Introduction. Read Matthew 18 15-20.

Jesus in this passage gives the best of advice - advice which if followed would greatly reduce the amount of trouble in the church. Christians claim to follow Jesus, they sing hymns about obeying him and yet his advice on how to deal with a fellow believer who upsets them is invariably ignored.

(A) It's good to talk.

There are three reasons why we should talk to a fellow Christian who we feel has wronged us:

(a) It will clear up any misunderstandings. Quite often someone will upset us quite unintentionally. I can remember an occasion when I was teaching that I greatly upset a fellow Christian member of staff. As I walked past him in the common room I reached out my hand and patted him on the head. This prompted me to say in a light-hearted fashion, "Well, John, I've discovered your guilty secret!" Next day John dragged me into an empty classroom and berated me for behaviour unbecoming to a Christian. He thought I was drawing attention to his wig which he wore to hide a birth mark. I eventually managed to tell him that I was not aware that he wore a wig. When I patted his hair it was set firmly and I thought he was using hair lacquer. If John had brooded on the perceived insult and said nothing I would not have been able to clear up the misunderstanding.

(b) It provides an opportunity to express regret for what has been said or done. Sometimes we are unaware of the sensitivities of a brother or sister. During my playing days with Brockley Cricket Club I used to give a speech at the annual dinner. This usually involved poking gentle fun at the failings and foibles of my fellow cricketers. On one occasion I got a laugh or two at the expense of our prolific opening batsman. Two days later I got a letter from his wife saying how hurt her husband had been at my remarks. My intention had been to embarrass him a little - not to hurt him and so I was glad of the opportunity to pour oil on troubled waters. My stock with husband and wife went up!!

(c) The alternatives are much worse:

  • We can brood over a perceived slight. This will do us no good. Bitterness and resentment are twin destroyers of our peace. It will undoubtedly affect our relationship with the offending party who might be left wondering at our change in mood.

  • We can complain to our friends and family about the person who has wronged us. This is a way of punishing the offender. It can create 'sides' in the church and make it much harder to achieve reconciliation.

    I don't think it a good idea to criticise a person in a church meeting before speaking with them face to face and giving them an opportunity of righting a wrong. Many years ago when I was a boy, my brothers, friends and I used to play hide and seek in the chapel graveyard. It was an ideal albeit dangerous place for this. My mother was not pleased when a group in a church meeting wondered whether it was appropriate for the pastor's children to be running wild in 'God's acre' - the graveyard. It would have been easier for my father and mother to cope with the criticism and to stop us hiding amongst the tomb stones if they had been approached privately.

  • Another far from ideal way of dealing with a fellow Christian who has offended you is to complain to a church official - pastor, elder, secretary, deacon. A lady in our church who was especially good at flower arranging was very upset at our pastor's habit of coming out of the pulpit to address the children and sweeping the flower arrangement aside. So, one Sunday as Lydia was leaving the chapel she said to me, the church secretary, can't you have a word with the pastor about his cavalier treatment of our flower arrangements? Unfortunately the pastor was standing behind the lady as she made her complaint. He proceeded to take it out on me! How much better for the devotee of flowers and all things beautiful to speak directly to the person responsible for her angst.

So why do Christians ignore Jesus advice about the sinning brother? Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Lack of courage. Perhaps the injured party feels that the erring brother will hurt them further if they bring the matter up. In other words the situation will only get worse if the dispute is pursued.

  • It is a lot easier to complain about someone behind their back. There is no apparent risk in that. As our church declined it was left with two elders - Edward and myself. If anyone had a complaint they usually went to Edward who would listen sympathetically. However, this was not always the best policy as he was inclined to be more partisan than me.

  • There are occasions when the persons making a complaint about a fellow church member are motivated by malice. For a time we had a lady worship with us who had a very strong soprano voice. She stood behind an elderly couple who had attended our chapel for many years. Her powerful singing meant they could not hear themselves sing. The couple could have sat somewhere else in the church or asked the lady to move nearer the front. Instead they went to the pastor with an ultimatum, "Either you get Mary to sing more quietly or we shall go somewhere else to worship." The pastor did as he was asked but with resentment. I am afraid the elderly couple brought their complaint because they did not like Mary. They did not proceed as Jesus advised!

(B) What are friends for .

The advantages of a second approach with two or three others:

(a) A Christian who is prepared to involve others in a dispute they have with a fellow Christian is showing how seriously they are taking the matter. A little group of Christians is harder to brush off than a solitary complainant.

(b) The two or three observers will not be so emotionally involved as the two who are in dispute. They are neither the ones who have been sinned against nor are they the ones who are accused of sinning. They are likely to take a more detached view and as such are better able to exercise sound judgment. The observers should be able to express their opinion calmly and promote reconciliation.

(c) The friends of the injured party will be able to act as witnesses to the attitudes of the disputants. They should be able to ensure the person who feels hard done by gets a fair hearing.

I can remember going to see a couple who would not stop to communion when one of the servers was a woman. I went with my fellow elder Edward. He was inclined to see the behaviour of the couple as an insult to the lady server. However, I realised that they had nothing against the lady personally but disagreed with the church's policy of appointing women to the diaconate. This allowed me to partially defuse the situation.

(C) As a last resort.

Where a couple are unable to resolve a dispute - even with the help of observers - the matter should be brought before the whole church.

