Good News if We Answer Wrongly

Have we ever given a wrong answer on a test only to blow it? Is God asking us the same question every day? Will we do what He wants? Perhaps we believe that we have given God the wrong answer? Is it too late? Have we blown it?
I want us to know the good news: there is still a short time to do what our heavenly Father wants.
We will explore Jesus’ confrontation with religious leaders over authority and the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:23-32.
By What Authority
Both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ operated their ministries outside of the bounds of traditional religious authority. Jesus was accosted with the question, “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Matthew 21:23) Could we ask others the same question today? Do a degree, ordination, a large church building or fancy clothing automatically give authority from heaven? Authority to preach can be from heaven or men. Is Jesus handcuffed by denominational traditions? Does he operate also outside of traditional denominational authority structures? Jesus hates division. Jesus loves his Bride. Even though the Church sometimes sins terribly, church authority can be used for great good. How then can we discern between heavenly and human authority? Jesus’ methods were very often unorthodox, but never his teachings. Should we ask of any teaching, “Is this from heaven or of human origin?”
Who Gave You This Authority
After Jesus had turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple and cursed a tree, the chief priests and elders wanted to know by what authority he did these things. The answer was a parable of two sons who had opposite answers for their father (Matthew 21:23). The “yes” son represents those pious people who, like the priests and elders, say yes to God but fail to do his will. The “no” son represents the rest of us, who though we may have initially said no to God, end up obeying him. So how does that apply to authority? Though some have once said yes to God and gained authority in the church, if they are disobedient children, their authority is null and void in heaven. This is also a Protestant argument against popes who misused their authority.
From Heaven or from Men
The Christian Church is a mixture of the human and the divine. Those are also the main two sources of authority in the Church. Human authority is clothed with an outward show of power and often creates structures which create a yoke of bondage. Jesus had no such approach to authority and so he was asked where he got his authority (Matthew 21:25). Human authority is also swayed by what people want more than what God wants. Human authority is enslaved by human politics rather than heavenly deeds. Jesus did not speak of John the Baptist’s personal authority but the authority of his baptism. Many religious leaders in Jesus’ day had abused their fellows with burdensome human authority. Jesus’ focus was not the authority of men which creates heavy burdens, but an act of freedom with authority from heaven.
If We Say From Heaven
Some churches claim to be the one true church. They may say that they have the right apostolic succession, mode of baptism, worship style, clothing, ordination or some other idea of mere human authority. Jesus addressed the idea of heavenly authority in Matthew 21:25. Why did he did speak of the authority involved in an act (John’s baptism), when we focus on the authority of human beings? Jesus spoke of the authority of an act that had the recognition of heaven. Why do we limit great acts to people officially recognized by human organizations? Jesus did not. He recognized an act as having the authority of heaven apart from recognized religious authority. Every church is a mixture of divine and human authority. We cooperate with human authority structures for the sake of unity, but we submit to heavenly authority.
We Don’t Know
Imagine a politician saying, “I am not an economist and cannot give a qualified answer.” Yet, politicians have strong opinions and profess to know what they are talking about on economics. Of course, they don’t, so why do we the public go along with the delusion? Is there something about the person who dares to be politically incorrect that is refreshing? Do we disagree with their ideas but find their courage invigorating? While tact is important, so also is honesty. Is that why the priests and elders were so frustrating to Jesus? Instead of giving an honest opinion either for or against John’s ministry or him as Messiah, they looked for an answer that would be politically correct (Matthew 21:27). Is political correctness often the cowards way out? Do we love Jesus because he dared to be politically incorrect?
Neither Will I Tell You
Politicians may avoid giving a straight answer to the media because they are evasive but other times reporters act like the Pharisees who repeatedly tried to trap Jesus. An example of Jesus’ masterful answers is found in Matthew 21:27. He was asked who gave him authority and his non-answer was superb. Jesus did the same thing that many brilliant politicians do. He answered a deceitful question with a skillful question, “The baptism of John, where was it from, heaven or men?” The Pharisees were stumped, because they did not want to give the obvious answer themselves. The source of Jesus’ authority was the same as John the Baptist’s, heaven. The implied reply to the Pharisees’ question was contained in Jesus’ question itself. Next time reporters criticize a politician who dodges questions, let us ask, are they evasive or wise?
