What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: The Teaching of Jesus





What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: The Teaching of Jesus

by Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2010, Mark D. Roberts and Patheos


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Introduction

Christian fellowship is one of life’s sweetest desserts. There’s nothing quite 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.

That’s the good news. But there’s not-so-good news, also. 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 opening of your heart to others as they open their hearts to you. But vulnerability can come back to bite you painfully. 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 life have been in the context of the body of Christ.

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, disconnected from the body of Christ, then 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.

I’m sorry to say that such things happen fairly regularly and will probably happen to you if you’re an active participant in Christ’s church. But 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’ 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 in this series I’ll begin to examine in detail what Jesus says we’re to do when somebody sins against us.

Introduction to the Teaching of Jesus

In last Friday’s 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 basic teaching 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’ 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 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.

A page from a fourth-century manuscript of the Bible. It’s called Sinaiticus because it was found at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai. This page contains Matthew 18:15 without the words “against you,” EIS SE in Greek.

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.

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 surely 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.

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 teaching.

Jesus Sets Up the Case

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 his instruction, the NRSV translators use “another member of the church” in place of the literal “brother.” Notice that Jesus is not talking in this passage 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. (Of course the principles of this passage may well guide us in our relationships with those who are not believers, even if this is not Jesus’ main point.)

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 sibling. If you think about the one who wrongs you as a member of your family, then your response to that person may very differ from what you’d do with someone outside of your family.

I think, for example, of a time a few years ago when I said something mean to one of my sisters (a literal sister). 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. I 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? Isn’t sin always against God?

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.

My son and I enjoying our new bikes. Unfortunately, we took these bikes with us on a vacation to San Francisco. Though they were locked up, thieves managed to cut the locks and steal our bikes. Needless to say, we weren’t able to go the thieves and confront them.

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 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? There aren’t easy answers to these questions. On the one hand, I don’t think Jesus envisioned a community of disciples in which every little peccadillo deserved 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.

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 points to the need for 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 – someone like, me, for instance – watch out for your own denial and rationalization. The health of the church, not to mention your own ultimate well being, may very well require that you do the risky thing and talk directly to the one who has hurt you.

Step One

In my last post I discussed the set up for Jesus 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. (Photo: This is the only church I know in which people do not sin against each other. Of course if you look closely at the congregation of the Abston Church of Christ, you’ll notice that the people are all Lego, as is the church building.)

“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 advice. The only time, it seems to me, that an indirect conversation would be preferable is when the parties simply can’t get together.

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 used to tell my church members that they should never use e-mail to communicate something 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 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 have found 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 Purpose

In my last post I examined the first step in Jesus 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.

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 name of this rose is Reconciliation.

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, some time 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 say 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 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 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.

When the One You Confront Doesn’t Listen

So far in this series I’ve examined the beginning of Jesus’ 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.

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 something you may not want to hear. 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’ 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. When they lead to reconciliation, they are well worth the effort. And when they don’t, at least we have honored Jesus in our obedience to his teaching.

In tomorrow’s post I’ll finish up this examination of this step in Jesus’ instructions.

When the One You Confront Doesn’t Listen, Part 2

Yesterday, I began to consider what we should do when we privately confront someone who sinned against us but that person simply won’t listen. Though we might want to let things drop at this point, Jesus says we’re not done. Here is his specific instruction: “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” (Matt 18:16).In today’s post I want to consider the role and function of the “two or three witnesses.”

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

The background for Jesus’ 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 official legal proceedings in Matthew 18. Moreover, 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.

Notice, once again, exactly what Jesus says here: “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.” 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.”

We use the word “witness” in several different senses in English. It’s important to note that not all senses are relevant here. For example, in a criminal trial, a witness speaks, often “bearing witness” to what he or she has observed, which might confirm the guilt of the person standing trial. Jesus does not envision the “two or three witnesses” playing this particular role. Rather, they are witnesses in the sense of observers. It almost seems as if they have a role that is closer to that of the judge or jury in a trial. They are present in the confrontation to listen to what is said and to weigh it in the scales of truth.

Hans Frank, the former Nazi Governor General of Poland, in the witness box at the International Military Tribunal trial of war criminals at Nuremberg. Frank bore witness by speaking to that which he had witnessed through observation.

