From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 14 – How to forgive people in practical terms – some advice on what to do and how to go about it
This is Jesus speaking of how a dispute should be dealt with, as between two genuine Christians, not between two unbelievers, or even a Christian and an unbeliever. So, the first problem, before we even get to examining the problems caused by unbiblical church structure, is that it would be futile to expect this procedure to work unless all the parties are real Christians. If even one party is just a worldly, lukewarm, unrepentant ‘churchgoer’, it almost certainly wouldn’t work.
Jesus speaks of dispute resolution as a progression, taking place in stages. Let’s therefore look at the four stages that are involved in handling a dispute biblically. Then we can be aware of what we all ought to be doing, even if current church structures and practices make it virtually impossible to operate in that way. There may yet be a day when biblical church structure will be reintroduced. If so, the Matthew 18 approach to resolving conflict would become possible again. Until then, I don’t think it is. Even so, here is what we are supposedto do:
a) The offended/wronged Christian goes to see the Christian whom he believes is the wrongdoer. It is to be handled privately, one to one, and face to face. The innocent party then explains what the sin is. Hopefully, the one who has done wrong will listen, repent and apologize. If so, the matter is resolved quickly and privately.
b) If the wrongdoer will not listen, or will not respond constructively, then the wronged Christian should go back to see the wrongdoer again. But this time he is to take some witnesses with him. Then he is to try again to discuss the offence, hopefully with more success. The witnesses can listen to both parties and may also be able to help to mediate between them. If that doesn’t work, then the witnesses can at least try to decide what the real position is. They can also attempt to get one, or both, parties to see what they did wrong.
c) If that, in turn, fails, then the Christian who believes he has been wronged is to take the matter before the whole local church. This further escalation means that the dispute is now being openly discussed between all the members of the local church. However, if we want to see this correctly, as it was in Paul’s day, we must not visualize a church of hundreds of people meeting in a big, formal building. That isn’t biblical. Picture instead a small group of 20-70 people, meeting in a house or barn or school hall, all of whom know each other intimately. That is the correct biblical context in which this “Matthew 18 procedure” for resolving disputes is to be conducted. More to the point, it is the only context in which it is likely to be effective.
d) If even that fails, then the local church should no longer consider the wrongdoer to be a part of them. In short, the wrongdoer is to be expelled. This is difficult for us to understand today unless we correctly visualize the kind of church structure Jesus was speaking of. Indeed, expelling a person from a church, at least in Great Britain, is technically and legally difficult. That is because churches which wish to be registered as charities, and thus receive tax relief and other advantages, must make their services “open to the public”. Therefore, so far as the law is concerned, nobody can actually be prevented from attending public worship meetings.
That would not be the case if our churches today met in homes or barns or farm outbuildings, as they did in the first century. Then the provisions of Matthew 18 would be workable. The point is that what the New Testament means by a church is very different from what most of us now think of as a church. When most of us think of a church we tend to see, in our mind’s eye, something which:
i) is big in numbers and meets in a large and formal building. Therefore it is very far from being a suitable setting in which to discuss a private dispute between two individuals.
ii) has at least one paid senior leader and perhaps several assistant paid leaders. Each of these has a church-based career, which would be put at risk if they were to upset people. Thus they frequently have too many vested interests at stake to be able to operate fearlessly and honestly.
iii) is full of cautious, fearful, self-centered people, such that disputes are not faced up to and addressed. Instead, disputes are generally swept under the carpet and dodged.
iv) As we have seen, is a registered charity, for tax purposes, and therefore that church can’t prevent a person from attending its public services, even if it wanted to, which it probably wouldn’t.
Accordingly, given the unbiblical way in which most churches are structured and led today, the procedures commanded by Jesus are not possible to implement. It is pretty much as simple as that. The context and setting that we have today are not what Jesus was referring to. Indeed, they are almost the exact opposite, in virtually every respect.