The Prophet Who said No
We all know the story of Jonah, the prophet who said no. But, do we know the rest of the story? We saw in the news how despicable atrocities were committed against Christians in Iraq, but did we know that the two stories are connected? The group which beheaded many in the Middle East also persecuted Christians in the Assyrian Church of the East. That church has never joined with the Catholic or Orthodox Churches. It has always been an independent church since it was established by the Apostles Thomas, Bartholomew and Thaddeus. And their faith goes back further than that. Jonah was sent to the Assyrians, and unlike frequently rebellious Israel, they repented as a nation, a forerunner of their later conversion. Like the one son in the parable (Matthew 21:29), Jonah initially said no, but later obeyed.
Who did What his Father Wanted
Is some messy church politics caused by a failure to recognize whether or not heavenly authority is given to certain human beings? Jesus was questioned about his authority. What about the authority of certain preachers or denominations? Some people claim the authority of Holy Scripture. Others claim a superior tradition, a doctrinal position, apostolic succession, better education or certain religious experiences. How do we sort through the maze of claims to find out who is right? Perhaps we don’t have to. Most churches actually agree on the essential teachings of Jesus and all churches contain doctrinal error. Is it really that important whether or not churches agree on lesser issues? Only one authority really matters, that of Jesus. Perhaps we are all in the right place if we do what the Father wants (Matthew 21:31), to repent and believe.
Prostitutes are Ahead of You
If anyone could insult a religious person effectively it would be Jesus. He insulted the very religious in his day often. Why? In Matthew 21:31 he told a group of very devout believers in God that corrupt tax collectors and whores are entering heaven before them, not “will be” but “are”. In a certain sense, heaven is now. Imagine insulting church goers like this today. Would we be hated like famous Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard who insulted the Danish National Church and Christians who followed the crowd rather than Jesus? What would Jesus say to us? Have we ignored the way of righteousness even though we have been shown it? Have we seen and yet not believed? Religion, looking after the less fortunate and keeping ourselves uncorrupted, is a good thing. But, without belief in Jesus, it is nothing.
The Way of Righteousness
Jesus was challenged about his authority (Matthew 21:32). Does church authority today reside in a “magisterium” or doctrinal committee? If the counsel of other Christian churches is disregarded how can that be anything other than incomplete authority? Why do Catholic councils ignore the Eastern Orthodox Church, Baptists ignore mainstream churches and Amish ignore everyone else in doctrinal matters? A popular Protestant idea is that we can each decide our own interpretation without consultation. Some even claim that they got their weird and heretical ideas directly from the Holy Spirit. Of course people who make such claims often contradict each other and the Bible. When we seek the counsel of church history, tradition, using reasoning and experience, we find contradictions, but also remarkable unity. We all agree that the way of righteousness is through faith in the authority of Jesus.
You Did Not Repent & Believe
When Jesus spoke of the two sons, one who said yes but did not and the other who said no but changed his mind, he was speaking of the nay-saying of the religious people of this time (Matthew 21:32). Their job was to point to the Messiah, but when he came along, they refused him. Who are the religious people of our time? Is it not we Christians who are a nation of priests? Like those religious people, do we likewise doubt Jesus’ authority when we are confronted with it? Do we gladly perform religious acts, bow our heads or raise our hands, but deny the power and authority of the head of the church? Do we prefer modern religious experiences or ancient traditions, a church founder’s opinions or following our own reasoning instead of the teachings of Jesus?
God asks us the same question every day. Will we do what our heavenly Father wants? If we have answered God wrongly, here's good news: there is still time to change our minds, but how long? If we have once said yes, but have not obeyed him, here's good news: there is still time, but how long? Will we do what our Father in heaven wants before it is too late?

Good News for the Last

We are everywhere encouraged to seek to first place in this life, to strive to put self first. What does that say about our reward in heaven?
I want to show the incredible blessing of following Jesus to a life of self denial, of taking last place.
We will look at the parable of the workers in the vineyard from Matthew 20 and its implications for today.