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 telling me the truth. The person who told me what John had supposedly said had completely misinterpreted John’s point. What John related to me was consistent with everything I knew him to be. My anger had, in fact, been based on a misunderstanding. What I needed in this confrontation was to learn what was true and let go of my own anger. In fact, I needed to apologize for thinking poorly of John when he had done nothing to deserve it.

If what I’m saying about truth sounds simple, 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.

When Someone Sins Against You: Step 3

In my last post I examined step two of Jesus’ 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 of verse 17 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 probably spoke Aramaic here, using 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 that, in the first century, was almost always relatively small (50 people or less).

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 an appropriate interpretation of Jesus’ teaching in our current setting.

In many cases today, churches have structures for dealing with conflict in the body. “Telling it to the church” might 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 witness to your testimony.  The church, in some form, 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 paragraph 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.

When Someone Sins Against You: Step Four

So far in this series we’ve seen that Jesus’ 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” (Matt 18:18).  

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. So, 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 differently. 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’ 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 wellbeing 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.

When Someone Sins Against You: Step Four (continued) Yesterday I began to examine step four of Jesus’ 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 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’ 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 has 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 love 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’ 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 left the church. To put it bluntly, the sinner loved the sin more than the Christian community, not to mention personal holiness.

For example, several years ago one of my church leaders, who happened to be a dear friend, decided to commit adultery. Although many of us in the church begged him to stop and seek reconciliation with his wife, 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’ guidance concerning what to do when someone sins against you.

What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: Lavish Forgiveness

So far our investigation of Matthew 18 has turned up the following guidance for what to do if someone sins against you:

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. But always be read to welcome back this person if he or she repents.

After giving these directions, Jesus adds that the church has authority to recognize either the forgiveness or the outsider status of the offender.

The next passage in Matthew reminds us that, according to Jesus, the function of church discipline is redemptive, not punitive. It also reminds us of the extravagance of God’s grace given to us through Christ, and through us to others.

Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1669) is a classic picture of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21). No doubt Peter thought he was being generous with this suggestion. But Jesus trumped his graciousness by responding, “Not seven times, but, I tell you seventy-seven times” (or it might even mean “seventy times seven” times, 18:22). The point isn’t the specific number. I seriously doubt that Jesus would want us actually to count up 77 instances of forgiveness and then stop. Rather, he picked a number that signified lavish forgiveness.

In case someone might wonder why we should be so extravagant with forgiveness, the next passage in Matthew 18 is a parable of Jesus in which a slave owed 10,000 talents to his master but was unable to pay. (The hyperbole is obvious here, in that 10,000 talents was worth something like 5 billion dollars in today’s economy.) Yet the master ended up forgiving this slave’s debt. Then the slave went to a second slave who owed the first slave 100 denarii (or 1/600,000th of what that slave had owed his master). But the evil slave did not forgive this debt. When the master learned of first slave’s lack of forgiveness, he sentenced this slave to be tortured until his debt was paid, which, of course, would never happen. Jesus’ point was that unforgiveness is to be avoided at all costs. Positively, we’re to forgive people because we ourselves have been forgiven (by God) more than could possibly be owed to us. We don’t forgive people because they deserve it. Rather, we forgive because of how much God has forgiven us. If this means 77 times, so be it.

It’s not an easy thing to forgive, especially if you’ve been deeply wronged. Yet if you harbor unforgiveness toward one who has confessed and sought your forgiveness, you’re making matters worse for all parties, including yourself. You’re cutting yourself off from the experience of divine forgiveness in your own life. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 6:14-14:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Given this clear statement of Jesus, and the fact that he taught us to pray “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12), it astounds me how many Christians are mired in unforgiveness. Yes, they’ve been truly and sometimes deeply hurt by others. Therefore it’s understandable that they feel defensive and are reticent to forgive. Yet, contrary to the teaching of Christ, they build up giant walls of unforgiveness in order to protect themselves, and are unwilling to dismantle these walls. The results are dismal both for Christian community and for the souls of those who withhold forgiveness. (The utterly astounding thing to me is that sometimes the unforgiving Christians are filled with self-righteousness and consider themselves to be morally-superior to the person who wronged them and yet confessed and sought forgiveness.)

