Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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The Jesus Prescription for Conflict Resolution

Matthew 18:15-20

 When I was younger, I learned a lesson about conflict and what it can do to you.  At least I’d like to think I learned the lesson.  The thing about learning lessons is that you often have to “re-learn” them a few times before they stick.  But I hope this one will stick with me.

 When I was in my teens, I was involved with the Conference Council on Youth Ministries.  I’m not sure if they still have that in the Western PA Conference.  I think now they call it Youth Ministries Team.  But it was a group of about 20 youth and a half dozen adults from all over our Conference who would do programs for the youth of the Conference.  

 There was another fellow my age involved with Conference Youth that I did not get along with.  We had “conflicting personalities,” I guess.  And things hit a wall when someone informed me that he had said something untrue about me that attacked my character.  To this day, I don’t know if he really said it.  I never went to him and talked about it.  But for almost a year, I really hated this guy.  I obsessed about this insult every time I saw the guy.  

 What changed is when I realized how similar our stories were.  I grew up in the church, as did he.  When I was 15, I was very involved in the church, but I didn’t have a personal faith.  And I found out the same was true of him.  It wasn’t until he was 17 and went on a mission trip to Haiti that he came to personal faith in Christ.  

 And the thought hit me:  If Christ did not withhold forgiveness from him, then I had no right to do so either.  I forgave him.  I didn’t go to talk to him about it, though I should have.  We did have a moment when we both expressed to each other our misgivings over the poor relationship we’d had.  But as soon as I forgave him in my heart, it was like a weight was lifted.  I once heard a saying about forgiveness:  When we forgive, we let a prisoner go free, and only then realize that the prisoner was us.  

 I learned two valuable lessons from that.  One is that the grounds on which we should seek reconciliation is the reconciliation that Christ has made with us.  The other was the damage that unresolved conflict causes. 

 Conflict is inevitable.  As long as we live in a sinful world, we will live with conflict.  But unresolved conflict in the church is a cancer eating away at the church’s soul.  Unresolved conflict destroys our unity.  It saps our energy.  And it takes us away from our real task, which is to be about the work of God and not fighting with each other.  

 Conflict in the Body of Christ must be addressed.  But how do we do it?

 First, remember that the goal of conflict resolution or even of discipline in the Church, must be reconciliation.  The purpose is not to assign blame.  It is not to “get back” at the other person.  Those actions do not resolve anything.  

 The purpose of conflict resolution or discipline is to restore relationships.  If the Church is truly the Body of Christ, and I believe it is, then the focus must be to maintain right relationships. If we are brothers and sisters in Christ, we should act like it.  We simply cannot give up easily on relationships.  

 This is, after all, the example God has set for us.  He could have given up on us when turned away from him.  But instead he went as far as to send his own son to die for us to restore us to himself.  And I don’t know about you, but he has certainly not given up on me, despite the many times that I have wounded and grieved him with my hard-heartedness.

 So, first, the purpose must be to restore right relationships.  Second, we should be patient with each other and bear with each others’ faults in love.  

 In the Greek language, the word patient is literally “long-nosed.”  In the Greek way of speaking, anger was associated with the nose.  After all, what happens when we get angry?  Our nostrils flare.  It’s like our English expression “hot headed.”  A person who is hot-headed gets angry easily and they look like they have a “hot head” because our faces get red when we’re angry.  In Greek, a “long-nosed” person is patient; they take a long time to get angry.

 We should be slow to anger with each other.  None of us is perfect.  We are all on a journey toward godliness.  And we will offend each other as imperfect people.  

 We should give others the benefit of the doubt.  We should assume that others did not intend to hurt us.  Often the differences in our personalities are a cause of hurting each other unintentionally.  Some people are very direct and blunt and others prefer to be indirect and keep everything smooth.  And sometimes those who don’t like bluntness are offended when they hear something bluntly.  Not because the other person meant offense.  It’s just how they speak.  We should allow most offenses to pass. 

 But if we cannot allow the offense to pass, we should do something about it.  If it’s something we just can’t let go of, we should do something about it.  Or if we really think it was an intentional offense, we should definitely do something about that.  We need to work to resolve conflict to maintain the holiness and the order of the Body.  And if we have to do something about it, Jesus tells us how to go about it.  

