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A Resource by Mark D. Roberts

What To Do When Someone Sins Against You:
Guidance from the Master

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at . Thank you.

Note: this series is a continuation of an earlier series entitled "God's Guidance for Christians in Conflict."

Table of Contents
Part 1 What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Introduction
Part 2 The Teaching of Jesus
Part 3 The Set Up
Part 4 Step One
Part 5 The Point
Part 6 Step Two
Part 7 Step Three
Part 8 Step Four
Part 9 Step Four (continued)

What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Introduction
Part 1 of the series: "What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Guidance from the Master"
Posted for Saturday, May 7, 2005

Note: This series is a continuation of my previous series, "God's Guidance for Christians in Conflict," though it stands on its own merits.

Christian fellowship is one of life's sweetest desserts. There's nothing like being with a group of people who love you warts and all. There's great peace in sharing life with folks who are there to weep when you weep and to rejoice when you rejoice. In times of discouragement, you can rest in the comfort and prayers of sisters and brothers who will help bear your burdens. In times of weakness they will be there to lift you up. Some of my greatest times in life have been in the context of the body of Christ.

The glory of Christian fellowship makes its failures all the more painful. It always hurts when somebody is mean to you. But if that person happens to be a dear brother or sister in Christ, then the pain is magnified several times over. One of the essential and wonderful characteristics of Christian fellowship is vulnerability, the opportunity to open your heart to others as they open their hearts to you. But vulnerability can come back to bite you hard. The word "vulnerable" stems from the Latin meaning "capable of being wounded." If you're vulnerable you've let down your guard, which means unkind words and deeds don't bounce off your shell. Instead, they pierce your heart. Some of my most traumatic times in live have been in the context of the body of Christ.
Casual Christian fellowship is just the beginning, but at least it tends to have food!

In my last series, "God's Guidance for Christians in Conflict," I explained that conflict among Christians is inevitable. I suppose this isn't quite true. It's only inevitable if you are genuinely connected with other Christians. If you live as virtual hermit, you're pretty much insulated from conflict. But you're also missing out on one of the greatest joys of the Christian life. Oh, and you're also disobeying the clear biblical command to share life with the family of God. But the downside of obedience is the inevitability of conflict. Yes, in the body of Christ you'll find people to rejoice when you rejoice and to weep when you weep, but sometimes your cause for weeping will be the body of Christ. It's sad, but true.

As a pastor for the past two decades, I've been involved in dozens if not hundreds of conflicts in church. Sometimes these have to do with difference of opinion about church ministry, such as the style of music in worship. But very often the conflicts stem from one member of the church hurting another member. Usually this offense is unintentional; sometimes, however, the perpetrator is actually trying to hurt the victim. Getting even for some other wrong is the most common motivation for such an attack.

The bad news is that such things happen fairly regularly, and will probably happen to you if you're an active participant in Christ's church. The good news is that God provides lots of guidance for Christians involved in conflict. (This was the main focus of my last series.) Jesus Himself specifically addressed the problem of one member of the church sinning against another member. He gave clear, concise, and crucial directions for people involved in such a situation.

In this series I'm going to unpack that advice so that you'll know what to do if somebody sins against you (or how to counsel others when they experience this sort of thing). It isn't terrible complex, and doesn't need lots of interpretation. Nevertheless, I want to focus your attention on what Jesus has said.

Before I begin, however, I must add a word of warning. Jesus's directions for what to do if someone sins against you are among the most frequently ignored instructions in all of Scripture. Actually I'm being too charitable. They're among the most broken commands in all of God's Word. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that most Christians disregard and disobey what Jesus taught more than they take it to heart and do it. Sorry if this sounds too negative, but it reflects my experience as a pastor. And, quite frankly, it reflects my experience as a Christian who HATES conflict, and would much rather pretend that it didn't exist than engage it directly.

So as we begin this series, you might want to think about how open you are to doing what Jesus says. I guarantee that it will be challenging. But I believe that the rewards of following the directions of Jesus outweigh the costs. These rewards include: reconciliation, spiritual growth, peace of mind, and a healthier, stronger church. When you obey Jesus, you also have the joy of knowing that you actions have been pleasing to Him, no matter how the other(s) involved may have responded.

In my next post I'll begin to examine in detail what Jesus says we're to do when somebody sins against us.

The Teaching of Jesus
Part 2 of the series: "What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Guidance from the Master"
Posted for Monday, May 9, 2005

In my last post I introduced this series, which seeks to answer the question: "What should I do if someone in the church sins against me?" With no further ado, let's examine the directive of Jesus:

“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. But 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. If 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." (Matthew 18:15-17, NRSV)

The Literary Context of Matthew 18:15-17

Before examining this passage in detail, I want to say a word about its context in Matthew. In the first part of Matthew 18 Jesus is instructing His disciples on how they are to live as citizens of the kingdom of God. Here's a summary of what comes immediately before our passage:

Jesus calls his disciples to humility and to welcome children into His kingdom (18:1-5).

Jesus warns his disciples not to put "stumbling blocks" in the way of those who would believe in him (18:6-7).

