15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Welcome to church! The place where love reigns, forgiveness abounds and everyone is nice to one another ALL THE TIME. Or not.
While we Christians strive to be righteous, loving and forgiving, sometimes there are conflicts in churches. Yes, Jesus changes our hearts and minds over the course of our lives, but we aren't made perfect by simply walking through the doors. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. Yet, we are called to live out the love of Christ in all of our imperfect ways.
And trust me when I say, people are watching. People outside the Church watch us when we are at our best and they know when we are at our worst. As Christ’s church we are setting a standard of behavior that reveals who we really are to the outside world. Personally, I feel like I spend more time apologizing for the behavior of the Church than promoting it.
So who are we? Are we a church who loves God and neighbor? Are we honest and forthright people who treat each other with kindness? Do we respect each other’s dignity? Do we treat each other with love? Or, do we hold on to resentment? Talk about people rather than to people when uncomfortable and divisive issues arise? Do we demand that other people repent and refuse to do it ourselves?
Please don’t misunderstand my intentions. I love Christ’s church in all of its crazy, messy glory. Churches are a living, loving proof that God is at work in both the best and worst circumstances. From the glitzy megachurches to the dirt-floored tents, churches are beautiful and sacred places. But, they are all broken in some way. In order to attend Church for any length of time one of the first things we need to learn is to forgive the humanness, the brokenness, of churches.
That’s also what makes it so hard to attract and keep people in churches. People expect a church to be different from—better than—the PTA, the softball league, the Women’s Club or the Rotary. And we should be! We should let the love of Christ loose in our church, so that it infuses everything we do.
But it’s a challenge. Just like those secular groups, we are made up of people who make mistakes, get angry and act out of self-interest. Living in community and working together as a group has never been easy. Jesus knew that. So, he gives us some rules for how to deal with messes in churches.
When we read this part of Matthew 18, what stands out for many of us is Jesus saying—let them be as a Gentile or a tax collector. In other words we hear, “Toss out the scoundrels” or as the friends in the viral YouTube video Charlie the Unicorn say: “Shun the non-believer.”
In our black and white world, that’s often what we are tempted to take away from this passage. The people who screw up or (God forbid!) have differing theologies end up on the outside or in a different church, rather than reconciled to one another. We let anger divide us.
But, when we look closely we see that this line Jesus draws in the sand is the very last resort, not the first step. The steps that come before this are the hard work of being a Christian. They require that we be honest, forthright, repentant and forgiving. Jesus gives us a three-step program for how we might solve conflict that is hurting people or the church.
1. Tell the person what they did that was hurtful or wrong. We need to be honest and truthful about pointing out a person’s fault—to them, not to the world. AND, we need to do it in a way that encourages repentance and reconciliation rather than anger and separation. This is hardest part. We have to swallow our pride and expose our vulnerability when we confront someone one-on-one.
The easier thing to do is nurse our anger and outrage and then go talk to someone else about it. I have a friend who does this. Her sister makes her so angry and she refuses to confront her. Instead she calls me and talks about her. When a conversation begins with
Can you believe she….
Did you hear about…
So and so told me….
Let me tell you about…
When I hear those words, I know that what comes next is a tangled web of bad behavior—both her sister’s and her own. All that negative energy is now swirling around me.
If a person sins or hurts you, if a person within the community is toxic and hurting the church, talking about the problem with other people multiplies it’s impact. The hurt, the hate, the anger is let loose in the community and it infects a bigger group as people begin to take sides and rally their troops. It’s hurtful and destructive.
Instead we are to go directly to the person and talk to them about it in a way that encourages them to listen. When sin and hurt occur, we shouldn’t let loose with a stream of invective or criticism—that hardly inspires positive change. Our purpose isn’t to accuse but to inspire. Shouting, accusing, name calling and blaming do not inspire often inspire repentance.
Sometimes our anger and frustration can get the better of us and that first conversation doesn’t go very well. Been there, done that. How about you? Jesus probably suspected that would happen, so there's a step two.
2. Take a couple of people with you, not to intimidate, but to reach out in love. Having other people in the room can work for the good in a few ways. It can allow someone else to do the talking so that the point is made in a more reasonable way or it can insure that you don’t lose your cool and you can present your point. It can also help the other person to hear the same message from multiple perspectives.
3. The issue should be taken to the church (made public) only if steps one and two don't work . Then, the whole church should work together for repentance and reconciliation. If, though all of the attempts at pointing out the bad behavior don’t inspire change, the person should "be as a Gentile or tax collector" to the congregation. In other words, the person should not be part of the group.
Jesus’ lesson is for the well-being of his church, but it’s also for the well-being of the people, the individuals, that he loves. Talking to each other one-on-one preserves the dignity of the accused and the accuser. It gives someone who has done wrong a chance to make it right.
I know I'm more willing to utter an apology to a single person. But when a crowd is watching, I'm more likely to try to justify my behavior.
This work toward reconciliation is what should make churches different from other organizations in our polarized culture. We are called to work together toward repentance and reconciliation before drawing the line in the sand. We are to try and try again to make things work, to reconcile with one another. We are to be loving and forgiving.
But, there are limits.
There is no question that unrepentant and ongoing sin can be destructive and hurtful. We can’t let it run loose and destroy who we are or threaten our safety.
The man or woman in an abusive relationship has to draw the line in the sand for his or her well-being. The Catholic church had to take action against its priests for the safety of those in its care.
Abuses of power, ongoing gossip and a holier than thou attitude will destroy a church. Nobody wants to be part of that. There are times when lines have to be drawn and people confronted. There are times when we have to put distance between ourselves and others, but that doesn’t mean attempts at reconciliation have to end.
As a last resort Jesus says: If they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
Now, can somebody remind me again why Jesus was criticized by his religious peers?
Oh right, because he regularly ate with tax collectors and sinners.