“Now if your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that on the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, he is to be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17a).
Jesus lays down a four-step process for resolving personal and church-related conflicts:
- if your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.
- But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that on the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be confirmed.
- And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.
- and if he refuses to listen even to the church, he is to be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
The vast majority of conflicts could be resolved if this first step is taken properly. So often, instead of going to the person who has offended and talking privately, the wounded person tells other people, violating this basic biblical principle. If you have a beef with someone, go talk to that person, not me or someone else. I know even church leaders and pastors that have violated this basic principle. I have myself violated this principle upon occasion. Not obeying Jesus’ first main command regarding conflict creates greater and more serious conflict.
Telling someone else about the issue with this person, unless they are part of the problem or the solution, amounts to gossip, and even slander. At this point, Step 2 is necessary. I have found it not only valuable but crucial to have two or three witnesses to verify.
When we do meet, either privately, or with two or three others, Paul shares with us the way we should approach such a meeting: “Brothers and sisters, even if a person is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual are to restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you are not tempted as well” (Galatians 6:1).
When I was a Christian school administrator decades ago, things were in an uproar with several students verbally fighting with each other and accusing each other. Then they were going home and telling their parents and saying that teachers were taking sides and were unfair to them.
Finally, I gathered everyone who was involved—students, parents, teachers—squeezing all 14 of them all into my office. I had each one say their piece. And eventually the truth came out. Some of the parents were surprised that their own children were telling stories that were not true, that were distorted or embellished. We spent about two hours cramped in my office. It was hot—and not just the temperature!
Eventually, when the truth came out, students apologized to one another, to teachers, and to parents. Parents apologized to teachers and to other parents. We prayed together, wept together, and had a mini-revival before it was all over. When I left the position some time later, at my farewell gathering those students expressed their appreciation for me forcing them to talk it out together and restoring friendships again.
I have wanted to do the same thing in many a church conflict through the years, but it is more difficult to coral adults than it is kids.
When we handle things Jesus’ way, we seldom need to go beyond Step 2.