Dealing with “Issues”

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Matthew 18:15-17

In the last couple of sections, Jesus has been making the case that we must not cause our brother or sister to stumble, using the metaphors of “little ones” and “sheep” to make His point, now He moves into the next, rather obvious area for discussion: What happens when one of God’s sacred children conducts him or herself in a way that isn’t all that sacred?

Touchy business.

If you noticed the NIV footnote, “sins” in verse 15 is “sins against you” in some old manuscripts, and I might add that it is “sins against you” in some translations as well. Looking at the overall context, it seems to me that it could easily go either way, depending on what we are talking about. For instance, if the person in question is a malicious gossip, but they are gossiping about you and not me, it would seem that someone needs to take the person aside, before they cause great harm in the church community and thus, to the Kingdom itself. Obviously there could be many examples of “sin” that is harmful to both individuals and the Kingdom.

How ever you may view this, the guidance Jesus gives for these delicate and awkward situations is a guidance of love, not condemnation. Notice that He says we should take the person aside (privately) and speak to them; He didn’t say that we share our observations with the world, for wouldn’t that be gossip? OK fine, if you want to be technical, it wouldn’t be gossip if we told about something we personally observed, but if it’s good stuff, the person we told is going to repeat it, and that is gossip. Gee whiz, we would be the cause of our brother’s stumble, wouldn’t we? That is why I called this a “delicate” situation.

Now, we’ve taken the person aside and spoken to them in loving concern, but they won’t listen; maybe they simply tell us that they didn’t do it, then we find another witness, and this is where things become really delicate, for how do we do that without gossip or the temptation to gossip? In my experience, most people don’t… but some manage, and here’s how they do it. They say nothing, but they remain in proximity to the situation, and sooner or later, a witness is found by patient observation. Remember, Jesus is not giving counsel on how to get even with someone; He is giving counsel on how to put love into action to restore a person to their relationship with God and the community.

If the person still refuses to repent, then He says we should “take it to the church”. In my mind, that means that we take the situation to the leadership of the church, not to make a public accusation; at least we take it to someone who is mature enough in the faith so as not to cause more damage to anyone. I realize that many people and church traditions may view this differently than I do, and that’s fine, I’ll not argue with them, this is my opinion only, but here is why I think this way; it’s in the next verse:

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (18:18)

This is where Jesus repeats these words that He had previously directed only to Peter; now He addresses them to all of the disciples, the ones who would be the leadership of the church after Pentecost. As I see it, this principle gives a great responsibility to the leaders of the church, not necessarily to the flock itself. Instead, the leadership of the church (and when I say that, I am referring to the leadership of the local congregation) has the responsibility to lead in a way that is in the best interests of everyone as they build the Body. It is not for them to justify “lining their own pockets”.

Finally, if we can’t get any results from these steps then we treat the person as a pagan or tax collector. The question is, how are we supposed to treat them? If Jesus is our example, He treated them as those who needed to hear the Gospel, the ones for whom He died; I’ve not actually seen an instance in Scripture of Jesus throwing them out into the street; have you?

In my view, this passage is one that requires maturity and wisdom, for Jesus has given us a principle without specifics as to the nature of the “sins” in question. Some things are obvious, others are subtle, and it takes maturity and wisdom to recognize the difference. Even if you have both wisdom and spiritual maturity, it is a very good idea to run this kind of situation past another person you respect and trust, without mentioning names, before you jump to any conclusions.

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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24 Responses to Dealing with “Issues”

  1. Stacy says:

    One of my sins was unforgiven by my church. Some members chose to forgive me a few years later, but only a few. Im not at all disagreeing the church shad a right to be heartbroken over my sin; however no one wanted to address the sinner. They felt it was easier to banish me and ignore me and talk behind my back as if I was some demon incapable of salvation. Mind you, I was SAVED when I chose to enter into this particular sin – I have no doubt of it. It has taken me more than a few years to reconcile my sin with my salvation, but The Holy Spirit has not failed me. 1 Corinthians 5:3-5
    For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
    Paul basically told the church to let him go. This is what happened to me. I was in a season of sifting.
    In Paul writes later in 2 Corinthians – whether he speaks of the same sinner I do not know, but he does say this:
    5 If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent—not to put it too severely. 6 The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. 7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. 9 Another reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. 10 Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, 11 in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.

    Love. Forgiveness. Both the trademark of Jesus.

    I have yet to return to a church. I tried. I felt the need to let them know of my sin because I did not want to be in hiding so to speak. This is five years later. Needless to say some members were uncomfortable and we were not asked to leave but we were shunned and made to feel unwelcome.

    I am praying for a church of believers who desire to be the hands, feet, mind, heart, etc – oh wait – that is the Body isn’t it?

    I enjoy your posts.

    • Don Merritt says:

      I really appreciate that you shared this, for it is all too common. I have no idea what the sin is you refer to, but I do know that “church” is supposed to be in the business of changing lives, of bringing people to repentance and new birth, and accepting then back as prodigal sons and daughters when they do repent and thurn things around. I realize that there are times, and there are particular sins, when the repentant sinner would do better in a new congregation, and that appears to your situation. There are churches out there who will welcome you, and I pray that you find one of them; don’t give up!

