In Romans 12:18, Paul said, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” In issuing this statement, Paul established an expectation that as Christians we would be peacemakers. While peacemaking is a quality valued in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:9), it is not a quality valued in the kingdoms of men, and, as a result, knowing how to make peace is a skill many people lack. Thankfully, God did not establish an expectation of His people without providing directions. Scripture offers two strategies for making peace.
The first is to OVERLOOK the offense. If you can assume the offense, the issue, or the problem was a mistake, then forgive the offense immediately and, thereby, overlook it. This practice is summed up in Jesus’ turn the other cheek instruction (Matthew 5:39). So, before you jump to strategy number two, take a moment to explore the possibility of immediate forgiveness, realizing that overlooking an offense is not a mark of weakness or naiveté but is an indicator of spiritual maturity. As Solomon said in Proverbs 19:11, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”
The second strategy is to CONFRONT the offense. If the offense constitutes sin on the part of the offender then it cannot simply be overlooked because it endangers his or hersoul. In such instances, the offense needs to be confronted, and Scripture offers a three step process for how to go about such a confrontation in Matthew 18:15-17.
STEP 1: Confront your brother or sister privately when he or she sins.
In Matthew 18:15, Jesus said, “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.” According to this passage, the first person you should address regarding the sin is the person who committed the sin.
Now, there are a couple of things to notice about this instruction. First, not all of the early biblical manuscripts from which we derive our English translations include the phrase “against you” in Matthew 18:15, which is why some translations (e.g. NASB) omit the phrase. Thus, this conflict resolution strategy can be applied to all occasions in which sin needs to be confronted.
Second, the stipulation for this confrontation is “sin.” This is not a strategy for dealing with petty grievances or personal differences. Such issues fall under strategy number one mentioned above. This is a strategy particularly for correcting a sinful behavior. In fact, the phrase “tell [or “show”] him his fault” indicates that the one confronting must be able to prove the actions were sinful. The Greek word translated as “tell” or “show” in this passage is the same word translated “reprove” in Luke 3:19, “expose” in John 3:20, and “convict” in John 8:46. In other words, it describes the activity of revealing sin.
The problem is this step is frequently ignored. Many times a minister or an elder or a close Christian friend is consulted before the offender is confronted, even though, Christ instructs us to initially go to the person with whom there is a problem. Maybe if we get this step correct then the other steps may not be necessary.
Step 2: Involve two or three witnesses if the private confrontation is unsuccessful.
In Matthew 18:16, Jesus said, “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.” According to this passage, multiple witnesses are brought into the conflict resolution process when the one on one confrontation proves unsuccessful.
Multiple witnesses were a judicial requirement in the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 19:15). The purpose of involving multiple witnesses was not to “gang up” on the sinner but to provide protection for both parties. They protected the accused from false accusations since their involvement was intended to provide corroborating evidence so that the “charge may be established.” They also protected the confronter from accusations of lying. The witnesses are individuals who can confirm what is said by the confronter and, therefore, prevent a “he said, she said” battle from ensuing.
In addition to the protection benefits mentioned above, the involvement of multiple witnesses may reveal the seriousness of the sin to the accused, provide a mediator between the two parties in the event the sin falls into the “against you” category, and establish a support system for the confronted to assist with his or her spiritual recovery.
Step 3: Involve the congregation if repentance and/or reconciliation still has not occurred.
In Matthew 18:18, Jesus said, “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.” According to this passage, the involvement of the church is the last resort in the conflict resolution process.
The church is primarily involved to bring about repentance. In other words, the goal of “tell[ing] it to the church” is not to move forward with “disfellowship” but to motivate the erring brother or sister toward repentance through the admonition of many. Disciplinary action is only taken after the offender “refuses to listen even to the church” (18:17). The ultimate goal of all three steps is not to discipline but to “gain” or “win” your brother or sister (18:15).
It is worth noting that Jesus instructed the church to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (18:17) when discipline was necessary. While Jews avoided such people, Jesus befriended them (Matthew 11:19); so, how are we to understand this instruction? There seems to be a combination of avoidance and compassion in Jesus’ words that may best be understood in light of Paul’s instructions in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15. He instructed his readers to “not keep company with” those who are lazy, but he simultaneously instructed them to “not count him as an enemy but admonish him as a brother.” Thus, it seems that the church is expected to create some distance from the individual who refuses to repent, but it is not expected to give up on restoring him or her.
Why did God choose this particular process for conflict resolution?
I believe God choose this particular process because it involves as few people as possible, which can result in quicker and easier resolutions. I also believe God chose this particular process because it involves as many people as is necessary, which can promote accountability and sound judgment. Finally, I believe God chose this particular process because it protects both parties, which can result in an environment of safety and respect.
Thanks be to God because He has given us a strategy for making peace and dealing with conflict! May we trust in His omniscient plan by utilizing it instead of our manmade strategies.