Aaron Malone in writing about the Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers win had this headline, “Super Bowl XXIX: Steve Young gets the monkey off his back.” As Aaron Malone wrote about the game, “The game started with a bang for the 49ers. On the third play of the game, Young found Rice for a 44-yard score. The fireworks were underway. The Chargers punted on their first possession, and Young took four plays to return the football the opponent’s end zone. A 51-yard pass to Watters gave the team their second touchdown in under five minutes and a 14-0 lead.” The 49ers went on the win 49 to 26. The monkey of Joe Montana’s legacy was off Steve Young’s back. He finally would take his team to Super Bowl gold.
You may wonder where in the world is this post going? We will talk about how we handle conflict in the church impacts the witness we present to the world. I have seen Matthew 18 handled well in congregations and dealt with inadequately in others. I led an elder training seminar with a pastor friend of mine, and this issue of dealing with complaints and gossip about the pastor came up. As we discussed following the example of Matthew 18, there was an uncomfortable number of blank stares in the room. To review here is the passage.
15 This is what you do if one of your brothers or sister’s sins against you: go to him, in private, and tell him just what you perceive the wrong to be. If he listens to you, you’ve won a brother. (The Voice)
There is in many church constitutions a process for church discipline. However, do not lose sight of the purpose of the discipline. It is not to punish a person, but to restore a fallen brother or sister and to heal the entire Christian community. It should not be entered into lightly or in a heavy-handed manner. What we pray for at the end of this process is to have two believers reconciled, and the body of Christ witness forgiveness and healing.
So, let’s dig deeper in the what some have called “The gentlest of the four steps of church discipline.” The beginning level:
- Go to the one who offended you in private.
The idea of talking one-on-one with the person who upset you may become a major sticking point. Our natural tendency is to skip this step altogether. It is easier to advance to the “bring the issue to others” step. Let’s just get everything out in the open. Go and find two or three witnesses to deal with an erring brother or sister. That is understandable. We are dealing with hurt feelings. There is a personal pain. We want someone to hear us and fix it. A word of caution, be aware that the person you are trying to help is dealing with his or her pain and may not be ready to be rational. That individual was offended and hurt. When we skip this critical step and go outside a private conversation, everyone except the individual who hurt them seems to know about this situation.
Taking this approach puts the unity of the community in jeopardy. And because we want to preserve harmony and we are good caring Christian people, we want to help them, so we offer to take the monkey off their backs and put it on ours. Warning, Warning “Don’t take the monkey!” It is not your monkey. You don’t owe it to the person to take their monkey. It hurts the church’s community and harmony for you to take their monkey. They need to go and deal with their monkey. This is a critical first step in the process of reconciliation.
- Preserve the dignity of the straying brother.
If we take their monkey, we rob people who have erred the opportunity to confess that sin in private and receive forgiveness of that sin. Also, this increases the likelihood that the request for a meeting will be perceived lovingly. As opposed to the very first time you hear about the incident is in front of something akin to the Spanish Inquisition. At this point, a person’s natural tendency is to become defensive or aggressive when they feel attacked or threatened. Not the ideal way to bring about reconciliation and healing.
- The objective of the meeting: Show the straying brother or Sister their sin.
We must go into every confrontation assuming that the end goal will be confession and forgiveness. Assuming that what offense has occurred, was not done with willful intent, but is possibly a matter of negligence, or that we wrongly perceived the person’s actions. We pray that when this is brought to the attention that the straying brother or sister will respond with Christian love.
- Reconciliation and healing are our goals in the meeting.
In the section of Scripture immediately following Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus has this conversation with Peter. “21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked him, “Lord, how often do I have to forgive a believer who wrongs me? Seven times?” 22 Jesus answered him, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy times seven.” (GWN)
You have to love just how dense Peter comes across in Scripture because it means there is still hope for me. The question he is asking is, how far do my grace and forgiveness have to go? Seven times far exceeds the rabbinic maxim of forgiving three times. Peter is saying to Jesus, “So once a brother or sister has crossed that magical line, we can write them off right, Lord?” And Jesus responds to this by saying there is no limit to forgiveness. He is pointing Peter back to God’s approach to forgiveness. “And at what point can God write you off?” He doesn’t! God’s forgiveness is unlimited. So, for us who are disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, our forgiveness also has no limits. Our goal in reconciliation is to get to the point of forgiveness. That is the end goal, not just once, but seven times seventy.