Conflict Resolution - Christ’s Way

Copyright © 2002, by Tim Arensmeier



A friend recently sent some comments about verses taken out of context.  I enjoyed his read and sent the following to him:


I think that another verse normally taken out of its’ context is Philippians 4:13,  I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. (KJV), and of course a few more of my favorites are to be found in Matthew 18, starting with verse 20 and proceeding backwards up to 15 where the immediate context begins. 


One frequently hears the “Where two or three are gathered together in my name I am with them, and since there are more than three of us here tonight, aren’t we glad that Christ’s promise is that he is here!?”  It’s as though there must be a quorum before anyone may be blessed with the awareness of the Presence of God, through His Spirit, with them.  Frogsweat!!  No quorum is necessary!


By the way, the verse begins with that interesting word, “For.”  This normally implies that something is contingent on, or the result of something else.  Hence, we must go back a verse to “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.”


That’s nice.  How ‘bout we agree together that we each need a Jaguar XJ8?  Doesn’t that qualify?  Huh?  No?  How ‘bout if we ask that our respective churches each grow 200% in two years?  That’s pretty spiritual sounding, isn’t it?  So we pray, and pray, and . . . when nothing happens, it’s obviously God’s fault.  Right?  So, faith is invalid ‘cause God doesn’t answer prayer . . .   Excuse me?!


Ah hem.  Spose we oughtta whiffle back a verse to pick up some context?  Awright! 


We then read, “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.”  That’s about a clear as mud!  You mean that if we determine that skirts should not be allowed to be higher than a woman’s ankles, God is obliged to ratify that in heaven?!


That’s what the verse says!  Isn’t it?


Ahh. . . .   No.  In the NASB, Williams and a few others, it is properly translated, at the verb form level to read as follows:  Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”  (Emphasis mine!  But, it’s right!)


Interesting.  It appears that Jesus is not granting some carte blanche to us humans to set rules and expect God to rubber stamp them.  Rather, isn’t He telling us that we’d best be pretty careful in what we judge, because we don’t want to make issues out of things on earth that God has not made an issue of in heaven.  We’re actually to get to know Him and His Word to the point where we are to accurately represent Him on this earth.  Novel thought.


To proceed backwards again, leaves us in the untenable position of treating someone (whom?) as a pagan or a tax collector.  Huh?


Get serious.  Start at 15, and we see that conflict resolution is at the heart of what our Savior is talking about.  It’s the discipline of one of His own over which He is concerned, and his conflict resolution idea right outta the shoot is stellar:  If your brother sins [against you isn’t in the original copies, but seems to have been added in the 4th century], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  Now that’s truly novel.


What do we most normally do when we perceive that Tom has fouled up?  Well, obviously, we tell Fred.  And, Mary.  And, Ted at work.  And . . . by the time we’ve conveyed our “concern” over Tom’s fault, around 5 or 6 times, it is truth in our minds, whether or not Tom was even in town on the day we’re alleging that he did something wrong.


Rather, our Savior suggested merely going to the person and asking them about it, just between the two of you.  That’d solve about 95% of all church conflict, right there.


Our Savior, then mentions that if he (Tom) hears you, you’ve gained your brother.  You see, the objective of this whole exercise is the reconciliation of two people, one of whom has contributed to a declension in what was an emotionally intimate relationship.  Remember, God is desirous of intimacy with us. 


The if he hears you, you’ve gained your brother phrase should be understood to mean that he (Tom) not only listens with his ears, but agrees with you, acknowledging that he did in fact do wrong, and is sorry about it, and wants to fix it so that the two of you may regain a lost intimacy.  You’ve gained your brother back, again.  He was there, absented himself by his behavior, which he acknowledges and wants to be reconciled to you again.  If that happens, he has heard you.


All right.  What if he denies that it has even happened?  Ah.  Our Savior, the ultimate realist, knowing that we’re totally infected with this thing called sin, therefore anticipating that on occasions some will not be willing to easily repent and be reconciled, proceeded into step #2 of an interesting sequence.


But if he will not listen (not meaning with his ears, but won’t repent and be reconciled . . . ) take one or two others along so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.  Interestingly, at this point Christ was quoting from Deuteronomy 19:15.  These “witnesses” are to illuminate the issue, or enlighten the subject – to make it clear, whatever is at contest between the two individuals, therefore they should not have been briefed on the matter in advance, but should hear the charge against [Tom] for the very first time, in his presence.


