Matthew 18:15-20 provides a unique model for handling conflict within the church. Christians throughout the ages have adapted this teaching of Jesus to fit all different kinds of circumstances and issues. The Methodist church actually has a “Matthew 18” sort of method for conflict resolution. Churches are required to have a pastor (or staff) relations committee, with lay leaders handling concerns with a pastor. If the issue develops into a more substantial conflict, then the district and conference often step in to resolve the matter. With a hypothetical conflict with a pastor, you can see how the conflict resolution circle gets “bigger.” First, a small part of the congregation handles a personnel issue. If it isn’t resolved (or if the pastor continues misbehaving), then more people with more authority step in. In the worst offenses and serious violations, conferences may even vote to remove someone from credentialed ministry!
Overall, I believe Matthew 18 provides several general guidelines for Christians to follow. I think Christians sometimes get themselves into a pickle if they take these words literally without thinking about their own personal, unique context. Do you literally have to always bring a couple friends to “call out” someone? Do you have to have a “church trial” if someone doesn’t repent? If you ask me, it depends on the situation. I think Jesus provides a great outline of conflict resolution values, but we must always discern what is appropriate to do.
For instance, if someone who has wronged you is not a Christian, chances are that talking about the bible and the “Matthew 18 way” will do little good. They simply do not value what you might value and speak a completely different language than that of the kingdom God. Seek resolution in another sort of way, instead of bringing them to church to be confronted!
If someone is in an abusive relationship, I do not recommend bringing “one or two” other people along, much less the entire church to that family’s house. Many times, abusers will be able to manipulate their way out of a dicey situation. They might appear repentant on the outside or even minimize the wrong done. Then they often go back to harming the victim afterwards. The “spirit” of the Matthew 18 law, I would argue, would be that if you are suffering abuse, you need to remove yourself from that situation entirely. Hopefully through professional help (for both abused and abuser), then that relationship will mend. Matthew 18 does not teach that you should get yourself hurt time and time again. It teaches that we ought to have resolution to our personal problems and woes. For abuse victims, a positive resolution means no more abuse.
Sometimes people also use the idea of forgiveness as a weapon against those they have wronged. We know we are to forgive other people, but sometimes we are guilted into doing so. We may feel bad if we still feel hurt by someone’s actions. I’ve noticed this issue every once in a while, where the offender will insist that the victim ignore past wrongdoings. This is likely an issue where the offender truly has not repented of sin. The offender might claim that everything is perfectly OK after handling the conflict the “Matthew 18 way.” Even worse, a church community might gang up on one particular person, confronting them in their supposed sin while feeling self-righteous about themselves. Matthew 18 should never be weaponized.
To truly resolve conflict, all parties need to eagerly seek Jesus. There’s no room for faking it or pretending. If everyone is not on the same page of following Christ, then the brokenness will never fully heal.
Conflict is tough work. It takes a lot of courage to examine your own feelings of hurt and pain. It takes even more courage to take action to make things better. The main points I glean from Matthew 18 is that we ought to think creatively when facing conflict in relationships. Many times it helps to have someone as a witness by our side when we confront a wrongdoer. Other times we need the support of more people. But we should be mindful to never use forgiveness or reconciliation as an excuse to feel better than someone else. Hopefully our true goal is that we turn over our conflict to God. It is telling that this teaching of Jesus ends this way with verse 20: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Hopefully when you “gather” with other people, you do so in God’s name. You deal with others in such a way to glorify God. You build relationships on a biblical foundation. You behave as a Christ follower in all your interactions. Only when we do that will we realize God is moving in our relationships, as well as our conflict moments.