Jesus says that if a body part causes you to stumble, you're better off without that body part. (18:8-9)

Jesus says that the Father in heaven is like a shepherd with a hundred sheep who seeks even one that is lost and rejoices with he finds it. Therefore we should be like God in our attitude toward the "little ones." (18:10-14).

Notice that the thread running throughout these passages is the question of how we are to relate to each other in the Kingdom of God. We are called to think of each other with humility, to welcome into the kingdom those who are lowly in worldly terms, and to be like the God who seeks even the one who is lost. This context, as we'll see later, helps us to grasp the point of Jesus's teaching on what to do if someone sins against you.

Following our passage we find:

A statement about binding and loosing (18:18-20).

A question from Peter to Jesus on how many times he must forgive a member of the church who sins against him, and Jesus's surprisingly generous answer (18:21-22).

The parable of the unforgiving slave, by which Jesus strongly underscores the importance of forgiveness (18:23-35).

To summarize the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18, citizens of the kingdom of heaven should relate to each other with humility and forgiveness. The emphasis is upon inclusiveness and reconciliation.

A Question About the Original Text

The English translation I quote above begins, "If another member of the church sins against you . . ." (18:15). Yet almost all English translations include a footnote or some other indication that the words "against you" were not necessarily in the original text of Matthew. The problem is that, among the dozens of very ancient manuscripts of Matthew, some have "against you" and some do not. Some very early scribe either added "against you" to the original that lacked it or took it out.

There are some fairly complex explanations for what might be going on in the textual variants for this passage which I won't go into right now. But even if "against you" wasn't original, this passage still helps to answer the question of how we respond when someone sins against us. For one thing, if you look down a few verses to Matthew 18:21, Peter asks Jesus: "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?" This indicates that the earlier passage is relevant to the case of someone sinning, not just in general, but against a specific person.

Moreover, if in the original saying Jesus was speaking of someone sinning in a more general way, everything he said would be equally relevant to the more specific case of someone sinning against another person. So this passage certainly addresses the question of this blog series even if it may have a larger application.

This a one leaf on a fourth-century manuscript of the Bible. It's called Sinaiticus because it was found St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai. This ancient manuscript does not include the words "against you."

Who Sins?

The last preliminary issue I want to address is the question of who sins in Matthew 18:15. The translation I'm using, the NRSV, reads, "If another member of the church sins against you." But the original Greek reads, literally, "If your brother sins against you." Some contemporary translations go with the more literal "your brother" (NIV, ESV) while others do something like the NRSV: "another believer" (NLT), "your brother or sister" (TNIV). The problem for the translator is that the word for "brother" in Greek (adelphos) is quite clearly meant to include either a male or a female sinner. In some Christian communities today, depending on the way English is spoken there, saying "If your brother sins against you" would seem to refer only to a male believer. In other Christian communities "brother" would easily be understood as including both male and female disciples. (If you're interested in the issues of translation, I've written quite a long series on the matter. See "Is the TNIV Good News?"

No matter how you translate adelphos, it's obvious that Jesus is including both male and female disciples within the scope of his instruction. He's telling us what to do if either a Christian brother or a Christian sister should sin against us.

In my next post I'll begin to examine the specifics of Jesus's teaching.

The Set Up
Part 3 of the series: "What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Guidance from the Master"
Posted for Tuesday, May 10, 2005

In my last post I introduced Matthew 18:15-17, a passage in which Jesus talks about what to do if someone sins against you, and made some preliminary remarks. Today I start examining the text itself. The whole passage reads:

“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. But 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. If 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." (Matthew 18:15-17, NRSV)

"If another member of the church"

As I explained in my last post, the Greek underneath this English phrase reads simply, "if your brother" (ean . . . ho adelphos sou). Since it's clear that Jesus includes both males and females within the scope of this text, the NRSV translators use "another member of the church" in place of the literal "brother." What we should notice is that Jesus is not talking here about every possible relationship, but only the relationships between people within his family, which is to say, between Christians. This text simply doesn't speak to the question of how you might deal with a non-Christian who mistreats you.

Although the NRSV guards the potential misunderstanding of "brother" as "male Christian," it misses the family nuance, as does the NLT's "another believer." The TNIV maintains the more intimate sense by using "brother or sister." This matters because Jesus is assuming that the person who wrongs you isn't just a fellow church member or believer, but a genuine sibling. If you think about the one who wrongs you as a member of your family, then your response to that person may very well be different.

I think, for example, of a time not too long ago when I said something mean to one of my sisters. Now if I'd been just anybody, she might have decided that it wasn't worth the hassle of confrontation. But because I was her brother, and part of her family whether she liked it or not at that moment, she risked telling me what I had said and how it hurt her feelings. Our family relationship called forth honesty and mutual commitment. So it is within my family, Jesus is saying. Since the one who has sinned against you is your brother or sister, it's really not an option for you to write that person off.

"Sins against you"

In my last post discussed the possibility that "against you" didn't appear in the original text of Matthew, and explained why this option doesn't matter all that much to our current investigation. But what about the verb "to sin"? How should we understand this verb? How can I know if someone has sinned against me?

