“Conflict Resolution the Jesus Way”
We had last looked together at the beginning of Matthew chapter 18. The entire chapter is one continuous conversation that began with the disciples arguing amongst themselves concerning who was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus used child-like humility as the standard by which true greatness would be judged, and then He warned His followers of the judgment that would come for anyone who would cause one of His little ones to stumble- to cause another to be ensnared and hindered- in following Jesus. He encouraged His followers to go to great measures, to be very serious in eliminating anything in their lives that would cause them to stumble, or that would cause them to cause someone else to stumble. In this morning’s passage, Jesus is going to conclude His train of thought concerning children, and then circle back to address the root issue of conflict between the disciples that started this conversation at the beginning of the chapter. And what He teaches concerning conflict resolution is of upmost, critical importance for us as the church today. This teaching that we’re going to look at is perhaps one of the most church-ignored teachings that Jesus gives us, and thus the lack of applying this teaching has lead to some of the worse damage done to His church body. But first, let’s see how Jesus finishes the conversation concerning children, verse 12. (Matt. 18:12-14)
Most of us have perhaps heard this analogy of God’s love for the one sheep that wanders off. Jesus is also recorded by Luke to have used this same analogy in a different setting, and using slightly different words, and this is the first time I really noticed an interesting nuance between Jesus’s words in Luke, and Jesus’s words here in Matthew. In Luke 15, Jesus is not addressing children, rather He tells the sheep parable in response to the Pharisees grumbling that Jesus was hanging out with the “bad crowd”- the sinners. Let me read it quickly to you. Luke 15:1-2 gives us the context, it says… (Luke 15:1-7)
Notice here in this passage, in referring to the “sinners” He was hanging out with, Jesus calls them “lost” sheep, and as verse 7 states, the idea is that a lost sheep who is found is likened to a sinner who repents and thus is brought into the fold of God. But back in Matthew, Jesus is addressing children. And instead of using the word “lost” as He did for the sinner sheep He was referencing in Luke, it’s interesting that in Matthew, with the context being children, Jesus uses the word “straying.” Straying seems to imply the act that occurs before one becomes lost, right? This makes a lot of sense if we already understand that scripture seems to imply that infants, toddlers, children are very special to God, and that if they perish before understanding the concept of sin, then they will still go on to be with Jesus in Heaven. Though they are born with sin nature, and have acted in sin, there is an innocence in them not truly understanding right from wrong, and thus Jesus’s blood covers even their unrighteousness. If this is true, then perhaps we could consider children as being born into the flock of God, they are already considered as His sheep at birth. But then what happens? Children, as they grow up, they begin to understand sin, and enter into an “age of accountability” in which they are able to knowledgably choose to do what’s right and follow God’s way, or to stray, and begin wandering from the fold of God, as they give in more and more to their own sin nature. And if they are not found as they are straying, then eventually they transition into becoming completely lost as per the scenario in Luke 15, and there Jesus states how much rejoicing there is in Heaven over even one lost sheep that is found. Whether straying or lost, God is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9b)
Ok, back in Matthew, after Jesus addressed the surface level issue of greatness that the disciples brought up, Jesus now in verse 15 circles back around to address the deeper issue of conflict that the disciples had been engaged in. Let’s read the passage together, verses 15 through 20.