Wine Industry Parable
In an age when refrigeration and pasteurization were unknown, grape juice was commonly preserved as wine. As we look at the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, we may miss this salient point. We too often try to be more righteous than Jesus. But, the Gospel writers did not bat an eyelid when writing of Jesus and wine. Grace is too risky for some of us. We would rather make a rule banning a God-given gift than take the risk that someone might get drunk. Not so Jesus. Despite the fact that drunkenness also existed in those days, he turned water into wine, drank with sinners and used wine as one of the elements of the Lord’s Supper. It was also natural then for him to use the grape harvest in parables as he did in Matthew 20:1.
God the Generous Employer
Ancient day laborers had no rights and little security, as uninsured workers without a safety net. Jesus tells a parable of an employer hiring workers in the morning (Matthew 20:1) and hiring more later in the day, paying everyone the same day's wages, a generous desire to relieve the hardship of the poor. "no one has hired us" indicates that they wanted to work. The payment was according to need and not according to what was earned or deserved with obvious application to charitable giving. We will all receive eternal life, the late-comer the same as the long-time Christian. In any church, when a relative new-comer is promoted over a long-time Christian we get jealous, when we need to learn generosity towards late-comers. "The parable is thus about the goodness... the mercy... of God... The Good (or Generous) Employer".
Ref: Hagner, D. A. (2002). Vol. 33B: Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary (572). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
Farming the Church
Farming is an unpredictable business. Farmers cannot put it into their calendars a month ahead of time to harvest on a Tuesday starting at six and finishing up by Thursday noon. It doesn't work that way. It all depends on when the crop is ready, the weather and machinery breakdowns. A farmer would understand perhaps completely why in Matthew 20:3-7 the vintner went back several times to the unemployment lines for more hired hands. His harvest was ready and perhaps bad weather was on its way. The same is true in church life. We can schedule events to some extent but flexibility must also be a part of the plan. Things just have a way of totally changing at the last minute. A wise steward of God’s business is like a wise farmer: ready, flexible and patient with change.
Picking Teams
Picking two teams from a lineup is very disheartening for the last ones picked. They often feel like nobody wants them or that they are simply not good enough to even be on the team. Someone with compassion hired a bunch of people for his vineyard, and when the last were hired it was late in the day. He asked why the last did not have any work. Their reply was simply that no one had hired them. Perhaps they were feeling like many long time unemployed people, that nobody wants us. Perhaps to make up for that natural feeling of despair is why the big boss paid them first (Matthew 20:8). Naturally, there were jealousies, but there is a reason for everything and it is not always favoritism. Some people just need a bit more encouragement than others.
Where Latecomers are First
The kingdom of heaven is a place where latecomers are first in line (Matthew 20:8). Why? We need to understand the literary context of this parable. When the disciples were spiritually immature they strove openly among each other for political position and spurned widows and children who attempted to talk to Jesus. This attitude of snobbery and striving for position will not be tolerated in God’s kingdom. Those who insist that they be addressed by exaggerated and grandiose titles, or look down their noses at those they consider to be lesser beings will be surprised in the kingdom of heaven. The last will be first and the first will be last. It is important to humble ourselves and become servants of all. If we are not given recognition in this life, our self-sacrificing service gives us status in heaven.
Just Wages
The parable in Matthew 20:9-10 is probably not about a real vineyard and therefore not an excuse for unjust or whimsical wages on earth. No vineyard owner would pay someone who worked only an hour a day’s wages. So, it is a parable, perhaps exaggerated purposefully to teach us about the kingdom of heaven, not things on this earth. However, it is about just wages in heaven. To God, it is irrelevant how long someone has served him. It is also unimportant what entitlements we presume to have earned. In heaven there will be a Great Reversal, where the first will be last and the last first. So let us beware of allowing position or tenure to delude us into thinking that we are better. Let us not look down on anyone. They may be our boss in heaven.
