Summary: In every church in Christendom, we will eventually be confronted with some great personal offenses.
Prelude, Purpose, Plan
In every church in Christendom, we will eventually be confronted with some great personal offenses. How can we better deal with major conflict? Is conflict resolution always possible or even realistic? What can we do when our grievances are ignored? Why is conflict a part of life? Let’s look at Matthew 18:15-20 and learn some broad principles of working through great personal offenses.
The Setting of Matthew 18:15-20
Let’s remember that the setting in Matthew 18:15-20 is a time when the disciples were the Church. After the resurrection, the house church became the norm. Megachurches, such as the assembly on Pentecost, were and still are rare exceptions. So, taking most disputes to the whole church is not literally possible in larger assemblies, but the spirit of these instructions is applicable in many wonderful ways. Conflict will always be part of church life, as long as sin exists. Sometimes we can resolve things easily and sometimes we must separate for a time, like Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15:36-39) or the universal Church and our schisms through Christian history.
Matthew 18:15 Great Personal Offense
In Matthew 18:15 Jesus taught, “if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” The wording is softened in most English translations. The sense in the original language is much stronger, such as to “convict him of his fault.” Today we might say if you’ve got to berate someone, do so privately rather than castigate them in public. It’s the kind of thing we might try to do behind closed doors. It’s not talking about everyday personality conflicts. In those cases we bear with one another (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:2). In this case the offense is personal and major.
 Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Most of the time we forbear one another’s weaknesses. It’s no use creating an argument over every minor infraction. Some churches may have such an intolerably authoritarian atmosphere of fear, but that’s not how knowledgeable Bible students know church should be. Forgiveness and forbearance of each other’s faults makes a church more joyful. But does that mean that we should never say anything? There is a legitimate time to speak and Jesus seems to indicate that when a sin is directed at us, personally, then we may cautiously act. In fact, Jesus recommends going to our brother alone over a personal offense. “If he hears you, you have gained your brother.”
Matthew 18:16 Escalation
In Matthew 18:16 we read that after talking to someone privately about a personal offense, “if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’” The principle of two or three witnesses is Jesus’ recognition a legal obligation in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15). This step escalates the situation way beyond a simple personal offense. The purpose of these extra friends or perhaps even people familiar with the situation is probably to convince a person of their fault, and even to witness their response of willingness or unwillingness to change.
What kinds of offenses deserve to be taken to the next level? Personal offenses may range from a simple misunderstanding to gross sins like being swindled or defamation of character. When Jesus said, “if he will not hear, take with you one or two more”, that is not encouragement to escalate every single dispute. This is a principle, not something to apply literally every single time someone disagrees with us. Mostly, we simply forgive and forget when our friends cannot understand what they have done. The offense is not worth taking any further. Most often we decide to agree to disagree and part as friends. We only escalate really bad situations.
Matthew 18:17 Tell it to the Church
Jesus explained the ultimate escalation of a dispute between two church members. This is the final stage of a three stage process in major disputes. 1) Go to them alone. 2) Take two or three witnesses. 3) “if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” So, we take the dispute to the community of believers. Here, there is yet no concept of individual congregations, nor a hierarchy of church elders. There is only a diverse group of disciples, a few, a dozen, a hundred, and rarely thousands.
What disputes would we call a church assembly to decide? What offenses would we escalate up through church hierarchy? Jesus concludes teaching about conflicts in Matthew 18:17 that “if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” What does that mean? Does it mean excommunication in some cases? Does it mean that we simply continue to welcome someone, while praying for the day that they repent? Does it mean a public realization that their conversion is perhaps not a reality? Should we shun such people or simply treat them as kindly as we do all our other non-Christian neighbors?