“We need to talk.” That’s the way the conversation started over dinner one night. I was studying abroad in college and living with two other students in the home of Bruno and Janine, a French couple in their mid-60s. Bruno’s the one who indicated the need for a chat. This couple was used to hosting students and they knew that when it came to opening their home, there needed to be some rules. These rules were posted on the back of each of our bedroom doors. “Rules of the House,” they were titled. One of the rules was that we couldn’t shower before 6 AM. Bruno needed to talk to us that night because apparently someone had showered before 6:00 and had woken up his aging mother who was visiting at the time. To this day, I still don’t know who took a shower at such an ungodly hour, but what I do know, and what you probably already know yourself, is that it’s complicated, living with other people. And I’m not even necessarily talking about under the same roof, though that’s certainly where the challenges become the most evident. It’s complicated simply living on the same planet with other people. And, if we were ever to encounter life on another planet, I’m pretty sure that co-existing in the same solar system, or universe, would prove just as difficult. It’s like we human beings were designed for conflict…or…that we fell into it some way and couldn’t help ourselves.
You don’t have to read that far into the Bible before you get to the first incident of conflict. “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” God asks Adam and Eve. And you know how the story goes. Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent, though we all know that neither one of them is entirely without fault. Conflict is part of “the fall”–into sin or away from God or however you want to explain it. It’s representative of our separation from God and our sinful nature. But if anything’s clear, in the pages of the Bible that follow that initial spat between Adam and Eve, it’s that God is deeply concerned about reconciliation. In fact, a good portion of those pages address God’s own desire for us to be in healthy relationships with both God and one another.
Jesus’s instructions in Matthew 18 are one tool we might use for addressing such conflict. There are four steps to these instructions. Step 1: Confront the person one-on-one; Step 2: Confront the person with two or three witnesses; Step 3: Tell it to the church; Step 4: Treat the person as if he were a tax-collector or Gentile–that is, as someone to be considered an outcast; cut off. The steps are progressive; if the first steps fails, you progress to the second, and so on.
My guess is that you’ve practiced two or three out of four of these instructions in your own life. Maybe you’re like Bruno and had to confront someone who broke a rule. Maybe you’ve even had to participate in what we might think of as an “intervention,” bringing a person with whom you’ve had a disagreement before two or three others. You may have even felt the need to treat someone as a Gentile or tax collector–to write him or her off as someone with whom you simply can’t be in relationship–someone with whom you are now estranged, with whom you don’t speak, with whom you don’t have any contact.
What seems less likely, at least from my experience of having grown up in the church and having been a pastor now for eight years, is that you’ve done Step 3 and taken an issue with another person to the church. In fact, when I started thinking about Jesus’ instructions here, I couldn’t even picture what this would look like. Maybe some sort of pastoral counseling, but that seems more along the lines of Step 2 and having one witness, the pastor. Some churches have policies for dealing with difficult behavior and conflict, but I’ve never seen such a policy enacted. What typically happens, if there is conflict within a congregation, is that someone leaves the church before giving reconciliation a fair try. In other words, we tend to jump from either Step 1 or Step 2 of Jesus’ instructions to Step 4. We skip the step that allows the church to play much of a role.
It’s easier I think (don’t you?) to write someone off rather than invest time and energy in maintaining the relationship. And I don’t want to overgeneralize here–there are certainly situations when ending a toxic relationship might be necessary, and that’s okay. But this step says a lot about God, and a lot about God’s gift of the church, and God’s intention for the church.
First, it says that God really must care for us and must truly long for us to live in peace with one another. I know it doesn’t always seem worth the time and energy, but I believe with my whole heart that God has our best intentions in mind. Jesus would want this for us if he didn’t know that it was worth it. It’s like he knows that true reconciliation, as difficult as it can sometimes be, is a joy-filled event. And if you think about it, you know that it’s true. If you have restored a relationship with someone, you know it’s a lot better than the heartache of a broken one.
This also says a lot about God’s gift of and intention for the church. I have no brilliant ideas as to what Step 3 might look like in practice. Certainly some sort of council that oversees situations of conflict and difficult behavior seems a tad legalistic if not also a bit out of date. I suppose that taking this step seriously leads us to listen more carefully to God’s words of forgiveness for ourselves. It also directs us toward better communication with one another. It calls for respecting each other as fellow beloved children of God. And it encourages the practice of breathing so that our breath and trust in God completely overhauls our knee-jerk reactions and fear of being wrong. Most of all, though, I think it helps us rediscover the church as a gift from God and as a safe and holy place for conflict. It’s a place where it’s okay to be wrong, where it’s okay to confront in a respectful manner, where it’s okay to disagree, where it’s okay to make mistakes, and where it’s okay to ask for and grant forgiveness. More importantly, it’s a place of incredible possibility and a birthplace for reconciliation.
Plus, if we don’t practice this in the church, then where else will we?
It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Forgiveness and reconciliation often appear foolish and cowardly to outsiders. And while we know we should, and sometimes can, carry these practices outside these walls, this is the place where they are deeply rooted in who we are as followers of Jesus.
One final note on Jesus’ final instruction to let one who does not listen to a complaint “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”: These were certainly marginalized characters, but if you remember, Jesus had friends who were both. Matthew himself was a tax collector. And remember Zaccheas who “was a wee little man and wee little man was he”? Also a tax collector. Like I said, we can’t underestimate what’s possible with God.
These are very polarizing times in our country and world–black vs. white, Republican vs. Democrat, citizen vs. dreamer/immigrant, refugee. This kind of polarization makes it tempting to give up on relationship, but that is not what God calls us to do. Yes, it’s exhausting. No, it’s not easy. But Jesus invites us to imagine what might be possible if the church took its role seriously and became a safe place for conversation, forgiveness, and healing. Imagining these possibilities is what I call hope. God invites us to imagine them together and then to act as if we believed 100% in their reality. Amen.