On Matthew 18, Broken Relationships, and Reconciliation
We need to admit with a measure of shame that there is a great difference between the Saviour’s dealings with us and the way we often deal with each other. And it need not be! We have a process given us so that wounds may be healed, relationships mended and sins forgiven. We have all been hurt. We have all found ourselves on the receiving end of someone else’s sin. But we have just two options. We forbear—which is to say that we forgive them and treat them as if it never happened—or we bring it privately to them.
*[Author’s] Note: As I write about sin and reconciliation, I am not referring to sins of the Church or churches (collectively or in general). I am referring, rather, to the private or public sins of individual people within the Church. While letters/blogs/posts are worthy of public reply, if the ‘offence’ caused by the writer has brought about a breach in the relationship Matthew 18 should be followed.
We have a hard time dealing with sin and offence in the Church. This difficulty can be explained both by pride and an inadequate understanding of grace. But it can also be explained by a simple failure to follow the process outlined in Matthew 18.
In Matthew 18:15 Jesus tells us the first step that is to be taken: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee thou hast gained thy brother.” Here I want to over that first step.
It is worth observing that Jesus is not speaking about what to do when you know that you have wounded someone else. It is assumed that knowing what you have done wrong you will ask their forgiveness. Here Jesus is describing what must happen when you believe someone has sinned against you or at very least has caused you offence.
Still, before you even get to this stage—before you decide to go to that person—you need to make a decision. You don’t always have to go to them and tell them everything they have done wrong. You can choose to forbear.
What does that mean?
For many forbearing means saying nothing because they don’t want to seem petty. So, they don’t say anything to the person who has offended them, but they either hold on to the grudge or they tell someone else. Forbearance is something else entirely. It is the deliberate choice to set the sin (or offence) aside as though it never happened. In tender-heartedness we forgive and behave toward the person as though we were never offended.
Here, then, is the choice that is set before you. You can take offense at what has been done and begin then to deal with it according to the rules laid out in Matthew 18 or you hold your peace. But if you’re going to hold your peace that means dismissing it as though it never happened. It doesn’t get spoken of to your close friends, it doesn’t remain a grudge you nourish, and it doesn’t become a barrier to the relationship. In other words, its done and over with. You have put it behind you in the same spirit that Jesus took your sins and buried them in the deepest sea. Again, as far as you are concerned it didn’t happen.
I want you to see that there is a sense in which God has hemmed us in. We have just two options. Either we forbear and forgive or we go directly to the person who has sinned against us. There is no third option.
If I had to pin (unnecessary) division in the church on just one thing it would easily be this: It would be the failure so common in the Church to follow this simple first step of going to those who have hurt us and telling them and telling them alone.
Sadly, we often refuse either one of these options. We do not tell them, but neither do we forbear. Instead, while skipping Matthew 18 entirely, we tell someone else. But what is gained when that is done? Paul says that we are to minister grace with our words. We are to speak in order to edify. When we speak to wound and not to heal, when we bypass Matthew 18 and instead spread the news of what has happened to others how have edified the fallen brother? How have we ministered grace?
When someone has come to me with news of someone’s else sin I have learned on principle to send them away. They must first go privately to the person who has offended them. In the same way I am learning, on principle, that when others think ill of me I can do nothing until they follow the steps outlined in Matthew 18. Consider your own reaction to news that rumours (about you) abound. How do you respond to slander? How do you react when you learn that someone else is offended by you? You may sometimes find yourself in a situation where you get the ‘sense’ that something is wrong, though you cannot pinpoint the issue. You may have observed that a relationship has changed for the worse though you don’t know why. You may have heard from another source that someone is offended with you. We have all experienced this kind of thing, and it is frustrating. But until that person comes to us there is nothing we can do except pray. The responsibility at this point is theirs. It behooves them to come to us privately—and come with something specific.