Where Reward is Undeserved
The kingdom of heaven is a place where our reward is undeserved (Matthew 20:12). Why? We live in a world of entitlement. Wealthy and powerful people are deluded that they somehow deserve to be treated better than others. They gladly pay the poor a pittance and heap excess burdens upon them fully believing that it is their divine right. Celebrities and royals, presidents and prime ministers, CEOs and business owners believe that they deserve more wealth and honor than anyone else. So they take it. We bring that self-centered attitude into the church. We too can think that our tenure or position makes us worthy of a greater reward. The parable of the workers in the vineyard reveals the opposite. The wages given to those who only worked an hour shows that heaven is a reward that is undeserved.
No Room for an Evil Eye
In The kingdom of heaven there is no room for an evil eye (Matthew 20:12). That’s the original wording in verse 15. The Friberg lexicon explains that an evil eye is an attitude of envy, greed or stinginess. When we want to hog the limelight or have all the best for ourselves, that is an evil eye. When we believe that others are undeserving of reward because they have not been around as long as we, that is an evil eye. Jesus revealed that in the kingdom of heaven the first will be last and the last will be first. So, we had better get ready for it. Our perceptions of what we deserve are contrary to those of heaven. Being jealous of others then will be too late. Let’s follow Jesus’ example and take the last places now.
Entitlement versus Need
A national debate is over entitlement versus need. Are workers entitled to health care for which they have need but can't afford? Are wealthy people entitled to million dollar salaries which they the have power to ask for but perhaps not the need? This is a central part of the discussion in Matthew 20:12. Our society has trouble providing basic human needs to the entire population. Whether government can afford it or the wealthy ought to sacrifice to provide it are ongoing debates. Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard is known as a subversive parable. It sets up a scenario that defies normal events in order to teach a lesson. The kingdom of heaven is not based upon entitlement, but need. None of us is entitled to heaven, yet we all have need of life after death.
Lasts who Already are Firsts
Why did Jesus say that in the kingdom of heaven the last will be first (Matthew 20:16)? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the fact that many who are last already are first. Many so-called little people are in reality big people and many big in the eyes of this world are really small in heaven’s eyes. Why is the janitor the happiest person in the building? Why is the widow the one who always has the most encouraging word? Why is the wisdom of an old man in a nursing home the greatest thing you have heard all week? Why does the poor farmer out plowing in his field sing so loudly? Why does the blue collar worker live longer and have a happier marriage than the billionaire? These are great secrets of the kingdom of heaven.
Life’s Journey from First to Last
When young people receive blessings ahead of older people we can be covetous. It can be that a newer Christian is gifted in a ministry that is suited to changing needs. An older Christian may be more gifted in ministries that served past needs well but feel overlooked as times change. It is the job of each generation to prepare the next one to take over, not hang onto power forever. For a church to develop, new personnel must be brought along. It’s a humbling thing for us to realize that this life is not forever. How do we deal with the change in status? In Matthew 20:16 Jesus addressed this issue by stating that the last will be first and the first will be last. Giving up status from first to last is one of life’s necessary sacrifices.
When we seek to place ourselves first in this life, we are choosing the last place in heaven. When we choose last place in this life, our reward will be first place in heaven.

Good News of Mandatory Forgiveness

How can we forgive big transgressions? America forgave Japan and Germany and helped rebuild them. What a wonderful example! But, how often should we forgive an enemy? What about our current enemies?
I want us to explore the difficulty and necessity of forgiveness.
We will look at Matthew 18:21-35 and compare God’s forgiveness of our sins and the difficulty we have of forgiving others from the heart.
The Forgiveness Limit
After we confront someone caught up in gross sin what attitude ought we to have? How often must we forgive a habitual sin? Are we to be suckers? Jesus taught about forgiveness, but how often should we let ourselves be taken advantage of and subsequently forgive those who seem to make a habit of hurting us? That is essentially Peter's question in Matthew 18:21. Ancient Jewish teaching may have suggested with forgiveness, 3 strikes and you're out. So, Peter's suggestion of 7 times, may have seemed generous to him. A question in response to Peter might be, how often ought we imitate God's forgiveness? If the answer is only 7 times, then we are all in trouble. Jesus' answer is 70x7, a hyperbola for countless times. True generosity in forgiveness does not keep count. Christian forgiveness is given extravagantly.