Simply put, the verb "to sin" means to do something contrary to God's will. All sin, therefore, is, first and foremost, sin against God. But many kinds of sin also impact other people. Consider the Ten Commandments. If I don't honor my mother and father, I am sinning against the Lord and against them. If I murder someone, I'm committing wrong against God and my victim. And so forth and so on. Therefore, someone has sinned against you when that person has done a wrong deed that has negatively impacted you.

In certain cases it's pretty easy to determine if someone has sinned against you. Murder, adultery, stealing – it will be clear if you're a victim of such things. But in other cases it's much harder to know if somebody has sinned against you or not. You may not know if someone has lied about you unless you hear of it. And you may be unaware that somebody is coveting your stuff. Nevertheless, if it can be determined that lying or coveting have happened, then you're clearly in the "sins against you" category of behavior, and Jesus's advice speaks directly to your situation.

But what about cases that aren't even this clear? What about when you feel offended by what someone has said, even if this person never intended to create offense? What if you hear through the grapevine that someone has been gossiping about you, but you're not sure the gossip you've heard can be trusted? I don't think there are easy answers to these questions. On the one hand, I don't think Jesus envisioned a community of disciples in which every little peccadillo deserves a full frontal confrontation. On the other hand, I know that we sometimes avoid the directness of Matthew 18:15-17 by rationalizing, "Oh, what that person did really wasn't a sin, so I don't need to talk to him about it." Yet we end up harboring resentment in our heart for that person, weakening both our relationship with him and the church in general.

Well, okay, I guess not every instance of stealing is a sin. Here's a picture of Jackie Robinson stealing home in the 1953 World Series.

When a fellow Christian's behavior is clearly sinful, at least insofar as you can tell, and you are in some measure a victim of that behavior, then you are obligated by Jesus to act upon his advice. When you've been hurt by someone's behavior even when it may or may not have been sinful, the obligation isn't quite as definite. But I think the underlying principle of Jesus demands a direct, face-to-face conversation, even if it takes on a different tone than Matthew 18:15-17.

I cannot tell you how many times I've seen a Christian sister hurt another sister inadvertently. The victim, though truly hurt, doesn't want to engage in awkward and risky confrontation, so she chooses instead to try to ignore the offense. But the hurt in her heart is real. So she ends up building a wall of resentment and protection between herself and the one who hurt her. In many cases I've intervened and encouraged the victim to talk with the perpetrator. Yet I often hear an excuse like, "But what she did really wasn't a sin, so I don't have to confront her." That sounds easy enough, except the broken relationship between the sisters is causing damage, not only to them and their mutual friends, but also to the whole church.

If you're a person who tends to overreact and accuse others of wrongdoing, you may want to be sure you're not misusing Matthew 18 by confronting those who haven't done anything wrong to you. On the contrary, if you're someone who tends to avoid conflict at all costs, watch out for your own denial and rationalization. The health of the church may very well require that you do the risky thing and talk directly to the one who has hurt you.

Step One
Part 4 of the series: "What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Guidance from the Master"
Posted for Wednesday, May 11, 2005

In my last post I discussed the set up for Jesus's guidance concerning what to do if someone sins against you. In this post I'll examine step one of his advice. Here, once again, is the whole passage from Matthew 18:15-17:

“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. But 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. If 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." (Matthew 18:15-17, NRSV)

Go . . .

Jesus envisions a case in which the offended party needs to go to meet the person who sinned. Presumably this would be a situation in which you heard about something someone had had done or said against you when you weren't physically present, or, if you were present at the time of the incident, you weren't able to confront the person on the spot.

Notice, and this is key, that you should go to the person who wronged you even when you are the victim. This completely overturns the common wisdom that says, "Since I was the victim, I'm going to wait for that person to come to me." There is no room for this sort of game among the disciples of Jesus. Even when you are the victim of another's sin, you should be the one who goes and initiates reconciliation.

"Go" along with "when the two of you are alone" assumes a face-to-face encounter. Of course Jesus didn't live in a time when people had phones, e-mail, and other technologically-advanced means of communication. But in his world there were still indirect ways to communication, letters and envoys. But Jesus says "go." This suggests that, when at all possible, a face-to-face meeting is required. Now I realize this can be a scary prospect. Many of us would greatly prefer the safety of a letter or an e-mail note. But I believe these less personal means of communicating miss the spirit of Jesus's advice. The only time, it seems to me, that an indirect conversation would be preferable is when the parties simply can't get together.
I know of only one church that has no conflict. Here's a picture of that church. It's the Abston Church of Christ. If you look closely, however, you'll notice that the whole church, including the members, is made out of Legos.

As a pastor I've watched people use letters and e-mail to confront others, and almost every single time this strategy fails utterly. E-mail is an especially bad vehicle for confrontation because it moves so quickly and can be written, sent, and received in anger. I tell my church members that they should never use e-mail to communicate some negative unless it's no big deal. This would completely eliminate e-mail as a means of fulfilling Matthew 18.

Point Out the Fault

The NRSV translates a single Greek verb (elencho) as "point out the fault." This verb can also mean "convict" or "rebuke." It conveys directness, though not haughtiness or self-righteousness. Jesus is saying, "Tell the person who wronged you exactly what he or she did. Be direct."

