A Look at Matthew 18:15-35
Pastor Gregg is teaching a two week class on Biblical Conflict Resolution at the Middleboro Ave Campus. Class #2 is this coming Wed June 6th from 6:30-8pm. To listen to the content from Session #1 click here (it is audio from a sermon Gregg gave at another church).
Session #1 was a theological approach to conflict resolution. Next Wednesday night we will take a VERY, VERY, VERY practical approach to conflict resolution.
Here’s what we know…
Conflict is inevitable – it’s not about IF there will be conflict in our lives (or in the church) it’s more about WHEN there is conflict.
We all know the negative effects of conflict, but can there be anything positive about conflict?
Conflict CAN have a positive effect on our lives…
- We have the opportunity to learn how to listen to, learn about, and love one another better.
- Conflict reveals our sin and reminds us of our need for Christ.
- Conflict provides the opportunity to practice the spiritual disciplines of patience, forgiveness, forbearance, and gentleness.
My supposition and one of the reasons we need to teach on this subject is that here at CCC we have undergone a season where unhealthy and unbiblical communication patterns were normalized and caused others to not feel safe enough to be transparent and vulnerable.
What does that mean?
In the past, we have not called our leaders (both formal and informal) to account for outbursts of anger, reactivity, gossip, triangulation, and mindreading/second guessing. There has been an unwillingness to have “courageous conversations” with those who acted out inappropriately.
So, here are our options:
We can either have biblical church discipline or we can have hypocrisy (which will be seen by those both inside the church as well as outside).
Most of us are familiar with the passage from Matthew 18 that we will look at, but before we consider it I would like for us to climb up to 30,000 feet and look at the context of the whole chapter…
The passage in Matthew 18 concerning church discipline is almost always studied in isolation from the rest of the chapter and I would like for us to see some context.
The theme of the whole chapter is God’s great concern for the spiritually broken, lost, and needy:
- God deeply cares about the powerless
- God deeply cares about those who have been victimized by sin
- God deeply cares about those who have victimized others
Verses 1-6: Addresses our status in the kingdom of God.
- We are to become like children (child-like, not childish) and recognize our dependence on God and trust God like a child trusts a loving and attentive parent.
- 4 tells us very clearly that it is the truly humble people who are the most highly regarded people in the kingdom of God.
Verses 7-14: Tell us that the church is to be a place where the powerless are cared for, that the abuse of people will not be tolerated, and that God deeply cares for each and every person – and is willing to leave the 99 to go after the 1.
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” 21 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
Summary of vs. 23-35: Then beginning in v. 23 we have the account of the Merciful King and the Wicked Slave. The King forgave the Slave a multimillion-dollar debt, but the Slave would not forgive a fellow Slave a debt of a few thousand dollars. The highlight of this account is found in v. 33: 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way, that I had mercy on you?
Takeaway: The church is to be a place where sinners are mercifully restored, and the church is to be a place where people are quick to forgive, quick to seek reconciliation, and quick to seek restoration.
This passage is divided into three sections – each with a one-word descriptor. I will give them to you and then we will go back and look at them one at a time. We will see that there is to be:
- CLARITY (vs. 15-20)
- FORGIVENESS (vs. 21-22)
- MERCY (vs. 23-35)
We could also view these as CLARITY (or a clear process) in the context of FORGIVENESS and MERCY (this is why it’s helpful to look at the whole chapter in order to identify the full context)
One at a time…
- Vs. 15-20: CLARITY
When conflict happens, it must be dealt with immediately. Our natural tendency to look the other way and pretend it’s not there – hoping that it will just go away. But it won’t. A conflict that is not attended to immediately is like a neglected infection, and sooner or later it will engulf the entire organism.
Unresolved conflict can do great damage to us as a church as well as to our witness as a church. For that reason, Jesus gives us very clear and specific instruction. Jesus tells us with specific CLARITY what to do when there is tension between the members.
Our goal in resolving inevitable church conflict is never retaliation or vindication, but always reconciliation – we want to show and honor Jesus Christ in our healed relationships.
Step 1 – one on one (v. 15) “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.
I don’t circulate, I don’t inflate, I don’t inflame, but the first step is to go talk to that person. We will need to identify if we each have a clear picture of what happened, or what was said.
I would like to point out that: In these conflict resolution steps there is both an informal process as well as a formal process.
Informally, we could engage Matt 18 in a home group if someone says something that hurts your feelings or that you think is untrue — or in the church hallway if we were to overhear a brother speaking harshly to his wife or his kids. Again, informally we might come-up alongside the person from the homegroup and say, “You know, I have a different view of the circumstance you spoke about…” – or come alongside the brother in the hallway and ask, “Is everything okay, you seem a little bit uptight today??”
A more formal process might occur if some habitual sin, like gossip, continues to surface in a person’s life.
The main idea of Step 1 (or v. 15) is, can we settle this at the lowest level possible? The goal is to establish a renewed “family” relationship with our brother or sister. It may take a little time and a little work.
“Help me understand…” is a great introductory question to what could be a difficult or courageous conversation.
This isn’t to be mechanical and reconciliation certainly isn’t automatic, it’s something to be done with great care.
But what if it doesn’t work?
Step 2 – Go in two’s (v. 16) But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.
This is where it can get harder, or messier. Often times it “feels” so much easier to talk to someone we feel would be more on our side of the conflict than it is to actually talk to the person we are having the conflict with.
This verse reflects the ancient Jewish standard of fairness. That everything would be established by one or two credible witnesses.
