She is a literary agent for Wordwise Media Services and a certified writing coach. Her new children’s book Who God Wants Me to Be encourages girls to discover God’s plan for their careers. When not working, she enjoys sipping a Starbucks latte, collecting 80s memorabilia, and spending time with her family and her crazy dog. For more info, please visit her website www.michellelazurek.