Some time ago I watched unforgiveness destroy a family in my church. The husband began the offense by being sexually unfaithful to his wife. When his offense became known, both husband and wife went through a period of attempted reconciliation. The husband confessed and asked to be forgiven. His wife said she would accept him back and forgive her. But over the next couple of years, though the husband made every effort to reconcile with hiw wife, she simply refused to forgive him. I don’t think she ever made much of an effort to do so. She would never let her husband forget his offense, bringing it up again and again. Of course I’m in no way condoning adultery, you understand. But, I believe that, in the end, it wasn’t adultery that finally broke apart this marriage. It was the wife’s unwillingness to forgive her husband.

Conversely, I have seen a number of instances where a spouse has been willing to forgive even the sin of adultery. A few years ago a couple in my church went through a horrific experience. The husband had an affair that just about killed this marriage. But he was finally willing to admit his sin and seek reconciliation. His wife, though very reticent at first, ultimately forgave her husband, truly and fully. The fact that they are married today – with a wonderfully strong and healthy marriage, I might add – testifies to the power of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is much trickier in a case where someone fails to confess to wrongdoing. At some point I’ll probably do some blogging on this particular issue, since I think it’s essential for the wronged party to let go of the hurt even in such a case. But if the person who wronged you admits the fault and seeks forgiveness, Jesus is clear about what your response must me: You must forgive. It may not be easy. And it may take a long time for the process of forgiveness to be complete. But, even as God has been lavish with mercy in forgiving you, so you are to be to the one who has sinned against you.

What To Do When You Sin Against Someone

So far in this series we’ve focused on the main question: What should you do if somebody sins against you? The answer, in a nutshell: Go to that person. Even though you’re the wronged party, you should initiate reconciliation, according to Jesus. This runs contrary to the popular wisdom that says, “Look, I’m the victim here. I’m not going to anybody. If so-and-so will come to me, great. But otherwise I’m not budging.” Though this sounds reasonable, it’s incompatible with Jesus’ teaching. Even and especially when you’re the victim, it’s your job to get the reconciling ball rolling.But what if you’re on the sinning side of the equation? Or what if someone else believes that you’ve sinned against him or her, even if you haven’t? What should you do if you know that someone in your Christian community has a bone to pick with you?

Again, common wisdom would tend to say, “Look, if somebody has a problem with me, then that person should seek me out.” This can even sound noble, “I’d be willing to meet with anyone who has a problem with me, but I’m not going to initiate if that person won’t do it.” Given what Jesus has said about the wronged party going to the offender, it’s clear that responsibility lies with the victim for initiating reconciliation. But does this mean the offender is off the hook? Hardly, according to Jesus.

In a passage from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said this:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt 5:23-24)

This is a surprising text for two reasons. First, it puts the burden of reconciliation on the offender (or one perceived to be the offender). If I have sinned against somebody and know that person is angry with me, it is my responsibility to initiate reconciliation. “But wait,” you might object, “I thought it was the victim’s responsibility!” Yes, indeed it is. In fact it is the responsibility of both parties to seek to mend the relationship. Neither one is free to wait for the other. Thus whether you have been wronged by someone or you’re the one who did the wronging, Jesus tells you to reach out to the other party. Reconciliation is so important that it’s something both parties are responsible to get started.

A famous moment of forgiveness. In May 1981 Mehmet Ali Agca shot Pope John Paul II in an attempt to kill him. The attempt failed, though the Pope was severely injured. Even so, he asked Catholics to forgive Agca, explaining that he had done so himself. Two years later John Paul II met with Agca, offering his forgiveness personally.

The second surprise in Matthew 5:23-24 is Jesus’ clear statement of priorities. Reconciliation with a brother or sister takes precedence even over worship. This is truly astounding. It is also one of the most frequently disobeyed commands in all of Scripture. I know Christians who, for years and years, have come faithfully to worship while failing to mend broken relationships with fellow Christians. They think, no doubt, that their relationship with God is what really matters, and that everything else is secondary. But Jesus, in a shocking passage, says that we should seek reconciliation with brother of sister even before offering our gift of worship to God.

