When our son was studying the cello, he had a great teacher. Mr. Howard taught his students more than good playing technique. He also taught them skills that could transfer from music to other areas of life. So when our son struggled with a difficult passage, Mr. Howard taught him a problem solving process for “learning the hard parts” of a piece that could work in non-music situations, too. The process had four steps. The first two concentrated on the problem itself, and the last two focused on the solution. Albert Einstein once said something about being given an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes on the problem, and five minutes on the solution, but Mr. Howard’s method was not limited by time. Here are the steps:
- Identify the problem
- Isolate it
- Innovate possible solutions
- Implement a solution
If the solution doesn’t work, go back to the beginning and start over. Identify, Isolate, Innovate, and Implement. It was a great way to help a young music student concentrate on the few notes or measures that needed fixing, and our son still remembers the four steps of the process, nearly a decade after his lessons with Mr. Howard have ended. No doubt, he still uses these four steps on a regular basis.
But problem-solving strategies don’t always work when the problem at hand is really a conflict between two people. When those two people are both followers of Jesus, resolving the conflict between them has to reflect that they are children of God, who live together as members of the body of Christ.
Today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is part of a larger teaching on how to live in the Kingdom of God. In this passage, Jesus teaches us how to resolve conflicts so we can live together in peace. In the United Methodist Church we call this process the Rule of Christ, and our Staff/Pastor Relations Committee is formulating a guide to help us follow the Rule of Christ here in our own congregation. The Rule of Christ reminds us that we do not do this thing called ministry alone. We are in community together, and because we are all sinners, it means we are going to bump up against each other from time to time. We are going to disagree with one another from time to time. We are going to hurt each other occasionally. When that happens, Jesus gives us a means for getting reconnected, for making peace, for becoming whole again.
Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, verses 15-20.
“If another member of the church 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.But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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.
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
In the first few verses, Jesus gives us a process for working out our differences that seems to be as simple as Mr. Howard’s problem solving method. While the four steps of the Rule of Christ don’t exactly line up with Identify, Isolate, Innovate, and Implement, they come pretty close. But the process itself is a little different. Instead of discreet steps, the Rule of Christ follows a progression that begins small, and grows larger only if it needs to:
- Start by addressing the one who has hurt you face-to-face. Whenever someone wrongs you, go immediately to them and tell them what is bothering you.
- If that doesn’t work, bring along a witness who can also act as mediator or advocate.
- If that doesn’t work, call on the resources of the larger church.
- If you still can’t convince the other person to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This sounds like one of those sayings that must have been its own catch phrase in first century Palestine, doesn’t it? We’ll come back to that in a moment.
Before we can even go to the one who has hurt us, though, Christ encourages us to do a little soul-searching, to recognize our own part in the conflict. Earlier in chapter 18, Jesus tells us to cut off any part of our own bodies that cause us to sin. To do that, we have to recognize our own sinfulness. So before we can address sin in another, Jesus calls us to look at ourselves. Answering a few questions can help us gain clearer understanding, avoid overreacting, and move us toward wholeness.
The first question we should ask ourselves is, “Can I let it go?” If the offense is minor, and you can honestly let it go, there is no reason to confront the other person. There is no reason to create conflict where it doesn’t already exist outside our own minds. But if you know this is going to keep bothering you, it’s time to ask another question: “What might the other person think I have contributed to this problem?” Taking the time to see things from the other person’s viewpoint can help us recognize what we need to take responsibility for, before we confront another. And asking, “what does God see?” can give us an even broader perspective. This broader view helps us see the issue more objectively, and prevents us from allowing anger and fear to cloud our vision as we work toward resolution. We may discover that the problem we have is really within ourselves, and we can avoid causing distress in others and in the church through our own repentance and discipleship.
But sometimes, that self-examination shows me that I really have been hurt by another, and allowing that wound to fester will not lead to healing. Then I must get up and go to the one who has hurt me, and tell that person what is wrong. The purpose of this step is not to get even or express my anger. The purpose here is to resolve the conflict. As I work to understand the other person’s point of view, the goal is for us to work together to come up with solutions.
