4. Conflict in the Kingdom Dan Bidwell, Senior Pastor Matthew 18:15-20 18 September 2022
This week I found myself wondering: what is the hardest gymnastic move in the world?
So I did some research and it led me to the greatest gymnast of all time, the most decorated gymnast in history. Simone Biles. And when we look at a list of the most difficult gymnastic moves in the world, not surprisingly Biles holds the record for the most difficult skills performed on three out of the four apparatus (beam, the floor and the vault; but not the uneven bars).
So what is the hardest gymnastic move in the world?
It’s called the Yurchenko Double Pike Vault, and only one woman has ever tried it in competition. You guessed it – Simone Biles.
It’s described as a round-off onto the springboard with a back handspring onto the table, followed by a double somersault off the vault in the pike position. (I’d show you but...)
It’s such a difficult move that only 5 men have ever tried it in competition. And it’s so dangerous that judges have lowered the scoring for it so that nobody else will try it.
There you go, the hardest gymnastic move in the world – the Yurchenko Double Pike Vault Why am I talking about gymnastics?
When I started preparing the Bible passage this week, I thought to myself, it might be easier to go and learn the Yurchenko Double Pike Vault than to preach on this passage...
Because it’s a passage about conflict, and interpersonal relationships. And I know some of us will find this content particularly challenging.
But for what it’s worth, I think the passage today is actually quite simple in what it says, but putting it into practice, that’s the hard part.
So why don’t we start by praying that God would speak his wisdom into our lives and our community as we open the Bible now?
Our heavenly Father, as we broach the topic of conflict in relationships, please give us an extra measure of your Holy Spirit to hear and understand and process your wisdom. Teach us about your grace and your forgiveness, and help us to be a church that follows
after Jesus. We pray particularly now for those who will find this topic difficult. May your grace abound as we hear you speak. In Jesus’ name. Amen
Well we are in the middle of our fall teaching series from Matthew 17-21. We’re calling it Kingdom People, because it’s all about the way that Jesus wants us to live out his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
And today our Bible passage is all about conflict, and how we deal with it.
Conflict Resolution Models
Now before we open the Bible, I just want to recognize that each of us has different ways of dealing with conflict. Default ways of dealing with conflict, that often go back to the family we were raised in. Probably even right now as I raise the idea of conflict, you are already reverting to your default mode of responding to conflict.
So just for yourself, see if you recognize your own default response in one of the following: The first is conflict avoidance.
Conflict-avoidant-prone families will normally be presented with a conflict and then act as if nothing is happening. They are masters at sticking their heads in the sand and avoid getting to the root of the issue. They might act as if the problems don't exist, but that doesn't mean that anger, sadness, and resentment aren't brewing underneath the surface. Without any resolution, family members sometimes choose to remove themselves from the family altogether, because it feels easier to do that than to handle the conflict head-on.1
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the aggressive approach to conflict resolution.
Families who take conflict on in an aggressive manner tend to attack each other either verbally or physically as a primary means of handling disagreements. There is almost no regulation of negativity, which means that conflict can only ever escalate, with devastating consequences.
So those are the extremes – from conflict avoidance to destructive aggression. But in between are a range of other strategies that have to do with collaboration, compromise and accommodation.2 For more information on this, relationship psychologist Dr John Gottman describes 5 different patterns of conflict resolution in couples (link in transcript).
According to Gottman, the family I grew up in could be described as volatile (not necessarily a negative expression).3
1 https://family.lovetoknow.com/about-family-values/family-conflict-examples-plus-stress-free-ways-deal 2 https://kilmanndiagnostics.com/overview-thomas-kilmann-conflict-mode-instrument-tki/
The opposite of conflict avoiders, my family was intensely emotional. Conflict was often a time for debating, exercising intellect and trying to win the argument from a legal point of view (I am the child of a lawyer). It could get loud, but there was usually lots of laughter and shared amusement. And although we argued intensely, there was rarely contempt. We could share negative feelings, but they weren’t seen as personal attack. Rather it was how we heard what the other person was thinking and feeling.
To the conflict avoider, my family looked terrifying! But that was our default mode of conflict resolution. Of course you can do it in a much quieter way than my family did, and I was lucky to watch my best friend’s parents navigate conflict in exactly that way – quietly, gently, humbly seeking compromise and accommodation.
What I’m trying to show is that we all have default ways of responding to conflict, probably ways that we learned early in childhood, and ways which have been reinforced positively or negatively as you have brought them into your adult life, into marriages, into work situations, and into parenting and grand-parenting.
So I think it’s worth doing some reflection on your background, if you haven’t before.
