The Expository Files

The Lord’s Conflict Resolution Plan

Matthew 18:15-17

From verse one in Matthew 18 Jesus deals with matters which are related: How we think of others, with self-exalting pride or humility (vss. 1-4); How we receive and treat “these little ones who believe in Me,” (vss. 5-6); the horror of any offenses, to self or others (vss. 7-9); and, the care of heaven toward both the saved and lost (vss. 10-14). There is really one underlying subject here: How we think of self is determinate in how we treat others!

One thing that is clear in the Lord’s teaching is the potential of conflict. He said, “For offenses must come…,” (v.7). It is expected, therefore, that the Lord address the matter we commonly call Conflict Resolution. Here is His word on that subject.

“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 collector.”. (Matt. 18:15-17)

Let’s not overlook the purpose of this. Jesus did not give us these steps so that we can get rid of people who bother us, who sin against us or with whom we disagree! The purpose is not to get rid of but to gain! Therefore, if you run to this passage when you want to punish someone and get rid of them, your spirit is wrong and you will not likely use the procedure correctly. Jesus identifies the purpose at the end of verse 15, to gain your brother. That should be your hope. The elevation of self should be absent in this.

These steps find their practical use “if your brother sins against you.” While there may be situations of other kinds of conflict where the model of private before public can well be followed, this procedure was given to address one kind of conflict: “if your brother sins against you.” The teaching of Christ in Matt. 18:15-17 is not for every situation! It is for the situation specified: “if your brother sins against you.” There are other situations, to be dealt with according to other instructions (see Gal. 2:11-18; 1 Cor. 5; 1 Tim. 5:20). This is the situation of a private offense. Our reaction should be just as described by the Lord. To be hurt, then hold that hurt in your heart over several years is never recommended in the Scriptures! (See also Matt. 5:21-26; 38-48). To complain and gossip is not the right response. “If your brother sins against you,” you are obligated by virtue of discipleship, to follow the Lord’s method of conflict resolution. Go to him.

Step #1 is to “go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Necessarily implied in this is, the matter is private. You are taking a private matter up with the alleged offender privately. Based on this, at the first thought that I have been sinned against, I need to GO, not stay and sulk and go and tell others. The Lord said, “go and tell him his fault,” and do this privately at this point: “between you and him alone.” Side Note: I used to tell classes and audiences that this command of Christ was seldom obeyed. That was impulsive of me and extremely presumptuous. I have no way of knowing if people comply with this, because it is a private meeting! The only cases I would ever know about would be (a) those cases where I am asked to be a witness, or (b) those cases brought before the local church. Let’s assume then, faithful disciples – believing they have been sinned against – do what the Lord taught: “go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” And let’s assume that sinful brethren are gained. When you do this, remember that all such efforts should be accompanied with the prayer that you will gain your brother. Also, bear in mind that this is about a “sin” and all charges of sin require evidence (1 Jno. 3:4).

The hope: “If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” If you approach the guilty party with right attitude and sufficient evidence, and this is combined with a receptive, humble spirit, “you have gained your brother.” In the case of sin proven, there would need to be repentance. (In some cases, since we are fallible, our perception of sin may not be reality. Once the misunderstanding is cleared, the matter is over.)

Step #2 is, “…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 modern lingo, you “kick it up a notch” now. This doesn’t mean you get angrier, campaign or gossip! The “notch” is defined by the Lord: “take with you one or two more, that, ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established’.” These witnesses are not “on your side,” and their function is not to “gang up” against the offender! You are not getting your friends to help you fight a battle. You are asking fellow disciples to listen objectively to the matter. “Witnesses called in at this level should have impeccable integrity and be people whom the accused will recognize as fair and impartial,” (Ken Chumbley, The Gospel of Matthew, p.#329).

Step #3: “…if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church.” At this point the matter is, a guilty brother who will not repent. This is not about somebody you just don’t like, or somebody you see as a threat to your power in the local church. This is an offender whose sin has been established by evidence and whose guilt can be reported by more than one person. The one who first considered himself offended and who has visited with the offender twice – that brother is to bring the matter before the church. {This has to be the local church, since there would be no possible way to bring anything before the universal church.} The purpose is for all the brethren to admonish the guilty. Never loose sight of the purpose, to gain the brother.

If this effort fails: “…let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” Jesus uses a manner of expression here to indicate exclusion! The impenitent brother is “worthy” of this exclusion or discipline because of his choice to sin and remain recalcitrant. “…by his own choice he is now an outsider who is subject to disciplinary measures (1 Cor. 5:5,9, 2 Thess. 3:14-15),” (Ken Chumbley, p.#329).

Nothing in this procedure caters to the immature, vengeful purposes of man. The point is not to get rid of an irritant. There is no space in this procedure to uphold your cause, elevate yourself, “show somebody,” or take over the church. It is all about bringing a sinner to repentance. It is about our motive modeled after His motive. Look at the verse previous to our text: “Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish,” (Matt. 18:14).

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 12.12; December 2005