Notice, and this is crucial, that you are to focus on the particular sin. You are NOT to throw in lots of other sins to augment your case. In my pastoral experience, I've watched people confront others directly. But then, to buttress their case, they add lots of other things that the person has done wrong, or cite other people who have had a problem with the individual being confronted. The net result of this is always defensiveness and confusion. So, if you're going to follow Jesus's advice, be direct and clear.

Notice also that you are to focus on the sinful action. This is not a time to comment on someone's general character. Again, it's tempting to do this, but rarely helpful. If somebody has lied to you, for example, don't try to make the case that he or she is, in general, a liar. Keep to the specific infraction.

When the Two of You Are Alone

Jesus surely understands human nature, doesn't he? How tempting it would be to confront a brother or sister in front of others! Then others will know how wrongly we've been treated. But Jesus shuts out this option. We're to speak in private, keeping the matter between ourselves and the one who has wronged us.

In my experience as a pastor, I find that when most people are hurt by others, their first impulse is not to return hurt directly, but rather to do it indirectly, especially through gossip. They tell their friends and supporters. They "share" their concern in a prayer request. They do just about anything other than what Jesus says we ought to do. The result, naturally, is a situation made worse: more sin, more hurt, more mess.

So if somebody sins against you, why not follow the wisdom of the Master: "Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone."

The Point
Part 5 of the series: "What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Guidance from the Master"
Posted for Thursday, May 12, 2005

In my last post I examined the first step in Jesus's guidance concerning what to do if someone sins against you. It was this: "Go and point out the fault when the two of your are alone." In this post I want to press on to the next sentence. To refresh your memory, here is the whole passage:

“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. But 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. If 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." (Matthew 18:15-17, NRSV)

If the Member Listens to You

Obviously Jesus uses the verb "to listen" in a non-literal way here. His concern is not that the one being confronted hears sounds, but hears the meaning of the sounds. We use the verb "to listen" in this way, as when an angry wife says to a husband, "You're not listening to me!" She's not claiming that his brain failed to register the sound of her words, but rather than he didn't really bring her words to full consciousness.

The first point of confrontation is to be heard, truly heard, by the one who sinned against you. I've already said that this requires a direct, clear statement of the offense, without bringing into play all sorts of other wrongs. But it is usually helpful to communicate the offense delicately, even gently. If, when you meet with the one who wronged you, the first words out of your mouth are: "Here's how you sinned against me . . . ," chances are good that the other person will get defensive and have a hard time hearing your point. Conversely, you can prepare the way for the direct statement with some words of genuine affirmation. For example, you might say something like: "I really appreciate your willingness to meet with me. I want you to know from the outset that in talking about this subject I'm not implying that I'm without fault. You know as well as I that I make plenty of mistakes." Another approach might be, "I need to say some things today that are hard. But I want to be very clear at the beginning of this conversation that I know how much you love the Lord and care about our relationship. These commitments give me the confidence to approach you today." There are thousands of other ways to begin. The point is to build a relational bridge of trust and goodwill upon which to cross with your particular confrontation. One word of warning, however: Be sure that your positive comments are true and honestly intended. False flattery will only make matters worse.

If your intent is to help the other person to listen to you, then you may also want to check in periodically to see how you're doing. Questions like "Did that makes sense?" or "Can you see what I mean?" or "Do you remember this incident?" or other similar questions will foster deeper mutual understanding. They also convey to the one you're confronting that you care about what he or she thinks. Your goal is not winning, but building a foundation for reconciliation.

You Have Regained That One

Here is the point of the confrontation: to "regain" (the Greek verb means "gain" or "earn") the one who wronged you. The NIV captures the sense of the Greek with "you have won your brother over." Jesus could not be more obvious about the purpose of the confrontation. It isn't about getting even, or, worse, getting revenge. It isn't about putting the offender in his or her place. It surely isn't about punishment. And it isn't about winning an argument. Rather, it's about winning a person. It's about rebuilding a broken relationship with the one who sinned against you. The goal of confrontation is genuine reconciliation.
The name of this rose is "Reconciliation."

This goal can be very hard to keep in mind when you've been hurt by someone. Your flesh wants its own pound of flesh. You want to make the other person pay, or at least grovel for a while. If you go to confront someone with motives like these, you'll be unable to do what Jesus asks of you.

The fact that confrontation is for the purpose of reconciliation suggests that it may not happen immediately after the offense has occurred. When I've been deeply hurt by someone, I'm usually apt to respond in anger. Even if my confrontation is clear, my motivation for confronting is not Christ-like. In times like these I need to calm down. Most of all I need to pray about the situation until I can truly confess before the Lord that my desire is to reconcile with the one who sinned against me. Often this takes several days, sometimes even longer.

Conversely, in some situations immediate, on-the-spot confrontation is best. Suppose you're in a conversation with a Christian friend who says something hurtful to you. If you have the emotional wherewithal to speak up at that moment, the result might well be quick reconciliation. For example, a few months ago at dinner I was teasing my daughter. I didn't mean to hurt her feelings, but I did act insensitively. My daughter, who can be amazingly mature at times, said, "Daddy, that hurt my feelings! I don't like it when you says things like that." Embarrassed, I tried to make a joke out of it. But she pressed on, "Daddy, that was mean, and I didn't like it." Finally I was able to say, "Kara, I'm sorry I said that. I wasn't being kind. Please forgive me." She did, and our reconciliation was completed with a hug.

