The Good News About Biblical Conflict Resolution

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What is gossip? And how do you define it? Define it too narrowly, and anything goes.

Yet if you define it too broadly, doesn’t it become impossible to resolve interpersonal conflicts the way Jesus commands in Matthew 18?

Read the command of our Lord.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

(Matthew 18:15-20, ESV)

Notice that the first step to how Jesus says to resolve conflict is to go to your brother who sinned against you, and to try to make your case privately, just between you and him. Okay, there’s no danger of gossip there.

But what if your brother refuses to listen to you? Jesus says in that case to take along some objective witnesses – two or three – and to try again to persuade your brother.

 

The Apparent Contradiction

Now wait a second. How does that work? And do you tell the witnesses any of the backstory before you take them along? And, if so, does that backstory then become gossip?

Or suppose your brother still won’t listen when you confront him again with a few witnesses. He refuses to hear your case, rejecting your authority to rebuke him – which should not be when he is a brother in Christ, mind you.

Jesus says the third step is to tell the church. And if he refuses to listen to the church, you are essentially to treat him as a non-believer.

This is even more problematic for the question of gossip, especially if your brother tries to reserve to himself the right to define gossip so broadly that for you to tell witnesses or the church how he has sinned against you is itself a sin.

Therefore, since God cannot contradict himself, and since Scripture must be used to interpret Scripture, it cannot be gossip to follow the command of Jesus in Matthew 18 for how to resolve a conflict between you and your brother if he has sinned against you.

And, indeed, there will be conflict. And if we claim to be without sin the truth is not in us. But, as Martin Luther once said, “The whole of the Christian life is repentance.”

 

Humility, Rebuke, and Repentance

Wherever we find a Christian who refuses to listen and consider when someone would say he should repent or refuses to submit himself to the process of being rebuked, we should take that as a gospel issue and very hazardous to spiritual health.

Therefore, whatever arbitrary definition of gossip someone might tell you to silence dissent or guard themselves from being rebuked, the Bible does not define gossip as rebuking your brother for sinning against you, nor as explaining how he has sinned against you to him. But Jesus is clear that when the brother refuses to listen, we are to take that to the church, the body of believers, and to address it there.

As Paul writes in his first letter to the church in Corinth: “Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!” (1 Corinthians 6:3, ESV)

But being circumspect, in order to “judge with right judgment” (John 7:24), we must hear both sides in a conflict. That is, when charges are brought, and one brother accuses another brother of sinning against him, the witnesses and church should hear cases from both the prosecution and defense.

As Solomon writes in Proverbs 18:17, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (ESV)

Now just imagine if you were hauled into court and accused of committing a crime. And the penalties ranged from a heavy fine to jailtime. Would it seem an injustice if you were not allowed to defend yourself? So also, in the church, it is an injustice when only one side is heard and the other is silenced or disregarded.

 

Common Barriers

In the several churches I have attended and been involved with over the years, I have observed at least three instances in which the process Jesus outlines for us in Matthew 18 was either hijacked, re-directed for the sake of convenience, or else outright discouraged.

In all three cases, the most significant objections or impediments to Biblical conflict resolution came from the pastors of the churches and were motivated by excessive deference to money and power.

Yet what does James write?

“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”

James 2:1-4 (ESV)

Indeed. And James did not write this to the early church for no reason. The tendency to show favoritism to the rich and powerful so as to curry or maintain favor, or else to assuage their wrath – it is so natural.

Yet what is the consequence if we show favoritism to those who bring wealth into the church? When they oppress and treat with contempt those brothers who are poor, are they immune from being rebuked? That is the way the world works, but that sort of injustice should be intolerable to the saints.

James says “show no partiality.” He does not say we can show a little. The proper amount is none.

 

What You Allow Will Continue

Exhibit A

In the church I attended in high school, there were several people who were speaking ill of the pastor behind his back. For a little while I joined them, but then I felt convicted. I wrote the pastor a letter apologizing for not having come to him directly and privately straight away, as Matthew 18 says. But then I outlined my complaint and how I believed he had sinned.

This pastor met with me the same morning I delivered the letter and answered several questions I had regarding how some of his behaviors and conduct matched up with the qualifications Paul gives to Timothy and Titus for overseers and deacons in Christ’s church. Some of the questions I asked he explained to my satisfaction. Yet to others all he would say was “I just feel like” God wouldn’t want all the years I prepared for ministry to be wasted by my ceasing to be a pastor now. In other words, God’s Word needed to play second fiddle to his feelings and what he wanted.

