We deal with conflict on a daily basis, and as Christians, we know that forgiveness of those who have wronged us is a key element of our faith. But what happens when the local church is facing issues that need to be handled by leadership? How exactly should conflict in the church be dealt with?
How should Christians resolve conflict within the local church? The answer is found in Matthew 18:15-17 where Jesus perfectly lays out what to do and how to deal with conflict in the Church. He instructs to first go to the person you have a conflict with alone and if they do not listen, return with one or two witnesses. If they still refuse to listen and repent, go to church leaders. If this still does not change their hearts and leads them to repent, they are are to be treated as a heathen/pagan until they do.
It seems like a harsh thing to do, to treat someone like a pagan, but, it is clear in scripture that this is done out of love for the person who refuses to repent. It is through this discipline that the unrepentant person might turn him back to Christ.
Four Steps to Dealing with Conflict in the Local Church
There are four steps laid out in Matthew 18, so lets first take a look at the actual words of Jesus in Matthew 18, then we’ll unpack each step in a practical way.
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collectorMatthew 18:15-17
Step One: Go to Your Brother Alone
I think this first step points to sincerity of heart.
Usually, when we get angry at how someone treated us, we want to tell the world about it, and in turn, we talk about it with people and friends who have nothing to do with the situation. Before the person who wronged us can give a defense or apologize. Then it escalates and becomes a much bigger situation than it should be.
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.
By going directly to the person who sinned against you, you are mirroring how Jesus responds to sins against him. You extend grace and show love by keeping it just between the two of you.
It’s also showing humility by loving them despite how they hurt you and valuing them over trying to get justice or revenge.
Step Two: Bring Witnesses
If your brother chooses not to listen to you, then at this point you would bring one or two witnesses to mediate and witness both party’s actions. The point is not necessarily to get a confession out of your brother, that he sinned against you, but rather, to help the brother out of their sin.
But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’
In the first step, heart posture was emphasized, it’s easy to do these things out of hurt and anger, but the correct attitude from step one must be carried through to step two and on through all four steps, and this is love and grace.
Bringing witnesses is not to gang up or corner the person, but to have another pair or two of ears to bring clarity to the situation and help resolve it, not escalate it.
Step Three: Go to the Church
Still, if this person refuses to repent or turn away from their sin after two attempts, it’s at this time that you would take it to the church leaders and address it there.
And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church.
At this point, the church leaders would sit down with the two involved and see where their heart is at, talk through the situation, rebuke, and guide the person who is in sin.
Going to the church shows implies the seriousness of the matter. It’s important to keep in mind that none of this is done out of spite or to get even, but out of love and honest concern for their hearts, especially if they continue to refuse to turn away or feel sorrow for their actions.
So, if they choose to listen and repent then you have your brother back and he isn’t living in willful sin, but if he refuses to listen, then Jesus tells us what to do––view him as heathen and a tax collector.
Step Four: Treat Them as a Pagan or Tax Collector
But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
Understanding how tax collectors and pagans were treated by the early church is very important to understand what Jesus is saying here, additionally, it’s crucial to understand how Jesus himself treated the pagans and tax collectors.
In some translations, the word ‘pagan,’ is actually ‘gentile’ which just means ‘nation(s).’ And the Jews did not associate with either tax collector or pagan.
Tax collectors were generally corrupt and isolated from the culture. They collected money from the people and gave it to the Roman government, all while trying to receive as much as they possibly could from the people. In other words, they took more than was necessary or right, thus draining the pockets and life of the Jewish people in Rome.
As for the pagans or gentiles, the Jews understood that they were not God’s chosen or holy people, thus they were separated from them for the most part.
So now that we have a very basic understanding of those two parties, this can help us better dive into what Jesus was instructing.
What it Means to Treat Someone as a Pagan or Tax Collector
So, we can see Jesus is saying that the brother or sister who refuses to repent or see reason is to be viewed as corrupt and/or lost and in need of a doctor––Jesus Christ.
When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”Mark 2:16-17
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
And in light of how Jesus completely broke away from culture and intentionally fellowshipped with these outsiders and sinners, and even invited a tax collector to be one of His disciples, I see that though they are lost and corrupt, they are still loved and pursued by God.
Of course, we must note that Jesus never ignored sin, nor was He ever passive towards it, and the church was not created for the heathen, but for the believer in Christ. So if the brother or sister who refuses to repent and turn away from their sinful actions comes before the leadership and has had guidance in what to do, yet still refuses, it is at this point that they would be removed from fellowship with the local church.
But looking at Jesus’ example again, we understand that these people are not removed or “excommunicated,” out of anger or punishment but out of love. These people, though maybe reaching this point of discipline, are to be loved and pursued just like the prodigal son.
Dealing with conflict inside or outside the Local Church is never an easy process or experience, and many people get hurt in it. But perhaps understanding that the Bible specifically teaches that God disciplines those He loves and that it is the Church’s responsibility to follow these examples will help to see that it is out of love and not anger or hatred that God instructs it.