I’ve often said that much of the New Testament might never have been written if there had not been conflict in the early church. When Christians turn to Scripture to address the subject of conflict, the first passage they often quote is Matthew 18. The focus is usually on verses 15-20:
15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and 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, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
This is solid instruction which is easier to talk about than it is to follow. Since most of us find conflict so uncomfortable, we would prefer to complain about that brother or sister with whom we are in conflict than to approach them directly. In order to be effective in a one to one conversation, it is helpful to stay focused on the current issue. Be specific in describing the behavior that concerns you. Don’t attribute motivation to the other person: just stick with the facts. Be clear about the impact the behavior of the other person has had upon you. It’s fine to use feeling words like “hurt” or “angry” here. State clearly what you need in order to heal the relationship. Be willing to examine and acknowledge how you have contributed to the conflict. Many times, this conversation will resolve the disagreement.
If it doesn’t, Jesus instructs his followers to take one or two others to be part of the conversation. This instruction is often misinterpreted as “take a couple of other people who are on your side to convince the wrongdoer of the error of his/her ways.” The real value of third-party witnesses is that they can be objective, help those involved focus on the facts and facilitate communication. It helps if the third party has the trust of both sides. However, there are some conflicts that are so pervasive that the whole community is involved. In these instances, it is far better to have a transparent, open process of addressing the issues than to resort to gossip in the church parking lot (social media is also not the place to comment or address the current unrest in the congregation)! At low levels of conflict and anxiety, the pastor or lay leadership can facilitate these conversations. If things are “too hot,” however, a third party facilitator is appropriate.
Some readers are disturbed by verse 17b, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” We have a hard time understanding why Jesus would suggest such a thing. Remember, though, that through God’s gift of choice, some persons choose to leave relationships. The important part of the teaching is that Jesus always reached out to Gentiles and tax collectors, inviting them into the blessed community. Even when others choose to leave the relationship, we are admonished to leave the door open for reconciliation.
The verses on conflict in Matthew 18 (15-20) are best read in the context of the entire chapter. Verses 1-14 focus on the believer’s responsibility to the least and the lost. Humility is lifted up as the virtue crucial to the kingdom of heaven, and harsh consequences are predicted for those who are stumbling blocks for the more vulnerable. Verses 21-32 focus on the importance of forgiveness and contain the well-known instruction to forgive “seventy times seven.” These two “bookends” describe our posture in engaging conflict: humility and forgiveness. In this environment, we have the best opportunity to settle our differences – in the church and in the community.
The Rev. Evelyn Fisher is director of congregational excellence for the Great Plains Conference. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.