Must we Forgive Terrorists
What debt to society does a terrorist responsible for thousands of deaths owe? Could we say that the only repayment that would satisfy us would be revenge? Matthew 18:21, 35 describes a forgiven man who was unable to forgive. Who do we find it hard to forgive — terrorists? What about abusive spouses? What about gang bangers, politicians, identity thieves, greedy company executives, church conferences and fellow church members? Are there any exceptions? Some crimes are so despicable that even the thought of forgiveness can make us angry. Yet, still Jesus does not flinch. He asks us to forgive our enemies and he dares to ask us to pray for them. However, forgiveness does not mean that we allow terrorists, abusers and criminals to continue. We must also show love to all by seeking to put a stop to such wrongdoing.
Forgiveness Despite the Pain
Forgiveness is probably one of the hardest things in life to do, yet it is a requirement of the Christian life (Matthew 18:22). It is a decision, but it is not an easy one. With forgiveness comes all kinds of deep personal pain. We want justice, but when it comes to our own wrongs we want mercy. Offenses and great injustices happen inside and outside of the church. Many times forgiveness comes hard. Do we look to blame the perpetrators or ourselves for allowing it? It’s the past and we can’t go back. We do have a choice though. We can live lives of bitterness and resentment or choose forgiveness despite the pain. It’s easy to harbor a grudge for life, but the consequences are hard. It’s hard to forgive from the heart, but the consequences are renewed life.
Forgiving when the Line is Crossed
“I’ll forgive you this time but...” Fill in the blank. We each draw an imaginary line in the sand beyond which forgiveness is not available. In Matthew 18:22 Jesus challenged that kind of thinking after Peter suggested a very generous line in the sand, seven times. Perhaps he had thought if Jesus said go the extra mile that may also apply to forgiveness, twice only. But perhaps he rethought that and asked Jesus about seven times, a number we could easily keep track of. But, who could keep track of seventy seven or four hundred and ninety times? No matter the translation, it is a number that is normally not as easily tracked. If we would be so pedantic as to track the number of times we gave someone forgiveness, then perhaps we have not really forgiven at all.
What Stopped Viking Terrorism
The Vikings terrorized Europe for 300 years, but that is all forgiven and few hold a grudge against the Nordic peoples today. What brought the Viking Age to an end was their conversion to Christianity. It is hard to imagine people from some of the world’s most liberal democracies having been once terrorists. We are faced with a new terrorist threat today and we all pray that it does not last 300 years. How long would we harbor grudges against those who perform such ghastly deeds, a lifetime, two lifetimes? In Matthew 18:22 Jesus seemed to indicate that we ought to harbor no grudges, but forgive over and over again. That is a very hard thing to do. Elsewhere, he asked us to pray for our enemies. Perhaps we can pray that like the Vikings they too become Christians.
Effect of Being Forgiven
A business executive lost about 5,000 lifetimes worth of income. He was a trusted slave (Matthew 18:22-28). He was forgiven by his king. The king not only had compassion on him, but forgave an astronomical debt. The slave then confronted a fellow who owed him only the equivalent of a few month's wages by comparison. The recently forgiven slave, whose debt had been 600,000 times greater, became violent and threw his fellow slave into prison. The king was so incensed at this lack of mercy, that he jailed him and handed him over to those who would torture him. Torture was not allowed under Jewish law, but Roman prison guards were well known for it. Hell will be torture. God will not tolerate anything less than forgiveness. The effect of being forgiven ought to be forgiving others.
Forgive before an Apology
Should we only forgive those who apologize? It seems that Jesus’ prayer on the cross contradicted that kind of thinking. He prayed, Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing. In Matthew 18:33 Jesus spoke about an atmosphere in the church of mercy. Imagine an atmosphere where forgiveness was not so readily given out, or you sensed that every mistake was being cataloged and critiqued. Perhaps you sense that you are not forgiven for some mistake that you may even be unaware of. An atmosphere like that would be a church killer. Would we find excuses why we could not attend anymore? Forgiveness before repentance, simply because none of us really knows what we are doing, is a hallmark of a church which follows Jesus. A church with an atmosphere of forgiveness is a wonderful place to be.
