In Matthew 18:15–20 Jesus outlines a very clear and specific way for conflict to be addressed. This is based upon that fact that relationships between people are very important to God. We should have the maturity to follow Christ's powerful wisdom in this area. There are four steps involved in Jesus’s reconciliation process:
Step 1: Go in private.
Jesus clearly explained that the first step to resolving conflict is to go privately to the one with whom you have an offense and seek to restore the relationship. Here, believers explain to one another the wrongdoing and its consequences—“go and tell him his fault” (v. 15)—and offer to give and receive forgiveness. The goal is not to blame or to win the argument, but to “gain your brother” (v. 15).
Since Jesus says we must first go in private, this means that no other step in the process should come before this one. Indeed, the first thing to do is the best and most effective thing to do. Why? Because this first principle holds the potential to preempt all the other steps. If people would simply follow this one clear point of order, two-thirds of conflicts in churches could go away.
The benefits to practicing this difficult yet simple action are twofold: (1) conflict is resolved quickly (conflict intensifies the longer it lingers), and (2) conflict is resolved privately (conflict intensifies when more people are involved). Consequently, this first step offers the most protection to the church’s unity.
There are two unique applications of this text that I have personally practiced: First, when people come to me as a leader with an offense or a problem they have with someone in the church, my initial question is, “Have you gone to and spoken to this person who offended you?” Many times the answer is no. My response is simple: “By the clear teaching of Scripture, I cannot entertain conversations about someone else until you have gone to that person first yourself.”
If they are willing to go, I instruct them on the attitudes necessary for the mature believer in resolving conflict, and we pray together for their meeting. If they are unwilling to go and speak to the other in private, I admonish them of the importance in God’s eyes of doing this and try to help them envision the positive possibilities and benefits of the encounter. If they are still unwilling, I pray with them and move on in my heart without engaging this conflict again—unless it becomes more serious and more widely known (see the principles below). In obedience to Christ, my first obligation is to make sure that we as a church follow Jesus’s unambiguous plan.
Second, when conflict develops toward me (or in me toward others), I apply this principle in a rather literal way. Sometimes I will receive an e-mail noting how I have offended someone. I have learned the hard way not to resolve conflict via e-mail. Typed text is often misunderstood because people assign meaning and emphasis to words in a way the writer never intended. People are also much more courageous behind a keyboard and will type things they would never say face-to-face. Typed words are permanent—and we shouldn’t do anything permanently stupid because we are temporarily upset.
Likewise, telephone calls are not best for the purpose of resolving conflict. People cannot see facial expressions when speaking on the phone, and sometimes meaning is misunderstood. Therefore, when I receive such an e-mail, a “jab” in the hallway at church, or a voice message communicating offense, I have a simple and short reply: “Let’s please get together face-to-face to discuss this.”
Step 2: Take one or two with you.
If after a private encounter the conflict is not resolved, believers should take one or two others who may help as objective third-party facilitators (v. 16). This is not to “gang up” or accuse, but rather to clearly identify fault and to use the counsel of witnesses to impartially discuss the validity of a charge. They may be able to verify what was actually done, as well as the weight of the offense, and they can observe what is said in the conversation and how it is said.
In this sense, this step provides protection from false accusations to both the offended and the offender. These “one or two” might include a staff person from the particular area of ministry impacted, a spiritual leader respected by both parties, or even a Christian counselor who can provide wisdom and spiritual insight.
Step 3: Tell it to the church.
Since Jesus is advocating an escalating process that includes more people only as the conflict continues to exist, it is appropriate to assume that he would encourage the “need to know” nature of this process to continue even at this third level. In other words, when Jesus says “tell it to the church” (v. 17), he is not necessarily advocating a public gathering of the entire congregation. The idea is that church leadership should be involved at this point due to the possibility and necessity of formal church discipline taking place.
These leaders may then determine the degree to which the congregation should be informed, making this judgment based upon the seriousness of the offense and the level of threat to church unity. Here church leaders and/or elders may act as facilitators, giving more serious guidance to the resolution than could be done in private or with other third parties, or if unsuccessful in that, they may move on to the next level in the process of resolving conflict as prescribed in verse 17.
Step 4: Cut off the unrepentant.
Just as a commitment to restoring relationships is important to the health of a congregation, so also is the commitment of church leaders to protect God’s flock from harmful people. After great strides are made to resolve conflict in the body, there is clear teaching here from Jesus in how to handle one who is unwilling and unrepentant. This assumes that there are such people in the world.
In reality, there are people who actually do not want conflict resolved and who are unwilling to make peace. Leaders must not be so naïve as to think that there will never be people who, whether willfully or subconsciously, will attack and hurt a church family if left unchecked. Such folks should be dealt with shrewdly and always with the motivation to protect God’s church. Here, although restoration has not taken place, the conflict has been resolved and dealt with conclusively.
We must understand that while reconciliation here is the goal, it does not always occur. Consequently, resolving a conflict is not always the same as reconciliation and does not always include restoration. It is resolved, but without reconciliation. This form of resolution is consistent with other New Testament teachings regarding the handling of the unrepentant (see Romans 16:17–18, 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, Titus 3:9–11, 2 Thessalonians 3:13–15).
When Jesus said regarding the unrepentant, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17), the wording is important. The idea is to treat them as you—the Jewish people of his day—would a Gentile and tax collector. Jesus certainly befriended Gentiles and tax collectors (the author or this gospel being one) and encouraged love toward them as outsiders. But he knew how his audience looked upon such people, and using the way they isolated themselves from these individuals as an example, he instructs the church to separate from the unrepentant believer.
The Process Results: Confidence and Christ’s Presence
Jesus instills great confidence in those who walk through the conflict resolution process by assuring them that when it is practiced as he prescribes, all outcomes can be trusted to the Lord (vv. 18–19). Whatever is decided by the church regarding believers and their conflict is connected to heavenly authority and approval: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 18).
If a repentant one is restored, that one’s restoration is sealed in heaven as well. If one is unrepentant and thus expelled, heaven affirms such decisions—provided, of course, that this progression has taken place with the goal of forgiveness and redemption.
Moreover, when Jesus’s process is followed, Christ promises his presence in and through it. Verse 20 is often quoted as a promise regarding prayer: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” However, the biblical context reveals that the promise relates to conflict resolution.
Through his Holy Spirit, Christ is powerfully present when believers meet together for the purpose of making relationships right! When his followers meet to exchange forgiveness and pray together for reconciliation, Christ is “all in” these kinds of encounters. His heart remains close to those who follow his clear instructions to restore relationships, and even when such meetings do not produce reconciliation, leaders can walk away fully assured that what was decided on earth is affirmed in heaven and that God is in the midst of their efforts.