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When people come into my office for counseling, they usually come for one of three reasons: (1) they are seeking wisdom or encouragement through suffering or trial, (2) they are struggling with a besetting sin and want to learn how to mortify it, or (3) they are involved in a conflict and want relief.
Do the Scriptures have anything to say about conflict resolution? A thousand times yes. Scripture is packed full of illustrations of conflict and contains numerous principles on how we are to conduct ourselves when we are at odds with a fellow Christian.
One of the most common passages Christians refer to on conflict resolution is Matthew 18:15–20. This passage is a step-by-step guide showing the way to walk through the process from beginning to end. Before we look at this passage, let’s consider a few preliminary principles.
First, it is incumbent upon every believer to seek peace with others. Paul writes in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (see also Heb. 12:14). Running or hiding from conflict is not a righteous option for the Christian. Let that sink in. If you are in conflict with another Christian, you are commanded to attempt to resolve the conflict in a godly manner. We’re even told in Scripture that we are to work to resolve conflict before we attend church (see Matt. 5:23–24).
Resolving conflict is critical to the peace of the church because it helps maintain the righteous living of its members. If we were to look up the number of verses that contain the words “peace” and “righteousness,” we’d notice that there is a clear relationship between the two.
Confronting someone with sin takes courage and must be done very carefully. Note the caution in Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
Second, some conflict can be resolved by merely overlooking it. Peter writes, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Not every offense has to be addressed, so how do you know whether it should be? If your fellowship with the other is broken and the issue remains a barrier between you, then you need to lovingly initiate a conversation with the other individual and prayerfully and humbly seek peace and reconciliation.
Third, get the log out of your eye. Study what Jesus meant in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:1–5 before you confront the other person. The natural (and sinful) tendency for all of us is to maximize the sins against us and to minimize our own. Seeing our own sin requires humility and wisdom, perhaps even the assistance of a trusted friend or pastor who will speak truthfully and candidly to us.
Fourth, remember the goal of confronting a brother or sister. Let’s be reminded of what confronting another is not. It is not for the purpose of impressing on the offender how much you were hurt by his sin; it is not to see to it that the other feels as much pain as you have; it is not to get your story out there or to stir up others against that sister; it is not for the purpose of getting her thrown out of the church.
What, then, is the purpose? There are several. We confront the one who sins against us to provide him with the opportunity to repent and be freed from his guilt. We confront for the purpose of restoring a relationship. We confront to restore peace and righteousness in the church.
confronting in love
Once you have determined that a meeting is necessary and that your heart is right before God, you can follow the steps given by Jesus in Matthew 18:1–20. Let’s look at them in order.
Step 1: Confront one-on-one. Jesus taught His disciples that the one who has been offended should go privately to the one who has committed the offense. Note the counterintuitive nature of this: we typically think, “Well, he offended me; he should come to me.” But that is not what Jesus is teaching; if you are offended, you should go—especially because the other may not even know that he offended you. And when you go, rehearse in your mind the many related verses on the importance of telling the truth (ninth commandment), speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), and not giving a place to wrath or vengeance (Rom. 12:19).
(A word of caution. There are situations in which it would not be wise for the victim to confront the offender. We might think of a child victimized by an adult, and we could add more. Suffice it to say that wisdom is required. If you are not sure, talk to your pastor.)
Step 2: Bring another with you. But what if the person doesn’t listen? What if he doesn’t respond or if she denies her sin? Jesus anticipated this possibility and instructed the disciples to bring another brother or sister along to lovingly confront the offender with his sin.
Whom should you take with you? Someone who is a mature, wise brother or sister. It might be best if the one you bring is not the pastor or elder. Why? Because both the elder and pastor may be involved in the formal church discipline later. But if the pastor or elder is your only choice, it would be best if he comes with the clear understanding that he is not yet coming in his official capacity, but as a brother, working toward reconciliation.
The hope here is that the “weight” of an additional witness will cause the sinning brother or sister to acknowledge his or her sin, to confess it, and to repent of it, so that the one offended can forgive and be restored in Christian fellowship. But it doesn’t always work this way. The reality is that people often will double down in their resistance or denial or both, and it is at this time that the believer turns to the church for assistance.
Step 3: Tell it to the church. We read in Matthew 18:17, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” The church here is understood to be the elders of the church, who are called to spiritually shepherd the flock (1 Peter 5:1–5). The elders are called to rule in the church (Heb. 13:7), and part of that rule is encouraging peace among the brethren. The elders are to formally consider the charges against the errant brother or sister and once again to apply Scripture wisely and cautiously in an effort to bring him or her to repentance.
Depending on your church’s polity, the elders may, in some circumstances, also instruct the members of the church to take action in hopes of a final push for repentance. The congregation should pray for the errant person and offer personal encouragement for restoration, knowing that helping to recover a wandering sheep is a good work indeed (James 5:20).
If your brother repents, welcome him back into fellowship. If there are material (or financial) issues to be addressed, the elders should provide counsel on the best way to bring about an equitable conclusion. If there are other people involved in the conflict, each should be addressed by the one who sinned so that all relationships can be restored.
Don’t think this can’t happen. We have seen it in our church and in many others. God often will bless His people with a healthy restoration, and it is a joyous time for a church. But if not . . .
Step 4: Treat him like an unbeliever. If in the end the member will not repent, it is the duty of the elders to declare that his lack of repentance, being evidence of unbelief, requires the elders to formally declare that the individual is no longer a member of the church of Jesus Christ (Matt. 18:17: “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”). This process is also called excommunication—it is removing the privileges of the Lord’s Supper and the nurture, provision, and protection of the church.
What happens next? If the individual is truly a believer, God will use his time out of the church to prod him back to it. But if not, his excommunication will stay in place in perpetuity unless he repents.
Finally, let us remember that this process, though hard, is the loving thing to do. Christian confrontation is completely unlike the world that cancels anyone who violates the current ideology and rarely welcomes them back without a heavy price and a public grovel. We can thank the Lord for His perfect plan of restoration for those who have ears to hear.