Forgiveness Every Day
How many people do we have to forgive? Do we need to forgive the church? What about church leaders creating new Talmuds and binding heavy burdens on us like the Pharisees which Jesus criticized? We cannot say that legalism is exclusively a Jewish problem. It is a human one. Grace is risky. Legalism is the normal human way. What about politicians? They are easier to forgive. All we have to do is realize that no human is capable of solving human problems. What about the jerk on the freeway, who cuts you off and threatens your life with a deadly weapon because you dare to obey the law? Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing. Forgiveness is needed every day and in every place. And the hardest thing of all is forgiving from the heart (Matthew 18:35).
Forgiveness makes a Church
Some people are loners because they refuse to forgive. A healthy local church is an ideal place for anyone to heal and begin to learn to love again. Notice I did not say "trust again." The Bible teaches us that it is foolish to trust any human being, even ourselves. We must learn to trust the only one who is completely trustworthy, God. What we need to learn in community life is forgiveness. In Matthew 18:22-35 Jesus gave one of the most memorable parables regarding forgiveness. A servant who owed a sum as large as several million in today’s money would not forgive the debt of someone who owed only a few hundred. How wonderful it is when we are in a group of Christians and forgiveness is there. Human trustworthiness is an unrealistic expectation. Forgiveness makes a church.
Forgiveness a Rare Gift
In Matthew 18:35 Jesus spoke of a rare gift. It is a gift we give others and ourselves. It is the gift of forgiveness. It is hard to find this gift. Most people hold unhealthy grudges and refuse to let them go. We carefully keep resentments of hurts against all kinds of people as one would preserve a precious treasure. Yet that treasure is a stinking carcass. We not only preserve this corpse, but we bow down to caress it with our words as we remember the past. The dead carcass is our egos and hurt feelings and we refuse to let go of them. Instead of forgiving and getting over it, we imprison ourselves in bitterness and inward anger. Jesus said to forgive from the heart, because only by doing so will our hearts experience freedom and healing.
The Difference
Christianity is a very different religion. There are religions where a person must go through endless lives of good deeds to eventually reach heaven. There are religions that teach their followers not to forgive but to kill and terrorize. No religion offers a free pardon for our misdeeds like Christianity. Forgiveness is a surprise to those who believe that we must earn our way into God’s favor. Forgiveness is completely undeserved. It is given because of love. It is given freely though we sin seventy times seven and to those who also forgive. We are not Christians because we wear a badge saying so, or because we go to church weekly. We are Christians because we participate in God’s kingdom of forgiveness and we are learning to be like Jesus and forgiving (Matthew 18:35). It starts in the heart.
Ever had a free pass? Heaven's forgiveness is like a free pass, but with a difference. Heaven expects us to pass the free pass along to those who sin against us. We forgive even our worst enemies, not naively allowing them to continue to hurt others, and not because we are stupid, but because we are forgiven.

Good News for Major Conflicts

Conflict is part of life. How we handle conflict is the key. Jesus gave a simple 3-step solution that still works today.
I want us to know that conflict is normal but there is good news: we can learn to handle it right and possibly even have a good outcome.
We will look at Matthew 18 and 3 steps to bringing good news into any major conflict. Then we will look at a few examples.
Conflict Avoidance
Some avoidance of conflict is healthy. When Jesus spoke of conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-20 he spoke of unrepentant wrongdoers and how such people ought to be dealt with in a Christian setting. What if the person may not be sinning, but their church teaches that their actions are sin? Some churches are humble and open to differences of opinion on issues that neither Jesus nor the Apostles commanded, while others are not. That makes life difficult for those who believe differently to their church’s doctrine. There are Catholics who practice birth control, Baptists who drink moderately and Amish who own televisions. Many of these people believe that they are not sinning and swim against the denominational tide. However, there is no need for conflict. Conflict can be avoided so as not to cause division and for peace. We just keep our personal faith private.