Several years ago, my church was celebrating communion. I had finished my part as the officiant and was sitting in a front pew. A man in the church came up to me and asked to speak with me privately. I took him aside and listened as he said, “I need to confess to you that I have had lots of resentment towards you in the past. I now realize that it’s mostly my own issue. I felt snubbed by you in a couple of instances where you could have been more attentive to me. I’ve harbored this for years. But I realize I need to confess this to you now. Will you please forgive me?” He was attempting to apply the logic of Matthew 5:23-24 in a new situation.

I was stunned. To be honest, my gut reaction was to be defensive: “What do you mean I snubbed you? When did this happen? Why didn’t you tell me years ago? etc. etc.” But, by God’s grace, I was able to hear what this man was saying to me and feel his heart in the matter. I offered sincere forgiveness and suggested that sometime later we might talk it through. We prayed for a moment and then he went to receive communion.

As I thought about what happened, I realized that this man had been exceedingly faithful to the intentions of Jesus. He sensed, rightly, that the breach in our relationship – for which he took most of the blame – was something that needed to be mended even before he went to the Lord’s Table. It also impressed me that what this man did was very rare and very gutsy. We’re just not inclined to do this sort of thing.

Please understand that I’m NOT suggesting you go up to your pastor in the middle of communion next Sunday in order to work our your difficulties. In most cases, another time would be more appropriate. But if you are harboring negative feelings toward your pastor – or anyone else in your church – you should initiate reconciliation PDQ.

A common objection to what I’m suggesting here goes like this: “But wait a minute. What you’re talking about would take a lot of time. Are you actually suggesting that we need to seek reconciliation with everyone in the church against whom we have some negative feeling, or who has wronged us, or whom we have wronged? There isn’t enough time in the day for this! It’s so impractical.” Well, yes, this is what I’m suggesting. And, yes, it may take a substantial investment of time if you haven’t been tending to these things for a while. But the guidance I’m giving isn’t mine; it comes from Jesus himself. And if Jesus says this is what you should do, then this is what you should do.

If you make the effort to reconcile, it will take time. But, in most cases, the results will be well worth that effort. Both you and your church will be stronger and healthier. Both you and the church will be more resilient to the kind of division that can ruin both individuals and churches.

I did indeed end up talking at length with man who needed my forgiveness before communion. And, as it turned out, I did need to confess that I had wronged him in a couple of ways. My offenses weren’t great, and he was right that much of the hurt he had fabricated in his own heart. But, in the end, we were both able to confess, to apologize, and to forgive. The result was a much deeper friendship in Christ. In fact, because we shared some difficult and tender moments together, our relationship is both stronger and dearer today than it was before. A few years later when we faced considerable conflict in our relationship, we had a solid foundation upon which to build a bridge of understanding. To this day, I value the friendship I have with this brother in Christ. And he, I believe, would say the same about me.

Before I wrap up this series, I want to reflect a bit further on how the teaching of Jesus might be lived out in today’s world, especially given the extent to which our lives are permeated by electronic communication devices. More next time.

What To Do If Someone Sins Against You . . . in the Digital Age

Jesus says that if someone sins against you, you’re to go to the person when you can be alone and point out that person’s fault. This seems clear enough, even if we’re not all that happy about it. But how might we apply the teaching of Jesus in a digital age?Jesus’ instructions about what to do if someone sins against you were issued in a time when a net was something you used to catch fish, a web was something spun by a spider, and digital media meant communicating with one’s fingers. The teaching of Jesus was intended for a small community of people who shared life together in the flesh. Thus, when Jesus said that the victim of sin should go to the perpetrator, he was envisioning a short walk at most, so that the two could meet face-to-face.

Today’s world is substantially different from the world of Jesus, though the core issues are much the same. People still sin against each other, and are still in need of reconciliation. Yet, these days, the person who sins against you just might live on the other side of the world. You might never have met that person and never have any reason to meet that person. Moreover, these days we don’t tend to walk over to someone’s house for a conversation, let alone a confrontation. We are much more comfortable communicating through some sort of electronic means, be it the Internet or a cellular network.

