Summary: Uses Matthew 18 to address the best way to approach interpersonal church conflicts.
An amusing news story from Wales told of a feud in a church looking for a new pastor. It read: “Yesterday the two opposition groups both sent ministers to the pulpit. Both spoke simultaneously, each trying to shout above the other. Both called for hymns, and the congregation sang two -- each side trying to drown out the other. Then the groups began shouting at each other. Bibles were raised in anger. The Sunday morning service turned into bedlam. Through it all, the two preachers continued trying to out shout each other with their sermons. "Eventually a deacon called a policeman. Two came in and began shouting for the congregation to be quiet. They advised the forty persons in the church to return home. The rivals filed out, still arguing. Last night one of the groups called a let’s-be-friends’ meeting. It broke up in argument." The item was headlined, "Hallelujah! Two Jacks in One pulpit." -Source Unknown. (found in www.sermonillustrations.com)
Well, I’m sure this church has faced some conflict in its past, but hopefully nothing as explosive as the church in that news story. Anyone who’s spent any time in a church can tell you that conflict in the church happens regularly. Somehow we have the feeling that because we are all inspired by the same Holy Spirit, we’ll never have arguments in the church. Unfortunately, because the church is made up of people, conflict is inevitable, and even remarkably common. I’ve experienced some interminable arguments at synod assemblies; colleagues have told me of five hour council meetings and three hour congregational meetings. We could definitely use more conflict resolution specialists in the church today.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a roadmap of how to proceed when we find ourselves facing one of these conflicts in the church. Specifically, he identifies the situation of someone who has been wronged by another member of the church. How do we deal with this? Do we call a congregational meeting and kick him out? Do we gather enough support against her that the council asks him to leave? Do we talk to our friends without confronting the person directly? Do we go complain to the pastor until she does something about it? Do we pretend like the offense didn’t happen?
Jesus gives us a pretty clear cut approach here. First, Jesus says, “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Jesus begins with the direct approach, with a face-to-face confrontation. This is one of the most difficult ways to confront a sister or brother in Christ, and yet it’s where Jesus starts. I think it’s important to note that this approach tends to believe the best about people. This advice assumes that we will be able to tell the difference between being sinned against and being annoyed. It assumes that we will be able to sift through our own defenses and insecurities to know when a person has harmed us and not just made a mistake or an error in judgment. Furthermore, it assumes that the person confronted might even be rational when confronted about an offense they may have committed.
Even if none of those assumptions are true however, Jesus tells us this is the place to start. Now, be honest with me. When you’ve been hurt by someone, do you usually go directly to them first? I think most of us would tell a few friends about it, garner a little support, get a little affirmation first, and maybe then we’d consider confronting the person. But Jesus tells us to go directly to the source. The purpose in this is not just to confront or get it off your chest. The purpose in telling someone that they’ve sinned against you is to offer reconciliation and bring them back into community. The verses before this lesson suggest that God rejoices over the repentance of one sinner just as the shepherd rejoices over the return of one lost sheep, even if he has 99 others. In the same way, the point of any confrontation on sin is ultimately restoration to the community.
But Jesus acknowledges that sometimes that one-on-one confrontation will not accomplish its goal. In that case, “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.” Jewish law required that two or three witnesses be present to uphold a complaint. When witnesses are present, they can help to assure that the charges brought are real. The presence of these witnesses can also remind the accused that someone else is watching. You can’t just abuse someone in silence and expect to get away with it. Someone else is watching what’s happening and how you are responding to the charge.