How Would Jesus Fight? (Matthew 18:15-20)
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. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. Matthew 18:15-20.
Jesus is speaking in this passage, and Jesus is very direct here. So often, Jesus tells weird stories and parables that don’t make a lot of sense, and we are like, “But what does he mean?” That’s not what is happening here.
Jesus is saying exactly what he means in clear language. But we are still like, “But what does he mean?” because we don’t want to do what he says.
My sermon is called, “How would Jesus fight?” Really, it’s more, how would Jesus resolve conflicts? He knew that people in communities and churches have conflicts. And so he gives these instructions on how to resolve them.
We have adopted this at the Church of Mary Magdalene as our conflict resolution policy. And it’s how I personally try to resolve conflicts. It’s a practice that I’m committed to, like yoga. And it’s one that I’m really bad at, also like yoga.
I’ve been doing yoga for about fifteen years now, and it’s a good day when I can touch my toes. I am so inflexible! And I feel that way about this, but there are some things that we are committed to that we’re just not good at. But we do them anyway, because we think they are good for us.
Here is our conflict resolution policy, adopted from this passage:
- Go to the person directly to express the concern.
- If that does not resolve the conflict, meet jointly with others that you both trust.
- If that does not resolve the conflict, jointly bring it to the church.
- If that does not resolve the conflict, there is a break in the relationship, but go forward treating each other with love, like Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors.
- Ask God for help: God is with you when you try to work through conflicts.
I am going to take these one step at a time, and spend the most amount of time on this first one, because I think this is the most difficult, and this is where it mostly goes off the rails.
Step 1: Go to the person directly to express the concern.
The verse says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
But I want to be clear that this is not for every situation. I think sometimes these verses can be used in an abusive way when there is a power difference between the two people—when someone who is in a much lower level of power is required to go directly to the person with more authority without anyone else there. I don’t think that is the context of this.
In our translation, it says, “if another member of the church sins against you,” but really, in the Greek, it’s “if your brother sins against you.” This is a power relationship of equals, of people who are on equal footing and people who are close. This is a family relationship. Hopefully we have relationships like that in the church.
And it’s about relationships that we want to continue and want to repair, which is not all relationships. We don’t always have to continue or repair relationships. Jesus, several chapters before said to shake the dust off your feet of a town if they don’t welcome you.
So I think it’s important to keep those things in mind: people with equal footing, people that we care about deeply, and people who we want to continue to be in relationship with. This is not something to use in an abusive situation or where there is a vast power differential.
This becomes clear in the context of the chapter as a whole, which talks about protecting the vulnerable. Earlier, it says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6) Jesus cared about protecting children and vulnerable people.
So, once you have determined that this is the kind of relationship where you should go to the person to express the concern, you do have to go to them directly and express the concern! And there are reasons for this.
The main one is: are not mind readers! We don’t know when we’ve hurt someone else or why someone else is upset with us. And so we have to tell them when they have done something to hurt us.
This is not the case for big sins. This is for little things. This is where someone said something that is hurtful and small, but it creates a break in the relationship. The person who heard it is hurt and has to tell the other person that they were hurt because otherwise it can just get worse and worse.
I’ve had experience with this. I was in a fight with a friend of mine several years ago, and she asked me point blank if I was disappointed with her. I was taken aback by that, and I said, “Oh, no! No.”
And then later, I was talking about this with someone else—because again, I do this badly!—and my friend said, “But you were disappointed with her, weren’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, I was.”
So I had to call my friend and say, “When I said I wasn’t disappointed with you, I was,” and we had to talk about that. But then she knew. She knew why I was upset with her, and we could repair that relationship. And it’s a relationship that is still very important to me.
That’s the goal here: to repair the relationship. Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” And that’s within the context of this chapter as well. After Jesus gives these instructions, we find the parable of the lost sheep, which is all about repairing relationships:
If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18:12-14)
God—our Father, our Mother, our Parent in heaven—wants us to be found and to reconcile our relationships.
Hopefully, this is the point where most things are reconciled and you don’t have to go on to the next step. But that’s not always the case, and so we have Step 2.
Step 2: If that does not resolve the conflict, meet jointly with others that you both trust.
The verse is, “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.” Again, this is the second step! You go directly to the person first and then you bring witnesses.
There is wisdom in this. Not just to have witnesses, but because having another person or two there that you trust makes us more careful about what we say. It makes us think and take a breath before we say something hurtful to the other person who has hurt us.
I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve been in a situation where I hurt someone else, and we brought in a separate person, and in a situation where I was hurt by someone else. And it really, really helped to have someone else there. Someone who wasn’t as deeply involved.
And if that doesn’t work, move on to Step 3.
Step 3: If that does not resolve the conflict, jointly bring it to the church.
“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” Hopefully, it doesn’t get to this point. Hopefully, it’s resolved in Step 1 or 2. But if it does, calling on the church as a whole for wisdom is helpful.
The church here must be healthy and stable to be able to resolve this kind of conflict—without gossip, without getting groups on their side, without talking behind people’s backs in advance. (Which is following Steps 1 and 2.)
And then Step 4, which is where there is the real break.
Step 4: If that does not resolve the conflict, there is a break in the relationship, but go forward treating each other with love, like Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors.
Jesus said, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This is a paradox because Gentiles and tax collectors were outsiders AND Jesus was friends with Gentiles and tax collectors. He ate with them and went to their homes.
So even at this point, when there is an official break in the relationship, the hope is that there still will be reconciliation, that these people who are outsiders will be part of the family again.
Step 5: Ask God for help: God is with you when you try to work through conflicts.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This is a mystery. I don’t know what it means for things to be bound in heaven or loosed in heaven.
But what is helpful for me is to think about this as the relationship between earth and heaven—that our relationships are not just about what is happening here, but God is involved in our relationships.
So rather than envisioning heaven as some future place where these things will continue, I believe it is about the relationship between God’s kingdom and ours—they these two are bound together in a way that is beyond our understanding.
This leads to two verses that are taken out of context all the time. “Again, 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.” This is within the context of conflict! You are agreeing about something after having a disagreement, you are coming back together.
And God is part of our family in this. Our Father, our Mother, our Parent in heaven is with us in this.
This passage ends, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus is saying that when we are in conflict and when we are asking for God’s help, God is with us. God is with us in times of conflict.
Conflict is inevitable, but we know that even in hard and painful times, God is with us.