Gospel text: Matthew 18:15-20
Let’s start off by articulating some things that Jesus does not say in Matthew 18 (articulated by my colleague, Nate Sutton):
- “If another member of the church sins against you, withdraw quietly yet in disgust, go home in a huff, and stew about it for a few months.”
- “If another member of the church sins against you, silently hold it against the ministries they love, and decline to support any of them for a year or two.”
- “If another member of the church sins against you, grumble about it to your friends, or better yet, to the pastor (but don’t mention the name of the offending person), or better yet, to your various online communities.”
- “If another member of the church sins against you, bottle up your feelings until they come spilling out sideways on a future occasion, preferably at a congregational meeting or at coffee hour on Easter.”
- “If another member of the church sins against you, cut your participation in half, and after a while, leave the congregation permanently without telling anyone. Then, either look for a new church, or just stop going to church altogether.”
It’s true that there is conflict in the church. Before we get into how to handle such things, I have another list for you. There was a thread this week among my colleagues on the most absurd things churches fight over. Those of you that have served on Council or on church leadership have been in some of these arguments, but here’s what my fellow pastors had to say about things that have been fought over in the church:
- What types of light bulbs to use in the sanctuary
- The placement of candles on the altar
- A parking spot
- Where to buy donuts for coffee hour – this church even did a taste test
- Replacing pews
- Toilet paper
- Mismatched dishes
- Where church items should go in wake of church closure
- One colleague reported a fist fight over how unused Communion elements should be dealt with
- The funniest one was a current longstanding, passive aggressive fight over how many slices should come out of a pie – 6 or 8. They even have designated pie cutters!
If you find yourself surprised that churches would fight over such things, then you either haven’t been around the church long enough or you haven’t been paying attention. Every church encounters conflict. Some conflicts have more ground than others. And today’s Gospel seems to say that Jesus knew we would encounter conflict, and so he gave us guidance. There may be some of you who believe that it’s not Christian for us to have conflict in the church. But the truth is, by the very nature of living in community, of sharing space, of working with others, there is bound to be conflict. What makes us Christian is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or hurt one another, but how we go about addressing and resolving those issues. (Jin S. Kim, Feasting On The Word, 46)
Many of you have experienced church conflict, and some of you have left churches over something that upset you. Maybe you felt betrayed, maybe you felt offended, or maybe you left out of protest. These are not light matters, though sometimes the topics over which we fight, and the depths we go in our fighting, look a bit ridiculous afterward. Today we get to reflect on how we handle conflict, and the call to pursue reconciliation as God’s people in this world.
I’ve read this passage a few times in the last year, not because I was engaged in conflict, but because I was working with others in this congregation who were helping to make sure we knew the best ways for dealing with conflict. Every church has past issues that have created tension, conflict, and even broken relationships; and Lord of Life is no different. There have been some issues in our past where people may have wondered what they could do about it. They saw something wrong and wanted to speak up but didn’t know how. This group I worked with helped to rediscover what our Constitution says about how to deal with conflict with someone in the congregation, and the Constitution points us right here to Matthew 18.
Matthew 18 has some great advice for how to deal with someone you’re having issues with. The first thing is to confront them yourself, one on one. But you need to be a little careful here. You don’t get full permission to say whatever you want to them. The focus in these verses is not on punishment, but on reconciliation – on bringing the conflicted parties back together. Reconciliation may not always be about agreement, but it is about finding a way to exist peacefully with one another. So when you decide to approach someone in the church who has wronged you, your approach is out of love for them, not to prove your point or punish them.
There’s a couple interesting textual things here. First, the language used to describe the offender is family language. In the translation we read, it’s not as obvious, but in the original Greek it says “If a brother sins against you…” Of course “brother” was more or less meant to be inclusive, so we could say, “If your sister or brother sins against you…” This isn’t saying that it only applies to people who are related to you by blood. It hints at the second thing here – that this formula is for those in the church, those who are members of the body of Christ, the brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus didn’t lay out a separate formula for dealing with conflict outside the church, at least not here, but he lays one out for those in the church. Why? Because we who follow Jesus are to live a bit differently. We are to treat each other with honor, and give the benefit of the doubt to each other. That’s why the ultimate goal is reconciliation here.
If you remember from 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote about the body of Christ – that we are all members of one another. Telling someone else they are not needed, or that they don’t belong doesn’t make them any less a part of the body. Each person has their own gifts and we are all brought together to use our own gifts and so to help the body of Christ. You being you helps our body function – at least when you are the you God created you to be.