Given the extent to which our relationships today are mediated by electronics, we might wonder how this impacts our application of Matthew 18:15-18. When Jesus says that if someone sins against us, we should go and point out the fault when we can be alone, can this mean that we might use electronic means of communication? Would it be okay to “go” by calling someone up on the phone, or by sending an email, or by Skyping, or by texting, or by tweeting, or by sending a message on Facebook, or . . . .

Certain kinds of digital communication are clearly inconsistent with the sense of Jesus’ instruction. We are to confront one who has sinned against us “when the two of [us] are alone.” Tweeting and posting public messages on Facebook would not in any way reflect the intentions of Jesus. The same would be true for communicating through blog posts or blog comments. So we can safely rule out many popular kinds of electronic communication as incompatible with the teaching of Jesus.

But what about confronting through phone calls, emails, or text messages? These can be private, including in the conversation only yourself and the person who sinned against you. Would calling someone on the phone count as going to that person, in faithfulness to Jesus’ directive?

For many of us, there is an inherent attractiveness in such electronic communication. It feels much safer. After all, if I sin against you and you call me on the phone to “point out the fault,” you’re protected from seeing my anger or even being struck by my fists. If I don’t accept responsibility for what I did to you, and if I begin to speak meanly to you, you can simply hang up. Email would be even safer than a phone call, of course, because you wouldn’t have to hear my voice or respond to my defenses.

Tomorrow, I’ll offer some thoughts on the appropriateness of using private electronic communication for the purpose of confrontation and reconciliation. For now, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

What To Do If Someone Sins Against You . . . in the Digital Age (Part 2)

Yesterday I set up the question: How do we apply the teaching of Jesus about confronting someone who sins against us . . . in the digital age? Since it can be much easier and safer to communicate with someone by means of cell phone, email, and other digital technologies, does this give us a new way to follow Jesus’ instruction to “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (Matt 18:15).I’m sure there are times when the use of digital technologies does, in fact, allow us to be guided by the intent of Jesus’ teaching, though not it’s literal sense. For example, in our Internet-flattened, highly mobile age, there are times when it just isn’t practical to meet with someone face-to face. Suppose, for example, that a colleague wrongs you just before heading off on a long, overseas business trip. The cost in time and money of flying to wherever your colleague may be to have a direct conversation is prohibitive. So, at that point you have two choices. First, you could delay the conversation until your colleague returns. Second, you could use some from of technology (phone call, email, text) to communicate your concern. Which of these should you choose?

I don’t think there’s one answer to this question. It depends on all sorts of factors, like: the kind of offense, your emotional state, your colleague’s physical and emotional situation, the nature of your relationship with your colleague, etc. So, if the offense is relatively minor, and if your relationship with the colleague is relatively insignificant, you might decide to wait until you can be face-to-face. On the contrary, if the offense was a potent one, and if the colleague is a close friend, you might choose rather to call in order to confront and reconcile.

Notice that I said “call” and not “email.” I must confess that I’m not a fan of email confrontations, not at all. When I was Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, and email was new, I did use email to communicate with people who had wronged me. It was almost always a disaster. The personal receiving the email couldn’t sense my hurt and usually became defensive. I would often receive in response a quickly composed, rushed response that wasn’t helpful in the least. Relatively small disagreements escalated.

I witnessed this sort of thing time and again in my church. People who tried to confront others through email almost inevitably were not satisfied. Almost always their electronic efforts made matters worse. In time, I urged my staff and my elders never to use email to communicate anything negative, unless it was relatively inconsequential. “No, I can’t make the meeting” was okay. “I’m upset by what you said in the meeting” was not okay.

The cultural ethos surrounding email makes it a very bad way for dealing with disagreements or confrontations. Email communication tends to be quick, spontaneous, and unpolished. It is a poor conductor of emotion or personhood. Because email can be composed, mailed, and received while both parties are burning with anger, as opposed to letters that require delays, it often throws gasoline on the emotional fire. Moreover, it is so easy for people to forward email messages to others, or to include them among the recipients, that email tempts people to break the “when the two of you are alone” rule of Jesus. I can’t tell you how many times I, as a pastor, have been copied (sometimes blind) on confrontational emails that never should have been written, let alone shown to me. So, I would strongly encourage you not to use email to confront someone who has sinned against you, no matter how much you might be tempted to do it.

