Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

In my last post I discussed the set up for Jesus guidance concerning what to do if someone sins against you. In this post I’ll examine step one of his advice. Here, once again, is the whole passage from Matthew 18:15-17:

“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. 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. 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.” (Matthew 18:15-17, NRSV)

Go

Jesus envisions a case in which the offended party needs to go to meet the person who sinned. Presumably this would be a situation in which you heard about something someone had had done or said against you when you weren’t physically present, or, if you were present at the time of the incident, you weren’t able to confront the person on the spot.

Lego-church-chancel-5.jpg

Notice, and this is key, that you should go to the person who wronged you even when you are the victim. This completely overturns the common wisdom that says, “Since I was the victim, I’m going to wait for that person to come to me.” There is no room for this sort of game among the disciples of Jesus. Even when you are the victim of another’s sin, you should be the one who goes and initiates reconciliation. (Photo: This is the only church I know in which people do not sin against each other. Of course if you look closely at the congregation of the Abston Church of Christ, you’ll notice that the people are all Lego, as is the church building.)

“Go” along with “when the two of you are alone” assumes a face-to-face encounter. Of course Jesus didn’t live in a time when people had phones, e-mail, and other technologically-advanced means of communication. But in his world, there were still indirect ways to communication, letters and envoys. But Jesus says “go.” This suggests that, when at all possible, a face-to-face meeting is required. Now I realize this can be a scary prospect. Many of us would greatly prefer the safety of a letter or an e-mail note. But I believe these less personal means of communicating miss the spirit of Jesus advice. The only time, it seems to me, that an indirect conversation would be preferable is when the parties simply can’t get together.

As a pastor, I’ve watched people use letters and e-mail to confront others, and almost every single time this strategy fails utterly. E-mail is an especially bad vehicle for confrontation because it moves so quickly and can be written, sent, and received in anger. I used to tell my church members that they should never use e-mail to communicate something negative unless it’s no big deal. This would completely eliminate e-mail as a means of fulfilling Matthew 18.

Point Out the Fault

The NRSV translates a single Greek verb (elencho) as “point out the fault.” This verb can also mean “convict” or “rebuke.” It conveys directness, though not haughtiness or self-righteousness. Jesus is saying, “Tell the person who wronged you exactly what he or she did. Be direct.”

Notice, and this is crucial, that you are to focus on the particular sin. You are NOT to throw in lots of other sins to augment your case. In my pastoral experience, I’ve watched people confront others directly. But then, to buttress their case, they add lots of other things that the person has done wrong, or cite other people who have had a problem with the individual being confronted. The net result of this is always defensiveness and confusion. So, if you’re going to follow Jesus advice, be direct and clear.

Notice also that you are to focus on the sinful action. This is not a time to comment on someone’s general character. Again, it’s tempting to do this, but rarely helpful. If somebody has lied to you, for example, don’t try to make the case that he or she is, in general, a liar. Keep to the specific infraction.

When the Two of You Are Alone

Jesus surely understands human nature, doesn’t he? How tempting it would be to confront a brother or sister in front of others! Then others will know how wrongly we’ve been treated. But Jesus shuts out this option. We’re to speak in private, keeping the matter between ourselves and the one who has wronged us.

In my experience as a pastor, I have found that when most people are hurt by others, their first impulse is not to return hurt directly, but rather to do it indirectly, especially through gossip. They tell their friends and supporters. They “share” their concern in a prayer request. They do just about anything other than what Jesus says we ought to do. The result, naturally, is a situation made worse: more sin, more hurt, more mess.

So if somebody sins against you, why not follow the wisdom of the Master: “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

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