In (Matthew 18; 15-20), Jesus gave very clear and specific instructions on how to proceed should conflict arise among members of the Christian community. These instructions are directed toward reconciliation. Even though church people often refer to Matthew 18 during conflicts, few of us actually practice Matthew 18 when in conflict with another member. This phenomena has bothered me a while and I sought to reflect on this passage with the help of other writers in an attempt to discover possible reasons for this non-practice of a very familiar and straightforward text.
The process in details: Four basic steps are to be followed:
1. The offended person takes the initiative to make the offending party aware of what happened and how they felt. This part involves only the two of them. I believe that this is the least followed instruction when members experience a conflict. It takes courage to actually go to the other. When this happens, the one taking the step should do so prayerfully and with humility.
The person taking this initiative should be prepared for a counter-accusation from the other person and be open to the fact that there might be more to the issue than previously thought that might need acknowledgement from him/her. We should however note that it is not always the case that both parties have equal responsibility in the conflict, but going to the situation with open mind might be helpful.
John Paul Lederach in his book “The Journey Toward Reconciliation” brings a sociological and psychological insight on this process. He argues that that approaching the other person requires a double movement. First, I must begin an internal process of awareness, dealing with my own feelings, anxieties, and perceptions. Second, I must also turn myself toward engagement with the other person. This is part of the dynamic, eternal, and intriguing nature of conflict: It always poses a journey, an encounter with self and with others. …..In conflict, we bump up against ourselves and we bump up against others. This is precisely what makes going directly such a complex process.” It makes sense then that in most cases when we are offended, we solicit other people to let them know what happened instead of going directly to the offending party because to do so is to force us to have an encounter with ourselves which might not be a pleasant experience.
2. If this step fails, the offended party is to take one or two other people along. The purpose here is to ensure that there are witnesses to what is said (Num. 35:30; Dt. 17:6; 19:15; Jn. 8:17). Lederach comments on this step thus, “The idea of witness carries an image of someone who is present with the people and experiencing the difficulty. In handling conflict and seeking reconciliation, presence involves a twofold stance. First, the previous discussion asserts that primary responsibility lies with those experiencing the conflict. In other words, witnesses help create the forum where reflection, listening, and understanding can emerge. This is different from assessing fault or judging. It points toward capacities for creating a setting where people can be transparent, engage each other, and seek God. By its very nature, such a place can be seen as a holy ground. ……Second, presence gives birth to accountability that can only be understood in community.”
3. If all this fails to achieve reconciliation, the matter is to be brought to the church. This third step indicates that the church ought to have a process to handle conflicts. Lederach writes thus on this step, “First, conflict and church are connected. How we recognize ourselves, as churches will affect how we deal with conflict. And how we deal with conflict is reflected in our structures. Second, working on conflict is spiritual work. Take the problem to the church assumes a view of the church as a place to process and work with conflict, not a place that is free from conflict. “Tell it to the church,” offers a model to follow. Reconciliation is the mission of the church. Working on conflict is spiritual. It involves an encounter with ourselves, others, and God. Thus we begin to understand that reconciliation is about the transformation of people and their relationships. It means change, moving from isolation, distance, pain, and fear toward restoration, understanding, and growth….. In summary, the spiritual dimension of “telling it to the church, lies in a basic understanding. The people who make up the church and its very structure are living testimonies of working out the mission of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5: 18-19). The church is a place of encounter. It is a place of Truth discerning and Truth-telling. It is a place for vulnerable transparency. It is a place for interactive engagement. It is a place, of accountability. It is, after all, a place where we journey toward each other and toward God. ”
4. If this fails to win the offending party, he/she should be regarded as a gentile and a tax collector. This is one of the most fascinating and misunderstood steps so far. What does it mean to treat the un-reconciled member of the community like a gentile and a tax collector? To answer this question, we must look at how Jesus interacted with Gentiles and Tax collectors. Failure to do so is to accuse Jesus for giving the church permission to disown un-reconciled members. Lest we stray too far from the first three steps by asking these questions, we must first remember that the first three process we have looked at so far were intended to bring about reconciliation. Jesus ate with tax collectors (Matt. 9:10). Therefore, try to have a meal together with the person; eating together symbolizes recognition of our human connection and acceptance. When we come to the table we are ourselves, barriers fall and we define ourselves in relation to the other.
The authority to Bind and Loose:
What you bind on earth is bound in heaven and what you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.” This implies that the act of the Christian community is an act of God. The church has the power to obligate and to set free from obligation (bind and loose). Finally, if two of Jesus’ disciples agree on earth about anything they ask, Jesus’ Father in heaven will do it for them. This is because, where two or three gather in Jesus’ name, Jesus is among them. God through Christ is reconciling the world to himself and the church is mandated to carry that message of reconciliation. We have a mission as the church of Jesus to function as the community of reconciliation. We are Christ’s ambassadors charged with the responsibility to carry forth God’s mission of reconciliation.
1. Go to the other:
I. Encounter with self: awareness, deal with my own feelings, anxieties, and perceptions.
II. Encounter with the other person.
I. Forum where reflection, listening, and understanding can emerge. This is different from assessing fault or judging. It points toward capacities for creating a setting where people can be transparent, engage each other, and seek God. By its very nature, such a place can be seen as a holy ground.
II. Forum for accountability that can only be understood in community
3. Take it the church:
I. Reconciliation is the mission of the church (2 Cor. 5:18-19)
II. It is a place for vulnerable transparency. It is a place for interactive engagement. It is a place, of accountability. It is a place where we journey toward self, each other and God
4. Treat as a tax-collector
I. Eat with the other who has refused to be reconciled through the three processes. Jesus ate with the tax collectors (Matt.9).