I'm well aware that it doesn't always work like this. But if you're able to patch things up quickly, that's preferable. Yet if the wound you've received is particularly deep, you may need time for the pain to subside before you're ready to confront the one who wronged you with the right motivation.

I've found that sometimes another person can be helpful in this process. I'll admit freely that Jesus didn't mention this option, so you can decide for yourself whether it's consistent with his guidance or not. But sometimes when I've been hurt by someone, I have a very hard time sorting out what's true and what's imaginary. My own feelings of hurt and anger get in the way of clear thinking. In these times I've shared my confusion with one other person, someone I can trust to be honest with me (and not merely on my side), someone who will hold in strict confidence what I've said. Often this confidant has prayed for me and held me accountable to follow Jesus's teaching by going directly to the one who sinned against me. In some cases, however, my confidant has helped me see that I had misjudged the situation, and that what I took to be a sin wasn't really that at all, but rather a misunderstanding on my part.

The risk in what I've just said about talking to someone else is the temptation to engage in gossip, or to seek to rally folks to "your side." If you involve another person before the confrontation, you'll need to examine both your behavior and your motivation carefully to make sure that if you are not multiplying the sin.

In conclusion, the point of confrontation is regaining relationship with the one who wronged you. The point is reconciliation. The desire to reconcile must underlie your effort as you approach the one who sinned against you.

Step Two
Part 6 of the series: "What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Guidance from the Master"
Posted for Friday, May 13, 2005

So far in this series I've examined the beginning of Jesus's instructions on what to do if someone sins against you. Step one, you may recall, was to go to the person and tell him or her the fault in the hope of reconciliation. Today we move on to step two. Once again here's the whole passage:

“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. But 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. If 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." (Matthew 18:15-17, NRSV)

But If You Are Not Listened To

Jesus is realistic. He knows that sometimes confrontation does not lead quickly to reconciliation. Sometimes the one who sinned against you will not listen to the facts, no matter how kindly and clearly you present them.

I've seen many situations like this, either as one initiating the confrontation or as a pastoral observer. None of us likes to face up to what we've done wrong, so our natural inclination when confronted is to become defensive and not to hear what we need to hear. Yet some people are particularly closed to facing their own sin. There are many reasons for this, including: hard-heartedness, pride, insecurity, and good ol' fashioned sin. I'm sad to say I've seen prominent Christian leaders who have not been willing to admit their own failures. Pastors are especially notorious in this regard because we tend to be insecure and because we're generally the people who are doling out the challenges. We don't like being on the receiving end of bad news about ourselves. Plus we tend to be pretty good with words and can argue ourselves out of almost anything.
Another view of the "perfect church" without conflict, the Abston Church of Christ, popularly known as "The Lego Church."

Jesus knows human nature. Jesus knows that, even though we who believe in Him are saved and have the Holy Spirit within us, we will sometimes fail to do the right then when confronted by someone. So Jesus gives us step two.

Take One or Two Others Along with You

Yes, here's the bad news. If your first effort at loving confrontation didn't work, you're not done. How tempting it would be simply to write off the offender and try to forget about it! But Jesus doesn't give us this option. Instead, we're to make another go at it, but this time we don't do it alone. We take one or two other people.

If you need to take the second step in Jesus's process, be careful whom you choose to come with you. The person (or persons) should be people whom the offender would be apt to listen to. If, for example, you take along your spouse or your best friend, chances are pretty good that the one who sinned against you will dismiss the new testimony as biased. If at all possible, it's good to ask someone who can be truly fair, someone whom the offender will believe to be fair.

There have been many times in my pastoral ministry when I have been called upon to be such a person. These are not my favorite pastoral moments, I can assure you. But they are important. And when they lead to reconciliation, they are well worth the effort.

So That Every Word May Be Confirmed by the Evidence of Two or Three Witnesses

The background for Jesus's advice here is the Jewish judicial process, whereby witnesses were used to confirm the testimony of a single individual. The basis for this comes in Deuteronomy 19:15, which reads, "A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained." Of course Jesus is not envisioning legal proceedings. But he tells us to bring a witness or two, not for the purpose of winning a lawsuit, but in order to win back the one who has offended us.

I find the language of this verse quite telling. Jesus does not say, "so that the witnesses can gang up on the offender" or even "so that your side of things will be supported." Rather, he seems to envision a setting in which the witnesses carefully weigh everything that is said, not only by you, but also by the person you're confronting. They're to evaluate, not just your side of the story, but "every word."

There is almost always another side in matters of confrontation. Even when someone has clearly done wrong to another, it's likely that this action was itself a response to something the victim had done earlier. At least half of the time when I've been involved in a process of confrontation the end result involves both parties apologizing for things they have done wrong.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to confrontation is the central value of the truth. Yes, yes, I know that people perceive truth differently, and that sometimes it's really hard to figure out what is true and what is not. But truth still matters, and whether we're on the confronting side or the receiving side, we should be committed to discovering what is true.