The “witness” or “witnesses” are to delve into both party’s perspective of the conflict – and they need to be a person (or people) who is impartial to the situation and is willing to point out your sin in the matter. (We’ll go into this in greater detail next week.)
What if Step 2 doesn’t work?
Step 3 (v. 17) If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Tell it to the church. This DOESN’T mean that we talk to all our friends in the church about our conflict!
While there is a God-ordained process, there is no formula on how each matter is to be resolved. Each situation deserves it’s own theologically-centered and Holy Spirit led response and communication.
We are to speak to those who represent the authority in the church. First steps would be to go to your small group or ministry leader. If that doesn’t work, then the pastors would get involved. Finally, the elders would get involved.
The role of the elders is primarily 3-fold: Doctrine, Direction (vision), and Discipline – this usually happens after steps one and two have been unsuccessful.
The goal is always to help people build a holy consensus and unity that will express the reconciliation that God has brought to us in the Person of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we have been reconciled to Jesus Christ and there are times when we need to be reconciled to one another. Again, conflict is inevitable.
The gospel is to be expressed in the way we deal with one another.
Sometimes conflict can get really messy and difficult. And sometimes we need to involve outside Christian arbitration.
Sometimes it is necessary to inform the sinning person/s they are in great spiritual danger. The NT describes three categories of sins that have reached this level of seriousness:
- Major doctrinal error (e.g., 1 Tim 1:20)
- Major moral failure (e.g. 1 Cor 5)
- Persistent divisiveness (e.g., Titus 3:10)
The sinning person/s may be denied access to the communion table – and warned that their fellowship at the church is in jeopardy.
No one likes talking about this, yet what Jesus is saying here is that their unwillingness to see and own their sin – even after the highest authorities in the church have weighed in — causes the church to no longer view them as being part of the Christian “family” and in need of either repentance or conversion. (Perhaps they are not true Christians after all?? See 2 Cor 13:5)
What Jesus is saying here is that to protect His Church, He has given us a clear guiding process. God protects His Church by providing a process.
What is the purpose of this process? Why would we bother to do this?
We are not to be mindless or automatic.
The primary reasons are rescue and reconciliation. We are willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations in order to rescue and reconcile people due to their own sinful behavior OR from being victimized by other people’s sinful behavior. The whole purpose of this process is to gain a brother or a sister. We go back to vs. 12-14, the Parable of the lost sheep…
We sometimes think that Matt 18 is there to protect and vindicate us – but it’s more about caring for those who need rescuing and reconciling.
V. 17: What does it mean to: Treat someone as a Gentile and a tax collector?
In a nutshell, it means that when we do interact with those under church discipline we are to urge them to repent.
The Westminster Confession (30.3) explains:
“Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offenses, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honor of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof [the sacraments] to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.”
The purpose of church discipline in all its forms is not to punish for punishment’s sake, but to call forth repentance in order to recover the straying sheep.
Ultimately, there is only one sin for which a church member is excommunicated — an unwillingness to repent.
- When forgiveness is asked for we are to grant it.
- The leaders of the church may also ask for a season where the fruit of repentance becomes apparent. In other words, we are not necessarily to rush to restore someone who has repented (think of someone who repeatedly abuses a spouse…).
- There may need to be a season of reconciliation with those who have been affected by the sin. We can think of it as an arc — moving from forgiveness to reconciliation to restoration (we cannot rush reconciliation — it takes as long as it takes).
- Once there has been forgiveness AND reconciliation, restoration of fellowship can be restored.
Paul applies this discipline in 1Cor 5 and 1Tim 1:20. There was obvious and blatant sin in both Corinth and Ephesus and Paul was admonishing each of the churches and their leaders to address it.
- “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” —1 Corinthians 5:5:
- “Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.” –1 Timothy 1:20
What is Paul saying here? He is removing the church’s covering from the lives of the unrepentant sinners. The heart behind this is not angry, hostile vindication but sorrow and love — a willingness to say, “Your behavior is causing harmful effects on the rest of the family and we need you to leave until you are able to see this.” We see this in Matt 18:18: Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. The elders pray a prayer that removes the church’s covering from the unrepentant sinner/s.
Matthew finishes these thoughts by emphasizing the need for church discipline to be exercised in the context of continuous forgiveness and extravagant mercy…
2. Vs. 21-22: FORGIVENESS
- The Jewish standard of three times doubled plus one
- Because the goal is forgiveness, reconciliation (as needed), and restoration. The goal is NOT getting “our due.”
- The goal of the biblical process of conflict resolution is mission. That others, even outside the church, would see the gospel in operation as we continually pursue healing and reconciliation with one another.
- We want to make the gospel known by the witness of CCC.
- The separation that can happen in the Church can have eternal consequences when we don’t follow the biblical processes laid down by Jesus for His Church…
3. Vs. 23-35: MERCY
- We are to extend the mercy we have received from God to one another.
- Luke 7:47 tells us that those who have been forgiven much will love much.
In almost every church there is a person, a couple, or group of people, who want to be regarded as church leaders – or, people who regard themselves as “gatekeepers” in the church who often cause the most damage and strife through gossiping, second-guessing, and triangulation.
These people can even have a strong understanding of the Bible and be very gifted in many areas, but in the end, they disqualify themselves because they cannot hold their tongue – or they cannot take their concerns to the people who actually need to hear them.
The rest of the church needs to lovingly stand up to these people and point them to the people they are complaining about or gossiping about.
God created us for relationship — with Him and with one another. Let’s determine to not let unresolved conflict rob us of the joy that healthy relationships can bring.
 D.A. Carson, Editorial On Abusing Matthew 18, Themelios, May 2011, Vol 36, Issue 1.