by John David Hicks © 1999

“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself. Or you also may be tempted.” –Galatians 6:1


Sooner or later as a Christian you will experience some problem with another Christian. If not dealt with scripturally, such a conflict can deeply hurt you and discourage the church. Many Christians have lost out spiritually because of conflict. Because of this, Jesus gives us some practical steps in dealing with conflict that will result in our spiritual growth and reconciliation with the person with whom we are in conflict. These steps are outlined in the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

If a brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. –verses 15-18

As believers, we are in the family of God. We are brothers and sisters together in the family of God. Thus Jesus ‘s emphasis is on reconciliation. The world’s test of whether we are genuine disciples, says Jesus, is if we love one another (John 13:35).

But someday someone will sin against you. Some brother will says something or some sister will do something that offends you. The hurt can turn into resentment in your heart. In going to the person who hurt you, you show your readiness to forgive. What is not helpful in the situation is gossiping about the situation, spreading rumors, and idle chatter. It is easier to pass judgment in our mind or share it the perceived offense with others than it is to go to the person and try to be reconciled.

But, be careful! Before you go, you must examine honestly your own heart before God to see if you have failed in a similar area in your own life. God asks, “You who judge, do you do the same things?” Have you failed the brother in some way by your attitude or words? Have you failed him by lack of prayer for him? Cutting off lines of communication with God and others is a sure road to problems.

Many times, you will find that your brother has not actually sinned against you even though you were hurt. It may be just a misunderstanding. You did not hear correctly what the other person was trying to communicate. Or, the other person was not able to say clearly what he intended and a misunderstanding ensued.

If the sin is only against you personally, you can simply forgive and drop the matter even if the person involved doesn’t repent (I Cor 6:7). As Peter writes, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” But if the offense affects others or if the offender knowingly and blatantly persists in sinning against us, we need to follow the steps outlined by Jesus.

Loving confrontation helps us grow in the Lord and spares us much pain. Think about what you want to say ahead of time. This will help prevent saying something we do not really mean and later regret. Do not seek to place blame; seek to work out your differences in a Christ-like way. One of the most effective ways is to point out your own problems in the same basic area. As you humble yourself , God is able to minister grace through you to others.

If you find that your attitude or neglect has contributed to the problem, you need to ask the forgiveness of the person and also of God. So often, both parties in a confrontation have contributed to the problem. Honestly admit your fault and ask for pardon. By relating to the offender, in love, what his words meant to you in your frame of reference, you will help him in his thinking and in his message to others. If, however, you assume that he meant what you thought you heard, and you attack him for saying such things, you are only deepening the divisions.

Find a private place and time to approach the other person. State the problem and ask his forgiveness for your part in the difficulty. Ask for his prayers as you deal with the situation. If he forgives you, thank him and ask him for his prayers. If he doesn’t forgive you, thank him for allowing you to share this matter with him. God will bless you for your obedience.

It is very important that the matter just be kept between the two of you at this point. If you talk to someone else about the problem, you could destroy the sincerity of your approach and hinder the potential of reconciliation. The writer of Proverbs warns us, “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue.” Proverbs 11:12

Also, the listener to the problem is tempted to take up an offense against the one who offended you, hurting their friendship. Sometimes the original two parties in contention work out their differences and become reconciled, and the listener is still hurt for what he perceives as a slight to his friend. Finally, telling tales is an indication of a lack of love toward the one who offended you and disobedience to the will of God.

Similarly, if a person comes to you telling of a problem between him and another person, be careful not to take sides. Remember you are only hearing one side of the story–and more than likely, a slanted side at that. Your responsibility is to be a peacemaker. Talk to them about their responsibility to go to the other person in private and try to work out their differences. Keep the talk focused on the people present; or, in other words, don’t talk about people behind their backs. Try to discover ways in which you can help your friend go to the one who offended him and work out the difficulty.

Some things should be held in confidence and never be repeated, but think carefully about keeping discussions secret. Do not allow yourself to become part of the syndrome of “I’ll tell you this, but you must never tell who told you.” This is a sure road to gossip and tale-bearing. If all stories bore the name of their source, gossip would be stopped in its tracks. Pledging secrecy can also tie your hands to help. It would be great if the whole church was committed to this rule: All stories must bear the name of their source. If you repeat something, you must give the name of the person who told you. This will help stop gossip!

But what if, despite your prayers and best efforts, the offending person refuses to listen to you? Then Jesus says to take one or two others along with you and try to talk with him again. These others are not there to take sides, but to try and find a creative solution to the dispute. It is amazing how the presence of an unbiased, gracious, loving outsider who is skilled in problem-solving can defuse a situation. If words have offended you, a mediator could help bridge the communication gap.

