READ : Matthew 18:15-20
How do you deal with personal conflict? If you’re anything like most people, you don’t deal with conflict very well! But conflict is a given, even in the church. However, Jesus left his followers some instructions on how to resolve it.
One of my colleagues used to say, “Working for the church wouldn’t be bad, if it weren’t for all the Christians.” He was speaking tongue in cheek — sort of. The truth is, life in the church is often far from what it should be, because Christians in the church are far from what we should be. We know how we ought to behave toward each other, but we all fall short. So instead of peace in the church, there is often discord, criticism, and wrangling; instead of forgiveness, people hold grudges; instead of love, broken relationships are glaringly obvious; instead of holiness, we see openly sinful and scandalous behavior.
We really shouldn’t be surprised. Human nature is stubborn; sin is persistent; the devil is active. Nothing more suits his purpose than for Christians to behave badly, and for church life to be scandalous as a result. That calls into question the truth of the gospel itself. It casts doubt on the power of God to save and transform. It confirms unbelievers in their negative attitude toward the church. And Satan is well pleased.
So, what are we supposed to do about the problem of sin in the church? The short answer is, we must take it seriously; first, in ourselves, but also in our Christian brothers and sisters. We are not calling for witch hunts. We’re not setting ourselves up as religious police to patrol every nook and cranny of people’s lives, ferreting out their secret sins. We don’t claim to be “holier than thou,” or pretend to be faultless, or imagine we can condemn others from some supposed position of moral superiority. We aren’t seeking to impose Christian norms on non-Christians. But we are trying to be obedient to what Jesus teaches his followers about church life. We are making an effort to deal with sinful behavior by our fellow church members in the way Jesus taught us to.
The traditional term for this effort is church discipline, and it is the subject of Matthew 18:15-20. Of all the responsibilities of Christian ministry, none is more difficult or distasteful than the duty of attempting to call erring Christians to repentance. It’s so difficult and distasteful, in fact, that today many churches no longer even pretend to go through the motions of holding their members accountable for their behavior.
There are many reasons why we downplay church discipline. One is the natural tendency to avoid any unpleasant situation or confrontation. Then there is the awareness each of us has of our own moral failures and shortcomings. As Jesus said memorably, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” That helpful reminder ought to keep us humble. But it does not cancel out the requirement of also obeying what Jesus says in Matthew 18.
Another thing that makes church discipline problematic in our day is the general reluctance in contemporary society to pass any judgment upon anyone for anything. Finally, with our individualistic culture and the multiplication of churches, discipline has become something of a joke. We are so eager to attract new members in a competitive ecclesiastical environment, so afraid of offending anyone, so worried about our bottom lines (both financial and numerical) that we are not willing to say anything corrective to a person, or potentially offensive. And even if we try to, people simply go to another church down the block or across town, or drop out altogether.
What to Do
So calling Christians to account for their beliefs and behavior is hard work. There’s just one thing, though. None of the problems or difficulties inherent in the task of church discipline cancel out Jesus’ clear teaching. Listen to what he says we are to do.
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. (Matthew 18:15)
Jesus begins by establishing the context: “If your brother.” He is not talking about civil disputes, or political disagreement, or secular lawsuits; he’s talking about relationships in the church, between Christians. “If your brother sins against you.” The situation Jesus envisions is not simply a matter of personal disagreement, or a difference of opinion in a gray area; it is a case of obvious, even notorious, sin, as judged by any objective biblical standard. Nor is Jesus talking about actions that merely bother or bug us. Mature Christians simply put up with minor slights or offenses. No. Jesus is talking about behavior that is openly and scandalously sinful.
Next, he tells us what to do in such a case, and what he tells us goes right against our basic instincts. Most of us, when confronted with the kind of sin Jesus is describing, will instinctively want to retaliate, will lash out against the offender. But Jesus teaches us to forgive our brother or sister. Then some of us might be drawn to take the high road, and simply ignore the sin that’s been committed. Forget about it, let it go, we think.
But instead of ignoring the sin, Jesus commands us to confront it: “Go and tell him his fault.” Not in an angry or harsh way, we may be sure; the confrontation Jesus has in mind will be undertaken humbly, gently, in love. It really is loving, you know. When circumstances make it appropriate, confronting your brother or sister about their sin is the most loving thing you can do for them. It’s like one of those family interventions where a loved one has a substance abuse problem or an eating disorder. To simply do nothing is an act of terrible indifference.
The other thing Jesus tells us here that goes against our instinct is keep it private: “Go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone,” he says. That really does go against the grain, doesn’t it! Let’s be honest. What we usually do is go and tell everybody else but the person. But Jesus says, don’t gossip, don’t blacken a name or reputation. Instead, approach the person quietly, and try to make things right. And “if he listens to you,” adds Jesus, “you have gained your brother.”
But what if he doesn’t listen? People sometimes don’t respond well to being confronted about their behavior. Okay, people almost never respond well to being confronted about their behavior. What then? Then, says Jesus, you take a friend or two along and try it again, still quietly. And if that still doesn’t work, you involve the church. And if finally there is no change, no repentance, and if the situation is seriousness enough and the behavior terrible enough, then the church has to go public, for the sake of Christ’s honor, and the sinner’s eternal soul. And Jesus solemnly declares,
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (v.18)
Most people today pay very little attention to what the church says. Ministers no longer have much authority in our society, or even visibility. Oh, we’re periodically trotted out to deliver invocations at public ceremonies. The pope’s pronouncements will occasionally make the news. Statements issued by higher profile organizations might get a perfunctory notice. But generally speaking, Christian churches and their leaders today are treated as completely irrelevant. Thus it comes as a shock to hear that God takes what the church says very seriously indeed. Jesus promises real authority to the pronouncements of his church. When we speak about judgment and forgiveness, it’s not just talk. God himself ratifies in heaven the declarations we make on earth. That’s what Jesus’ language about binding and loosing means.
Let me speak very seriously and plainly for just a moment. When the church, as taught by scripture, declares that if you continue in your sins without repenting you face eternal death, God confirms the truth of that sentence. When we promise you that if you turn from sin and trust in Christ you will have eternal life, God guarantees that it is so.
Where Two or Three . . .
In fact, Jesus is so committed to what his church says, he adds these incredible promises:
Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (vv. 19-20)
What an incentive to pray! If only a handful of us, even just a couple, will join to seek Christ’s will and pray in his name, God will answer. Agree, ask, and it’s done! What an encouragement for worship! The place doesn’t make any difference, the numbers aren’t important. Only the Person matters. Come, call on me, and I’m there!
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I.” Literally, what he says is where two or three are gathered “toward my name.” When the people of Israel made their camp in the wilderness they were told to pitch their tents “facing the tent of meeting” at the center of the camp (Numbers 2:1-2), the tabernacle where God’s glory dwelt. For Christians, Jesus is at the center. In our worship we turn our faces towards him, we focus on his person, we gather in his name, and the glory of the living God fills the room. Whether it’s a mighty cathedral or a humble apartment, our gathering becomes, by the promise of Jesus, a holy place — the house of God. And the church that meets there speaks with the authority of God.