Rare Reconciliation

How do you solve interpersonal conflict with others?  Avoid it?  Argue it out?  Post your grievances on Facebook or send a mass email?

A friend of mine is a local Presbyterian minister, and their church began a new Sunday evening service.  She had invited me to it, and since this Sunday evening was the last one I would have free before programming begins at my own church, my family and I went.

Part of the scripture for the evening was Matthew 18:15-17, the somewhat well-known passage from Jesus about how to solve interpersonal conflict.  I was reminded again of the great practicality and wisdom of the passage.  It is great passage; one that is sometimes misunderstood but is remarkably compatible with some of the best teaching out there on how to address interpersonal conflict and achieve reconciliation.

The passage begins, "If a brother or sister sins against you..."

"Against you" is a text variant, found in only some of the ancient manuscripts.  Most likely, a later editor added the words seeing that this was clearly the intent of the passage and wanted to clarify.  There are sins against God, sins against others, and even sins against ourselves.  It is clear as we read on that the passage is concerned with sins that negatively impact another human.  This is an important distinction, because I have personally witnessed people use this verse as an excuse for acting as a "sin monitor" and approaching their relationships as "holier than thou."  The content of the passage and the words "against you" should serve as a reminder that some stuff is none of our business and is best left between the other person and God or whomever they sinned against.

Verse 15 continues, "...go and point out the fault, just between the two of you."  Oh, if only we could do this!  This is the Bible's clearest injunction against triangulation.  We triangulate all the time, sometimes subconsciously.  One of the key concepts of Bowen's Family Systems Theory, this is when person A has a problem with person B, and person A goes to person C hoping he/she will "deliver the message" or take care of the problem in some way.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with A going to C to talk about the conflict, but the problem occurs when A wants C to take action or when C becomes a middle man.  Such situations only make conflict worse and more complicated.  So why do we triangulate?  Quite simply, it's easier.  It takes much more courage and maturity to deal with a problem one-on-one and in private.  You're forced to deal with the issue and the feelings of the other person rather than face-saving or image-building.  But as with most things in life and Jesus' teachings, the harder way is the best way (the "narrow gate" - Matt 7:13-14).  Triangulation calms our immediate anxieties about the situation, but makes the problem worse in the long run.

Direct, one-on-one communication very often results in reconciliation or a resolution, or at least minimizes the conflict's urgency and impact.  If no one ever triangulated, we wouldn't often need steps 2 and 3.  But alas...

Verse 16 says, "If they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses'" (referencing an ancient precept from Deuteronomy 19:15).  This is where we start to squirm a little.  Doesn't this sound like ganging up on the person?  It's actually nothing of the sort; it's really a reference to mediation.  It's still A and B talking to each other, with the difference that this time they are accompanied by some "objective bystanders" who can offer guidance and perspective.  It's also a way, in a conflict severe enough that one-on-one doesn't do it, to ensure that things are not misinterpreted or that lies aren't told about what happened in the conversation.  This is not behind-the-back gossip where the person can't defend himself or herself, nor is it a "gang-up."  It's the next step in reconciliation (not winning).

Verse 17 goes on to offer step 3, which should rarely if ever be required.  Step 3 really makes us uncomfortable, and doesn't sound right.  But we have to keep in mind that most people skip step 1, and sometimes step 2.  Consequently, the few instances some of us have seen of step 3 being used have been destructive, public situations when the appropriate private steps have not been taken.  Verse 17 says, "If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church."   Two important points here:  1) This is all for the goal of reconciliation, not vindication.  2) The "church," properly defined, is a group of close-knit, family like individuals who love and support one another.  These steps don't work without the proper goals and relationships in place.  Stone-faced church business meetings calling for the ouster of someone is nothing of what Jesus speaks here.  It's also important to note that the offender is still supposed to be present, able to defend or speak for him/herself.

The conclusion of the passage sounds the most harsh of all:  "If they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector."  But the important point here is in a good question that was asked by the minister delivering the message Sunday night:  "How did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors?"  Just when we think we finally have the right to shun and feel self-vindicated, we are actually being asked to look at this person with compassion as a "lost sheep" (Luke 15:1-7) and go out of our way to offer grace to them and work for their restoration back to the family.

This is hard.  But it works.  I pray that you and I would have the wisdom and courage to deal with one another in this way.

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