You see, it just could be that the person bringing the accusation is truly mistaken.  Maybe Tom wasn’t even in town that day, just as he has told you when you first brought up your observation.  It’s kind of a “check ‘n balance” system to ensure that no one is falsely accused, and drummed out of the church.


In that scenario it may be that you (the accuser) are the one needing to do the apologizing and working at being reconciled back into a relationship from which you have absented yourself by falsely judging your brother.  Interesting, isn’t it?


But, let’s pursue this as Christ did:  the accused is presented with the information in the presence of two or three neutral, non-biased witnesses (light givers), who agree with you (the original accuser/observer of sinful behavior), and they actually not only agree with you, but attempt to assist in helping Tom see the error of his way, in a loving manner.  He tells you all that he is not wrong, you all are, and virtually pushes you out of his home/office, wherever.


There’s no reconciliation.  Right?  And, that’s the objective here.


The next step in this sequence then is to tell it to the church.  Interesting.  Do you think that one of the reasons that this passage is not taught in churches very often is that the pastors don’t even know what this means?  Do you think that pastors are afraid that if they open this “bag of worms” someone will stand up in church on a Sunday morning at 11:25 a.m., and apprise the pastor that ”Elder Cumquat’s son drove his car through my lawn last night, and you’re supposed to fix it!” . . .?


I don’t know if that’s it, but I think that too often people are afraid to deal with conflict, because we’re not supposed to have any.  After all, aren’t good Christians supposed to no longer have a nature that is tainted by sin?  Haven’t you heard the testaphony, “I used to be a sinner and then I became a Christian.”  Ipso facto, I’m no longer a sinner.  Don’t I wish that were true!


However, our Savior knew mankind.  Remember, “. . . He wouldn’t entrust himself to any of them because he knew them.”  John 2:24, 25


Therefore, Christ proceeds to unfold his Conflict Resolution method.  He told his disciples that when a person is unrepentant and will not listen to anyone, the leadership of the church (not the whole church, Deuteronomy 19) should be told about the issue, and if the accused will not even listen to them, when they have tried to help him see the error of his ways, then that person is to be removed from the fellowship of the believers.


That doesn’t give license to be mean or cruel to that person.  It merely affirms that the individual has already removed himself out from under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.


Now, it’s at this point that you must be very careful.  We’re talking about the ultimate discipline that the church has at its disposal:  the excommunication of a person out of the church.  That doesn’t mean that the church consigns the accused to hell.  It merely means that the person is acknowledged to no longer wish to live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, as manifested by the leadership of that local reflection of the Church.


It is just at this point that the words of our Savior resonate with a concerned and loving heart.  It is at this point that Christ said, Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.  Be very careful.  You don’t want to remove someone from the fellowship of the saints for something which God, the Father, has not made an issue of in heaven. 


Real caution needs to be exercised.  We’re talking about a person no longer being allowed to participate in the worship of the Lord, the fellowship of the Lord’s Table, etc.  Not to be taken lightly.


Which is why the “two of you on earth agree about anything,” it will be done for you.  Meaning, that if you need wisdom in ascertaining whether or not to make an issue of something, be sure that it is a biblically clear violation of God’s holiness and honor.  Hair length probably isn’t going to qualify.  Skirt lengths are probably not going to be an issue.  Modesty is relative.  Morality is an absolute.  Adultery is not arguable.  Attending a movie has been the basis of excommunication in some circles.  Wrongly.  But, it has happened.


It’s in this context that our Lord promised that where two or three are assembled in a togetherness, looking to the Lord for wisdom to determine whether or not to excommunicate, there, in that context our Lord will uniquely bless with a special awareness of His Presence through His Spirit.


So, you see, this passage contains several verses which more often than not are taken out of context, while they are truly a very serious context in which Christ says one of the most significant things about those who claim faith in Him, whose behavior has violated His very holiness.  Be very careful, and with tears you’d better be in concert with at least two or three others in a leadership position who are looking to Christ for direction as to whether or not this matter is truly elevated to a level where it deserves “ex-communication” -- taking a person out of communion with the other believers. 


Truly serious stuff.  Not to be entered into lightly.


I trust that these reflections will prove to be of encouragement to you.  If you have questions, observations, criticisms, please don’t hesitate to let me hear from you.


Tim Arensmeier is currently pastor of the Sonoma Valley Community Church (RCA), 181 Chase Street, Sonoma, California 95476.  Telephone:  707-938-8100.  FAX:  707-933-3016


Web posted:  December 12, 2002

Updated:  July 19, 2011

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