After he and I met, Lauren and I stopped attending that church. Yet a few weeks later, I heard from someone else who was still there that this same pastor had referred to me behind the scenes as a “pain in the ass.” And this pastor had told this member that he didn’t want to be involved in or attend anything I was going to be at.

Apparently, my supposing the Bible to be authoritative for how we do business, handle conflict, or choose and retain church leaders was a nuisance not to be borne, and this pastor was not afraid to say as much to several members of the church after I departed. Of course, in hindsight, I should have taken the next step.

 

Exhibit B-1

At another church we attended later on, I became very close friends with another young man about my age; he and I both had four kids, and our families spent a lot of time together. He and I were in the same small group. We even worked together and commuted back and forth five days a week about an hour each way. We were doing life together as much as we possibly could have short of living under the same roof.

This friend of mine was volunteering quite a bit in the church, and so was I. We were both contributing quite a bit. So, when I learned that my friend’s wife had asked him to back off in a relationship he was developing too closely with another married woman in our church, and that he had refused, and when several young ladies in my wife’s small group approached her with complaints my friend was leering at them, standing too close when talking to them, and being entirely too familiar, I confronted him.

Being a writer, I wrote my friend a letter explaining how it all looked from my perspective. Either there was a problem, or else there was going to be if he didn’t stop, or else there would at least be a perception of a problem to outsiders, which was also a problem that could cast aspersions on the gospel, our church, his family, and him. My friend blew up at me, accusing me of being jealous of all his ministries, and told me to mind my own business.

This time I followed Matthew 18 as our church taught it and forwarded my letter and the letter I got in reply to the director of teaching ministries at our church. She, in turn, showed the pastor.

 

Exhibit B-2

The pastor and this director confronted my friend and told him in no uncertain terms that his response to my concerns was totally inappropriate. The director met privately with my friend and me at his house to discuss the matter, at which point my friend apologized to me.

However, I was encouraged to not do my confronting in writing next time around, but to do it in person so as to convey things by tone, facial expression, and body language, and to be able to read the person I was confronting.

But the director pulled me aside after the meeting and told me in words that encourage and uplift me to this day “I’m so proud of you. You did exactly the right thing. Thank you.”

Our church’s approach to Matthew 18 had seemed to work! All was well that ended well; or so I thought.

When I attended a leadership conference a short time later, our pastor made some remarks about the need for certain people with certain abilities and talents to be in certain positions in the massive new building we were about to move into. And he went on to say as well that there might be some objections from people within the church. And he said that if certain people made a habit of going around causing trouble and would not stop, we needed to be prepared to ask them to leave.

This could have been unremarkable. I probably would have made nothing of it except that for an extended period of time while this pastor was addressing our room of 100-people, he made obvious and direct eye-contact with just me. And in that moment, I felt certain he was talking about me and to me and placing me on notice.

We left that church quietly.

 

Exhibit C-1

Several years later, my family moved for work. And there was a church in town that a few people from work I respected very much attended and were very involved in. So, my family began attending, and my wife and I helped out with one of the children’s ministries. While there, we made friends with the leadership of the church, including the pastor, elders, and deacons, and their families.

Yet I noticed a disturbing trend in the pastor’s demeanor. Every sermon, small group lesson, private conversation, and social media post that touched on spiritual matters seemed to bring out a certain cruelty and bitterness in him. Every conversation on theology or the Bible seemed to be seized by him as an opportunity to castigate. He was very well-read, passionate, and bold – and these things I greatly admired in him. Yet for the chip on his shoulder, I was very leery to have my wife and children and myself under his authority.

It seemed to me that God was calling us to leave. This pastor seemed to me not just a skilled debater and rebuker of false doctrines, but almost a bully taking satisfaction from being able to intimidate and dominate everyone around him. And I knew it was only a matter of time before I confronted him about it, and probably public if he attempted to bully someone publicly in front of me.

I did not want to cause division in that church. But, as well liked as my family was, I knew there would inevitably be division if I confronted this pastor publicly. Out of respect for the other people I knew at this church, we left quietly.