I’ve found this book to be particularly helpful – Growing Yourself Up by Jenny Brown PhD. How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. This book explains the principles of Bowen Family Systems Theory, which is all about understanding your family of origin and the way that it shapes you. But it’s also about moving beyond those patterns, especially if they were unhelpful.
(Also some more resources linked in the footnotes to the sermon today which you might find interesting – you can pick up a paper copy of the transcript if there are any left, or you’ll be able to download it at yountvillechurch.org/sermons)
So that is a very long introduction to our Bible passage, which is all about Jesus’ model for dealing with conflict.
Biblical Conflict Resolution
So what does Jesus say about conflict resolution? Come to Matthew 18:15 with me:
15 “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. (Matthew 18:15)
When Jesus says ‘brother or sister’ here, he means a fellow disciple, another Christian person. So really this is a model for dealing with conflict in the church family.
I would love to tell you that we are all perfect in the church, and that there is never any sin, but you are all too clever to believe that. Augustine, the church father, said that the church is a
hospital for sinners. And that’s really true. As a church family, we will have conflicts and disagreements just like a regular family, as sinful people doing life together. Hopefully not too often, but when it happens, Jesus has great advice for us.
He starts: If your brother or sister sins...
Now depending on what version of the Bible you’re reading, it might say ‘if a brother or sister sins against you...’ Apparently some of the early manuscripts said ‘sins against you,’ but not all of them. And so the translators have gone with the more difficult reading (like Simone Biles).
What kind of sin were they talking about?
We often think of ‘sins’ as the bad things that people do. For example the Ten Commandments tell us that we must not murder, or steal, or commit adultery. They say we shouldn’t lie, or be envious of others and their possessions. They tell us to honor our parents.
Now most of us probably haven’t murdered anyone, but remember that Jesus said if we get angry with someone we would face God’s judgment for it. Same with adultery – Jesus said looking lustfully is the same as committing adultery in your heart. (This is all back in the sermon on the Mount Matthew 5-7).
So sins are sometimes the wicked things we do, or think about doing. But sin is ultimately about the way we treat God. The first half of the Ten Commandments reminds us to honor God alone with our worship, not to replace him with idols that cannot save, not to denigrate him with our speech, or ignore him in our moments of Sabbath.
You see if we belong to God’s kingdom, we must live within the laws of the kingdom. Our lives must honor the King, and no other in his place.
And so sin is anything we put in our lives that makes us unfit for the king or the kingdom. Whether it’s attitudes, or behaviors, God wants us to be fiercely loyal to him alone.
And that’s where verse 15 makes more sense. It’s not just about someone sinning against you, it might be someone caught in sin who is putting their salvation at risk. Jesus wants us to lovingly point out their sin so that they might be won back over to his kingdom...
15 “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. (Matthew 18:15)
We don’t live in a culture that likes pointing out the personal flaws of others, let alone sins. In our individualism, we go by the maxim of “you do you.” That idea, what’s right for you is right for you, and what’s right for me is right for me, and who am I to comment...
Well Jesus says in the church, we should comment, if we see someone caught in sin. 4
Here’s where it gets awkward. I don’t think Jesus is telling us to go on a witch hunt, and certainly this is not about pointing out people’s faults publicly (although he will say more about that in a couple of verses.)
No, this is about seeing somebody caught in destructive behavior, and trying to get them to see the danger they are in.
Go alone, says Jesus, just by yourself, in private, and point out the fault that you have noticed. And the hope is that they will listen to you, and you’ll win them over. That they will see the mistake, and acknowledge it, and repent.
Our Bible passage is not about rushing to notice the sins of others. It’s about how to broach a person’s sin in a careful and sensitive way.
Now the verse assumes the person is guilty of sin. But I have heard of this going wrong, with people accused of sins that they had not committed. For that reason, the private, quiet, personal approach means you can talk without publicly shaming the other person. The hope is gentle restoration.
Of course when Jesus wrote this, there were no phones or email or text messages. And today they are often the way that we communicate. But I think Jesus would suggest, if possible, going to see the person face to face. I don’t know how many times I’ve agonized over the wording of a text or an email, only for it to be taken the wrong way. And lots of us have lost the art of telephone calls. Probably because we aren’t tied to the wall anymore, and we take calls in the middle of other business, and so we’re always distracted.
So where possible, try to speak face to face. That might be scary, or confronting, and it probably will be for the person on the receiving end as well. But prayerfully, your gentle, gracious approach will win them over.
