Adaptation of talk given at St Michael-in-the-Hamlet Church, 6 September 2020
15 “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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”Jesus – Matthew 18: 15-20
No nation, community, organisation or family is without conflict. Conflict is both a facet and a fact of life.
We live in a time of heightened conflict. Conflict requires resolution. Jesus imparts to us a simple method of conflict resolution, as is recounted in the passage above from Matthew’s Gospel. This method Jesus addresses specifically to the Church – the gathered community of faith – but it can just as easily be applied to any group, organisation or institution.
Conflict Resolution: the Jesus Method Stage 1 – One-to-One
Jesus: “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.”
Conflict is caused when a wrong (or perceived wrong) is done by one person, persons or group to another.
In the first instance Jesus advises that we take our grievance directly to our adversary. If s/he listens to our complaint (and by inference we listen to their defence) then the conflict can be resolved quickly and the relationship restored.
The key here, as throughout, is the willingness to listen. So often in situations of conflict one side is not willing to listen to the other, making restitution nigh on impossible. True listening is more than mere lip service. It involves the often painful process of entering into the life experience of the other and seeking to understand what it is that may have provoked them to a particular action or wrongdoing.
Some years ago I had the privilege to sit in on a Sycamore Tree Project session at HMP Liverpool, where prisoners and victims of crime came together to try and understand each others perspectives on the crimes committed and their impact. Such initiatives can be and often are truly restorative (Restorative Justice).
Conflict Resolution: the Jesus Method Stage 2 – Mediation
Jesus: “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.”
It may be that our one-to-one engagement with an adversary reaches an impasse and fails to resolve the dispute. In which case Jesus advises that we try again and this time take one or two others with us, not to apply pressure or bolster our case, but as witnesses.
Nowadays we call such people ‘Mediators’, because they stand in the middle between two conflicting parties. Mediators are by necessity impartial. The witness of others both avoids further misunderstanding and protects against mistruths.
Conflict Resolution: the Jesus Method Stage 3 – Going Public
Jesus: “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church [community, group]…”
If our adversary still refuses to listen to the reason which we hope the mediator brings to the situation, then and only then, says Jesus, should we tell the wider community. In other words, ‘go public’.
Going public with a dispute has its advantages, mainly in terms of truth and transparency, but it also has the downside of exposing both parties in the dispute and deepening the conflict further, which is of course best avoided.
Jesus: “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church [community]; 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 [outsider].”
The final option – outcasting or excommunicating a wrong-doer – is a sign that the process has failed and that the conflict cannot be resolved (‘Gentiles’ – non-Jews – and ‘tax collectors’ were considered outcasts in Jesus’s world). Excommunication is an option, but a last resort after all other options are exhausted. Jesus never shies away from the hard decisions, nor should we.
The Church of England, for example, makes provision for ‘disfellowshipping’ people who refuse the discipline of the Church. Although sadly necessary on occasions, the invoking of such provisions is a rare occurrence. Where two or three are truly gathered in Jesus’s name and open to His Presence, it should never get this far.
It is also worth emphasising that in the Kingdom of God there is always a way back. We should never give up people entirely. Jesus was noted as a friend of outcasts. He provided a way back for them. He still does.
Cancellation or Reconciliation?
One problem with our culture currently is that we are given to rushing toward judgment and condemnation. Instead of looking to resolve conflict, instead of listening to those who have (or whom we think have) wronged us in some way, we choose to cancel them out.
This is not the Jesus Way.
It is perhaps an easier option to cancel people out before entering into a listening process with a view to resolving a conflict. The harder road is that of reconciliation.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. During that time Mandela befriended and was befriended by a number of his prison guards. One particular friend was Christo Brand, a white Africaaner who was himself avowedly pro Apartheid when the two men first met. This is the story of their friendship:
Reconciliation in practice. Nelson Mandela didn’t cancel out his former prison guard (nor his culture), although we might argue that he had every right to. Mandela gave his adversary respect and the two men became friends, listening to and learning from one another.