      About 25 years ago, I was in the leadership of a church in Nevada. We had three young women visit our church several weeks in a row, and it came to the attention of several of the ladies in the congregation that these women were all employed as prostitutes in a legal brothel just over the county line. One fine day, a delegation of church ladies burst into an elders meeting to demand that we banish these women from attending; they were led by none other than the preacher’s mother, who usually got her way, if you follow my meaning…

      The preacher, to his everlasting credit said, “OK Mom, I’ll throw them out if you can first tell me where they should be on Sunday morning, instead of in church hearing the Gospel.”

      That was the end of the uprising.

      After some time, two of the women stopped attending, but one of them gave her life to Jesus Christ, repented of her ways, got a more appropriate job and is still an active member of that congregation, a ministry leader in fact.

      That is what we are in the business of doing. I will concede that it is a little different in a Christian who goes backward for a time, but then who can name a single Christian who hasn’t tripped up along their way?

      • Stacy says:

        Amen and what a great testimony of the fact we never ever know what Jesus will do in the life of someone we come across. We may meet someone who is in a pit is sin and has no inclination to climb out in the moment we meet them, but who is to say a seed of love or a seed of mercy or a seed of grace will not grow and be watered along the way – 25 years later or on a death bed that person may be given to Christ and He turn his or her life over because we chose mercy. For a child of God – yes we should help that person and sometimes it means handing them over to satan for a while but after a season and the sinner desires to come home – we should forgive 🙂 just as God forgives us.

  2. Stacy says:

    Excuse my grammatical errors – too early in the morning :). Maybe you can understand it. Have a blessed day.

  3. Little Monk says:

    Good Morning, Don!

    I think this passage is one of the most challenging in the life of the church, and certainly the most difficult when we counsel or consult in times of church dissension or turmoil.

    You’ve made a critically important observation when you say… “If you noticed the NIV footnote, “sins” in verse 15 is “sins against you” in some old manuscripts, and I might add that it is “sins against you” in some translations as well. ” The difficulty I have often run into when dealing with a church or church leadership over this passage, is the tendency to miss those critically important words, and render this into a “license for thought/lifestyle police”.

    Jesus’ instruction here can either be seen as a means for restoration of grace, fellowship, relationship between two (or more) people who find themselves in direct conflict of offending one another… a means of redressing an individual’s wound or personal injury… OR this can be interpreted as carte blanche to take one’s list of the 600-someodd rules and regulations that define “sin”… and wander about consistently checking everyone’s homework and report card to see if there’s a passing grade.

    This passage is the Inquisitor’s Mandate!

    Those words “against you”… protect from such abuse. Jesus seems (in my own view, with which anyone/everyone is welcome to disagree… just putting this idea out there)… to be saying “when someone treats YOU, (or another… I’m down with that) as less than sacred… hurting or harming YOU (or them)… according to GOD’s commandments of Sinai… “lie, cheat, steal, adultery, kill…”, and as considered through the Sermon on the Mount… when there is direct harm to a RELATIONSHIP… then this is how you handle this…

    That is vastly different from the dozens of “community lifestyle monitors” who criticized Jesus and His disciples constantly for their “lawlessness” and “lifestyle offenses”… They socialized with the unclean, they partied with drunkards, tax collectors, and prostitutes. They didn’t wash their hands properly. They healed and worked on the sabbath. (That was a “capital offense” at the time.)

    Paul would later become even more pointed on all this in Romans 14.

    But even today… with 2000 years of interpretation, theology, hermeneutics, and church practice under our belts… churches are still using this passage to go confront members about “who they hang with” and “where they spend their Saturday nights”… regardless of the love, compassion, and grace those same members may have with each and every member of their church or community.

    It’s just so darned TEMPTING to grab our lists of “Covenant Regulations” (whether that’s 12, or 600 someodd), put on our spiffy scarlet Inquisitor Robes, grab our shackles and branding irons… and head off for some good old-fashioned witch-hunting!

    Thanks for dealing with this passage. And thanks for bringing up those critical words…

    “Against You”….

    They are the difference between the loving Christian brother/sister, and the Gestapo. And I find them often utterly ignored.

    Grace to all! — LM

    • Don Merritt says:

      Thanks LM; obviously I quite agree with you, as you’ll see more with the next posts on the passage. It would be so easy if we only grabbed on to the 613 laws od Moses to enforce, but it would seem that like the Pharisees of old, we have another couple thousand on top of those that are the product of tradition, culture, and quite personal preferences, that we like to impose as well, and in the process choking the very life out of the church in some cases.

      Yet here we are, trying to fight the good fight to (you’ll love this) set the church free from that which holds back from having our full portions of the riches of Christ.

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  5. paulfg says:

    Don, I am working backwards chronologically – and have spent some on this post. The “modern day” thoughts in the comments are as helpful as the post itself. Yet (I speak from experience) I will rarely return to a post to check out the conversation in the comments boxes. In this case – as I come to the post later than usual – her is a great conversation.

    Unless it upsets your sequencing of posts, is it possible to copy/paste the whole post and comments as a new post? Seems to me we take the bible as “them days” as lot of the time – and on this topic in particular. On this topic in particular, a “bringing up to date” might be very helpful.


  6. bcaudle77 says:

    Very good post Don and insights, tough stuff for sure to deal with. I agree with it all, makes sense.

  7. Pieter Stok says:

    Like common sense, maturity and wisdom are not common. It comes from a long walk with God. A walk we are often too “busy” to take.

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