If you've been in ministry for any amount of time, you've undoubtedly been faced with conflict. Maybe someone sinned against you personally, or maybe someone on your team was living a lifestyle of unrepentant sin. Either way, where there are people, there is sin, and where there is sin, there is conflict. The question, then, is how have we handled conflict with our team members? It often plays out in one of two ways:
It's been said that "all truth and no grace is brutality, whereas all grace and no truth is hypocrisy." This could not be more true. After all, Jesus was full of both grace and truth (John 1:14). So, when a situation arises, how do we find that balance of being filled with both grace and truth? How do we handle the issue at hand in a way that honors God and respects the person we are admonishing? Fortunately God's Word, which is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16)," has given us a blueprint for conflict resolution in our ministries!
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matt. 18:15-27 ESV)
The plan Jesus laid out here in Matthew 18 is what has historically been referred to as "Church Discipline." This is the biblical way of dealing with conflict in a way that honors God and respects the brothers and sisters who have been entrusted to our care.
Our first step to resolving conflict with someone, as seen in verse 15, is to engage that person in a one-on-one dialogue -- "go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained a brother." Truth be told, this is where 90% of situations are resolved, if you enter into the dialogue with humility.
For those of you who may be more on the introverted spectrum like me, yes, that means you actually have to talk to someone about the problem you believe exists between the two of you! You know that lie you tell yourself, the one that says the situation will "work itself out with time?" It won't. Our Lead Pastor, Eric Stewart, has always said a good rule of thumb as to whether or not you need to engage someone in such a dialogue is if you've thought about a supposed offense twice. If you've thought about it more than once, you need to give that person a call, immediately. Here's why: the more we think about a presumed offense without having talked to the offending party, the more prone we are to jump to conclusions and subsequently make the situation much worse in our heads than it is in reality. That's what having all that time to stew in it affords us. Let me assure you, avoiding conflict for the sake of comfort is the most unloving thing that you or I could do to the people entrusted to our care.
"Avoiding conflict for the sake of comfort is the most unloving we could do to the people entrusted to our care."
Extroverts, you're not in the clear either. While us introverts are prone to hope the situation fixes itself and thus leave it unaddressed, many extroverts boldly march up to the person and drop the hammer of judgement. This comes across as "holier than thou" at best and is actually bearing false witness at its worst. Introverted or extroverted, here is the best thing we can do when coming face to face with someone we feel has sinned against us or is living in unrepentant sin -- seek understanding. That's right, before we seek to be understood, we must first humble ourselves and seek understanding. As I mentioned before, the more we think about the situation, the more prone we are to build on this elaborate scheme of how this person intentionally did "this" or "that" to us, which usually isn't the case at all. So, before casting judgment and demanding an apology, we just first humble ourselves and seek to understand their point of view. Again, 90% of the time, this is where the situation resolves itself. Take that first step towards reconciliation!
"Before we seek to be understood, we must first humble ourselves and seek understanding."
Two or Three Witnesses (v. 16)
"But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses."
Inevitably, there will be times when that initial one-on-one meeting does not go well. With the hope of restoring our brother or sister, Jesus tells us in verse 16 that our next step is to bring forward two or three witnesses to go with us to once again appeal to the offending party. What is the significance of two or three witnesses? Jesus here is citing the Levitical Law concerning witnesses, which is found in Deuteronomy 19:15:
"A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that has been committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established."
It must be noted that there is a subtle difference between the Levitical Law concerning witnesses and what Jesus is implicating here though; Jesus is not instructing us to bring in two or three witnesses to testify against our brother who we believe to be living in unrepentant sin, but rather to testify to the exchange between us and our brother. We are all fallible. There is always a chance that we did not handle that initial one-on-one meeting as well as we had hoped/could have/thought we did. Maybe in our fleshly pride we came quick with judgement. Maybe we didn't seek to truly understand this brother or sister. At any rate, the best thing we can do here is bring two or three witnesses into the situation to testify to the exchange. In the ideal situation, these would be two or three people who could step into the dialogue unbiasedly, yet those the offending party both respects and has confidence in. These witnesses testify to one of two things; either this person is in the wrong and needs to repent, or we ourselves misjudged the situation and ought to repent and seek the forgiveness from the individual whom we bore false witness against.
