The Rev’d Charles Everson
Sep. 10, 2023 • Year A, Proper 18 • Matthew 18:15–20
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus tells his disciples how to address conflict in the church. This passage is often viewed as the theological foundation for how churches should methodically address conflict like a judge and jury would do so. But scholars often refer to these verses as “the Rule of Christ” because they redefine the goals of confrontation or intervention in seeking to rescue and forgive, to offer care in a spirit of humility. Unlike most theories of conflict resolution in today’s world, Jesus doesn’t give us a formula of how to establish the rights of the one who is offended or hurt. Instead, we learn from this passage how to care especially for the offender or sinner, and in fact, we are told that it is the responsibility of the person who is offended to seek reconciliation with the offender.
When conflict occurs, step one is to be initiated by the person who is wronged in a private meeting. Why would Jesus tell us to try to reconcile with the person who offended us in secret? Doesn’t this seem to put more importance on protecting the reputation of the sinner than upholding the rights of the one who was offended?
First century Palestine was what we now call a “shame culture”, or a culture in which the primary device for maintaining social order is shame and the threat of exclusion from society. This is in sharp contrast to our culture today, in which control is maintained by creating and continually reinforcing the feeling of guilt, and the expectation of punishment either now or in the life to come. For Jesus, it was important to protect the alleged offender from the risk of being shamed in front of others. What if the alleged sin wasn’t intended? Or what if the alleged offender’s actions were simply misinterpreted?
Simply put, if another member of the Church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. Even if your instinct is to talk about how so-and-so hurt your feelings with your friends or fellow parishioners or even your priest. If someone has hurt your feelings, they may not even know that they’ve hurt you. The onus is on you to confront the person who offended you. Some day in the future, if you find yourself thinking, “I really don’t feel comfortable confronting this person because it would be incredibly awkward, so I’ll just talk to the priest and have him confront her.” Sorry! The first step, when we’ve been wronged, is to honor the other person by humbly confronting them in a loving way.
The focus is not punishment, but reconciliation. Jesus tells us in verse 15 that the goal is to regain the sinner, not to win the argument, or make the other person feel as hurt as we feel, or make the other person feel guilty. The goal is reconciliation, and that involves the person we’re confronting acknowledging fault, repenting, and being forgiven. If you’re the one who has offended someone else and you’re being confronted, it may be an awkward conversation, but the Christian response is to humbly listen and to seek to understand. We tend to respond to such confrontation with defensiveness, anger, or exasperation. But the Christian response is to humbly listen and to seek to understand. If you’ve wronged someone, then acknowledge it and own it, resolve not to do it again, ask for forgiveness, and move on.
If step one doesn’t lead to reconciliation between the two parties, then step two involves “taking one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” The purpose of the multiple witnesses is not to corroborate the alleged offense with eyewitness testimony, but rather to validate the conversation or add strength to the allegation at hand. If step one doesn’t work and it’s time to go to step two, it’s important to take sufficient time and not rush things. If emotions are high and it won’t hurt to wait a few days to meet with everyone to discuss the issues, then wait. It is important to enter into these discussions in a spirit of humility with reconciliation as the goal.
If steps one and two haven’t resulted in reconciliation, the matter is brought before the entire church. When was the last time you remember a conflict between parishioners being brought before the entire congregation here at Atonement? Probably never. In our way of structuring church government, you elect fellow parishioners to represent you on a governing body called the vestry. A possible next step in conflict resolution, depending on the issue, is to bring it before the vestry which represents the entire parish. And an even broader next step involves those outside the parish in the diocese and the wider church. We send elected representatives to wider diocesan-wide committees and national church bodies who sometimes have to deal with these escalated conflicts. We even have church courts for certain conflict involving bishops, priests, and deacons.
But Jesus’ point today isn’t to give step-by-step instructions on how to deal with conflict in the church. Nearly all of the conflict I’ve seen and heard about in the church is rooted in an unwillingness to speak directly to one another. Jesus’s message to us today is so simple and yet so seldom heeded: be honest and direct with one another. Too often, when any of us are offended, hurt, or angry, the offending person is the last to know it. It’s amazing how much can change when we simply ask for what we need and say what we feel. Jesus invites us today to courageously embody the Rule of Christ and love one another enough to tell the truth. Being reconciled with one another, together we continue Christ’s work of reconciling heaven with earth and earth with heaven, sharing God’s great love with all those we encounter. Amen.
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville, Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 45.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shame_society  Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-political and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, N.Y.): Orbis Books, 2001), 367.  Matt 18:16.  Bartlett 47.  Much of this paragraph comes from a Facebook post by Bishop Craig Loya of Minnesota.