A phone call would be much better than email because it enhances the personal dimensions of the interaction. When I talk with someone on the phone, I can hear that person’s voice. I can sense emotions like hurt, sorrow, anger, and so forth. A phone conversation facilities interaction that is much more human than anything email could accomplish. (A Skype conversation, with visual images, could be even better than a phone call.)

If you are not able to meet with someone who has wronged you, and if you believe that confrontation should not be delayed until a face-to-face meeting is possible, then I would recommend a phone call. Make sure both you and the other party are in a place of privacy and have enough time to work through the issues. Don’t call someone who is rushing through an airport, and don’t call someone in earshot of your other colleagues at work.

In most cases, I do not think the use of technology concords with the teaching of Jesus about going to the other person. There is something that happens when two people are face-to-face that is essential in the process of confrontation and reconciliation. Yes, to be sure, sometimes a personal meeting does not work out as it should. But the effort to meet with someone is itself an indication of a desire for reconciliation. Therefore, I’d urge you – and me – to take Jesus at his word whenever possible, and “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

As I come to the end of this series, I want to respond to questions that were posed both in comments and in emails. They have to do with forgiveness. Basically, the questions are these: Should I forgive someone who doesn’t admit to having done anything wrong? And if so, how can I forgive such a person? I’ll address these questions in my next post in this series.

How Can I Forgive Someone Who Doesn’t Admit to Having Done Anything Wrong?

With this post I am finishing my series: What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: The Teaching of Jesus. You can find this whole series in logical order here, if you wish.

Let me review the basic steps outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-18:

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. But always be read to welcome back this person if he or she repents.

At any stage in this process, if the person being confronted admits his or her fault, then it is essential for the individual who was on the receiving end of the offense to forgive the offender.

But what happens if the offender is unwilling to admit to having done anything wrong? What should you do if you go through the process established by Jesus, but the end result is not an admission of sin? Can we forgive someone who doesn’t repent? Should we?

One way to answer this question would be to point to psychological studies of forgiveness and unforgiveness. They show, basically, that forgiveness is essential for the emotional health of the one who forgives. If you have been deeply hurt by your parents, for example, and you carry this hurt with you throughout your life without ever forgiving, it’s highly likely that you will inhibit your own emotional health, even your physical health. Unforgiveness is like a cancerous tumor within us that needs to be removed.

For those of us who are biblically-oriented, a more compelling case for this kind of forgiveness comes from Scripture itself. There are many passages in the Bible the call us to forgive. None of these adds, “if the one who offended you is sorry.” For example, in Mark 11:25 Jesus says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” This passage says nothing about what the offender thinks or feels. It in no way implies that, before you finish your prayer, you should run out and find the one who offended you and get that person to repent, and then return to your prayer. Rather, Jesus connects your own forgiveness by God with the forgiveness you give to someone else. He clearly envisions forgiveness as something you can do without relying on the repentance of the one who wronged you.

This can seem very odd to us, partly because we have a hazy or even wrong-headed understanding of forgiveness. What is forgiveness? At the risk of being simplistic, let me say that forgiveness is giving over to God the wrong done to you. It’s saying to God, “Okay, Lord, I’m not going to hold onto this offense any more. I’m surrendering it to you.” Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. Though it usually leads to feeling better, forgiveness generally comes prior to feeling better. When I forgive I say to the Lord, “God, this person really hurt me. But I’m giving it all to you. I do not want this offense to be a breach in relationship any further. I will not harbor it my soul. Here you go, Lord, here’s the hurt.”

Another moving portrayal of forgiveness in Bartolomé Murillo’s “Return of the Prodigal Son,” 1667-70.