Sometimes the truth will surprise you. I remember a time years ago when I needed to confront my supervisor in ministry, a man I'll call "John." He had said some things that undercut my work, and I was quite angry. When I cooled down some, I went to tell John his fault, just as Jesus said. He listened attentively and calmly, thank God. At the end of my little speech he said, "Mark, I can understand why you're upset. If my boss had said those things, I'd be angry too. But, Mark, you must believe me. I never said those things. Here's what I did say." John then proceeded to relate his side of the story. As I listened, I realized that he was speaking the truth. The person who told me what John had supposedly said had completely misunderstood John's point. What John related to me was completely consistent with everything I knew him to be. My anger had been based on a misunderstanding. What I needed in this confrontation was to learn what was true and let go of my anger.

If what I'm saying about truth sounds simplistic, that's because, well. . . it is. But if you're looking for a little more depth, you might check out my book Dare to Be True. Here I deal with the issues of truthfulness more thoroughly.

According to Jesus, step two is taking a witness or two along with you when, once again, you initiate contact with the person who has sinned against you. Yet sometimes, I'm sad to say, even this doesn't work. In my next post in this series I'll move on to step three.

Step Three
Part 7 of the series: "What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Guidance from the Master"
Posted for Saturday, May 14, 2005

In my last post I examined step two of Jesus's guidance for what to do if someone sins against you. Let me review what we've seen so far:

Step 1: Go and privately point out the fault to the wrongdoer.

If Step 1 is successful, you have won back the offender.

If Step 1 is not successful and the offender won't listen to you, go to Step 2.

Step 2: Go again with one or two witnesses.

Yet sometimes even this doesn't work. So Jesus moves to step three, which we find in Matthew 18:17: "If the member refuses to listen to them [the witnesses], tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church . . . ."

Tell It to the Church

Almost all English translations say more or less the same thing here: "tell it to the church." The underlying Greek sentence uses the word ekklesia, which is almost always translated in the New Testament as "church" (but not in Acts 19:32, 39, and 40). At times this is certainly correct, but in some cases it might "over-translate" the original Greek, and Matthew 18:17 may be one of these cases.

By "over-translate" I mean "bring in more meaning than was present in the original." Let me explain. When we hear the word "church," we usually envision an institution with buildings, official authorities, etc. etc. But it's highly unlikely that Matthew 18:17 ever conveyed this sort of thing to the original readers. (Jesus, speaking Aramaic, probably used either kenishta' or qehilla', which was rendered by the Greek-speaking church as ekklesia.) Rather, the first readers of Matthew would have heard in ekklesia a reference an actual gathering of Christians, a group which, in the first century, was almost always relatively small (50 people or less).
Although the Abston Church of Christ doesn't have conflicts among its members, since they're Lego people made of plastic, it sometimes has strange visitors to its worship services.

I bring up this issue because it's hard to determine precisely how one should "tell it to the church" today, when many churches are much larger and more institutionalized than was assumed in Matthew 18:17. Literally, a person could stand up in a worship service and announce his or her problem to the congregation. But it's unlikely that this is a wise interpretation of Jesus's teaching in our current setting.

In many cases today, churches have structures for dealing with conflict in the body. "Telling it to the church" may be practiced by first telling it to the board of elders or deacons. The board might decide later on that the whole congregation should be informed, but this would come only after an appropriate process of investigation.

However you work out the precise details in your particular context, the main point is that even if the second encounter proves fruitless, you're still not done. You'll want to be done. You'll be tired and discouraged. But Jesus wants you to press on in the hope of reconciliation and restoration.

And If the Offender Refuses to Listen Even to the Church

Though Jesus doesn't say so directly, this phrase implies that the church wasn't simply a passive witnesses to your testimony.  The church also got involved in trying to help the person who sinned admit his or her error and be reconciled.

Once again, it would miss the meaning of Jesus to imagine every member of a very large church involved in such a process. In many settings, "listen to the church" means "listen to the leaders of the church who are involved in the process of reconciliation."

This would be the case in my own church. In the Presbyterian church we have official structures for church discipline. When these are used well, repentance and reconciliation can result. I've seen this happen on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, however, the potentially restorative process of church discipline is often thwarted, sometimes by the victim who isn't willing to do what Jesus requires, sometimes by the perpetrator who quits the church, and sometimes by the church's own leaders who drop the ball in various ways. The result of inadequate church discipline is unhealthiness. Individual Christians aren't challenged to grow in their discipleship. And the church as a whole is less allowed to be less than fully whole.

In our tolerant and permissive age, church discipline is rarely practiced in any organized way, though it often happens, as it should, in the context of committed Christian friendship. For example, though I have not been brought up on official charges for my sins or administrative errors (thank God), I have sometimes been on the receiving end of confrontation. Because I've been able to take my medicine, however, there has been no need for an official process. Nevertheless, there are times when informal church discipline is necessary, for the health of the individuals involved as well as the whole church.

