There are many cases of conflict and need for forgiveness in our world.
We could recite a laundry list. One on the international level that in recent months has appeared with a vengeance involves the US and North Korea. I wonder, if our leaders considered themselves to be brothers, would it make a difference?
It is unusual to hear competing sides refer to each other as “brothers” or “sisters.” Still, if we recall Cain and Abel, we should be aware of how the Bible presents the very first homicide as a fratricide, one brother killing another. (I suppose we could make the argument, taking the really broad view, that every murder is a fratricide or a sororicide, killing a brother or sister.)
In Matthew 18, Jesus addresses the conflict, the offense, the sin that goes on in the church, the Christian community of faith.
The Lord addresses his disciples, posing a scenario in which a brother or sister sins against another. Some manuscripts don’t even include the words “against another.” They simply say if someone sins. Period. If someone commits an offense. Full stop.
As I just said, Jesus places all of this in the church.
How about if we start with a less serious situation? (Although I must confess, some might consider this one to be a matter of life and death!)
When we recently spent a year in Tennessee, Banu and I worshipped with two different Episcopal Churches. I’m pretty certain we sat in someone’s “spot” once or twice. Nobody made an issue of it, but I wonder if anybody was thinking about it! I’m sure that’s never been a problem here! I’m sure if anyone noticed someone in their spot, the reaction would be, “Welcome to worship! I’m so glad you’re here!”
But for a moment, let’s assume it were a matter of serious importance. What would be the first step in addressing the offender? Publicly berate the person? Enlist others to give stern looks? Perhaps make derogatory comments about their mother?
Again, assuming the action would qualify as sin, what does Jesus say? Verse 15 reads, “If another member of the church [or your sister or brother in the faith] 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.”
Going first to the person alone says and requires a number of things. One thing it requires is a certain level of maturity. Being willing to lovingly confront, to face them alone in person, rather than talking about them behind their back—or spreading gossip—means you’re willing to “own” your complaint, to take responsibility for it. You’re not playing the game of reporting what anonymous “others” have said.
Going first to the person alone suggests you don’t want to shame the person. It says you have a greater desire for reconciliation than proving you’re right.
But isn’t it so much fun proving you’re right or getting the last word in?
The late Wayne Oates, a congregational consultant, said when we go to the person first, we “[g]ive the person the benefit of the doubt by saying, ‘I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but is it true that you said or did this?’ The news bearer may not have reported accurately or may have misinterpreted… Give ‘the offender’ an opportunity to say it in [his or] her own words.”
There’s usually two sides, or even more sides, to every story.
It’s not much fun when your words are taken the wrong way, is it? When you’re misunderstood? On the internet and in emails, a lot of people use emojis, like a smiley face to show they’re not angry. Or maybe they use a wink, letting people know they’re just being facetious and playful.
Think about the Bible. We can’t hear the tone of voice, so we don’t always know if something is gravely serious, or if it’s a good-natured comment.
There can be another benefit to going to the person first. Our friend Wayne goes on, “Word of your initiating this private conversation might well spread through the church system. If so, it can lift the level of ethical responsibility of the whole congregation. Members will know that they, too, will face you alone if they sin against you.”
This should be a happy coincidence. If you make a big show of saying, “Hey everyone, I first went to So-and-So all by myself,” that kind of defeats the purpose of working stuff out privately.
I want to include a disclaimer about a private meeting. In cases where people have been abused or threatened, it is almost never a wise thing to do. That’s when others should be called in. It is probably a case in which other people are necessary. It’s important to let them be witnesses, or even be advocates on behalf of the abused party.
So, with that in mind, sometimes lovingly going to the person first doesn’t always work. That’s where verse 16, with its call to bring one or two wise people with you, comes into play. You notice I added “wise.” It’s important that these others know how to keep confidence—that they’re not going to go and blab to somebody else.
Confidentiality and secrecy aren’t the same things. Sometimes there’s confusion about that. Among the differences between the two is confidentiality maintains the other person’s integrity and helps build relationship. Secrecy works against both of those. Another difference is confidentiality builds respect; secrecy destroys respect.
Oates points out an additional aspect of this second level of going to the person. “By bringing in one or two others, you can check your own behavior with the wisdom of other Christians.” It’s extremely important to hold ourselves accountable. Engaging in self-deception is easier than we think.
But again, what if even this doesn’t work? What if the presence of others still doesn’t convince the person to listen?
According to Jesus, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17). I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds pretty harsh! There are those who say there’s no way Jesus would have said something like that; it was added by Matthew or somebody else.
Our friend Wayne agrees Jesus sounds rather callous, but he reminds us that when Jesus was presented as an infant in the temple, his “mission in the world [according to Simeon]…was to be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’” (Lk 2:32). It’s hard to be a light for someone if you can’t stand them!
Wayne E. Oates, 1917-1999
He adds that Jesus “took great initiative toward Zacchaeus, the tax collector.” Now that’s a guy who was far from popular! It wasn’t so much that he collected taxes (though that was part of it), but he did it for the hated Romans. He was thought of as a traitor. And yet, Jesus welcomed him.
So, when comparing the offender to a Gentile or a tax collector, the hope is that the “congregation can sustain a caring relationship” to the one being corrected. The church might say, “We believe what you’re doing is wrong, but we still love you. We still hope for restoration.”
