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.
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.
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.
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.