 

Exhibit C-2

When we stopped attending, however, some of the elders and deacons asked me why we had stopped attending; and when I told them my reasons, that I was concerned about the conduct of the pastor and felt that God was calling us out, one of the elders told me they were also troubled by the situation and were trying to gently admonish the talented scholar and orator.

In the months and years that followed, all the elders and deacons we had known left this church. And, as they did, I asked them why they had left. And one by one they told me that as they had attempted to confront this pastor about his harsh, domineering, bitter way of relating to people, he had run them out of the church.

What is more troubling, however, was that this pastor claimed as his justification Matthew 18. By disagreeing with him, he claimed these elders and deacons in the church had sinned against him. And so he told his congregation that these elders and deacons and their families had essentially abandoned the true faith and should be treated as unbelievers, shunned by those remaining in the congregation.

Still more troubling, this pastor then proceeded to confront me at one point to tell me that these elders and deacons were guilty of the sin of gossip if they told their side of the story. But, of course, it was not gossip for him to tell his side.

As he interpreted Matthew 18 and defined gossip, only he had the authority and right to say what was what, to confront, rebuke, and admonish; it seemed a very thinly veiled power trip, and a self-justifying, self-righteous dressing up of unbridled ambition, conceit, and a desire to control the narrative to guard himself from accountability.

 

More Could Be Said

I could tell you another story like these where I desired to confront several persons from one wealthy, influential family who were sinning against my family in a church, and how I was discouraged from doing so. The pastor in that case had tried to follow Matthew 18 in another church he had pastored, but it had not gone well; his unpleasant experience apparently nullified the command of Jesus for how to handle conflict quickly, clearly, and directly.

Or I could tell you another story – or series of stories – where people I knew, respected, and trust left or were fired and kicked out of a church for gently but firmly challenging bad doctrine and an unbiblical response to sin by the leadership. And in that story, similar to the one pastor I knew, it was called gossip for anyone but the leadership of the church to talk about the situation. And now those people are treated as if they have left the true faith, or as if they themselves are the ones sinning for having dared to contradict certain personalities with power and influence.

However, I will not tell you those stories. Those stories are for others to tell. But I will say that I am dismayed to have seen these ungodly attitudes toward confrontation in the church, particularly from leadership – especially from pastors, whose job it is to teach and shepherd the flock which really belongs to Jesus.

As I told the one pastor I questioned many years ago, if the Church rightfully belongs to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we should choose our leaders, and hold them accountable, according to God’s Word. And Christians should not be chased out of churches and congregations for insisting that Christ’s authority is greater than sentiment, skill, or experience.

 

Biblical Conflict Resolution

This has turned into a book. Believe me, I know. And if it has taken you forever to read it and you are exhausted, just think of how much longer it took me to write it.

But I will leave off with one final thought.

If anyone will presume that pastors, elders, and deacons of churches should never be contradicted, rebuked, admonished, or called to account for whether their conduct, speech, and the administration of their duties is in line with God’s Word or the message of the gospel, I would direct their attention to two things the Apostle Paul writes in the New Testament.

First, consider how Paul rebuked the Apostle Peter, the foremost of the apostles.

“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?””

Galatians 2:11-14, ESV

Paul, who had before his conversion been a persecutor of the church, rebuked Peter, who had walked with Jesus and was the recognized leader of the church; and Paul did this publicly, calling Peter out for hypocrisy and dereliction of duty, and for contradicting the gospel by caving in to the circumcision party. And God be praised that he did. Where would the church have gone otherwise?

 

Authority in the Church Comes From Jesus

To anyone who would say we must respect authorities in the church, I would wholeheartedly agree; yet authority in the church, and indeed the whole purpose for the church being, begins with Jesus. Therefore, we must respect Christ’s authority first, and not tolerate being led astray by smooth talk or rhetorical sleight of hand, or intimidation and bullying, when what is being said and done clearly contradicts what Christ taught and commanded, or what the Bible as God’s Word clearly says.

And indeed, we read earlier in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church something which is of the utmost importance and relevance to everything else I have just told you.

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Galatians 1:6-10, ESV

May God make us all humble of heart, teachable of spirit, bold in the truth, loving to a fault, and give us the grace, patience, wisdom, and diligence to respond to conflict in a way that honors him.

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to six kids - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.