Sometimes, two people simply cannot agree, and when that is the case, Jesus urges us to bring in some help. An advocate or witness can offer yet another viewpoint, and may be able to point out possibilities that the two parties in conflict might not have been able to see. This could be church staff, or the SPRC, if the conflict is with a member of the church staff, or someone from the Church Board. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to draw on the larger church. The conference offers resources for conflict resolution, and the district superintendent can also be a resource. But if we’ve followed the Rule of Christ with integrity, no church conflict should ever come to this “last resort” stage. Jesus encourages us to solve the problem as simply and directly as possible, before it becomes a full-blown crisis of the church.
Here’s something to ponder: that word “church” only appears twice in all the gospels, and both of them happen in Matthew. Jesus also uses the word “church” in chapter 16, when he gives Simon the name “Peter.” Both of these passages that include the word “church” also promise that what is bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Jesus emphasizes that what we say and do here on earth is connected to what happens in heaven. Resolution and agreement reflect a heavenly ideal of the “unity” in “community,” and Christ promises to be with us as we seek to resolve our conflicts with one another. Christ is present among us as we work out what it means to live in the Kingdom of God, loving one another in Christ’s name, seeking each other’s good, showing the world what it means to live in peace.
Jesus isn’t saying that we have power to dictate what will be acceptable in heaven by what we choose here on earth, any more than he is saying that we can ask for any whim to be satisfied, and simply tack on the words “in Jesus’ name” to get what we want. Jesus says simply that he will be present in the process of seeking reconciliation, and God will honor the solution reached by two parties who actively seek God’s will. We do not do this hard work of building community by ourselves, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.
But what happens when nothing works?
Even when we follow the Rule of Christ to the letter, some issues simply cannot be resolved. In those cases, it’s best to remember our mission, let go of disappointment and anger, and move on with our ministry. We all have known churches that have been split apart by grievances that could not be resolved. When those unresolved issues become the center of a church’s attention, the wound never heals, and the church gets stuck. Even worse, when a church allows conflict to take God’s rightful place as its center of attention, conflict becomes what the church worships, instead of God. Christ’s words may seem harsh, but treating someone who will not be reconciled as “a Gentile and a tax collector” may be the only way the church itself can survive the aftermath of such a crisis.
Here we are, back at that “Gentile and a tax collector” phrase I mentioned earlier. While his disciples may have heard this as a standard expression for excluding an outcast, Christ’s practice was to include both Gentiles and tax collectors among his followers. Matthew himself was a tax collector, after all! Think about the way Jesus treated the Samaritan woman at the well, or Zacchaeus. He made himself available to all, and spent a good deal of his time and energy welcoming outcasts. When we cannot reconcile with another believer, Jesus encourages us to treat that person as an outcast, but I don’t think he’s asking us to shun those who won’t agree with us. I think he’s asking us to spend even more energy on drawing them into God’s love and forgiveness, entering into intentional community with them, engaging them in ongoing discipleship.
Because the bottom line is this: God really cares about how we treat each other, and how others treat us. God wants us to live in Kingdom harmony with one another, so that others may be drawn into this abundant life by our example. It isn’t always easy to turn God’s flashlight into our own souls to see where we might need to do a little repenting before we accuse another of sin. And it certainly isn’t easy to get up and go directly to the people who have wronged us, to speak to them face-to-face. It’s even harder to admit we can’t accomplish reconciliation on our own, and we might need some help from a broader circle of witnesses in the church. Hardest of all is admitting that, on rare occasions, reconciliation simply isn’t possible, and we have to redirect our energy back toward the work of ministry we’ve been called as a church to do.
As we ponder these words of Jesus that seem so harsh, we might wonder where forgiveness comes into the picture. Will the conflicts we must inevitably face always lead to division? Does every unresolved conflict have to end in separation, and must that separation be permanent? Come back next week, when we’ll hear more from Jesus about living in the Kingdom of God.