I want to make sure you understand what Jesus is not asking us to do in forgiving. First, he’s not asking us to say “That’s okay.” Forgiveness isn’t saying that what was done to you is okay. In fact, forgiveness assumes that it was not okay. Only real wrongs need to be forgiven. Second, Jesus is not asking us necessarily to understand why somebody did something wrong. Yes, this can help us let go of our hurt feelings sometimes, but forgiveness is choosing before God to let go of the offense, even if you don’t understand why the offender did it. Forgiveness is deciding that you won’t get even, that you won’t punish the offender either through your actions or inactions. Third, Jesus is not asking us to pretend as if the hurt has completely disappeared. This sort of healing process takes time, and forgiveness contributes to the healing, but it’s not the same as feeling better. Fourth, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation, though it is almost always part of reconciliation. Forgiving someone is giving the offense and hurt to God. You can do this no matter what the offending party does. Reconciliation, on the contrary, requires that the other person own the wrong and repent of it. Reconciliation, therefore, is dependent on the other person. Forgiveness is not.

The command to forgive is a very hard command to obey, isn’t it? If someone has really hurt us, the last thing we want to do is to forgive. We’d much rather hang onto our pain as a means of self-protection. We’d much rather grovel in self-pity than regain relationship with the offender. Yet Jesus couldn’t be much clearer. He says that if you have anything against anyone – and that’s pretty inclusive, don’t you think? Anything against anyone! – you should forgive. Period.

Now I know that many of us have a hard time forgiving. Forgiveness is scary because it means taking down the walls that protect us, and we’re understandably afraid to do this.

So what should you do if forgiveness doesn’t come easily for you? For an answer to this question I turn to Ephesians 4:32-5:2. This passage reads:

[B]e kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Notice the close connection here between your forgiving others and your experience of God’s forgiveness. On the one hand, you are to forgive in the same way that God has forgiven you in Christ. On the other hand, your experience of God’s forgiveness empowers you to forgive others. The more you realize the magnitude of God’s forgiveness for you, the more you will be a forgiving person. Show me an unforgiving person, and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t experienced very much of God’s grace. Conversely, show me someone who forgives readily, and I’ll show you someone who has been baptized in God’s gracious forgiveness.

In conclusion, I would say, “Yes, you can and should forgive one who has sinned against you, even if that person will not admit the offense. This is consistent with biblical teaching and it is essential for your own well being.” Having said this, however, I am not suggesting that such forgiveness is easy. When the offense is great, forgiveness comes slowly, with great difficulty, and always with lots of help from the Holy Spirit. If you find yourself in a position of needing for forgive one who has wronged you but will not admit the offense, I’d encourage you to take this to the Lord and also to at least one other wise, mature Christian who can help you work through your feelings and responses in a healthy, Christ-like way.

Conclusion (Part 1)

I have come to the end of this series on what to do if someone sins against you. I have done my best to interpret the teaching of Jesus on this subject with accuracy. I’m sure I have made some mistakes along the way. But I believe I have rightly rendered the basic sense of Jesus’ teaching.Jesus’ basic answer to the question, “What should I do if someone sins against me?” is pretty simple (Matthew 18:15-18). If I were to paraphrase Jesus’ instructions, I’d put them this way:

Go directly to the person who sinned against you and privately point out the fault. Do this with the hope of fostering of reconciliation. If this one-on-one approach doesn’t work, then get help from a few others. If this doesn’t work, let the church help. But always work in the direction of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.”

Though the actual teaching of Jesus is not hard to understand, it is very hard to put into practice. At least that seems to be the case in my experience, both personal and pastoral. Most of us are not comfortable with the idea of going directly and privately to someone who has wronged us. So we do something else, usually gossiping to others or doing nothing at all. Sometimes we piously wait for the “sinner” to approach us: “I’m not going to him because he sinned against me. I’m waiting for him to come and say he’s sorry. Then I’ll consider forgiving.” Sounds typical. Sounds sensible. But it’s not what Jesus told us to do. Not at all.

In my experience as a parish pastor, I saw just about every possible way to disobey the plain teaching of Jesus. When church were wronged by others, their first inclination was just to try and ignore it. But if the offense was significant, this feigned ignorance led to a permanently damaged relationship, and therefore a permanently damaged church. Plus, the one who had been wronged was plagued by unhealthful bitterness, while the one who did the wrong had no chance to grow.

