bt_2014_08_bs_sept07Sept. 7, 2014
Confrontation and Community

with Tony W. Cartledge

Matthew 18:15 — “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”
Have you ever gotten your feelings hurt? Of course you have. It happens with uncomfortable familiarity. Let’s face facts: Sometimes our feelings are hurt because we’re overly sensitive, or because we misunderstood what someone else intended to say or do.

Sometimes, though, someone may say something hurtful on purpose, or may undermine our efforts for their own ends. They may seek attention or opportunity at our expense, putting self-advancement over relationships.

How do we respond when that happens? Is there a better option than retaliation, or licking our wounds? Both are common reactions, and both of them are easy.

Jesus taught his followers a better way to deal with hurt feelings, damaged egos, bruised reputations, or lost opportunities. It’s not so easy. In fact, it can be quite hard. But when relationships are at stake, it’s worth the effort.

Matthew’s gospel

This month we’ll be looking at four teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew, so a little background may be helpful. Matthew appears as the first book in the New Testament, although it was certainly not the first one written (Paul’s letters have that honor), and probably not the first of the gospels.

We cannot be certain why the early church gave Matthew pride of place as the canon of authoritative scriptures emerged. Perhaps Matthew was the most popular of the gospels that were circulating among the churches. Or, perhaps its orientation toward Jewish Christians led to its position, since Jesus had said that he came first to the Jews.

Matthew’s gospel appears to have been written within a largely Jewish-Christian context. The author portrays Jesus as a teacher who was both human and divine, a prophet who spoke with the authority of God, as the Messiah who fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, as redeemer and risen king over all.

Matthew was also concerned with the church. His is the only gospel, in fact, to use the word ekklesía, a word referring to a defined assembly that came to be used as the New Testament word for “church” (16:18 and 18:17).

We should recall that the church did not yet exist during Jesus’ time on earth, so when Matthew portrays Jesus as speaking to the church and its needs, he is adapting earlier materials for the new situation. This is the case in ch. 18, where several distinct teachings focus on relationships among fellow believers.

When a brother offends you(vv. 15-18)

Perhaps you have heard someone refer to “the Matthew 18 way” of dealing with conflict. Some churches have a conflict resolution process, based on Matt. 18:15-18, written into their constitution.

How, then, did Jesus instruct his disciples, and what sort of offenses are involved?

The text consists of five “if” statements, followed by a conclusion. All together, they appear to constitute a four-step process for attempted reconciliation following an affront.

But first, what kind of issues are we talking about? The text appears to deal with a case in which one member of the church offends another in some manner.

Most translations have something like “sins against you” (NRSV, NIV84, HCSB, KJV), but the words for “against you” do not appear in the oldest and best manuscripts. While it is possible that the words were in the original text and were accidentally deleted, it is more likely that the shorter version is more original. In that case, the condition is simply that a fellow believer has sinned in general. Thus, NET has “if your brother sins” (see also NIV11).

While this may seem a minor matter, the implications can be huge. Is the text directed only to persons who have been personally offended and the fellow-Christian who has caused them pain? Or does it invite any believer to rebuke another believer for any offense, with the possibility of getting the entire church involved?

It is unlikely that Jesus’ intent was for his followers to create an inquisition mentality, or to set up a system of exclusion designed to keep members in line with standards of culturally accepted behaviors. The text does allow, however, for individuals to approach fellow believers whose behavior threatened the well-being of the church.

The word translated as “sin” is a strong word for wrongdoing, used only here and at 27:4 in Matthew’s gospel. This suggests that the offense is a serious matter, not something that can be easily brushed aside, but requiring a response for the good of the church.

The instructions are straight-forward. If a person has offended a fellow believer, the injured party is to approach the offender privately (“when the two of you are alone”) and “point out the fault” to him or her. If the guilty party “listens to you,” Jesus said – implying repentance and a request for forgiveness – “you have regained that one” (v. 15). The ideal situation is one in which a private conversation leads to personal repentance and restoration within the community.

But sometimes that doesn’t happen. In this case, Matthew quoted Jesus as saying the offended party should approach the sinner again, this time with two or three others to act as witnesses, following Deut. 19:15: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.”

If the accused still refuses to respond positively – implied by “does not listen” – the offended person, along with the witnesses, should present the matter to the church, offering the person charged with wrongdoing a final chance to acknowledge and repent of the wrongdoing. If the offending person still refuses to listen (implying a lack of confession, remorse, or repentance), the church is to “treat him as a Gentile or a tax collector” (v. 18). [See the online “Hardest Question” for more]

We note that the responsibility for initiating reconciliation lies primarily with the offended party. This may seem strange to us, for we typically think the person who has offended us should take the initiative to ask for forgiveness. This is easier said than done, however, especially when the sin is grave. The offended party is thus better positioned to initiate reconciliation than the sinner.

It is also apparent that Jesus wanted such matters to be handled as privately as possible, respecting the feelings and reputation of the offending party as well as the one offended. Believers should never hold one another up to public ridicule or shame, even when they have done wrong.

Verse 18 is virtually identical to 16:19, where Jesus gave to Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” with authority to “bind or loose” on earth, with heavenly consequences. In 18:18, that responsibility is transferred to the entire fellowship of believers: the words are the same, but the verbs are plural.

The language of binding and loosing may suggest the difference between being “bound” to seek reconciliation up to a point, and being “loosed” from that responsibility after the prescribed attempts had failed. It is more likely, however, that it refers to the authority to hold the offender guilty or to grant forgiveness – with heavenly import: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This comports with Matt. 16:19’s reference to granting Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and with John 20:23, which speaks directly to forgiveness.

When Christ is among you(vv. 19-20)

The final two verses of today’s text – about asking for “anything” from God and receiving it – have been the subject of much misunderstanding. Many readers, preachers, and teachers through the years have divorced v. 19 from its context and taken it as a blank check from God that can be written and cashed so long as two or three persons endorse it.

Claims of some TV preachers aside, it doesn’t work that way, as anyone who has tried it should know. The first words of v. 19 – “Again, truly I tell you …” – bind the following words to the previous context. The “two of you” in v. 19 probably reflects the multiple witnesses from v. 16, and “on earth” reflects v. 18.

The statement “If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask,” may use the word “anything,” but the context has to do with binding or loosing an unrepentant sinner. Thus, v. 19 reiterates v. 18, that what the community of believers bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven.

This statement carries with it great responsibility, and assumes that the stated prayer is offered carefully and in a full attempt to seek that God’s will be done.

While v. 19 is not the free offer that some take it to be, the promise of v. 20 holds true, that Christ’s Spirit is present wherever believers gather in Christ’s name, that is, in a spirit of worship and openness to the Spirit.

Hard things are hard, and confronting broken relationships is among the hardest. With the promise of Christ’s presence to strengthen and guide, however, we can do what needs to be done. BT

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