Step 1: Keep it Private
Tabloids and exposés are popular press, but Jesus teaches the exact opposite. In Matthew 18:15 we are taught that if a believer sins against us, we ought to point that sin out in private, quietly and humbly. The implication is dealing with a major issue not nit-picking over every minor infraction. We ought not to rebuke an older person, but rather intreat them or when an officer of the church sins we ought to check our facts and if that elder persists in sin, he is to be rebuked in public, so that others may learn (1 Timothy 5:1, 19-20). In pointing out heresy Jesus did not hold back. Private sins ought to be kept private. The Christian church is to be a safe place, where minor sins are overlooked and major sins are dealt with in private.
Conflict Resolution in Private
In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus gave a three step solution to community conflict. It is different to our common practice. The first step one of the rarest — go privately — between you and that person alone, nobody else. If this one simple principle was practiced, news programming would change dramatically and gossip columns might disappear. In churches, the parking lot powwow or dinner discussion would drastically change. Perhaps even our comparative religion classes in many seminaries would also take on a more gracious tinge. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, perhaps even our great schisms would disappear from church history. The East-West Schism centered around Pope Leo and Patriarch Michael. The Protestant schism began with a complaint by Martin Luther against Johann Tetzel. Conflicts often begin as a dispute between two people which may have been best resolved in private.
Step 2: Get Witnesses
When a serious offender refuses to listen to correction, what do we do? Matthew 18:16 is talking about a serious sin, not some silly infraction that we can all be guilty of. So, we respect the offender’s right to privacy by mentioning it only between us and them. How far ought privacy go in the church? If a sin is grievous enough, Jesus did instruct us to use an Old Testament principle regarding two or three witnesses. Our loving concern is rebuffed. Are we our brother's keeper or is this kind of thing is the pastor's job? Pastoral care is really everyone's job. This is the second stage of a three step process of reconciliation. We are out to save them. We are all our brother’s keeper. Inviting witnesses is a way to avoid false accusation in a serious matter.
Conflict Resolution using Witnesses
The second step to Jesus’ conflict resolution trilogy in Matthew 18:15-20 is to gather two or three others. The stated purpose of this meeting is two-fold. There may be a need for witnesses in case the matter needs to go further. There would also be the hope of restoration as previous verses show, of rescuing a sheep that went astray. An unstated purpose could also be to inform the accuser that they are the one in the wrong. Jesus did not specify detailed actions of the small group. It could take the shape of a classic confrontation group as is sometimes used when dealing with addiction. If circumstances warrant, it could also be a much gentler experience, even encouraging. Certainly, confidentiality is a very important ingredient here. Only if the individual refuses to listen is the matter taken further.
Step 3: Let the Whole Church Decide
Finally, the church must decide matters of grievous sin. Jesus said (Matthew 18:17) to take it to the whole church, implying that the congregation was to confront the person. If the offender still refuses to listen, they are to be treated as among the worst in any society. Does this mean allowing them to continue to attend? In the escalating seriousness, that could be excommunication or removal from any office. However, when someone is kicked out of one church today, they can just go to the church down the street. Wise congregations are aware of this and treat “church hoppers” with due caution, making inquiry. This is not a decision made by church leaders but the whole congregation. In our litigious society wisdom needs to be used. Thankfully it is a rare task. Are we “more righteous” than Jesus?
Conflict Resolution Last Resort
The third step to Jesus’ conflict resolution trilogy in Matthew 18:15-20 is to take the dispute to the church. Who is the church? Does that mean the whole congregation or merely the appointed representatives? This can be interpreted both ways and depending on the size of the church or the nature of the complaint, wisdom could lead us one way or the other. What does the decision to count the unrepentant offender as a heathen and a tax collector mean? In rare, severe cases it might mean excommunication. In lesser cases a judgment may be simply realizing that they need to be treated with kindness, like someone new in the faith or not even in the faith at all. Perhaps the person still needs grace and time to grow and should not be put in any position of leadership.
Picking our Battles
The word church came from those called out to a Greek town meeting, an assembly. So, we are not in the Church unless we also attend church meetings, with obvious exceptions. In any group of human beings there will be problems. Matthew 18:17 addresses how to handle offenses in the church. Now that can be taken to the extremes of abuse or neglect. We can be aggressive and annoying or be passive and unconcerned. Neither extreme is healthy. We ought to speak up but we also ought to pick our battles carefully and not nag about every peccadillo. In many churches pastors are evaluated only once a year lest they become discouraged, and the same ought to be true for any of us. We ought to talk to each other over major offenses and not over every little thing.
