MATTHEW 18 AS A MODEL FOR
CONFLICT RESOLUTION IN COMMUNITY
Matthew 18 records Jesus’ fourth extended discourse in Matthew’s gospel. This chapter, on the surface, appears to be a collection of disparate material treating children, shepherds, millstones, church discipline, and ungrateful servants. Yet, further study reveals a common thread holding the entire chapter together. It seems clear that Matthew meant this discourse to be a practical guide to relationships and Christian community. Surrounding material treats a disciple’s relationship to the government (17:24-27), spouse (19:1-9), and children (19:13-16). The passage under consideration speaks directly to the preciousness of relationships within the
18:1-5.The subject of this pericope is not children. Jesus presents the child as an example of His primary concern, humility. The disciples are preoccupied with worldly greatness. In fact, this preoccupation has led to rivalries and strife among them. In the midst of this conflict, Jesus demonstrates that true greatness evinces itself in a spirit of deference and humility. The disciples, Jesus insists, must repent of their competitive spirit or risk not entering the kingdom of heaven at all. Greatness in the kingdom is not a matter of pride or position but humility. The fruit of this humble spirit is the ability to embrace (i.e., “receive”) others in the community of faith.
18:6-9. Living in community means that we do not live in a vacuum. Our decisions and actions impact others. “Little ones” will be affected by our actions. Symbolically, “little ones” refers to disciples “who believe in me.” This designation underscores their vulnerability and their dependence on God. Jesus calls his disciples to an awareness of how their actions and attitudes affect others. Reckless actions that, intentionally or unintentionally, cause vulnerable disciples to stumble will be met by severe consequences. Tragic death or disfigurement is preferable to the eternal consequences. Why are the consequences so severe? People matter to God.
18:10-14. Disciples are to be very careful not to despise or “treat with contempt” another member of the community. Every disciple is of incomparable worth to God. God is so concerned about their well being that each of these “little ones” has their own angels who look after their welfare and intercede for them. Disciples are urged to share this same concern for one another. Community is a place for “little ones” to be received and esteemed; special care must be taken not to cause them to stumble. Jesus illustrates the value of each disciple through a parable. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine “on the hills” to go after the one that strayed. The joy at the return of one lost sheep underscores the value of each sheep in the eyes of the shepherd. It is not God’s will that any of these “little ones” should be lost.
18:15-17. When a member of the community is offended, that person is to go to the other person and “rebuke” the offender. The Greek verb implies a continual action. The directive is not to scold or abuse them verbally, but to bring the offense to their attention with the hope that they will repent, so that the relationship might be restored. This initial interview is to be conducted in private “between you and him alone.” This avoids broadcasting the accusation. If the offender “listens” and responds penitently then reconciliation is possible because “you have gained your brother.”
If this initial phase of reconciliation is unfruitful, the offended party is to take two or three other members of the community with them to another encounter. This provides witnesses so that each word can be established. If the offending party “disregards” the small group, the matter is brought to the attention of the entire community. The community then makes its pleas for the offender to repent. Every opportunity is given for reconciliation. If, at every turn they fail to respond, the only recourse that remains is ostracism from the community.
18:18-20. This passage, although often ripped from its context, provides promises for those who enter the task of restoring relationships within the community. This passage explicitly states that heaven will support the actions of peacemakers. What peacemakers “bind and loose” on earth will have that action supported by God. God will also honor agreements and aid the fulfillment of peace-bringing agreements between disputing members of the community. The most misapplied verse in Scripture may well be verse 20. Here, Jesus promises His presence not to those who are worshipping but to those two or three who are gathered for the purpose of resolving conflicts within the community of faith.
18:21-35. As the first, the final section of this chapter arises in response to a question. The parable that follows is a response to Peter’s question about the extent of forgiveness. Peter knows Jesus’ teaching about the necessity of forgiveness (cf.6:12, 14-15). He also knows the opportunity for multiple offenses to occur within a tight-knit community. Peter seeks to determine the limit past which one member of the community is not constrained to forgive another. Jesus’ answer, whether interpreted as “seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven,” points toward a forgiveness that is unlimited. This emphasis on the extravagant character of forgiveness is illustrated in the parable that follows. The punch line of the parable is powerful. If we are unwilling to forgive others “from the heart,” God will be unwilling to forgive us. Forgiveness is the fabric of reconciliation.
1. BE FIRST TO BE HUMBLE (18:1-5). Jesus recognizes a humble spirit as the beginning point for resolution of the disciple’s dispute over who is the greatest. Self-assessment is an important component of any conflict resolution strategy. Remembering that we are sinners saved only by God’s grace provides a platform from which to extend mercy and forgiveness to others. Pride induces us to demand our rights. Humility allows us to forgo our rights for the good of another person or the entire community of faith.