It's absolutely crucial that we remember the redemptive and reconciling point of church discipline. In my denomination, we have a written guide for church discipline, called, sensibly enough, The Rules of Discipline. I want to end this post by quoting the second from this document, which helps to keep the focus in the right place:

The power that Jesus Christ has vested in his Church, a power manifested in the exercise of church discipline, is one for building up the body of Christ, not for destroying it, for redeeming, not for punishing. It should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath so that the great ends of the Church may be achieved, that all children of God may be presented faultless in the day of Christ.

Step Four
Part 8 of the series: "What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Guidance from the Master"
Posted for Monday, May 16, 2005

So far in this series we've seen that Jesus's guidance for what to do if someone sins against you includes three steps:

Step 1: Go and privately point out the fault to the wrongdoer.

If Step 1 is successful, you have won back the offender.

If Step 1 is not successful and the offender won't listen to you, go to Step 2.

Step 2: Go again with one or two witnesses.

If Step 2 is successful, you have won back the offender.

If Step 2 is not successful and the offender won't listen to you and the witnesses, go to Step 3.

Step 3: Tell it to the gathered Christian assembly (or, in many churches, to the authorities who handle church discipline).

Sadly enough, there are times when a person is so caught in sin, or so well-defended by self-serving rationalizations, that he or she simply won't listen even to the church (or leading representatives from it). In this case you and the church should move to step 4: "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."

Let Such a One Be to You as a Gentile and a Tax Collector

From our postmodern point of view, this seems harsh and even unchristian. From a first-century Jewish point of view, Gentiles and tax collectors were outsiders who had no part in the Jewish community. Tax collectors, though they might have been Jewish by birth, had chosen to align themselves with the Roman oppressors for the sake of personal gain. Thus they were worse than mere Gentiles, and were hated by their fellow Jews. Thus to hear Jesus tell his Jewish followers to regard an unrepentant sinner as "a Gentile and a tax collector" seems almost incredible.

What Jesus assumes about sin in this text is something most people today, including many Christians, don't understand. Sin isn't some little blemish that can be covered over or ignored. Rather, it's like a malignant melanoma, which, if left in place, will ultimately metastasize, destroying the individual sinner and wounding the Christian community. So, though surgery for removal can be painful, it is necessary for the health of the individual and the church.

At this point you might want wonder: "Where is the love of Jesus? Where is forgiveness? Where is acceptance?" It's pretty clear, from this text and many others, that love, forgiveness, and acceptance do not include tolerating unconfessed sin in Christian brothers and sisters. In our day we think it's loving to let sinners alone. We think it's not our business to get involved. But Jesus sees things different. Life in the community of his followers involves risky and messy involvement in the lives of others, both for their sake and for the common good. Sometimes this involvement includes discipline that is actually a reflection of Christian love.

"The Tax Collectors" by the Flemish Calvinist painter Marinus van Reymerswaele (mid -16th century). Now there are a couple of men to be avoided.

Moreover, we must remember that the offender had three chances to recognize his or her sin and repent. By failing to do so, this person essentially ostracized himself or herself from the community. It's not so much that the church has to kick out the offender as it merely recognizes the breach that is already there. This is implied in Jesus's statement about regarding the offenders as "a Gentile and a tax collector." These people weren't literally kicked out of Jewish society. Rather, they were either by birth or by choice simply not included. There were outsiders. And so is the person who will not repent of sin when given every chance to do so.

Jesus also assumes that the community of his followers, because it is a place of genuine love, will care so much about the well-being of its members that it will not tolerate unrepentant sin in one of them. From the perspective of 21st century Western culture, this seems like a complete non sequitur, because we worship the idol of tolerance. Putting up with people, letting them be, not messing with their private affairs, not judging, and so forth are central to our cultural creed. But not so in the society of Jesus. Here we will care so much about each other that we'll risk everything for the sake of an individual's growth in holiness.

One of the scariest things I've ever had to do as a Christian involved confronting a renowned Christian leader about his sin. I didn't know this leader very well personally, but I became aware through one of my church members that this man had been grossly dishonest about some important matters. I got a meeting with him and told him what I had learned. I can still remember my heart pounding and palms sweating. I was ready for him to rebuke me for my insolence as he defended his innocence. To my surprise, he responded with an open and broken heart. He admitted what he had done and that it was wrong. In the rest of the meeting we worked out a plan for him to apologize to those he had wronged, to make restitution, and to institute in his life some structures of accountability to ensure that such a thing would not happen again. I left that meeting with a new respect for this man's integrity. And, as much as I was able to tell, he faithfully followed up on the plan we had forged together. As a result, both he and his ministry were healthier than they had been before.

There's an absolutely essential point about step four that I have not yet addressed. I'll examine this point tomorrow.

Step Four (continued)
Part 9 of the series: "What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Guidance from the Master"
Posted for Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Yesterday I began to examine step four of Jesus's guidance for what to do if someone sins against you. In case you're new to this blog series, let me review what we've seen so far, based on a close reading of Matthew 18:15-17:

Step 1: Go and privately point out the fault to the wrongdoer.

If Step 1 is successful, you have won back the offender.

If Step 1 is not successful and the offender won't listen to you, go to Step 2.

Step 2: Go again with one or two witnesses.

If Step 2 is successful, you have won back the offender.

If Step 2 is not successful and the offender won't listen to you and the witnesses, go to Step 3.

