[Note: This is the text for a speech given 02/23/2014 at the Portland UCG Spokesmen’s Club. Special thanks to R.B. for reading over the original draft of this speech and making comments.]
We all have conflicts, and often we struggle with ways to resolve those conflicts well. Even if our primary desire is not to win an argument or fight but rather to restore and rebuild damaged and broken relationships, it is not always an easy or a straightforward manner to go about seeking reconciliation. Even the quotation of a familiar passage dealing with conflict resolution, Matthew 18:15-17, does not resolve our problem. It reads: “Moreover, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” How are we to understand this passage, and what are some practical lessons that we can apply and put into action from this passage in our own lives and in our own conflicts?
Let us try to understand what this passage is saying. The context of the passage, in Matthew 18, is dealing with the issue of offenses and forgiveness. This context includes warnings against striving over political power, warnings about the severity that God treats those who cause offenses, a parable that shows how much effort God has in rescuing lost sheep, the passage on conflict resolution, as well as the importance of forgiving others in light of the forgiveness that God has given us. The passage itself gives a three-step model for seeking to reconcile with an offending brother (or sister). Step one: when we are offended by what someone else has done, we should go to them personally to seek reconciliation. Step two: if the offending brother does not hear us, we bring along witnesses of our good faith, in the hope that honest mediation can help the difficulties. Step three: If this is unsuccessful, then bring it to the church for the matter to be addressed, and if the person does not listen to the church, they are to be treated as an unbeliever. Let us remember, though, that treating someone like an unbeliever means still loving them and being patient with them in the hopes that God will open their eyes and allow them to repent and apologize for their offenses.
How can we apply this passage in our own difficulties with others? First, let us understand that we need to take some initiative when are offended to communicate with our brethren who have offended us. There may be times when for reasons of safety or propriety that someone cannot speak alone with the person who caused offense, but there can be no excuse for a lack of open and honest and considerate communication between brethren. Our aim should not be browbeating but rather an honest explanation of concern and offense and a desire for communication and reconciliation. We will certainly not be perfect in avoiding offense or in dealing with conflicts, but with practice and the help of God through His Holy Spirit as well as the help of others, we can improve in such matters so that we can resolve offenses early and at the lowest possible level of difficulty. Since we have no shortage in difficulties in our lives, we have no shortage of opportunities to practice our skills at resolving such difficulties as Jesus Christ commands.
In Matthew 18:15-17 we have a clear but often forgotten model of resolving conflicts. First, we need to understand the seriousness of unity and brotherly love within the brethren, by understanding the broader context of conflict resolution in its relationship with issues such as offenses as well as forgiveness. Then, let us understand how the process of biblical conflict resolution allows us to solve problems earlier through developing godly communication skills as well as an interest in resolving problems and restoring relationships at the lowest possible level, before they become overwhelmingly large difficulties. Let us also remember to always treat others with love and respect, regardless of whether we are actually able to resolve our difficulties with others. These principles are not so difficult for us to understand. Therefore, let us go and apply them in our lives as best as we are able.