One thing we can be sure of is this: there will be conflict in the church. This is because Christians, though saved by Jesus, still sin. This means that in varying ways within a church family people will sin and hurt other Christians. How should we respond?
Jesus addresses this issue in Matthew 18:15-17: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he 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 he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
These verse contain three stages of how to deal with conflict:
- Verse 15: If someone sins against you, go and talk with that person. If they listen and recognise their sin, they’ll ask for forgiveness and you can be re-united together. In such matters the aim is forgiveness (Matthew 6:14-15), and this will involve love, since love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
- Verse 16: If the person whose sinned against you won’t listen to you, then meet with them again with a few others too, who can testify in the matter that there is a issue of sin. These people need to be witnesses of the matter between the two parties involved. The aim is still to help the offender see and understand their sin: to encourage them to repent and to ask for forgiveness.
- Verse 17: If the person still won’t listen to you and two or three other witnesses, then the offended person should take the matter to the church, that is, the church elders (cf. Matthew 16:19-20). If this person persists on refusing to listen and recognising their sin, the church elders can then exercise church discipline in the matter (18:18-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5).
Most of the time, when there is conflict between Christians, stage 1 will be sufficient to remedy the situation. This is because often the issues are small, easily identifiable and people recognise when they sin.
In every matter of conflict, though, it is important to remember that we too are a sinner, and that we may well have sinned in the matter in hand; not least in how we’ve responded to being sinned against. So we may well find that we need to ask for forgiveness, as well as to grant forgiveness. As 1 Peter 4:8 says: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”
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