Those who found ignoring the offense unsatisfactory would often try to find solace in gossip. They’d tell their friends what happened to them, looking for pity and justification. In other cases, the wronged person would contact the offender, but in some sort of public mode. At times, these confrontations would even take place on the church patio after a worship service. More commonly in recent years, they would be played out in emails copied to lots of other people.

I realize that I’m sounding pretty negative here about my former church. So I should add that I witnessed and participated in many positive examples of putting the teaching of Jesus into practice. Most of the time, however, I never saw this happening because it took place in private, just as it should have.

I should also say, in defense of my former church, that I don’t think we were especially worse than other churches. Irvine Presbyterian Church is a wonderful community of committed disciples of Jesus. I think we were pretty typical when it came to following Matthew 18:15-18. There were many members who did in fact put Jesus’ teaching into practice. But the plain truth is that most of us don’t like direct confrontation with others, so we avoid it like the plague. Let me be honest here and say that I hate confrontation as much and probably more than most people. I dislike going to someone who has wronged me more even more than I dislike hearing from others that I wronged them. But I have felt compelled by the teaching of Jesus to do what does not come naturally to me. Sometimes the result has been unhappy. But in dozens of instances, the outcome of my sheer obedience has been repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

In my next and final post in this series, I’ll share an illustration of this positive result and wrap up with a few final observations

Conclusion (Part 2)

In my last post I confessed that I am by nature someone who avoids conflict. Thus, I am wired not to obey the teaching of Jesus with respect to confronting one who sins against me. Nevertheless, in my effort to obey my Lord, I have sometimes experienced healing and reconciliation that makes that effort more than worthwhile.I think, for example, of my relationship with a man I’ll call Les. When I came to Irvine Pres, Len was excited. But, before long, I started doing things that bothered him. So Len would write me long epistles, chronicling at length where I was falling short. These were Les’s version of going directly to me, I think. Not only did the letters contain lists of my purported errors, but also they challenged my personal integrity. At this point, Len had clearly sinned against me. So I would call him up and arrange a one-on-one meeting. I would try to respond to Len’s criticisms, usually by finding one that was in the ballpark of truth. Then I’d explain to Len where I believed he had sinned against me and why. In every case, and there probably were about eight of these conversations, Len would admit that he had wronged me and he would apologize. I’d forgive me. We’d pray together. And our relationship seemed to be mended, until the next time Len sent an epistle.

But, in time, Len’s epistles became less frequent. He’d still have things to complain about, but he’d do so in less verbose ways. After about four years of this pattern, Len stopped sending letters altogether. He became one of my strongest supporters in the church, and I became grateful for our relationship.

I know it doesn’t always happen this way. I could tell plenty of stories to illustrate the opposite conclusion. Sometimes people, either the offender or the offended or both, are simply not mature enough in Christ to come to a place of reconciliation. But I do know that if we follow Jesus’ counsel, it will often make a real difference in our lives and in our churches. Moreover, for disciples of Jesus, the call to obey doesn’t rest on the possibility of a happy result. We are to do what Jesus says because he’s our Lord and because we want to honor him.

I recognize that, in practice, it is sometimes very difficult to do what Jesus asks of us. I’m thankful for many comments and emails I received that brought up particularly tricky situations. I have been able to respond to some of these. Others have received wise responses for fellow commenters. I apologize for not being able to address every case.

If you find yourself in a situation where implementing the teaching of Jesus is particularly difficult, I would urge you to seek counsel from a wise Christian brother or sister. Yes, I know Jesus didn’t say to do this. But there are sometimes when circumstances and personalities are such that we aren’t quite sure how to obey Jesus. In cases like these, we need help from another who is more mature in the faith than we are. Notice, however, that I’m suggesting you speak with one person only. I’m assuming this person will be someone who can keep confidence. In many cases this person might be your pastor, unless, of course, the one who sinned against you is your pastor.

In conclusion, I’d encourage each and every one of us to take seriously the teaching of Jesus concerning how to act when someone sins against us. If you haven’t been putting Jesus’ instructions into practice, you may very well find yourself with a backlog. Give yourself adequate time to seek to mend the broken relationships in your life. But, by all means, start doing what Jesus says. The end result will be, not only the reassurance that comes with obedience, but also the potential of greater health in your relationships and in the church . . . and even in your own heart.


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