Matthew’s writing concerning conflict resolution between two brothers in Matthew 18 is quite possibly the hardest command for God’s children to keep. First, many brethren misunderstand what Jesus was teaching. Second, there is difficulty not merely in understanding, but also in obeying.
Members in a congregation often approach church leaders seeking advice regarding how to speak to a person about a sin they have witnessed that individual commit. Such concern and seeking of advise is not only acceptable, but is commendable (Gal. 6:1). Yet, when the brother or sister who has committed the sin is approached and discovers that others have been made aware of their sin, they become offended and cry, “Matthew 18 teaches that if you have a problem with me, you need to come and talk to me! It is wrong for you or anyone else to talk about me behind my back!” Erring individuals often fail to understand the teaching of Matthew 18 and also the concern being shown for them in their state of error. The tendency of man when confronted with sin is to shift the blame whenever possible. Oh if brethren could only admit their sin and learn to appreciate the love and concern of other brethren who try to look out for the well being of their soul.
On the other hand, in matters of personal offense, where Matthew 18 does apply, many fail to properly apply it. When offended by a brother, the first tendency most have is to tell of the offense to the brethren, or worse yet, tell of the offense to the world. Going to one who has offended you is a difficult practice. The natural reaction is to sulk and wait for the offending party to come and apologize for their offense since they were the guilty party. Yet, when we are offended, and we fail to do what God commands us to do, we also stand a guilty distance from God.
When brethren refuse to follow the pattern of going and speaking with the one who has offended them, they often offer excuses such as, “It wouldn’t do any good any way! They wouldn’t listen to me even if I went and spoke with them.” Such may or may not be the case, but regardless, such excuses do not exclude one from the responsibility God has placed upon them. God’s instruction was not, “If your brother offends you go and tell him his fault between you and him alone if you think it might do some good. Otherwise, go tell it to the brethren.”
Keeping personal offense between the two individual where it occurred is crucial to conflict resolution. It is much easier for a person to admit they were wrong when an offense is kept private than it is when an offense has been broadcast. It should also be noted that the command is to “Go” not “write”; there is something to be said for face-to-face discussions between brethren. Not only are letters not authorized as a method of conflict resolution in Matthew 18, they are certain to add fuel to the flame.
The goal of Matthew’s instruction must also be kept in mind: “If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” The reason we are commanded to go and resolve personal issues with brethren is so that we might continue as brethren. All Christians must recognize the need for their brethren and learn to treasure the bond of spiritual kinship. When brethren refuse to follow God’s pattern in Matthew 18, they demonstrate a lack of love for both the children of God and the Father Himself.
If going and talking to a brother does not resolve the conflict, other brethren must become involved. The Bible does not place a timeline on the course of events required in Matthew 18, but the course must be followed until the conflict is resolved.
“Two or three” is a judgment term used throughout the Old Testament that Jesus hereby invokes under the New Law. The purpose of involving two or three brethren is to establish facts, establish guilt, and provide witness testimony in case one of the parties of the offense do not behave properly.
Sometimes people are overly sensitive and are offended where there was no offense or refuse to accept apologies when they are offered. Two or three witnesses are to judge between the brethren, act as mediators in the situation, and try to resolve the conflict. If you are the offended party, and it is determined that you do not have a right to be offended, or that you must accept an apology, it is time to swallow your pride and get over whatever situation that has occurred for your own good. It is easier to admit wrong or to overlook a matter between a few brethren than it is to do so before the church.
If an offense cannot be settled with the use of mediators, the matter must be brought before the church. The role of the two or three witnesses becomes very important at this point, for it is upon their testimony that the congregation will decide the matter. Jesus said, “By the mouth of two or three witnesses let every word be established.” And “ For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am in the midst of them.” These passages teach that God stands with the testimony of credible witnesses and so should the church.
Brethren who refuse to repent of personal offense, or who will not get over a matter, even after being brought before the church, are to have the fellowship of the church withdrawn from them. Such church discipline is the plan of God. The words of Jesus in Matthew 18:18 are almost identical to His words in Matthew 16:19 in which both passages literally say, “Whatever you bind on earth will already have been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will already have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, the removal of fellowship is not the decision of the congregation; it is the requirement of God.
Two Side Points:
1- The principle of “two or three witnesses” is vital to the establishment of the Christian faith. The reason people of our day should accept the accounts of the Synoptic Gospels in which three witnesses wrote of the same events without contradiction or error. “By two or three witnesses let every word be established.”
2- If one congregation Scripturally tries a case between brethren, there is no need for another congregation to come along and retry the case. God’s process must be respected and His judgments respected. To harbor individuals who rebel against the discipline of the Lord is to reject the Lord’s right to rule.