What do we do if we confront fellow believers who sin against us and, yet, they still don’t apologize and seek our forgiveness? What do we do if we confront them and things actually get worse? Is it ever appropriate for us to just give up and to go about our lives in “peace”? Living in right relationship with one another is simply too important for us to just give up at any point in the process of forgiveness and restoration. We owe it to ourselves and to our fellow believers as well to continue to see this process through even if our initial attempts to “rebuke” them fail to bring genuine repentance. In these kinds of circumstances, we need to raise the stakes so that every Christian understands experientially how important forgiveness and reconciliation are within the church.
What Jesus has to say
Just how important are forgiveness and reconciliation? Well, according to Jesus, they are central to the Christian life, so much so that He instituted a definite process in order to ensure that they were practiced by His people:
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. 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. 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 (Matt. 18:15-17).
Jesus outlines several things that are significant for our discussion here. First, He says that if we confront our “brother” and he “listens” to us then we “have gained [our] brother.” In other words, the fact that we are willing to confront someone indicates that forgiveness and restoration are important to us. We are standing ready to forgive when our “brother” apologizes and seeks that forgiveness, which is the attitude that every Christian ought to have toward their fellow believers.
Second, when Jesus says that we “have gained [our] brother,” He is highlighting the relational nature of forgiveness. This person was already our “brother” to begin with. The process of confronting and forgiving doesn’t make this person our brother. But it does restore the relationship that was already in place and was broken by his sin against us. If the brother “listens” to us and repents, then the relationship will be restored to what it was before.
Third, Jesus outlines a process that we are to follow if our fellow believers don’t “listen” to us when we confront them. The first step, He says, is for us to take one or two others along with us as witnesses and to confront them again. If that doesn’t work, we are to get the church involved. And if that still doesn’t work, then Jesus says that we are to treat these brothers and sisters as though they are not actually brothers and sisters at all, because that is the way they are acting.
Christians move toward forgiveness.
Christians should always move toward forgiveness because we know how much we have been forgiven. This knowledge is more than intellectual; it is profoundly experiential. Our experience of God’s forgiveness should always manifest itself in our willingness to forgive and to repent when confronted. What this means is that every brother or sister who does not move toward forgiveness but actively resists it is acting like a non-Christian.
By outlining a process with increasing stakes, Jesus is seeking to turn up the pressure, so to speak, on all who claim to be His followers but who are not actively moving toward forgiveness and reconciliation. That is why He tells us to bring witnesses and then, finally, to take the matter to the church. Bringing one or two witnesses with us increases the visibility of the offense and the resulting impenitence. It brings the matter out into the open, if you will, and involves more people. It forces the one being confronted to continue his or her “non-Christian” behavior in a more visible setting. Taking the matter to the church does more of the same and adds the extra benefit of allowing the church to act as the family of God—which is exactly what it is (see 1 Tim. 3:15).
No family on earth always gets along perfectly. Brothers and sisters are universally notorious for picking on one another and for getting on one another’s nerves. That goes with the territory of living in close proximity to one another. When conflict arises, however, good parents don’t simply ignore it. We bring it out into the open and deal with it. We pursue a process of rebuking, repenting, and forgiving so that real and lasting restoration can take place. And we bring all our parental authority to bear upon this process too, because it is in the best interest of the family as a whole, as well as the individual members of it.
The church functions as a family too. When its members can’t get along—an inevitable reality of “living” near one another—the leadership of the church functions as parents and seeks to use its “parental” authority to ensure the process of rebuking, repenting, and forgiving brings real and lasting restoration. This is one reason why we know that when Jesus says we are to “tell it to the church” in Matthew 18, He is not saying that we should stand up before the whole congregation and air our dirty laundry to every man, woman, and child. He is referring to the elected leadership of the church, what we might call the “representative church,” because elected leaders always represent those who have the responsibility of electing them and make decisions on behalf of the entire body.
Take it to the church
When we confront brothers and sisters who sin against us to no avail and involve one or two witnesses only to have the same thing happen again, we are then required to take the matter to the leadership of the church and get them involved. They will be able to bring increased visibility and increased authority to bear upon the impenitent brother or sister, with the goal being the preservation of the health and unity of the family as a whole and its individual members as well. If, however, someone refuses to listen to the church, Jesus says, he or she is to be treated as a non-Christian not only by us but by the church too. In this, the church is to use all of its “parental” authority in pursuing repentance and restoration, being as drastic as necessary but as gentle as possible.
Jesus’s words here teach us that relationships are not optional for us as Christians. They also teach us that being in right relationship with one another is not optional either and that the church has a role in the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. When we speak of forgiveness more broadly as something that can take place apart from any kind of relationship, we cheapen forgiveness. More importantly, we remove the church from the process by privatizing forgiveness into something that takes place between two individuals alone. When we think of forgiveness this way, we not only limit ourselves by removing the incentives to forgiveness and reconciliation that Jesus provided, but we also disregard the health of the church and our place in it. Could it be that if the church would heed Jesus’s words in this area, the watching world around us would sit up and take notice? Rather than seeing churches continually splitting and Christians hopping from one congregation to the next because of repeated disagreements amongst themselves, perhaps the world would see a Christ-like union and communion expressing itself in an unparalleled love for one another that really would cause it to ask for the reason for the hope that is in us. Oh, that it would be so!