The Church (v. 17a)
"If he refused to listen to them, tell it to the church."
In the event that our witnesses affirm that the offending party is in fact living in sin and reprove them, yet the individual resists their wise counsel and continues on in sin, Jesus tells us we are to "tell it to the church." If this person has refused your counsel and refused the counsel of two or three witnesses, we need to let the rest of the church body know what's going on. Let me tell you what this doesn't mean though; it doesn't mean that we give out the explicit details of this person's sin and demonize them before the entire body. No! However, we must let the body know that one of our counterparts is living in unrepentant sin and needs our help. We then encourage the church members to reach out to this person, to love on them, and to beg of them to return to God and to what His Word prescribes.
The goal here is not to shame someone. On the contrary! Our hope and our prayer is always reformation and restoration -- that this person would turn away from their sin and fix their eyes upon Jesus! Through it all we must remember that we, too, are sinners in need of Jesus' saving grace just as much as the person we're exhorting.
"When we address someone living in unrepentant sin, we must remember that we too are sinners in need of Jesus' saving grace just as much as they are."
A Gentile and Tax Collector (v. 17b)
"And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and tax collector."
If after three attempts to reconcile with this person they still continue in their sin, Jesus tells us we need to let them be to us "as a Gentile and tax collector." "Gentile" was a name Israel gave to all the other nations who did not heed the counsel of God; they had no fellowship or religious affiliation with such nations. Similarly, "Tax Collectors" were considered to be a group of abandoned character who the Jews would also have no contact with. The thought here is that living a lifestyle of unrepentant sin is not the mark of one of God's children, contrastingly it is the mark of an unbeliever. Jesus is actually saying that this person needs to be disowned as a Christian brother or sister because they're not living as one. In fact, they're living in such a way that it appears they are still dead in their transgressions and sin.
The New Testament often refers to the church as the body of Christ, each person being just one part of the overall body (1 Cor. 12:27, Rom. 12:4-5, Eph. 4:14-15). Now, let's cross reference that with an analogy of the human body: If one part your body is dead and not functioning as it should be, to leave it attached to the rest of your body would have catastrophic ramifications -- inevitably infection would set in throughout your entire body and in time you would die. So, that dead body part must be cut off to preserve the rest of your life. And so it is with the church, the body of Christ. Albert Barnes once said, "This is the only way of kindness. This is the only way to preserve peace and purity in the church." While we are to regard this person as an unbeliever, it doesn't mean we shouldn't pray for them daily though, it doesn't mean we should be unkind to them when we run into them at the gym or grocery store, and it certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't assist them in their time of need. On the contrary, Jesus has called us to do all of the above (1 Tim. 2:1-4, Col. 4:5-6, Matt. 5:42)!
A Real Life Testimony
Growing up in the church and having been a pastor for over three years now, I've only ever seen this path of biblical conflict resolution be taken to its end once, and it was actually a relative of mine. The church this individual was a member of followed the steps Jesus laid out in Matthew 18:15-17 to resolve some unrepentant sin; my relative refused the wise counsel of the individual, refused the witnesses, refused the church, and was ultimately put out of the hand of fellowship. But that wasn't the end... It was less than two weeks after the church leaders were obedient to God's Word when the Spirit swept in and utterly broke this person's heart over their sin and subsequently brought them to full repentance. It's been five years since then and this individual's relationship with Jesus and His Church has never been more vibrant!
There is hope in the midst of conflict, friends. Trust Jesus and be obedient to His Word. It will be uncomfortable, it will be difficult, and it will be criticized by others, but God will be glorified (1 Sam. 15:22) and He will ultimately work all things together "for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
Contributor / Dan Dameron
Dan Dameron is the Pastor of Gathering at ONElife Church in Flint, MI and Founder of ONElife Worship.