 First, we should go to the other person privately.  We should do it privately so as to avoid unnecessarily involving anyone else and to avoid unnecessarily shaming or embarrassing the other person.  

 But we need to go to them and meet with them face to face.  We should not sit there and stew about it.  The longer we do that, the worse the conflict will become.  We should definitely not go and gossip to others about it.  That is only going to spread the conflict around and make it more difficult to resolve.  We should not send someone else in our place.  That won’t help matters.  We can’t expect someone else to resolve our conflict.  And finally, we should not send a letter or something like that.  Written words are much more susceptible to misinterpretation.  People who study these things say that only about 25% of communication is the words themselves.  There is our tone of voice when we speak.  There’s our body language, eye contact, and all those other non-verbal clues that also send a message.  And those things are lost in writing, so we should go in person to have the best chance of being understood.

 And I’m convinced that 99% of conflicts could be resolved if this one step were taken.  Most conflict is unintentional.  Usually when we hurt another person, we didn’t mean to.  Often it’s a result of misunderstanding.  We said this and meant this, but the other person heard that.  And sometimes conflict is caused by our own personal blindness.  We simply didn’t understand that what we said or did was offensive because we didn’t see it that way.  And most people are quick to apologize when they realize that they have offended another. 

 If that approach fails, then we should take one or two others along with us.  Now who should these be?  Well, if they were people who “witnessed” the actual offense, then it would make sense to take them along.  But if there are no such witnesses, then we should take neutral, third parties who are respected in the Body of Christ.  Some churches actually have a “conflict resolution” committee to work on such situations.  We have that in the United Methodist Church, though most people don’t know it.  The Staff-Parish Relations Committee or PPR Committee is the group charged with resolving conflicts, whether they be between pastor and layperson or between two laypeople.  They are, after all, the “Relations” committee.

 But whoever you take with you, do not take people who are just “on your side.”  If you fail to resolve a conflict when it’s just you and the other person, how much less likely are you to resolve it if you take two other people with you who are going to see everything your way?   

 And finally, if that fails, then the matter should be brought before the whole Body of Christ.  If even that fails, and the Body decides that the person in the wrong is so unrepentant, then the final step is excommunication, dismissal from the Church body.  

 That should be seen as a severe punishment.  But I wonder if it still would be?  We live in an age that is so highly individualistic that I wonder how many people would even worry about being excluded from the Church?  Or for that matter, the Church is so fragmented that the person may just down the road to another congregation.  That certainly happens enough.  

 But the goal is still redemptive.  The hope of excommunication is that the person in the wrong will “wake up” to the reality of their sin and repent.  And the Church should still love and pray for such persons.  The bottom line is that we should never think of reconciliation as being out of the picture.  If God can be reconciled to us, we can be reconciled to each other.

 The reason for involving others is that God’s will is best determined in Christian community, and the Christian community is the highest authority on earth for us as believers.  That’s the point of verses 18-20.  We are best able to hear the Spirit speak when he is speaking through all of us.  The rabbis of Jesus’ day had a saying, “Only God can judge rightly by himself.”  In other words, if we want to be right, we should listen for the Spirit speaking not just to us, but through others as well.

 Let me close by making note of two other passages important to conflict resolution.  The first is Matthew 5:23-24.  In the passage we just heard, Jesus tells the one who has been offended to go seek reconciliation.  In Matthew 5, Jesus tells the one who has offended another to go seek reconciliation.  Both parties are responsible for seeking restoration. No one has the right to say, “The other person should come to me.”  The other person might not even know that there is a conflict.

 The other passage is 1st Corinthians 6:1-8.  There Paul tells us that conflict resolution should be handled inside the church.  He reprimands believers for going outside the church to seek satisfaction in court.  If the church is the highest authority on earth for us, that is where we should go as believers when there is conflict among brothers and sisters in Christ.

 A healthy church must learn to deal with conflict in a healthy way.  Conflict is inevitable.  And the mark of a healthy church is not the absence of conflict, but rather conflict resolved in a way that honors people and in a way that is always seeking restoration.

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