This sense of togetherness as the body of Christ might not be so easy for us, who culturally love individualism and self-sufficiency. We come together on Sundays and then all week we do our own thing. Looking to Paul again helps, though. In that passage about the body of Christ, what we call ‘the church,’ Paul articulates the church as interdependent on one another. We are incomplete without each other. When one person suffers, all suffer together with them; when one person is honored, all rejoice together with them. (1 Cor 12:26) This also means that any conflict doesn’t just affect the people involved, but it has the ability to infect the entire community.
This is why conflict management is so important and can be so difficult in the church. This is why anonymous criticism cannot be accepted, because it can’t be addressed. If you have an issue with anything here, it is your responsibility to voice that to someone who can help – like me, or Heidi, or a member of the Council. And you need to be ready to own your stuff, to sign your name or somehow identify yourself, otherwise we will not talk about it or deal with it.
This talk about being the body of Christ is also why it is extremely unhealthy to be complaining about church things to others, without either going directly to the source, or going to someone who can help – me, Heidi, or a Council member. There is a difference between venting and spreading the weeds of conflict. Go right to the source – even if that is me, or Heidi, or the Council. Voice your complaint, be heard, and don’t make it worse by telling everyone else first. Voicing it doesn’t mean things will necessarily go your way, but it is possible things could change, and at the least, you will understand why things are the way they are. As the church you are not asked to sweep everything under the rug. In fact, as I said at the beginning, even Jesus knew there would be conflict! So if you have a real issue, don’t pretend like it doesn’t exist or as if you shouldn’t have an issue, don’t talk to everyone else about it, come to me or Heidi or the Council. And keep in mind that the goal is reconciliation here.
If it doesn’t work for you to resolve your conflict one-on-one, then you are to bring two or three witnesses. Those people aren’t there to back you up as if you are against the person who slighted you, but they are there to promote reconciliation. They are there to support all those involved, to help bring the offender back into the fold, so to say. The same goes if you need to bring the conflict in front of the church. This is all to be done out of love and care for your brother or sister who has offended you. And this is true for how we are to deal with conflict in our church – if it doesn’t work to talk to them one-on-one, bring a few others in love, and if not that, then bring it to the Council or me or Heidi. And if that doesn’t work, there is always the Bishop. You are welcome to write a letter to the Bishop at any time, and if it is a situation that needs to be dealt with, it will.
All of this was quite prescriptive, and instructive. I do think Matthew 18 can be a helpful way to attempt to handle conflict in the church. It’s an ideal. It is a bit challenging because you have to put yourself out there, sometimes multiple times. In this year of Reformation, I’m reminded of Martin Luther’s attempt to handle something he didn’t like in the church. He attempted to work it out with one or a few at the beginning, and eventually whole councils had to be involved. He kept at it, he was persistent. And eventually his actions paved the way for incredible change throughout the church. I can’t say that your issue will spark another Reformation – maybe it’s a good test to compare it to the Reformation though, to think about whether or not your issue has theological standing. And if it’s just about mismatched dishes, maybe you could practice letting go.
Verse 20 is one we like to throw around – where two or three are gathered, God is there. We like to say that anytime we feel like we don’t have a good mass of people present. And in those times, yes, it’s good to remember that God is with us. But Matthew has Jesus saying this in the context of all the instructions about conflict, which I think makes it even more powerful. God Creator, Son, and Spirit are present in and with us as the church, even when we must deal with conflict. From birth to death, we are God’s. This is the message within the Gospel of Matthew. His beginning was the story of Jesus’ birth where we hear that he will be Immanuel – God with us; and at the end, Jesus leaves us with the promise that he is with us always.
In all the things we do together as the body of Christ, God is present. That may be a heartfelt reminder, and it’s also an invitation to remember that anytime we work together, even in conflict, we are working with those who are also claimed by God. As the Romans text today articulated, we are to live in love. We are to love our neighbor, our brother, our sister, as yourself. We are to have their best interest at heart. And at the center, we are to pursue reconciliation, so that together we might live into our identity as the body of Christ and ultimately do God’s work with our hands in this world. Conflict is hard. But through Christ all things are possible, even the work of reconciliation and being the body of Christ in this world.
*Just as I said when I preached this sermon (sometimes I add things in the moment): there is no pressing issue that brought this sermon to life. These words are inspired by the Spirit for the text of the day, and if you hear them speaking directly to you, then that is the work of the Spirit in your life and in this world.