But what if it doesn’t? In v16 Jesus says:
16 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.’ (Matthew 18:16)
It was an Old Testament principle that a person couldn’t be judged guilty of an offense unless there were two or three corroborating witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). It was actually a protective measure, instituted by God to limit unfounded accusations against the innocent. In this case, the same principle applies. Hopefully the witnesses would stand up for the accused if they deem the person innocent, rather than allow false accusations to be made.
But the thrust of Jesus’ argument is that the person is guilty of sin, and so hopefully the presence of the witnesses will encourage them to listen. Again, the hope is that the person
acknowledges their sin and comes to repentance. The context is still personal, and private, and seeking reconciliation.
But what if even that fails to convince the person? (v17) Jesus says:
17 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.
I take it that this is an absolute last resort, and reserved for very serious sin. This is not a light decision, and I think I’ve only ever seen it done once in my 30 years in the church.
But Jesus does seem to say that there are times when sin may need to be exposed before the whole church for the sake of honesty and transparency, even though it might hurt at the time.
Because Jesus’ kingdom stands for something. It is meant to be set apart, and holy, and different from the world which so often tolerates corruption. The church is to hold itself to a higher standard – to Jesus’ standard. And when sin is allowed to fester and is not dealt with, then the reputation of the church, and the reputation of the gospel, and the reputation of God himself is in danger.
That’s why sometimes sins need to be brought to light.
Over the last 20 years or so, many churches in both your country and mine have had to shine a light on child sexual abuse in the church. Something which was often covered up by those in leadership, allowing further abuse to occur. Thank God for the bravery of those men and women who came forward and exposed the sin of their abusers. And God willing it leads to making churches a safer place for our precious kids to learn about Jesus.
BTW that’s something we take very seriously here at Yountville Community Church. We are a member of an organization called Ministry Safe. Ministry Safe conduct mandatory online training for all our children’s team and volunteers; they run background checks on anybody who works with kids; and their guidelines have helped us to develop our own Ministry Safe policy that governs all our kids’ programs. That all means that we can be sure we have done everything in our power to make Yountville Kids a safe environment for our kids, and a place where you can bring your kids with confidence. (policies at yountvillechurch.org/kids)
A Difficult Decision
Before we finish there is one more idea in our passage today that I want to touch on. This is kind of the worst case scenario – what happens if a person still remains unrepentant about their sin, despite every effort we have made (personal approach, with witnesses, bringing it before the whole church)?
At the end of v17, Jesus says:
and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17)
In Bible speak, a pagan is someone who doesn’t believe in God. Some of the old translations called them heathens. Jesus says, if somebody who claims to be a Christian acts in a blatantly unchristian way, and they are unwilling to own their behavior, then we ought to treat them as if they are no longer part of the church family.
We were watching a movie recently about a US Marine who faked a marriage to get extra benefits as a married man. He knew it was wrong, but he did it anyway. At the end of the movie, he gets found out and he is dishonorably discharged from the Marines for conduct unbecoming. There are standards of behavior expected of Marines, and this man crossed the line.
And Jesus says it’s the same in the church. If a person crosses the line into behavior unbecoming of somebody in his kingdom, they are in danger of being thrown out of his kingdom.
BTW this is a difficult thing to think about, isn’t it? I’d much prefer to talk about the hope of reconciliation, but in this case, the person themself makes it impossible. And so rather than continue to pursue reconciliation, Jesus says it’s better to make a clean break and treat them as an unbeliever.
Again, this is not about a snap decision. Any discipline like this calls for prayer and patience and understanding and time for repentance. But if all other avenues have been exhausted, then Jesus says he will stand by the decision that two or three people make. Two or three reliable who are trustworthy witnesses. (v19)
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:19)
Jesus promises to stand with us, when we stand up for his kingdom. As if he were right there beside us. We can be confident, even in the midst of a difficult decision like separating from an unrepentant sinner.
Now I don’t know about you, but this could leave us feeling like we stand on shaky ground. Like our place in the kingdom is uncertain, or that we are in danger of being dishonorably discharged from Jesus and his promises.
(And we should heed Jesus’ warning. Unrepentant sin has real consequences.)
But the gospel is not for perfect people. Jesus’ kingdom is not for perfect people. The church is not for perfect people. We don’t gain entry because of our perfect track record.
Actually the opposite. Jesus invites us into his kingdom and into his church which is a hospital for sinners. He invites us to own our mistakes, and he heals us from them.
It’s in the church where we find forgiveness, from God and from those who we sin against. It’s in the church where we find reconciliation, a foretaste of God’s heavenly kingdom where all the wounds of our conflicts will be healed. And it’s in the church where we see God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. It’s the perfect place to practice being Kingdom People.
Will you pray with me?