Mending Fences Part 2, September 17, 2017

Second Baptist Church Lincoln

 Sept. 17, 2017

                                                      Mending Fences:  Part II

Matthew 18:15-20 (NIV)
15  "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
16  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'
17  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18  "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19  "Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.
20  For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."

How much time do we spend in conflict?  It seems like much of our daily lives are wrestling with one type of conflict or another.  It started back with Cain and Abel.  You remember the story – the first two brothers in recorded history argued because God favored Abel’s sacrifice more than Cain’s.  You know how the story ends – with the first murder – and seems brothers (and even brothers and sisters) have been at each other’s throats ever since.

When I was in seminary, I was a Christian Education major and the professor, and much of our curriculum, argued that we should be leading our children in “non-competitive: games.  Cooperative Games were popular at that time, teaching children to work together for a common solution.  Being who I am, a bit of an outspoken rebel, I decided to challenge that way of thinking.  I was an athlete at heart and had just come out of college wrestling.  I loved competition.  So as I raised my hand and spoke my mind about  the importance of competition and how it builds character and resilience in young people, the professor said, “Fine, write me a paper about it.”   So I did.   I wrote a paper showing the entire Old Testament, at least in the patriarchal period in Genesis, was one competition after another.  Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and on the list goes.  Conflict is part of life, and the best we can do is learn to deal with it, because we are never going to eliminate it.

I’ve had my share of conflicts.  While we like to think of our childhood as a Normal Rockwell painting of tranquil gatherings around a Thanksgiving turkey, most of us recognize that our childhood was much different than that.  Some of my earliest memories were of us kids teasing each other, tattling on each other, and generally not getting along very well.  My brother and I would be wrestling in the living room and my mom shouting, “Watch out for that lamp!”  Don’t get me wrong, I love my siblings, but you know how it is. It seems like there was always conflict. There are the typical childhood conflicts, but then there are the real adult conflicts destabilize homes, that become a distraction in the workplace, and cause deep dysfunction in churches. 

Problems or conflict in churches most often are the result of a sense of unfairness.  Let’s say a congregation makes a decision to make a major change.  Someone who is typically part of that decision-making process and likes to stay informed, but somehow didn’t have a voice in the matter.  The decision was made without their knowledge or input.  Very likely, they feel a sense of injustice that their voice was not heard.  They feel entitled to provide input since they have been a member of the congregation for a long time.  They feel like they have been wronged, and they lost power.  This is typical of churches, city councils, state legislatures, corporate offices, non-profit groups, families, or even little league teams.  It happens between neighbors when one neighbor cuts his own hedge, but the neighbor thought he should have input since it makes his property look shabby.

Conflict is the cause of so much pain that exists or has existed in the world.  Conflict usually comes about for two reasons.  1.)  You have something I want and you won’t give it to me, or 2.) you have offended me and I must do something about it.  I must find justice. That is what we’re going to look at today – in a very well-known section of Matthew that we’re going to look at in a new way.   If you have been a Christian for any length of time you are no doubt familiar with this section of the gospel. It is so common, in fact, that I hear people use this as a verb, "I need to Matthew 18 them," as if there is some magic formula or regulation contained here. I want to correct some misconceptions about Matthew 18. The first thing is that this is for the church – not for the world. Jesus has different standards for when the people in the world around us sin.   So here are four steps that Jesus teaches in Matthew 18 for “when your brother offends you”.

I.  Step 1 – The One on One
You earn the right to correct.  You can’t just blow someone off – you’ve got to establish a relationship of trust so that you can take someone aside and tell them – "you need to watch this area of your life."   A quiet face-to-face is better than a public rebuke or worse yet – gossip.  When a person is confronted publically, they become resistant and embarrassed.  They have lost face in the community.  Often when we see someone sinning we react by shunning them or talking about them behind their backs instead of quietly, privately, confronting the problem. This idea of face-to-face privately is good for churches because it saves church leaders from having to intervene when hurt feelings get out of hand.

The rewards are great but so are the risks.  We need to be very careful before we take our concerns to another – even one on one. This whole system dovetails nicely with what Paul told the Galatian church – but listen to his words in chapter 6 closely.  (Gal 6:1-2) “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  Quite often the reason we see things in others is that these same things reside in us. Make sure you have dealt with your own problems in life first and are ready to help others without yourself being tempted. Remember the illustration by Jesus?  Matthew 7:4-5:    4 How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?   5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.   A person who has a problem with anger should not be trying to tell another person about their anger problem until they have allowed the Lord to deal with their own problem first.

Step 2 – "Take someone with you."

If you are rejected by the person you have approached, alone – it’s time to bring in a few others. It’s not clear whether the others are meant to bring additional evidence or just be there to witness the one on one encounter – so that later on, the person who has sinned can’t do a "my word against yours" kind of thing.

Jesus uses Deuteronomy 19:15: 15 One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.  It’s one thing to accuse someone privately – I’ve had it done to me – but when there are others around the accusations can be challenged.

Step 3 – Bring the person before the church

Thirdly, Jesus says that if the face to face or bringing a witness doesn’t work to resolve the sin, then bring the person before the congregation.  We do not often do this and fortunately, we have not had reason to do this in our congregation.  It is a drastic step toward reconciliation.  The idea is that the church congregation has more authority and validity than a couple of individuals. 

This is not practiced much within our American Baptist Churches and in some more conservative Churches, it is over practiced.  It seems that now days if a congregation confronts an individual, they just go across town to another church and cause trouble there. 

Matthew 18 suggests another step – a fourth step.  “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as a tax collector.”  If the person "blows off" the church, presumably the church leadership, then Jesus says to treat them as a pagan or tax collector.  Here is where churches make another mistake. Churches down through the ages have used this as the justification for excommunication. But look at the purpose of all of this – “so that the person might repent and turn from sin.”   What does it mean to treat him like a tax collector?  

There was a man in a congregation in our region who was a trouble maker.  The church went through years of conflict.  Finally our Department of Ministry (Which I served as the chair), went in and did a conflict resolution process. But even long after the rest of the congregation was busily working on getting along and resolving the issues that had led to the conflict, this one man would continue to undermine everything.  He served on one of the boards.  The morning after the board meeting, he would be down at the coffee shop expounding on the confidential issues of the meeting the night before.  People in the congregation were hearing about the problems in their own congregation from people down on Main Street.  Time went on and we hired a new region Executive, Dr. Riley Walker.  This stuff was still going on in that church and Riley showed up one day.  He went over to the man’s house with a couple of the leaders from the church and he said, “You will need to find a new church because you are no longer welcome here.  You have disrupted this congregation for the last time and it will not continue.” 

The man found a different church to torment and the church has been healing ever since.   That is an extreme case.  Usually the goal of bringing the person before the congregation is to resolve the problem and restore the person.  Sometimes, though, the person is so filled with evil that it is a cancer in the body of Christ and they must be released. 

To sum up, then, let me make a few general statements about conflict resolution. 
A.  Conflict should be dealt with, not ignored.
B.  Conflict should be dealt with personally whenever possible.
C.  The idea of conflict resolution is to see repentance, not punishment.
D.  We need to make sure conflicts are real, not just offenses.
E.  We should practice great forgiveness – keeping in mind that for which we have been forgiven.

What happens when we let conflict go unresolved? It grows into broken relationships, and broken churches.  What happens when we don’t forgive? We stunt our growth, cause hurt in another brother, and weaken the church.  Yet just as brothers and sisters should get along – we can, by dealing with conflict properly and in love. Amen.