Matthew 18 and Reconciling Relationships

Moving from conflict magnification to conflict resolution and reconciliation

One of the most difficult areas when working as part of a team is that of conflict resolution. What do you do when two people within a team or church come into conflict, misunderstanding, frustration, disappointment, hurt or disagreement?

Historically the church has turned to Matthew 18, where Jesus instructs his disciples on this issue saying:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” – Matt 18: 15-17

This scripture has been a high value for us within the churches we have been apart of, as well as something we have taught as part of a healthy church life. The opening injunction to deal with the matter with the person concerned rather than talking it round to others, is so important to avoid gossip and destructive tendencies that so easily happen. However, we believe it is not so straightforward in our experience as we move beyond this first important point. In fact, we have found over and over that the implementation of this passage in a superficial way often does not produce the fruit it promises, and we know of churches which have abandoned their efforts at addressing conflict on this basis.

Despite this, we believe that there is an appropriate framework through which we must view this teaching in order that it is implemented effectively as a means to restore relationships, rather than worsening them as is too often the case. The first point is that we need to start at the end of verse 15 and note that Jesus states that the goal of this practice is to win your brother over. This must be the starting point of any attempt at restoring relationships. This shift in perspective (to focus on the end of restoration and the winning over of your brother, rather than focusing on pointing out your brother’s fault), will bring about a drastic change in the dynamic of these conversations. You change from being two people sitting on opposite sides of the table discussing right and wrong, to two people sitting on the same side of the table looking at an event or issue and discussing how the relationship can be restored/enhanced so that both parties can be fully ONE with each another. It places reconciliation as the aim not discipleship (though this could be the by-product). Discipleship (brother/sisters sorting out one another) requires a trusting relationship and when this has been threatened it has to be restored as the exclusive first step.

Secondly, one must understand that we are dealing with a very short section of scripture. Thus, more attention needs to be paid to viewing scripture as a whole. Matthew 18 must be read and interpreted in the context of the more general teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which appears some 10 chapters before in Matthew 5-7. Within this context for rightly understanding Matthew 18, particular attention should be paid to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount on judging others. “Do not judge others, or you too will be judged” (Matt 7:1). So again here it is clear that with the end goal of winning your brother in mind, ones attitude should not be that of judgement, rather:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matt 7:3-5).

So even more important, this earlier passage makes it clear that when anyone addresses another over a conflict or disagreement they ought to feel very insecure and nervous, rather than confident to ‘show a brother his fault’. A fundamental starting point has to be that they should not expect that they see things more clearly than their sister/brother and ‘fault’ is likely on both sides. In fact, Jesus’ expectation is that one’s own vision is impaired by the plank in one’s own eye (often the sense of disappointment, frustration, hurt or even anger), and one must approach any conversation of the matter on the assumption that we are unable to see clearly. One must enter into such situations with an understanding that one does not have the complete picture and may be seeing things in a distorted way. The aim of the dialogue “on the same side of the table” is to discover the distorted perceptions on both sides and seek first to come to a common clear understanding as far as possible.

The approach should not be one of judgement or even assessment, but that of asking questions in order to discover together a common view and address any underlying issue. Only then can the responsibility for reconciliation, restoration and overcoming whatever has stressed or strained the relationship be constructively shared and appropriate responses explored for each party. This means being very careful with language used. For example, issues need to be raised in terms of “this is how things have appeared to me but how has it been for you?” rather than “this is how things were!”

Once we have changed our perspective on the whole process from “sorting out my erring brother” to one of two partially sighted brothers/sisters seeking common vision and understanding to lead to reconciliation, we can get a right perspective on the next steps that Jesus outlines in Matthew 18. Namely, if this first stage of seeking common understanding and resolution on your own does not completely resolve the issue, then involve other brother/sister(s) and then ‘the church’.  Building on what we have established, this step should never be seen as “to come to my aid in order to try to get my erring sister/brother to see sense and accept my accusation”.

Rather, since we agree that we both have planks and specks that distort our vision, especially in a conflict situation, we need help to establish where each of us is not seeing things clearly. Hence, far from seeking weight to add to my case, these next steps only work if approached by both parties as seeking help to be ONE. Other Christians and the ‘church’ are involved only to provide the independent perspective that can shed light past our planks and specks. This step is of the essence of arbitration, mediation and of the ministry of reconciliation. We never involve others to ‘gain reinforcements’ for our case. There is much wisdom around in the church and beyond on this independent ministry of mediation and reconciliation, and that is what should be drawn upon.

Implementation is complicated when one of the people involved is in authority over the other. This distorts the process significantly and the principles described so far need re-examining. Power, expressed in position, personality or controlling the process dramatically hinders the possibility of reconciliation described here.

1)      If the subordinate is to raise an issue with someone over them, then their need for humility and respect may constrain them and make honest sharing on an equal footing difficult. This can be a case where Jesus’ absence of speaking directly against taking advice first, may in fact enable us to say that this prior consultation can certainly be legitimate. It may be the only way that a level playing field can be established, to have a third party present from the outset who is not a subordinate of the leader or they too are biased by power dynamics..

2)      Conversely, if the issue is to be raised by the person in authority, they have to be extremely careful that their power position does not distort the process further and in effect “enlarge their plank”. It is even more important that the process starts with asking questions to clarify what has happened rather than starting with any sort of accusation. The superior needs to be open and give every opportunity to discover that their initial perception is only part or not even the correct reading of the picture. Quick thinking leaders who normally trust their own judgement can have to relearn alot.

If reconciliation and restoration are impossible after all this … Jesus words of approaching the brother/sister as you would a publican and sinner… again should not be putting us in a superior position, or disconnecting from the brother/sister. Jesus was accused of prioritising time spent with such!

Lastly, if the issue that has caused stress has not been experienced firsthand, but passed on by a third party, then one must pay even greater attention to the issue of planks and specks. Second hand information is liable to further distortion so one must be even more insecure about the facts in tackling the issue. One must enter into these conversations without judgement and even more humility if the truth of what has happened and the root of the issue is ever to be understood.

We conclude that we must have an appropriate framework for understanding and implementing Matthew 18 in our churches. This framework is characterised by an attitude of humility; the shared end goal of restoration and winning sister/brother together, within the clear understanding of having only a partial picture of the full situation. Inhabiting these perspectives should we hope, lead to more successful conflict resolution, and the attainment of the fruit Jesus intended.

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