Offenses, Part IV: What if a conversation doesn’t work?

Someone says something that catches you off guard. It offends you. Maybe it was gossip about another person. Maybe it was sounded like they didn’t care about you. Maybe someone stole your lunch from the fridge and you know who it was. Maybe someone gossiped about you to other people. Maybe someone took over your ministry at church without asking. And maybe you tried to overlook the offense—to no avail. Maybe you went to the person to try to express your hurt, your concern, or to gain clarity about what it was they meant when they said that hurtful thing. And maybe it didn’t work

You knew it all along! Pastor Branden’s advice on his blog was junk! But wait! I never promised 100% success rate. The Bible describes the steps in the process to seek reconciliation. And that’s what we’ve been following—the process. Try to overlook. If you can’t, then go talk to the offender—approach them with a spirit of forgiveness, giving them the benefit of the doubt, in a posture of grace and mercy and have a conversation. 

But sometimes that may not turn out as you would have hoped. Maybe they actually did mean that hurtful thing but didn’t have any interest in confessing and asking forgiveness for it. Maybe the whole meeting blew up in your face. Maybe they didn’t acknowledge your hurt or their sin at all—any number of things can go wrong. What do you do now?

Well, thankfully God’s Word is sufficient for all of “faith and life” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6). Therefore, we pick up where we left off last week in Matthew 18. The whole passage we were drawing from last week reads as follows:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Matthew 18:15-17 ESV

In this passage, Jesus describes a four-step process to try to “gain your brother.” First, you and talk to the offender about what they’ve done. Try to work it out one-on-one. However, if that doesn’t work proceed to the second step: take one or two others along with you. If that doesn’t work, third, tell it to the church. Fourth, excommunication (kick them out of the church). Let’s walk through these briefly. 

Preliminary questions before the next step

After you’ve done step one and tried to talk to the person one-on-one (we’ve already talked about this step), before proceeding to the next step its always good to ask yourself one more time—is this matter worth electing to the next level? Am I still unable to ‘overlook’ or ‘cover’ the offense? If not, then proceed to step two. 

Also, some sins may be of such a nature that they cannot be ‘overlooked’ or ‘covered.’ Perhaps you seemingly witnessed a friend possibly committing adultery. Maybe you saw someone steal some money. Maybe a friend is addicted to a substance and it’s getting dangerous. Maybe a person has certain personality traits (fits of anger comes to mind) that they need help with. In the case of such serious sins, it may not be fitting to ‘overlook’ or ‘cover’ those offenses. 

It’s also important to pause here for a moment and we consider why we shouldn’t overlook an offense and carry on to the next step. It should always be coming from a deep care for the offender’s soul. In fact, that’s one of the main purposes of this process (formally called church discipline)—“the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners.” The other two reasons why it may not be fitting to ‘overlook’ or ‘cover’ an offense and proceed to the next step are “the glory of God” and “the purity of His church” (PCA Book of Church Order 27-3).

One more thing to be sure of before proceeding to the next step—it’s important to ask ourselves: Did this person commit an actual sin (against me or someone else or group of people) or did they do something I just didn’t like? Did they commit an actual sin before the Lord, or were they just not being nice? Its easy, especially in our southern culture, to confuse nice-ness with godliness. It’s easy to confuse not being nice with committing a sin. To elevate the process to the next step, we need to be as sure as we can that what the other person did was an actual sin. 

Step two: taking one or two along with you

Those things aside, what is the next step towards trying to reconcile with a brother or sister if we decide to do so? Jesus states it plainly: “take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.“ If step one doesn’t work, Jesus says “Go back with one or two others!” In other words, relationships are important enough, especially within the church, that it’s not okay to give up on them after one fight. Also, souls are important enough not to give up on after a fight. A person’s relationship with you or their relationship with Christ is at stake when an offense has been committed and the matter hasn’t been resolved. 

So, ‘take one or two others along with you.’ Why? No doubt, the goal is still the same as the first time Jesus commanded you to go: “tell him his fault.” Here are a few things to remember when carrying out the process:

Who should you take as your plus one (or two)? Obviously, you want these to be mature Christians. Paul says in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” What does Paul mean? People who have the Spirit and demonstrate fruits of the Spirit, mentioned just prior in Galatians 5:22-23, should be the ones to go with you. Perhaps these are elders or deacons in the church. Or maybe they’re just really mature, really wise members of the church. Either way, take wise, mature Christians. They may be needed as witnesses in the next step should the offender not repent. They also need to be men or women that can help move the offender towards repentance, which leads to the next important thing to remember…

Go with grace, mercy, and humility. While going this second time with a person or two along with you, you (and your fellow goers) still want to go with grace, mercy, and humility. How does Paul say to restore the brother? “In a spirit of gentleness.” Again, no conversation where any party approaches with anger and resentment will likely end well. So, go with grace, mercy, and humility. Go with gentleness. Begin the conversation with hope that it will work, that the problem can be resolved. 

What to do? What do you do when going back with one or two witnesses? Explain your hurt. Explain the perceived sin. Talk through the offense. Speak from God’s Word. Quote Scripture with grace. And trust in the Spirit to work in their hearts to produce godly sorrow, ask for forgiveness, and repent. Only the Spirit can cultivate “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Might it be awkward? It most certainly will be. However, awkwardness was never a really good excuse for not doing something biblical, commanded by Jesus.

What if it still doesn’t work? If the offender really has committed a sin (and the same is attested by the one or two witnesses) and still has not repented, move to step three. We’ll pick up there next time. 

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