In Matthew 18:15 – 20, Jesus’ teaches his followers how to resolve conflict in the church in a way that leads to reconciliation. I often hear people referring to Jesus’ first step when talking about unreconciled conflicts. When someone sins against you, go to them directly and try to work it out. Great advice.
The next steps in Jesus’ process are where I often find people going off the rails.
What’s the problem?
Often the problem in the ongoing escalation of conflict is defined as one party – the wrong, sinful, party – refusing to confess their sin and repent. If that party refuses to confess their sin and repent, the ultimate outcome, after what appears like being ganged up on by the church, is redefining the person’s relationship with the church (i.e. they are treated like a gentile or tax collector).
Is that the real problem?
I don’t think so. The real problem being addressed by Jesus isn’t the particular sin. Many assume that the “sinner” is protesting and resisting because they simply don’t want to acknowledge their sin. Is that clearly the case here? Perhaps they don’t agree that they have committed a sin. Perhaps it is a gray area. Perhaps it is an area that the church has never discerned before (is it a sin to mistreat a robot or speak unkindly to Siri?).
What ultimately leads to the redefinition of the relationship (treat them like a gentile or tax collector) isn’t simply a refusal to acknowledge and repent of a known sin. It’s more than that. It is a refusal to submit to the discernment of the church.
Context is key
Go back to the opening of the teaching. Jesus begins with, “When a fellow believer or church member sins against you.” The context for the teaching is a mutual relationship between people who have voluntarily entered into said relationship which is marked by mutual accountability within the church (that’s my Anabaptist definition of church membership).
This is hard for those of us steeped in rugged individualism to grasp. However, part of our relationship to the church is a commitment to allow the church, as a body, to discern issues of faith in life. Once those issues are discerned, we agree to submit to the discernment of the group, over and against getting our own way.
If we realize that we don’t trust those around us to discern such matters. If we choose to stick with our own definitions in spite of the discernment of the church, WE have redefined our relationship with the church.
What is happening here is not “a person being kicked out of the church because the church takes sin seriously and can’t allow an unrepentant sinner to remain in the fellowship lest the fellowship is tainted and God gets angry and hold us all accountable” (deep breath). That’s how this text is often misinterpreted (in my opinion).
What is happening here is a clear expression of the nature of the relationship between members of the same body of Christ. In the Mennonite Church, we ask people who are being baptized and joining the church if they are willing to give and receive counsel. If they answer “no” the ritual stops. Giving and receiving counsel is an essential part of being a baptized member of the church (i.e. membership isn’t about who belongs and who doesn’t. It is about the nature of your relationship with others in the body).
What is happening in Matthew 18 is a recognition that the mutual relationship of giving and receiving counsel no longer defines the relationship between this person and the rest of the church AND THAT MATTERS.
What about you?
The understanding I’ve just articulated shifts the focus. We are no longer focused on the “sinner” who is clearly wrong and won’t repent. We are now focused on each of us and our relationship to others in the body.
In my experience, we are all for mutual submission when the discernment of the group goes our way. But what happens when the group discerns something that we are not in full agreement with? Our behavior in that circumstance is what Matthew 18 is all about.
If we will not trust one another when we are the one who is at odds with the discernment of the whole, then what we are doing together isn’t church. It’s something else.
The next challenge is healthy discernment…for another post.