What should Christians do when they have disputes (Matthew 18:15–17)?
Christians are not immune to disputes, disagreements, or even outright sinning against one another. What are Christians to do when they have something between them? Matthew 18:15–17 has often been used as a sort of outline for how Christians should handle disputes. Here Jesus instructs, "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."
The first step in resolving a conflict between Christians is to approach the offending party in private. The goal here is to bring to the other person's attention what has been done and to attempt to come to resolution. Rather than gossip about the matter or bring in unaffected parties that may intensify the conflict, we address one another privately to clear any misunderstandings and invite a positive outcome.
If the dispute cannot be resolved between the two parties, then one or two other believers can be invited in to help the situation. This is in keeping with the Old Testament principle of having two or three witnesses in order to verify something. Others may be able to see something about the situation those in conflict cannot, or they may have helpful ideas regarding resolution.
If the situation cannot be solved by personal approach or through bringing a few others, then it is time to involve the church. This is about church discipline. The authority of church leadership and/or the gravity of having an entire church body involved should be enough to bring about change. However, if this does not work, then the person who has committed the sin is to be treated as "a Gentile and a tax collector." This means the person is to be excommunicated from the church fellowship, not out of malice but in order to remove the negative influence from the church body.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul talks about sexual sins present in the Corinthian church. One person in particular was having sexual relations with his father's wife. Paul says, "you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 5:5). Paul is saying that the Corinthians should not be associating with those who claim to be brothers in Christ yet by their flagrantly sinful actions show themselves not to be. The man is to be excommunicated so that he will come back to God. In 2 Corinthians 2, we see Paul talk about restoring this man: "So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him." The church discipline had been effective and now the brother was to be fully accepted. This is the same principle as we see in Matthew 18.
Another interesting thing to note is Matthew 5:23–24 where Jesus says, "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." Whether we are the offended party, as in Matthew 18, or the offending party, as in Matthew 5, the first step in resolving a dispute is to go to the other person and attempt to make peace. Jesus also counsels in Matthew 5:25 to "Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison."
While Christians are certainly not immune to disputes with one another, they should not characterize the Christian life. We should seek to reconcile with fellow believers and do so in a way that honors God.
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