Jesus calls us to be peacemakers: this is what the children of God do (Mt 5:9). And this is because that is what Jesus, the Son of God, has done through His cross. Biblical peacemaking does take wisdom and God’s blessing, but there are also basic biblical principles that make this necessary task more likely to succeed. As we are established as a new church, we want to be committed to these biblical principles.
The Text: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother…” (Mt. 18:15).
Summary of the Text
Jesus says that when there is some kind of conflict or collision, go talk to the person, you and him alone (Mt. 18:15). The goal is to win your brother (Mt. 18:15). If that one-on-one conversation does not bring resolution, then you may take two or three others with you as accountability and witnesses, so that every word may be established (including your own) (Mt. 18:16). If there is still unresolved sin that rises to the level of real public scandal, then it may be told to the church (Mt. 18:17). And if after being admonished by the church, the individual is still unrepentant, they may be excommunicated, and reckoned an unbeliever (Mt. 18:17).
Jesus says elsewhere that before you go addressing specks in the eyes of your brothers, you should always first get the telephone pole out of your own eye (Mt. 7:3-5). Likewise, Galatians says, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). This means checking yourself first, and making sure you are rejoicing in the Lord, not fuming and blowing hard into a dirty sock. When Paul addressed Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi, he urged them to be reconciled, and immediately urged them and the whole the church to rejoice in the Lord, “and again I say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:2-4).
In this sense, when you’re in the right place spiritually, you don’t really feel like addressing conflict, and when you feel like addressing conflict, you’re probably not in the right place. The same text goes on to address the sovereignty of God, anxiety, peace, and contentment (Phil. 4:4-11). Are you at peace with God? You can’t bring the peace of God to your spouse, your kids, or a friend or acquaintance if you don’t have the peace of God in your heart. Are you content with God’s will in this situation, completely assured that it is for the good? All of this includes carefully checking to see what if anything you need to confess as contributing to the conflict.
Winning Your Brother
Remember, the goal is to win your brother or sister, and winning means winning to the truth, not just getting them to agree with you. The foundational principle here is to love your neighbor as yourself, to do to them as you would be done by. This begins by going to them directly (and privately), and not sharing your concerns with anyone else not directly involved (including, not asking everyone to pray for you as you go confront so-so for their sin). “A whisperer separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28). You may cover an offense in love or go to your brother directly: “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends” (Prov. 17:9).
Love gives the benefit of the doubt, believes the best, and gives an honest opportunity to explain the other side (1 Cor. 13). A good rule of thumb is that you ought to be able to repeat back the position of your adversary in a way that they would agree accurately represents them. If the conflict can be resolved at this point, sin should be confessed, misunderstanding dismissed, and full forgiveness granted. Remember, sin should be confessed specifically not vaguely, and forgiveness is a promise not to hold the sin against them. And remember that love really is easily entreated. Do not have double standards, requiring others to let you off easily while being far more exacting of others. (For example: Do require others to judge you by your intentions while judging others by their actions.)
Every Word Confirmed
Some matters do not rise to the level of needing to be pursued beyond a one-on-one conversation. Sometimes there are disagreements that are best left alone: “The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out” (Prov. 17:14). “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city; and their contentions are like bars of a castle” (Prov. 18:19). And if you decide to let a matter go, you must actually let it go (no bitterness). But if a matter cannot be resolved because it is a scandal or seems to be festering and causing problems, Jesus says to bring two or three witnesses into the conversation (Mt. 18:16). Always remember in these situations, especially if you are one of the “two or three witnesses” that “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17).
Again, the goal is the truth, and this includes both the truth about sins committed, the necessity of forgiveness, as well as the truth about whether the matter should be dropped or not. A brother in ongoing scandalous sin must be pursued, but a one time bump or collision may need to be tied off as best as possible, committing it to the Lord. And we should note here the Biblical injunction that it would be better to be defrauded and wronged by a brother than for a dispute between Christians to be aired publicly before unbelievers (1 Cor. 6:7-8). This is why lawsuits between believers are completely out (1 Cor. 6:1-6). If a matter is that serious, it should be brought before the church (Mt. 18:17). And if a brother refuses to submit to even the judgment of the church, he may be put outside the fellowship (Mt. 18:17, 1 Cor. 5).
Remember that even this final step of church discipline really is pursuing conflict resolution and peace. The Bible says that when someone is put of the fellowship, we are delivering such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 5:5). The goal is still to win them. How are we to treat our enemies? The way Christ treated us when we were His enemy: He loved us and died for us (Rom. 5:8-10). If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if he is thirsty give him something to drink (Rom. 12).
We must not fellowship with excommunicated Christians as though everything is just fine, but if we are to treat them as unbelievers, then that means they need the gospel in word and deed.
Jim Wilson has always liked to say that there is a deeper right than being right. And the point is something like: where are you going and where will this take us? Better to be wronged and end up in the right place than to be “right” and end up in the wrong place. There are problems that need to be addressed. We believe in true Christian accountability, but the Devil doesn’t mind latching on to misplaced zeal. And while open sin must be confronted, sometimes the most insidious sin latches on to a veneer of piety or zeal. So the central thing is the joy of the Lord: rejoicing always in the peace of the Lord guarding our hearts and our minds, and a deep contentment in the Lord, truly willing to follow Jesus wherever He leads.