How much effort do you put into maintaining relationships? When people cause you grief, do you confront them and have it out? Do you apologize even if it wasn’t your fault? Or do you let them go, and move on?
Matthew 18:15-17 (original translation, compare NIV)
15 If one of the family wrongs you, go and confront them, just the two of you on your own. If they hear you, you’ve gained your family member. 16 If they do not hear you, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘any statement can be established by the voice of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If the person disregards them, speak to the assembly. If they disregard the assembly, let them be a gentile or tax collector for you personally.
Churches and associations often cite these verses in their dispute resolution policies and procedures. That’s good, but Jesus had something much broader in mind. He imagined society could be renewed if we lived this way.
He starts with the assumption that we belong together as family, brothers and sisters, even when they do us wrong. The hurt is significant, but there’s no question about getting together to work through it: we belong together.
Confrontation saves relationships. “You’re a significant brother/sister to me, and I’m struggling after what happened. Can we talk?” Yes, it’s hard to be vulnerable when you’re already feeling hurt. There’s no guarantee the person will respond, but it’s your best chance to heal the relationship. Confrontation is not banging heads to assign blame; it’s sitting together to face a shared problem.
The goal is not to gain an advantage, feel justified, or get compensated. The goal is restored relationship: to gain your family member (18:15).
If you grew up in a family that confronted every injustice (lots of fighting), look at Jesus to see how it’s done. See how the servant of the Lord avoided quarrels and raised voices, taking care not to harm a bruised reed or squash a smouldering wick (12:18-21).
If you grew up in a family that never had an argument and never resolved anything, learn from the God who stepped into the pain, took our wrongs onto his own shoulders, and suffered because he cared enough to reconcile.
What if it fails?
What if you don’t gain your family member, if the wrong and the rift remain? You gave it your best shot. Now you can walk away?
Not so fast. If an unresolved injustice sinks your relationship, it impacts others too. Invite the family to help sort it out. In the family setting, it’s harder to sideline someone, conceal the wrong, or minimize the impact.
Things are getting serious when the king makes a legal appeal (18:16). Israel’s law required at least two witnesses to establish a matter (Deuteronomy 19:15). Where this was not possible, providing justice was notoriously difficult (e.g. 2 Kings 3:16-28). Jesus says your mediation should be supported by people who witnessed the wrong.
The king takes our disputes seriously. He expects to restore justice to the earth, and it must start with his community. He expects us to have disputes, and he expects us to act to resolve them. His vision for justice is not something imposed from above; it’s something rising from the hearts of his people (compare Jeremiah 31:33).
Grass-roots, transformative, communal justice. Wow: that changes the world!
What if that still fails?
So what if the person is determined to hold onto whatever they gained by wronging you, valuing that above you and the family? Now you’ve done all you can, so it’s time to walk away?
Not so fast. It’s now time to speak to the assembly (18:17). What does that mean? Assembly (ekklēsia) is usually translated church, but there was no church when Jesus said this. What did he have in mind?
As explained, ekklēsia in pre-Christian times meant an assembly to resolve the issues of a Greek city, or a gathering such as the royal court in Jewish history. It’s the perfect word for the crowd gathers around our king all over the world.
Now that Jesus has been recognized as heaven’s anointed ruler with the authority of his Father (16:16; 17:5), the king calls his people to reconcile. If they cannot, even with the help of the family, they are to raise their matter in the court of the king.
What follows confirms this understanding of speak to the assembly. The king imparts such authority to his servants that what they do on earth stands as if decreed by heaven (18:18). The joint petitions of his servants on earth are honoured by the Father who reigns in the heavens (18:19) Even the smallest assembly that meets in the king’s name bears his regal presence and authority (18:20).
We’ll talk more about this as the mechanism King Jesus uses to restore justice to the earth. For now, note that the king acknowledges the possibility that the person who wronged you and cannot be restored by the community may reject even his authority.
And if that still, still fails?
If you’re not reconciled at this point, you really have done everything in your power. Everything in the family’s power. Everything in the power of the community that gathers around the king with the access we have to his power. Now it’s time to walk away.
The king authorizes you to treat your implacable assailant as someone who has no place in the family. You can treat them as an ethnikos — a gentile, someone from another nation, not part of Jacob’s family.
In fact, you can treat the person as a tax collector — someone who took resources from God’s people to support their oppressors. Since this person will not respond to the King’s presence in the people who gather around him with his authority, you can treat them as working for a foreign power.
Treat them as a gentile or tax collector does not mean ostracize them — unless you’re thinking like a Pharisee. How did Jesus treat gentiles and tax collectors? His life exegetes his words.
Crucially, the you in 18:17 is singular (translated you personally above). You — the individual wronged by your sister or brother — you are no longer required to treat this person as family. The king gives you permission to let them go, to treat them as a foreigner working for a different kingdom.
Jesus did not tell you to ostracize the person. He certainly did not tell the church to excommunicate them: the singular you does not permit that interpretation.
He does permit you to walk away. It was an arduous journey to reach this point, so you’ll find this incredibly liberating, a huge weight off your shoulders.
The king of reconciliation just set out his plans for justice in his kingdom. At the personal level, it works like this: “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
Open Matthew 18:15-17.
- What church did Jesus expect? (Mt 16:18)
- What’s with tax collectors? (Mt 9:9-12)
- Processing offence (Eph 4:26)
Some early manuscripts lack the words against you in verse 15. The NIV (2011) reflects this by translating “If you brother or sister sins, go …”
If that’s right, these verses address our responsibility to care for each other in community rather than just personal conflict. We’re to imitate the Shepherd who goes out to see if the deceived lamb can be found, the Father who wants none of his little ones to perish (18:12-14).
But the flowchart Jesus provides seems best suited to personal conflict. If your brother wronged someone else, why would Jesus insist you leave that person out and keep it just between the two of you? Should the wronged party be one of the additional witnesses? And if all efforts to rescue with the wayward brother fail, why do you get to treat the criminal as a gentile or tax collector, but the person he wronged does not?
The disciples applied Jesus’ words to a brother who sins against me (18:21). Even if the text has a broader application, that’s the most obvious one.