Step 3: Tell it to the gathered Christian assembly (or, in many churches, to the authorities who handle church discipline).

If Step 3 is successful, you have won back the offender.

If Step 3 is not successful and the offender won't listen to you and the witnesses, go to Step 4.

Step 4: Let the unrepentant sinner be to you and your Christian community "as a Gentile and a tax collector," that is, as an outsider.

Today I have a bit more to say about what it means to regard someone "as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matt 18:17).

What Does It Mean to Consider Someone as a Gentile and a Tax Collector?

Before we leave Jesus's statement about treating an unrepentant sinner as "a Gentile and a tax collector," we must surely recall the way Jesus himself treated outsiders. He was curiously ambivalent about Gentiles during His earthly ministry (e.g. Matt 10:5 15:21-28). But after His resurrection, He sent His followers to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:18-20). Gentiles were finally to be included in the kingdom of God. With regard to tax collectors, Jesus was famous, perhaps it would be more accurate to say infamous, for reaching out to them in love (as in the case of Levi, Mark 2:14; Zacchaeus, Luke 19:1-10) Jesus's opponents accused Him of being a friend of "tax collectors and sinners" (Matt 11:19) because, among other things, He tended to hang out with them, even sharing symbolically intimate meals with them (Matt 9:10-11). So when we hear Jesus say that we should regard the unrepentant sinner as "a Gentile and a tax collector," we mustn't read this as saying simply, "Kick the person out." Rather, to paraphrase freely, Jesus is saying: "Recognize that the unrepentant sinner has effectively removed himself or herself from the community and become an outsider. Take this outsider status seriously. Don't pretend as if nothing has changed. It has. Unconfessed sin has broken fellowship. But be sure to think of this outsider as one included within the mercy of God. Continue to hope and pray that this person will return to the community. Don't fail to extend welcome to the unrepentant sinner, offering the possibility of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation."

So, Jesus is not saying that we should cut the unrepentant sinner off and that's that. Instead, He's teaching us to take sin seriously, to recognize its power to break Christian community. Jesus is also teaching us to regard the unrepentant sinner, not as a permanent outsider or as one we are free to hate, but as a sinner who needs God's mercy and grace. Like Jesus, we need to be open to being vehicles of this grace for this person.

In all of my time as a pastor, I have never been involved directly with step 4 of Jesus's guidance. That is to say, I've never been a part of a church-wide recognition of an unrepentant member as an outsider. Why not? It's not because my church and I would not do this if we had to. Rather, in every single instance of church discipline in which I've participated it has not been necessary. In the majority of times when we've taken steps 1, 2, and even 3, the offender has repented and been restored to community. Both the church and the individual are stronger and healthier as a result. But in a number of cases, I'm sad to report, the unrepentant sinner has left the church. To put it bluntly, the sinner has loved the sin more than the Christian community, not to mention personal holiness.

"The Tax Collector" by Reymerswaele (1542). The second painting on this basic theme by the Flemish Calvinist painter.

Several years ago one of my church leaders, and a dear friend, decided to commit adultery. Although many of us in the church begged him to stop, he decided that his new relationship was more important than his marriage, his family, and his involvement in our church. So he resigned his leadership position and his membership. A few of us tried to pursue him a bit further, but it was obvious that he had made himself like "a Gentile and a tax collector." Over the years I have met with this man, and though he now regrets his sinful choices, he still lives mostly cut off from the church of Jesus Christ. Broken relationships remain broken. My hope and prayer for him is that, in time and by God's grace, he'll reconnect with the body of Christ somehow. But he is like a tax collector in relationship to me.

On the positive side, I have seen marriages pulled back from the brink of divorce by the loving but tough involvement of Christian community. Some years back a man I'll call "Ron" had committed adultery and initiated divorce against his wife. One Sunday, when the divorce was almost final, Ron "happened" to be in church when I "happened" to refer to the line from Malachi in which God says, "I hate divorce" (Mal 2:16). Ron was struck to the heart. We met together the next day, and I reaffirmed what I had said from the pulpit. I explained in greater depth God's commitment to marriage and how Scripture regards divorce and marriage. Over the next several months, Ron genuinely repented for what he had done. He sought reconciliation with his wife, who was willing, in time, to forgive him. Through Christian support and some wise marriage counseling they not only mended their marriage, but also in fact made it better than it had ever been before. Almost one year later to the day from the Sunday when Ron "happened" to be in church, I had the great joy of officiating at a renewal of marriage vows ceremony for him and his wife. If I had simply let Ron be, if I had chosen to "live and let live," if I had believed that his private affairs were none of my business, then Ron's marriage and family would be broken today. Yet, by risking confrontation I was used by God to bring greater wholeness to Ron's heart, to his family, and to our church.

Yet, whether the story ends happily or sadly, the church has the responsibility and authority (Matt 18: 18-20) to recognize when its members have effectively removed themselves from fellowship because of unrepentant sin. The church can "bind" this choice by acknowledging it and living according to it. But the church also has the privilege of "loosing" people from sin, that is, acknowledging their forgiveness. To this I'll turn in my next post, because it's an absolutely essential part of Jesus's guidance concerning what to do when someone sins against you.