by Rob Tims
Do you find yourself at odds with someone you once had a good relationship?
Have you explained your concerns to another person to see if the issues you have are valid?
Have you discovered (by talking) that others in your circle largely agree with your concerns, and that some feel they have had similar experiences?
Did you feel better after learning that others agree, only to find yourself unsettled again hours or days later?
There is a gospel-centered remedy for any and all of the above dilemmas, rooted in Jesus’ command that Christians love one another. Follow these four steps from Matthew 18:15-17 to achieve peace amongst your local body of believers.
1. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
Note six things:
- Be as certain as you can that you’ve been sinned against (it’s about your offense alone; do not go as an advocate for others).
- You are responsible for going (no exceptions are given).
- You are responsible for showing your brother his faults, not somebody else’s. This is in no way a gossip session.
- You are responsible to go alone and in private.
- Your brother is responsible to listen.
- If he rightfully repents, you have gained a brother (i.e. you have been reconciled with him).
2. “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
If you believe the Scripture is clear that you’ve been sinned against, yet your brother does not listen or repent, bring one or two others along in order to “establish” evidence. You may find in this meeting that the evidence falls against you, and you were not sinned against. You misunderstood him, or had false information. If this is the case, rejoice—you’ve gained a brother! Or, you may find that your concerns are validated: your brother has sinned against you. Hopefully, your brother will accept and repent before this larger group so that you may be rightly reconciled with him.
3. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
There are lots of ways an individual congregation might practice this. Consult with your pastor and confer with your church by-laws. Above all, remember: the goal is for your brother to listen, not to have him or her removed through some sort of disciplinary action by the church. The goal is reconciliation, not justice.
4. “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Jesus is not indicting us to remove someone from the congregation, but to essentially give him or her the “cold shoulder.” There can be no real fellowship with a brother when a united congregation affirms his refusal to repent. There is an implied hope in the passage that a “cold shoulder” will help the brother repent and be restored, which is is in keeping with Paul’s wisdom in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11. Forgiveness and restoration is the goal, but sometimes the “cold shoulder” has to get us there.
These four steps are admittedly difficult.
- The presumed sinful brother will no doubt be tempted to double down on his pride and resist the loving overtures of the one he has sinned against. He may use this opportunity to slander or otherwise further wound this brother that has come to him. How easy it is for pride to swell!
- It requires no humility for the wounded brother to share his concerns with others who will likely sympathize with his hurt than it is for him to explore the Scriptures and personally and privately address his brother with a loving spirit. How easy it is to excuse or diminish our responsibility to biblically deal with interpersonal conflict!
- “Wounded brothers” may find that they were mistaken, and who wants to go through a process like this only to find they were wrong? Does it not feel better to think we are right than to be right with others? How easy it is to value self-esteem more than the gospel!
- Congregations, regardless of the church’s leadership and official processes that may or may not be present to deal with such matters, be sure to not find pleasure in serving as a judge between brothers. If you find pleasure in conflict, there is something you personally need to work out with God. How easy it is to talk about things privately elsewhere than in the congregational forum Jesus calls for!
Alternatively, we must consider what happens if we don’t follow these gospel-centered steps.
- A brother is not gained. To put it another way, a relationship is broken.
- Gossiping, murmuring, and grumbling persist within the body (James 5:9).
- The “unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace” are disrupted in the congregation (Ephesians 4:3).
- Division and quarreling grow in the church family (1 Corinthians 1:12).
- Discipleship and maturity is stunted in the fellowship (1 Corinthians 3:1-4).
The choice is clear.
- If we follow the gospel-centered process Jesus gave us, the worst-case scenario is that one person receives a “cold shoulder” from the congregation in the hopes that he will one day repent. And even in this scenario, involved individuals in the congregation are forced to examine themselves and heed the warnings of practicing the sin being addressed and the pride that comes with it.
- If we follow the ways of the flesh, the church becomes divided and its growth is stunted. Phone calls, emails, parking lot meetings, and the like distract a church from its mission and eat away at fellowship between believers.
People are people; there is sin within the church. The question is this: Will you choose to believe the gospel when it comes to interpersonal conflicts?
Rob Tims is husband to Holly and father to Trey, Jono, Abby Jane and Luke. He’s the author of Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt, and manages the team behind smallgroup.com at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville. He writes regularly at RobTims.com and blogs every Friday at Forward Progress.