Getting Along Together
"You know the bully who picks on us kids? Well, he came to me on his hands and knees."
"Really! What did he say?"
He said, "Come out from under that porch, you coward!"
What do you do when a bully picks on you? Do you hide under the porch, or fight back, or is there a better way? What do you when someone hurts you, offends you, treats you unfairly, spreads untruths about you?
Our lesson this morning is about church fights, with a process, a procedure to deal with conflicts. If there is one thing we know for certain about the early church, we know they had fights! There were troublemakers, dissenters, heretics, bigots, and people who knew everything about everything! However, if there had been no church conflicts, Paul would have written very few letters. Paul wrote most of the letters we now have in the New Testament to deal with church conflicts. Church conflict is to be expected when important matters are at stake. Church conflict is not something to be avoided at all costs; how we handle church conflict is what is critical.
The Gospel of Matthew, as the other gospels--Mark, Luke, and John--was written after the time of Paul, after the letters we have in the New Testament were written and sent. The Gospel of Matthew is a teaching book, written to the early church as a textbook about Jesus and as a book of Discipline. For example, the teachings of Jesus have been gathered into three chapters--five, six and seven--which we now call the Sermon on the Mount. The passage read this morning is a procedure to use when people are in conflict. Supposedly the process was given by Jesus, but the passage as read this morning could not have been spoken by Jesus in its present form. Why? Because there was no church in Jesus' lifetime, and the passage mentions church two times. The passage was written some 30-40 years after Jesus, and is no doubt based on Jesus' teachings; but adapted and applied to the church at the time the gospel was written.
At any rate, the process of getting along together stated in Matthew 18:15-20 is still relevant today. I hope we will use it if the situation demands it. The process also works in other situations. When your spouse wrongs you, or a friend, or a neighbor, or a work mate, try this process:
1) 18:15, Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. Face to face, one-on-one, tell why you feel hurt, wronged, betrayed, disappointed, frustrated. Notice how the one who is offended, the one who is mistreated, is empowered in this passage. Victims are expected and encouraged to take responsibility; encouraged to take the first step of confrontation to right the wrong. Victims are not encouraged to remain in the passive, victim mode. Take the offensive, do not remain defensive. Don't brood, sulk, feel sorry for yourself. Don't play the Pity Game. Don't indulge in self-pity. Take responsibility for your life. You are not a door mat for people to wipe their feet on. You are not to be used, manipulated. You were not put on this earth to be used by other people. You were put on this earth to help other people, and helping other people does not mean letting them use you, or manipulate you, or mistreat you.
Confront the offender in love. Express how you feel. Tell him/her how you were hurt. Don't go underground. Don't let the feelings become destructive. Don't engage in gossiping, back biting, undercutting, sabotage. Don't try to organize a "Let's Destroy Him/Her" committee. Be direct. Be open. Talk directly to the offender, don't tell others.
During the first weeks in one of my former churches, I was repeatedly warned about a couple who had left the church during my predecessor's ministry, but had now come back. "Don't trust them," I was told. I decided to try Matthew's process. I sat down with both of them, and said, "I want to tell you what people are telling me about you. They are telling me that you two are trouble makers, and that you particularly like to run off ministers." They were shocked. The husband cried, tears ran down his cheeks. The wife snorted, "Who told you that?" I said it didn't matter who told me. The result of the confrontation was they became faithful, dedicated, cooperative church members. They became good friends of ours, and to this day, are active, concerned, supportive members of that church. Be direct!
2) If the confrontation does not work, if the offender does not listen to you, if the offender does not make any effort to correct the situation, then, verse 16, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. This instruction is referring to ancient Deuteronomy law where no one could be accused of anything unless there were at least two witnesses. What this instruction means to us is enlist a neutral person--a pastor or counselor or arbitrator or a friend--to offer a listening ear, and to witness what is actually said, so as to avoid embellishment and misrepresentation.
3) In the case of church members, if the offender does not respond to direct confrontation, nor to a neutral third party or parties, then , verse 17, If the member refuses to listen, tell it to the church. If it is a complaint about the pastor or a staff member, tell it to the Committee on Staff-Parish Relations. If it is a complaint about a lay person, the pastor will usually call together an ad hoc committee to deal with the issue. I personally have never had to use this step of "telling it to the church."
4) Verse 17, If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. This verse is not clear. Usually it is interpreted to mean excommunication, but Jesus certainly did not excommunicate Gentiles and tax collectors. Jesus sometimes tested their faith, but he had compassion on Gentiles and tax collectors. He healed the Canaanite woman's daughter. He invited Zacchaeus, the tax collector, down out of the sycamore tree and went to his house. Jesus showed compassion, and included them in his ministry.
Perhaps Matthew should have used Pharisees as an example. Jesus certainly excommunicated Pharisees, and money changers in the temple! The point is that there may come times in church life when people part company. Usually, people leave on their own. They feel more comfortable in another church for awhile, and then something often happens there as well. Some people are trouble makers and agitators. When the body of Christ is threatened, Matthew's process is a good one to use. And, when they do not respond to attempts of reconciliation, parting may be necessary.
Verse 18 is a sobering verse, Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Is Jesus giving the church authority to judge, even eternal judgment which some of the historic churches have assumed to be authority? Or, is Jesus telling us that relationships which are established here on earth go into heaven with us! Isn't that sobering? If so, let's work out all our relationships here. Divorce may not be the best solution to marital difficulties, if unreconciled relationships follow us into heaven. Those who believe in reincarnation say that if we can't work out a relationship in this lifetime, we come back in another lifetime, and keep coming back until we get it right! What Jesus does seem to be saying here is that we take our relationships with us into eternity. On the positive side, this means we will be reunited with our loved ones in heaven. On the negative side, the kind of relationships we have developed go with us.
By all means then, husbands and wives, children and parents, brothers and sisters in Christ, let's get along together!
© 1993 Douglas I. Norris