(a) In this respect Paul differs somewhat from his Master, Jesus. In 1 Cor6 1-11, the apostle condemns those Christians who use the secular law courts to settle disputes with a fellow Christian. Paul tells the Corinthians that it is a very easy matter to settle disputes of this nature. He advises them to appoint a panel of men of limited ability to deal with such simple matters. (This actually is the policy when selecting members of a jury!)

I can remember an incident when a young Christian man took it upon himself to remove a series of pictures of Bible scenes, including some of Jesus during his earthly ministry, from the Sunday school room of the church. He was opposed to such pictures being displayed. It was an easy matter to deal with. A group representing the church should have asked the young man to return the pictures - which were not his property. He could then make his case for their removal before the whole church who would decide whether to restore them to their old position or dispose of them. This is not what happened! The church secretary permitted the young man to address the church before returning the pictures. The meeting did not last long! An elderly deacon stood up and said, "If those pictures are not returned by tomorrow I will report you to the police." That was the end of the meeting; the pictures reappeared and the young protestor disappeared!

(b) The church should be motivated by love when dealing with trouble between Christians.

  • First and foremost we should exhibit our love for Jesus. He does not want his church to be disunited and in disarray. The church members should always pursue a course which Jesus would approve of. The young man who removed the pictures should not have been threatened with the police but reasoned with. No one in the church worshipped, or prayed to, the pictures - or even the images in the pictures. The pictures were there to help children understand the Bible stories better. They simply told a Bible story in pictures rather than words.

  • Secondly we should show love to both sides in a dispute. It would be bad for the person at fault not to be disciplined. The school teacher who never corrects or, indeed, punishes a child does not show love for that child.

    It would be very bad for the injured party not to receive sympathy for the wrong done him or her.

    Moses was very badly treated by his brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam. They thought they should enjoy the same status as Moses - and let others know of their discontent. Moses, a humble man, did not stick up for himself. He didn't have to! God confronted Aaron and Miriam. God told them: "I speak to Moses face to face - why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses." See Num12.

(c) The church needs to be aware of the message it gives to the world. It is a dreadful witness when Christians in dispute take their case to the secular court. Paul tells the Corinthians that in doing this: You have been completely defeated already. 1Cor6v7.

A lady who was a member of our church kept four or five dogs. An elderly couple who attended our services lived next door to Mary and her dogs. When Mary was at work the dogs barked incessantly and nearly drove the elderly couple crazy. They contacted their solicitor who informed the local authority. .... Why didn't they ask the church to arbitrate? It was the last thing they thought to do!

(D) Respect for the church.

God gives the church the authority to bind a man; that is to hold him responsible for his actions and to loose a man; that is to set him free from censure and condemnation if he genuinely repents of his failings. Jesus said that a person who refused to accept the verdict of the church should be treated like a pagan or tax collector - or, in other words, excluded from the fellowship. (Pagans and tax collectors were banned from the synagogue.)

Paul told the church at Corinth to exercise this sort of authority over a young man having sex with his step mother. He was excluded from the church. See 1Cor5v1to5. However, his exclusion was not permanent. It is likely that the sinner repented. Paul wrote: The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 2Cor2v7to11.

(E) A sweetening influence.

The passage we are studying highlights the importance of Christians meeting, praying and agreeing together.

(a) Christians need to learn from experience. They should accept that when they get together to pray for: a person's healing, a child for a childless couple, a husband for a single woman or even the conversion of a friend, such prayers are rarely answered.

William Barclay is right when he says: There is no point in refusing to face the facts of the situation, and nothing but harm can result from teaching people to expect what does not happen.

It is certainly wrong for Christians to gang up against God in an attempt to pressurise Him into healing a sick friend, relative or fellow believer. That is what special prayer meetings for healing often amount to.

(b) We need to pray in the will of God. William Barclay has some very helpful observations on this. He writes in his commentary on Matthew: Most of our prayers are prayers of escape. We pray to be spared some trial, some sorrow, some disappointment, some hurtful and difficult situation. And always God's answer is not the offer of escape, but of victory. .... He enables us to accept what we cannot understand; he enables us endure what without him would be unendurable; he enables us to face what without Him would be beyond all facing; he gives us the wisdom to deal with things which without Him we could not possess.

Paul prayed that God would remove his thorn in the flesh. His prayer was answered! God told him that His grace would be sufficient for him.

After my mother died I took responsibility for looking after my father who was in the final stages of Parkinson's disease. I prayed over and over again that he would not succumb to dementia. It was something I hoped to escape. But I also prayed that if my father did become demented I would be able to cope. God answered my second prayer!

I think that any group of Christians that meets together to pray for a brother or sister facing, or experiencing, an ordeal will be in agreement over praying for victory. God will answer their prayers - as he answered my prayers and the prayers of Paul.

(c) We need to pray knowing that Jesus is present:

  • He is no respecter of numbers. He is as much present in a prayer meeting of three or four as in a huge and vibrant congregation.

  • He set us an example on how to pray when facing a great ordeal in the Garden of Gethsemane. In his agony he prayed to know the will of God. He expressed a willingness to carry it out and for the strength to succeed. His prayer for escape was not answered but his prayer for victory was. He endured the cross, despising the shame - for the joy set before him.

  • He desired the prayer support from the three disciples he took with him deep into the garden. Sadly those disciples did not recognise the urgency of the situation. They failed to support Jesus. We need to remember this when we fail to turn up to the church prayer meetings. Many, many of our brothers and sisters need our prayer support if they are to emerge victorious from their trials and tribulations.