Summary: If we remember the words of Jesus, especially when we are in conflict with our fellow man, we will change the world. Loving our neighbour fulfills any and every other divine command, for genuine love does no harm to its neighbour.
There was a church where the pastor and the minister of music were not getting along. As time went by, this began to spill over into the worship service. The first week the pastor preached on commitment and how we all should dedicate ourselves to the service of God. The music director led the song, "I Shall Not Be Moved." The second week the pastor preached on tithing and how we all should gladly give to the work of the Lord. The director led the song, "Jesus Paid it All." The third week the pastor preached on gossiping and how we should all watch our tongues. The music director led the song, "I Love to Tell the Story."
With all this going on, the pastor became very disgusted over the situation and the following Sunday told the congregation that he was considering resigning. The musician led the song, "Oh Why Not Tonight?" As it came to pass, the pastor did indeed resign. The next week he informed the church that it was Jesus who led him there and it was Jesus who was taking him away. The music leader led the song, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."
This passage from Matthew 18:15-20 was intended to give the early church guidance about how to deal with conflict and broken relationships. The first step toward reconciliation involves listening. Sometimes what we hear is not actually what was said. A good example is gossip. Several different stories or rumours often result from one story or incident. True listening means going to the other person. In other words, we are to take the first step. This is often painful, but it is necessary if there is to be any hope of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace. If a relationship is important to us, sooner or later we will need to swallow our pride.
If one-on-one efforts fail to resolve the problem, the next step is to involve two or three outsiders. Unfortunately, most people do this step first, and not in the way it was intended. People are often dragged into disputes as the parties involved look for allies. I’ve seen this happen in my day job. Several of my co-workers have tried to drag me into disputes that they are having with other co-workers of management. I tell them politely that I’m not going to get involved. There are times, however, where it is not possible or even desirable for the two conflicting parties to meet one on one, and therefore this second step actually has to be carried out first. Examples of situations where this is necessary include situations where the conflict is serious or sensitive in nature.
If the involvement of two or three outsiders fails, the next step involves taking the dispute to the entire church, usually through the governing body, but sometimes through a congregational meeting. This body has the final solution that can be used as a last resort-exclusion from the congregation by means of suspension or expulsion. Unfortunately, denominations such as the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses have used this to justify their policy of shunning former members. This is not what Jesus meant when he told the church to treat outsiders like tax collectors or Gentiles. After all, Matthew was a tax collector, and Jesus certainly didn’t treat him harshly!
We must remember that Jesus was the friend of tax collectors and sinners. His entire ministry revolved around bringing outsiders into the kingdom by reconciling them to God. He is doing the same thing today because we are all outsiders. All of us are outsiders of God’s kingdom because we are all sinners. Even if we have done nothing wrong in our lives, we are still sinners because we are tainted by the original sin of Adam and Eve.
While it appears that the church is forcing the offender outside its circle, it is, in reality, only acknowledging publicly that the offender has already placed himself or herself outside its circle. Jesus promises that God will support the church in this vital function. If the church doesn’t order its life, who will? If the church doesn’t deal with people in its midst that threaten its existence and mission, who will? The hope is that the offender will be motivated to take steps to regain membership in the fold. While the church regards the offender as a Gentile or tax collector, Matthew’s church regards Gentiles and tax collectors as a mission field.
Reconciliation is the key to healing rifts and conflicts. Is it possible? Yes. Icy conditions don’t provide a very growth for new growth-spiritual and otherwise. In the words of a Jesuit martyr, “The natural world is for everyone, without borders. God’s table is a common table, big enough for everyone, each with a seat, so that each one can come to the table to eat”. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross changes our concept of the role of violence in God’s protection of us; that is, violence is not a tool of our protection but rather our protection absorbs and transcends violence.