Here we have outlined very clearly the rules of engagement for handling conflict between believers. Jesus recently, had just used the word “church”- for the first time ever- to describe His followers. And now this little church of 12 was perhaps experiencing their first disagreement, as they argued over how the hierarchy was going to be set up in the coming Kingdom. Who was going to be the greatest among them? If this argument took place in the manner in which many arguments take place today, perhaps it looked something like this: Peter could have been walking with his brother Andrew, and said “Andrew, I think Jesus is grooming me to be a key leader in His kingdom.” So maybe he said something as innocent as that. And then perhaps Andrew just responded “Ok, cool Peter.” But then Andrew starts to think, “who does Peter think he is, is he implying that he will one day be in charge of us, does he think he’s special just because Jesus stays at his house? Or maybe he thinks he’s something because Jesus paid his temple tax miraculously?” And Andrew then pulls aside John and tells him, “John, I think Peter is planning in his mind a take over, he thinks he’s worthy to be our leader.” And more of the disciples get involved, and without Peter knowing anything about it, they begin to vilify him, and anger and animosity grows. Perhaps some even started talking about disbanding from the group of 12 over the issue, then Peter hears others talking about how they would be better leaders than him in the coming Kingdom, and boom- we have an argument break out that led to the question addressed to Jesus at the beginning of the chapter “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
We don’t know exactly how the argument went, but it was enough of a conflict for Jesus to lay out in these verses 15-20 a 3 step plan for addressing conflict between believers. The first step as verse 15 says, instructs you to go to the other who is believed to be in error, and address the issue with them in private. Without going and talking to anyone else, without waiting for them to come to you, not delaying hoping that they’ll be convicted and come apologize, not calling them out on something in front of other friends or family, no- go to them directly and work out the issue alone with that person. It’s interesting that before Jesus had prescribed this procedure, He had just emphasized the importance of humility. Verse 4 says “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” So, how then is one to approach the brother or sister who is believed to be at fault? In humility. Not accusing, not pointing fingers, not blaming- but in humble kindness and love, asking questions, approaching them and beginning a conversation with the goal being reconciliation. Now this won’t work if you approach the person at fault with the goal of chewing them out, giving them a piece of your mind, and letting them know that you no longer consider them a friend. No, the goal has to be reconciliation- aiming for apologies to be made, and for calm words to be exchanged that lead to a better understanding of the issue, ultimately leading to the issue being resolved- the wrong being made right. If Christ-like humility is displayed by both parties, 9 times out of 10 most issues can be quickly and quietly resolved without having to proceed to another step. But every now and then, it’s necessary to involve some others in order to resolve an issue. Verse 16…
Jesus quotes part of Deuteronomy 19:15, a verse from the law of Moses that says “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” And the idea is not to convince 1 or 2 more to take your side in the matter, but to have them serve as witnesses to the 2nd conversation that takes place between you and the other with whom you have the issue. Notice it says 1 or 2, not 5 or 6, and these 1 or 2 are to offer other perspectives that might aid in bringing about reconciliation. Their role is to be able to confirm facts, to confirm what was done or not done, what was said or not said. Their goal as well is to bring about reconciliation within the body of Christ, again- through humility. If someone is at fault, perhaps the 1 or 2 others might be able to convince the one at fault to make right their wrong. Or perhaps the 1 or 2 others might help reveal that the issue wasn’t quite as much of an issue as it was perceived to be.
If handled according to Jesus’s guidelines here, very rarely will an issue need to be addressed past this second step. But in the very rare instance that the 1 or 2 others added aren’t able to aid in resolving the problem, Jesus instructs to involve more people, verse 17…
Jesus gives instructions now to get more people involved, a group of believers- the church. The issue is still to be handled amongst God’s people, and the idea is that if there is someone at fault, and they didn’t listen to the 1, nor the 1 or 2 more witnesses, then surely they will listen to the local church telling them that there is a wrong that needs to be made right. If the person still insists that they didn’t do wrong, yet the whole church is saying that they did do something wrong, then the outcome is that person is no longer to be considered as part of the fellowship. It’s not that they are no longer to be loved, treated with kindness and respect, no- we can see how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors with love and respect- with earnest compassion for their souls. It’s just that these who are cast away from the fellowship are no longer considered brothers and sisters in Christ, but they are to be loved as those who have yet chosen to follow Jesus, sinners for whom Christ laid down His life.
The next three verses are often taken out of their context, but as we look at them now, I challenge you to see them within the parameters of what Jesus is teaching concerning the church’s reconciliation of conflict. Let’s read them again… (verses 18-20)
I believe Jesus is still referring 100% to the treatment of church conflict in these verses. Binding and loosing in verse 18 is referring to that which is permitted and that which is prohibited. Jesus here is giving the church responsibility in being able to judge the difference between true believers and those who just say they are believers. When there is a wrong done to a believer, that believer is first to confront the wrong doer in private. If that doesn’t work, then 1 or 2 more witnesses are to be brought in to help judge the situation. If those 1 or 2 clearly see where the fault is and the one who did wrong is still unwilling to make it right, then more believers from the church are to be made aware of the situation so that perhaps in the presence of multiple agreeing witnesses the one who did wrong would be compelled to do right. But, if the wrong doer has hardened his heart to that extent and chooses still to continue in his wrong, then and only then after each of these steps have been followed could the church now make a declaration that the wrong doer is not really part of the church. If someone is calling wrong right and right wrong- after following these steps- the church is then given the authority on earth to determine that that person must not then be a true follower of Jesus. The church is given the authority to decide what degree of conflict they will prohibit (bind) or permit (loose). And Jesus is saying here that God will stand by that decision.