In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates it this way: “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” So he would seem to go along with what we just heard.
Now, after Matthew does his three-step approach with someone being cautioned, in verse 18, he ties it with binding and loosing. Jesus says, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Some say that’s about exorcism, casting out demons, but it’s more likely he’s talking about a practice of the rabbis. Basically, they would “bind” the law, a scripture, if it fit, if it applied to a certain situation. They would “loose” the scripture if they decided it really didn’t apply.
Jesus passes that authority to bind and loose on to the church. It’s not because Christians are worthy of doing so; it’s because the Spirit of Christ lives within the church. As he says: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (v. 20). Please note. That’s not about worship; it’s about reconciliation and dealing with offenses.
This whole matter of correction by the church obviously is a tricky business. In our own Book of Order, the section called “The Rules of Discipline” takes that on. It says church discipline “should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath” (D-1.0102).
And it’s not something to rush into. We’re told it “remains the duty of every church member to try (prayerfully and seriously) to bring about an adjustment or settlement of the quarrel [or] complaint.” We should “avoid formal proceedings…unless, after prayerful deliberation, they are determined to be necessary to preserve the purity and purposes of the church” (D-1.0103).
When we lived in Jamestown, an administrative commission was formed to investigate a pastor in one of our presbytery’s churches. (Quick note: administrative commissions are groups of people formed with a single task. Usually they help with installing new pastors.)
Banu was part of that commission. There apparently was evidence the pastor had porn on the church’s computer. It turned out to be true. Faced with the prospect of disciplinary procedures, the pastor figured it was time to hit the road. He did what the Book of Order calls “renouncing the jurisdiction of the church.” That means leaving the Presbyterian Church. He was protected from ecclesiastical charges. The pastor literally hit the road. He wound up moving out of state.
A year or two later, I was part of a similar commission. There had been a long-going dispute within the session of that same congregation. It was our job to attempt reconciliation. It’s safe to say, that church had a lot of problems.
That brings up a related issue. Is there any action that is utterly unforgivable? Can you think of anything we might do that is beyond forgiveness? Is there anyone who Christ does not and cannot forgive? How does that apply to us, we who pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”?
A couple of examples from church history might be helpful. Aside from doing this to others, Christians have burned each other at the stake. Presbyterians, on a number of occasions, dealt with Baptists in a dreadfully appropriate way. Responding to their insistence on another baptism, in addition to infant baptism, Presbyterians would tie heavy stones to them and toss them into the river. You want another baptism? Here you go! (Splash!)
Maybe we no longer fit people for concrete galoshes, mafia style, but we still do some pretty terrible things to each other.
Peter comes to Jesus and wants to know about forgiving. He wants to make it really personal. He asks Jesus, not what to forgive, but how often to forgive. Peter offers, “As many as seven times?” (v. 21). To Peter, this is a lot. He feels like he’s bending over backwards. Again, a teaching of the rabbis applies here. It says [and please pardon the male-oriented language], “If a man sins once, twice, or three times, they forgive him; if he sins a fourth time, they do not forgive him.”
So with his response, Jesus blows Peter’s mind. He says to forgive, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times [or seventy times seven]” (v. 22). This huge symbolic number says, “Don’t keep count.” It’s not up to you to keep track of how many times to forgive.
Here’s a complicating factor that can arise: do we wait until someone asks for forgiveness? What if they never come around, like the offending brother or sister we looked at earlier? Are we still compelled to forgive? And by the way, I’m not talking about forgiving in a back-handed or snarky way—as in, “I forgive you for getting offended when I called you a jerk and made disparaging remarks about your mother”!
Forgiving someone doesn’t mean we’ll automatically have a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling. Forgiving isn’t about emotions. And it’s not about conjuring up something by ourselves. It is very much about the grace of God enabling us. And it is a grace that removes a heavy burden from us.
Pamela Cooper-White picks up on this idea of the grace of forgiveness. She says, “To be gracious is to be graced. It is a charisma, a gift of the Holy Spirit. It enables a person to let go of the person who wounded him/her, and perhaps, in time, to be less preoccupied with both the perpetrator and the wound.” Forgiving is not easy. In fact, it can be the hardest thing in life. But if we can get there, we can find a freedom like none other.
Picking up on the earlier theme about church discipline, if we can wrap our minds and hearts around forgiveness being an act of God’s grace, then we can gracefully correct and be gracefully correct. Faithful discipline is done with a view toward forgiving.
Faithful discipline offers a challenge. It offers a challenge to practice being a community of accountability and forgiveness. It doesn’t happen instantly; it isn’t one and done. It is a practice. It is a discipline.
Henri Nouwen says, “Community is not possible without the willingness to forgive one another ‘seventy-seven times’… Forgiveness is the cement of community life. Forgiveness holds us together through good and bad times, and it allows us to grow in mutual love.”
I know I need the grace of God to be part of that cement. I need that grace to gracefully correct and be gracefully correct. How about you?
 Wayne E. Oates, The Care of Troublesome People (Alban Institute, 1994), 5.
 Oates, 5.
 Oates, 6.
 Oates, 7.
 αφιημι, aphiēmi: “I send off,” “I forgive”
 Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1981), 381.
 χαριζομαι, charizomai: “I favor.”
 Pamela Cooper-White, “Forgiveness: Grace, not Work,” Journal for Preachers (32:2 Lent 2009): 20.