This section provides a step-by-step process regarding resolution of conflict. Each step moves toward greater exposure and is to be employed only after previous steps have been exhausted without resolution. This assures the conflict will be solved with the lowest level of visibility possible, thereby minimizing its overflow into the community.
Step 1. Go to them- Alone. The vast majority of conflicts in our lives are resolved at this level. This process is initiated with direct communication. We are called to talk to our adversary, not about them. Through this direct approach, if you are “heard” by your opponent, you have restored your relationship without damaging the offender’s reputation or relationship to others in the community of faith through gossip.
Step 2. Take Someone with You. If there is no resolution after Step One, ask someone to go with you. This is not a mob action. It provides an additional person(s) to listen, mediate, and corroborate the encounter (Deut. 19:15).
Step 3. Tell it to the Church. If the second step is unsuccessful, then Christ says, ‘If he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church” (vs. 17). This action presupposes some action being undertaken by the Body to restore the broken relationship. At least, this act raises awareness of the seriousness of the situation and calls the church to exert whatever relational equity that exists within the community to bring about repentance and reconciliation. This passage also suggests that the church might serve as an arbiter in this dispute. If the church’s intervention is unable to bring resolution and repentance then only one option remains.
Step 4. Treat Him as a Non-Believer. The offender is to be expelled from the community. This seems harsh to our Western sensitivities, but continue to serve useful purposes. According to Sande, treating this person as an unbeliever serves three important purposes: (1) it revokes the person’s church privileges, protecting the Lord’s reputation; (2) it protects other believers; and (3) it helps the rebellious person realize the seriousness of their sin. The goal of this entire process is always reconciliation.
Matthew 18 has a great deal to say about healthy and unhealthy communication patterns. Of particular interest to this writer is Jesus’ direction for resolving indirect or passive-aggressive communications. Three principles that flow from the Matthew 18 are:
1. Responsibility for initiating communication begins with me. Jesus charges his disciples, whether offender or offended, to go directly to their adversary to initiate the resolution process. Personal communication is a command of Jesus. This is very difficult. Yet, it is the best opportunity for reconciliation.
2. We must talk to people we are in conflict with, not about them. It is always easier to talk about someone rather than to them. Therefore, most people find it easier to talk to others about the offending party rather than talking to the offender directly. This has particularly severe consequence in the context of community. In churches we have this down to an art form. We can even cloak our talk about someone in a prayer request: “Please pray for ________ they did this terrible thing to me, so we need to pray for them. They really have problems.” It can seem so pious, it is still a violation of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus calls disciples to face-to-face communication.
If leaders make a decision we don’t like, it is our tendency to talk to other people about why we dislike their decision rather than talking to the leaders directly. If I dislike a decision, I’ll casually ask another person what they thought about it, if they liked the decision that typically ends the conversation. Yet, if they dislike the decision, as I did, then we begin to dialogue about our dislike, and often “poll” others to get their reaction. The process is called “coalition building.” In this scenario we might go to the leaders only after we have built a significant enough coalition to pressure them to change the decision. Maybe in our politically charged culture this seems like the right process. In the
3. We are to resolve conflict at the level of least exposure to the community. Jesus says the most preferable resolution comes when two people are able to work out their difference between themselves. Jesus is concerned that the conflict be as contained as possible, so as not to impact the larger community. When we choose to spread a conflict we are involved in, it is often more about justifying ourselves (getting our version of the story in circulation) than about the well-being of the community. Jesus understands that sometimes conflicts will not be resolved one-on-one. Therefore, he provides a next step of bringing another person or two into the process. Again, not a dozen, just enough to find help without exposing the conflict to the entire community. Jesus says, only as a last resort, when all other phases have been unproductive, after continually seeking lower level solutions, can we take the conflict to the Body as a whole.
Matthew 18 confronts all members of the community of faith as we seek to fulfill our ministry of reconciliation. We must find ways to overcome our aversion to conflict and our fear of confronting other disciples. First, we must take Jesus’ words seriously. They are not helpful suggestions, they are imperatives. Therefore, indifference to Jesus’ directives is sin. Second, ignoring sin because we hate conflict will not eliminate conflict but only postpone it. The destructive results of conflict will continue to have free reign in the Body until it is confronted and removed. Third, obeying Christ’s command for direct communication eliminates the sinful nature of people to gossip and damage the offender’s reputation. It is easier to gossip and damage the offender’s reputation than to confront them in private. This must not be. Our love for Jesus and members of the community of faith must take precedence over our own comfort or aversion to conflict.