Verse 19 is just a reiteration of verse 18, Jesus says “again I say to you,” so He’s conveying the same thought presented in verse 18- basically saying that if the witnesses brought in to analyze the conflict are in agreement with each other as to their assessment of the situation, God will then stand by that assessment. In carrying on with the same thought Jesus then in verse 20 expounds just a bit on what He said in verses 18 and 19, beginning with “For,” and that word “For” is connecting this verse 20 to what He previously said- in other words He’s not introducing a new unconnected thought process, but says “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, (assuming for the purpose of resolving a conflict) I am there in their midst.” The whole point here is that Jesus is saying He is there with those who are having to make a tough judgment call in the ministry of reconciliation. If Jesus was just referring to a general concept that He is with two or three gathered in His name then this verse would seem a little out of place, a little random, and besides if that was the case it would seem to convey the idea that Jesus is not with you when you are alone, praying by yourself. We know that’s not true, if you have given your life to God and accepted Jesus into your life as atonement for your sin, then God places His spirit inside of you. When you chose to receive Jesus’s forgiveness, the barrier between you and God is removed and you now have access to His presence, to be able to fellowship with Him any time. You can pray knowing that you will be heard- He comes and dwells within you, you carry the very presence of God with you wherever you go. If that’s true, then who are the two or three that this verse is talking about?
Well, if there is one person attempting to resolve an issue, and he or she brings in one or two more witnesses as verse 16 advises, now all of a sudden you have two or three together that are faced with the responsibility of judging correctly concerning a conflict. And those two or three need to be reminded that Jesus is there with them in that situation so that they will judge rightly in His presence, not being tempted to deal with the situation dishonestly, nor feeling powerless to stand up for what is right and make a hard, but good decision. Jesus is the “checks and balances” for these situations. I believe this verse 20 is an encouragement and a warning for the church concerning conflict resolution. This passage also in no way gives the church an authority above Jesus or God’s authority, it is not meant to convey that the church decides who goes to Heaven or Hell, nor is it meant to allow the church to determine what is right or wrong in it’s own eyes, no- God is still the ultimate judge of right and wrong and the determiner of life and death. And this passage is not a recipe for how to conduct church splits, no- the idea is that unbiased witnesses are gathered and only if that 1 or 2 are in agreement (as verse 19 states) can the situation then be escalated to the church, and then if the entire church is in agreement, the issue can then be escalated to the point of deeming someone not a part of the fellowship. This passage is also not a permit to call everyone out on their sin, it’s not meant to alert us each to be looking for the one sin that we’re going to nail our brother or sister on, no- but it does encourage us to help hold each other in humble accountability, to care for one another, and care for the unity and strength of the body of Christ.
Concerning verse 19, how easy would life be if all it took was two believers to agree on what they wanted to ask the Lord for, and it’s then a guaranteed answered prayer. I’m sure I could find someone else to agree with me to ask God to provide us with Glady Branch logo-ed Ferraris in order that we could advertise around town and serve as a witness to others of the awesome things God is doing here within our church family. Wouldn’t that be cool? If that’s what this verse 19 is saying, then God is just a Genie-in-a-bottle that takes two agreeing persons to unlock His magical powers. But that’s not what this verse is saying in the context of which Jesus said it. The context is resolving church conflict and making God ordained decisions when a conflict isn’t resolved within the church.
This three step plan Jesus gives us is brilliant advice, even for those outside the church to follow. What a gift of wisdom He has given us in this passage. There are other techniques out there. I’ve already mentioned one that possibly occurred with the disciples, the technique of going and telling others, getting others to join your side, or getting them riled up and angry over what someone else did or said- and not approaching that someone directly. If that’s the way you typically handle conflict, then my charge to you today is to repent. To repent of that pattern, admitting that it is not biblical to handle conflict in that manner, and to turn away from that technique and turn to the technique that Jesus prescribes to us here in this passage. Another technique would be to just stuff it- to stuff the hurt, stuff the resentment, and not mention the issue to anyone. A likely result is that you end up being cold towards the person that offended you, or you avoid them altogether and completely break ties with them. If this is the way you typically handle conflict, then my charge to you today is to repent. Choose to handle the issue face to face, to deal with it, so that it no longer robs you of the joy and peace that comes with being reconciled in true harmony with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s bow our heads and close our eyes, and I want us to do a little bit of prayerful introspection as we look inside and ask God if there is any work that He needs to do in our hearts concerning His desire for reconciliation and unity within His church.