Occasionally, very difficult situations are encountered where the offending person is clearly in the wrong and becomes obstinate, even in the presence of others, and refuses to repent of his sin. In these cases, Jesus says to tell the situation to the church. By this He does not mean an announcement in the Sunday morning worship service and public humiliation. Rather, He wants the church to get involved in the restoration of the sinner. The mark of spirituality is not whether you are able to expose someone, but whether you are able to restore him.

God now has a greater purpose in allowing a problem to come within the church than just resolving the problem. It should become a time of self-examination and prayer and fasting within the church. If the church has in any way contributed to the problem or offense, they need to ask for forgiveness. Also, often if one person in the church has a problem, many others are also struggling with the same problem. Perhaps some have conquered the problem and can share their experience with the others. Certainly, the church can unite in prayer for the sinner, for others with the same problem, and for the unity of the body of believers. When the offender sees this, he will experience a powerful motivation to repent. It is in the atmosphere of Christian prayer, Christian love and Christian fellowship that personal relationships may be righted. This must never become a legalistic procedure; that only produces more trouble.

If the offending person is a elder, i.e. leader, in the church, Paul gives more explicit instructions in I Timothy 5:19-21.

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism.

Note that Paul is discussing how to deal with an elder who sins, not an elder who displays poor leadership. It also assumes an important factor, which is that the entire church is in agreement as to the wrong of the particular offense.

Now Jesus says that if all this fails, we must treat the offending person as a pagan or tax collector. On the surface, that sounds pretty harsh! Does that mean that the person must be abandoned as hopeless and beyond the reach of salvation? Jesus could not have meant that.

But how did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors? He always speaks of them with gentleness and sympathy and an appreciation of their good qualities. William Barclay, in discussing this passage, writes that Jesus may have meant:

When you have done all this, when you have given the sinner every chance, and when he remains stubborn and obdurate, you may think that he is no better than a renegade tax-collector or even a godless Gentile. Well, you may be right. But I have not found the tax-gatherers and the Gentiles and the sinners hopeless. My experience of them is that they, too, have a heart to be touched; and there are many of them, like Matthew and Zacchaeus, who have become my best friends. Even if the stubborn sinner is like a tax-collector and a Gentile, you can still win him, as I have done.

This is not a call to abandon a man; it is a challenge to win him with a love that can conquer even the hardest heart. Remember the old poem:

He drew a circle that shut me out, heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win; we drew a circle that took him in.

But what if someone comes to you and says you are the person who has done the offending? Surely, you did not mean to hurt the other person. This is not the time to become defensive. Examine yourself with all the self-honesty you can find and see if the offended person has something to teach you. Remember that seeing ourselves fully and truthfully is one of the most difficult tasks on earth. Discuss the situation with a trusted spiritual advisor. Ask them to be brutally honest with you. Take it to God in prayer and ask Him to enlighten your heart and understanding in this matter.

If you discover that you were in the wrong, apologize to the offended person and try to make it right, if possible. Thank him for bringing it to your attention. On the other hand, it is possible that you did nothing wrong and the other person misunderstood what you were doing or did not have the whole picture. An explanation could clear everything up, but it would still be good to thank the person for coming to you and trying to deal with the situation, rather than gossiping.

Jesus closes with the authority to bind and loose. The function of binding and losing are aligned with heaven. It is directed by the Holy spirit just as true prayer is directed by the Holy spirit. There is a legitimate God-given spiritual authority that Christian leaders must bring to bear on situations that demand it. The elders have the authority to render judgment and their ruling will be “bound in heaven” just as there forgiveness will “loose” the offending brother and God will forgive them. To forgive is to loose (John 20:23). Paul uses this authority in Corinth.*

In summery, your goals are to close rifts with other people, to examine your life before you approach an offender, to restore the offender, and to involve a minimum number of people. Confrontation is never easy, but often it is the motivation for people to make changes in their lives. Following the steps in Matthew 18 would give us stronger churches filled with people who are committed to each other and to helping each other become more Christ-like.

*Note: The Scriptural procedures for problem solving in the New Testament are found in: Matthew
19:15-20; Romans 16:17-18; I Corinthians 5:1-13; II Corinthians 2:1-11; Galatians 6:1; I Thessalonians 5:14; II Thessalonians 3:6-15; I Timothy 5:19-20; II Timothy 4:2-4; Titus 3:10-11; Matthew 16:19.



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