RESOLVING CONFLICT IN THE CHURCH by Lynn Naeckel +

Proper 18, A

Matthew 18:15-20

This week we have another difficult lesson, partly because what it suggests is difficult to do, and partly because it doesn’t quite sound like Jesus. One of the commentaries even says that it seems to reflect the developing institutional church rather than the situation during the life of Jesus. But like all difficult passages, we still have to deal with it as it is.

We certainly know that Jesus had a lot of experience with conflict among his followers, who sometimes vied with one another for his favor, who often disagreed with him, and sometimes argued among themselves. It does make some sense that he would want to lay out for them a process of resolving conflict before he left them.

The process Jesus lays out is fairly simple:

  1. If another member of the community sins against you, go to them and tell them.
  2. If that doesn’t work, talk to them again but take two or three witnesses with you.
  3. If that doesn’t work, take the issue to the church (or the church council or the vestry)
  4. If that doesn’t work, let the sinner be to you as a tax collector or a gentile.

This last part really got me the first time I read it, because it sounds very exclusionary – like casting the person out of the church and into outer darkness. Then I realized that that is what it might have meant to a religious Jew of that time, but this was Jesus speaking. How did he treat tax collectors and gentiles? Just about like everyone else. In other words, they are still given respect and offered every chance to be part of the community.

Our discussion at text study this week clearly emphasized that this process is not to be used willy nilly, but is instead a process to be used when someone is doing things that disrupts the life of the community. It might be someone who is gossiping or backbiting in hurtful ways; it might be someone who insists everything be done their way; it might be someone who enjoys stirring things up, even lying to get things going, etc. I suspect we have all experienced this sort of thing at times, whether in church or in other organizations, maybe even in our own families.

The most important step here, and the most difficult for most of us is the first one. To take our hurt or our discomfort, or our concern directly to the offender and to be able to say, this is what I saw, felt, heard, and it’s not OK.

I suspect that most of you were raised much as I was. Anger was unacceptable, confrontation was impolite, and ignoring hurtful or hateful behavior was encouraged. That makes it doubly hard to follow this approach. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that when I don’t confront someone who is bothering me or seems to be disrupting the community in some way, I’m much more likely to start complaining to someone else, which turns into whining and backbiting.

I believe this is the right way to go, but I myself don’t always do it. However, when I have done it, I have found it so rewarding. I can’t assume that the other person will agree with me, but if they do, or if they accept that what they did was hurtful, even if they didn’t intend it to be, then they have learned something, and they have the chance to apologize, and I have the chance to forgive them. Think of the energy that saves that would otherwise be spent stewing about it!!

I’ve had the opposite experience too – of finding out that someone or a group of people were really angry with me and never said anything. Well, how can I improve my own behavior if no one is willing to call me on it? When I have been called on it, I sometimes found that other people have been hurt by something that I would not have found hurtful. It helped me to know this and to try not make the same mistake again.

The best example from my own life: a man who was a good friend through church came and talked to me several days after a church party that had been held at his house. This was shortly after my husband and I had separated. He said, “I saw something going on that night between you and one of the other men that didn’t look good.” Genuinely surprised, I said, “Really? Could you be more specific?” No, he didn’t want to say anything more. So I thought for a bit, trying to remember anything unusual from that evening. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I can’t think of anything like what you’re suggesting. I’ve always talked to the guys and kidded around with them, but maybe what I’m hearing here is that as a single woman, I need to be more careful of how I behave – that it’s more likely to be misinterpreted.” And I thanked him profusely for talking to me. He could easily have started a nasty rumor instead and this way I learned something important.

I am aware of one situation in another church where someone was eventually asked to leave the church. This happened because the person was so convinced of their own rightness that they couldn’t seem to hear anyone else. The community is best served when we all recognize that we need the community more than we need to be right.

When Jesus tells the disciples that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, please notice that he is not speaking to them as individuals, but as a community. So if the community decides that something is a sin, then God will uphold that. Or if the community decides it is not a sin, then God will uphold that.

This is also a difficult text because our church, struggling in community and calling on the Holy Spirit for guidance has decided that homosexuality is not a sin. Yet there are other Christian churches who have decided the opposite. Where is God in all this? Darned if I know, but I do know that over time, all Christian churches have pretty much agreed that slavery is a sin, even though Jesus didn’t teach that. And maybe someday there will be consensus on the issues of sexuality as well.

The one thing in this lesson that we can all cling to is the last line, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus is with us in all our conflicts, frustrations, doubts, and sins – just as he is with us in our joy, in our worship, and in our working together. Alleluia!

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