Constructive Conflict
In order to solve a conflict, sometimes we must be willing to enter conflict. That is the encouragement of Matthew 18:15-20. When someone in a setting, be it work, family or church hurts us, we can’t always just be the door mat who gets walked all over. There is a time when constructive conflict is encouraged. Constructive conflict seeks to build rather than destroy, reconcile rather than divide. It is short term engagement for long term peace. Constructive conflict is an adaptable and flexible three-step process: go alone, go with witnesses, go to the church. Some people go to the human resources department over every small trivial infraction. That only creates a work atmosphere akin to that under the Stasi in Communist East Germany. Most conflicts can be solved quickly one on one. We seldom need to take it further.
Destructive Conflict
How can we handle conflict in order to destroy? The formula is simple and common. Don’t go to someone alone. Avoid any confrontation, but gossip about them negatively behind their back to others. Better yet, gossip about them to the whole church and especially to the pastor. Next time we see someone who is a denominational leader, bring them into the gossip. Pretty soon we will create an atmosphere of distrust and vitriol and really begin to destroy the peace of the Church. The problem is: we don’t want to go to a church like that, but that is exactly the kind of church we would be creating. As you may have noticed these are the exact opposite of the steps advised by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20. Conflict is natural, but it does not have to be destructive conflict.
Example: Conflict with Church Leaders
In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus explained a reasoned and balanced approach to conflict. Sometimes even church leaders handle this badly, either tolerating evil or making an unfair excommunication? The church then causes an offense. The three step approach is still important here as well. Now we must realize that the bigger the office, the bigger the ego, not always but often enough to make one more cautious. On the one extreme are churches which encourage people to shun their own family members over things that neither Jesus nor the Apostles commanded. On the other extreme are churches which tolerate gross sins, even in the leadership. Although Jesus did not specify such a case, church history teaches us that there are two possible paths to follow, stay and fight or excommunicate the church by leaving. Either action must be taken cautiously.
Example: Conflict with Divorce in Churches
Conflict resolution procedures in Matthew 18:15-20 can also apply to divorces within a particular church setting. Some couples divorce amicably and remain friends. Such situations would not normally cause the congregation major problems. There may be some small pain as friends of both parties grieve and adjust to the new circumstances. Some awkward moments are bound to happen, but a loving congregation can help both to heal. However, when a divorce is vitriolic and the fight is carried to church, it can be a major disruption. Tussles over children and property can be bad enough, but when friends are made to feel that they must also take sides, the fight can infect more than a few within the church. In such cases it may simply be the best for the church to recommend that the two attend different churches.
Example: When Both are Wrong
The conflict in Matthew 18:15-20 seems to imply that only one side is wrong. In most situations, each side has caused harm to the other. Is there any application of these principles to this very common situation? It is the same, just doubled. It can be complicated by each side gathering a set of witnesses before taking it to the church or a higher authority if this is a work situation. The obligation of those who are in authority is still to be fair and make an equitable decision. As parents, we are familiar with this kind of situation among our children. It’s really not that much different in the adult world. When both sides are wrong, both sides have acted like gentiles outside the faith. What do we do with gentiles? We preach the gospel to them.
Example: Conflict at Work
Can Jesus’ instructions regarding conflict in Matthew 18:15-20 be used in the workplace, where perhaps most are not Christians? Indeed yes! The principles are very valuable anywhere. Bad bosses will embarrass or humiliate workers for mistakes in front of everyone else. This creates a terrible atmosphere on the job, and such managers are feared but not respected. Workers who have grievances against one another ought also show each other enough respect to speak to one another privately. Now this is only step one, but would go a long way to improving the atmosphere in any business. If the final step is needed, instead of the church, obviously the big boss or the human resources department would become involved. What a dramatic improvement we would see in the work environment if these simple principles of mutual respect were followed.

Conflict is normal. The good news is that how we handle it can enhance the chances of a good outcome.