Jesus gives some unusually clear instructions on what to do if someone in the church family hurts us. Strange, right? Because Jesus was always answering questions with questions, or making a point by telling a story that we begin to understand after hearing it for 30 years. He must have thought this was pretty important. Here’s what he says, in a nutshell:
If a brother (or sister) in the church sins against you:
1. Go directly to them and see if you can talk it out.
2. If that doesn’t work, get 2 or 3 others in on the conversation.
3. If that doesn’t work, take it to the whole church.
And if that doesn’t work – then treat them like an outsider (a Gentile or a tax collector).
If you’ve been a part of any church family for more than, say, a month, you know that this isn’t really that simple. Dealing with conflict in the church is one of the hardest and more heartbreaking parts of living as the body of Christ. Jesus thought it was worth it to try and work things out, and so we have these instructions. After gleaning the wisdom of a few commentaries, here’s a few observations:
There are multiple benefits to going straight to the person who hurt us. Too often we’ll talk to anyone with ears about what has happened… anyone except the one directly involved. If we go to the person in question first, it obviously benefits them by sparing them our smear campaigns. But it also gives us the space to admit we are wrong. Sometimes, we are wrong, and it’s tough to say so after we’ve told the whole church that we’re in the right.
Taking the problem between two people to the whole church is a strange idea to me. But it does acknowledge that sin affects more than just the those actively involved. When two people in the church have a broken relationship, everyone feels it.
Taking a problem to the whole church is extreme, but I also think that is part of the point. Jesus wants to go to extreme lengths to try and reconcile and live together. Jesus says that what we bind is bound in heaven, and what we loose is loosed in heaven – meaning, we are supposed to act like the kingdom of heaven. That is hard… but worth it.
Sometimes everything fails and someone leaves the community. (As a pastor it’s my experience that we don’t have to kick anyone out, because people tend to leave first.) When they do, we treat them as a “Gentile and a tax collector.” Which seems harsh until we remember how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors: he went after them like a doctor going to treat the sick. So people might leave our church family, but we never stop loving them or sharing God with them. We never close the doors on them. We keep praying for healing and reconciliation.
Finally, I want to propose a different translation of the first Greek word in this passage: ein. It’s usually translated “if,” and I’m no Greek scholar, so that’s probably right. But ein can also mean “when” according to my Greek dictionary. And isn’t that more accurate? A church is a gathering of imperfect people, and eventually, we are going to hurt each other.
Being the body of Christ isn’t defined by always getting along.
It’s defined by how we love each other when we don’t get along.
So WHEN one of your brothers or sisters in the faith hurts you, let Matthew 18 be your inspiration to do this hard – but very good – work of living as a family of Christ.
The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume VIII
The People’s New Testament Commentary (by Craddock and Boring)
The Abingdon New Testament Commentary on Matthew (by Senior)