Introduction

It’s a common observation that a local church, like any other gathering of people, is not immune to conflict. When a group of individuals, all sinners, come together, it’s only natural that disputes will arise. These conflicts can even occur between people who share the same love for the Lord and Savior as you do.

No one enjoys conflict. It is not a time for rejoicing, and it is not a time to celebrate. There is little joy to be found when you are at odds with someone in the church. Offenses occur, sometimes intentionally or unintentionally. Sin happens because we are sinners. However, if these conflicts are not resolved, they can lead to division and weaken the church community. Thankfully, the Lord Jesus Christ anticipated these problems in his church, and he gave clear instructions about what to do in those cases of discomfort when someone offends you and sins against you.

Let’s focus on the two paths the Lord has given us when someone offends us and sins against us. This article aims to shed light on these two options without delving into all the other aspects of these steps. The whole matter is complex, especially discerning the differences between private and public sin. However, this guide should help in most cases and, Lord willing, serve the peace and purity of Christ’s church.

The first option in the conflict resolution process is crucial, as it sets the foundation for resolving the issue. It involves confronting the person who has sinned against you directly, face to face.

I. Direct Confrontation

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. (Matt. 18:15, ESV).

Allow me to guide you through this step from the scope of God’s Word as you seek to follow these words obediently:

First, as a member of the church community, you must pray when conflicts arise. The first step is to pray for your attitude and the person who offended you. That aligns with Paul’s advice in Gal. 6:1, where he encourages us to restore our brother in a spirit of gentleness. That is not a passive process but an active one that requires participation and commitment. Usually, when offended, you respond with anger at varying levels. It’s important to remember Paul’s instructions and respond with gentleness. Gentleness and patience will not come without concerted prayer. Many of you are parents; sometimes, your child angers you through disobedience. It would be best never to discipline in anger because all you will communicate is anger. Instead, you should respond gently and firmly, seeking to correct the behavior and restore the broken fellowship.

Second, before you consider speaking to your brother, you should remember that you, too, are a creature of dust. It is often easy to find sin in others while forgetting that you, too, sin. Jesus warns about this point in Matt. 7:3-5. You should seek to remove the “beam” in your eye before you seek to do surgery on the eye of another. This ‘beam’ could be pride, anger, or any other sin that clouds your judgment. What patient would allow a blind surgeon to perform a procedure? That would be an absurd expectation which no reasonable person would tolerate.

Third, it is essential to remember that you are not confronting an enemy but a brother. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you.” You are not dealing with those outside the visible church. You are confronting those who have made the same profession of faith as you. They are part of your family, adopted into the body of the Lord Jesus Christ by the electing love of God the Father (Eph. 1:3-6). Every family has squabbles. Every family has matters that need to be resolved. Every family has sins and offenses that must be corrected. The closest families on earth sometimes offend others in the home. How do you treat them? Do you treat them as family members or strangers who live down the street?

Fourth, you must confront them alone. Sadly, in the church today, gossip is as much a problem as it is in the world. Sometimes, it is worse! What Jesus is telling you to do is to maintain confidentiality about the offense. That means you do not talk about it with others. You do not discuss it with your spouse, children, or other family members, and not with other church members. The church elders are not allowed to be the “gossip center” about your conflicts with others. They should remind you to keep the matter quiet and tell you to go and speak to the person who offended you. Jesus says you go to him alone. You are not to go to him alone after telling others. In his commentary on this verse, Leon Morris says, “There should be no attempt to bring all this out into the open. It is a matter between the offender, the offended, and God, and if the sinner can be persuaded to repent and seek forgiveness, the whole affair is over.” [1] (Emphasis added).

Fifth, you are to go to your brother. That is, you are not to “ghost” them (a modern term akin to the word, ignore). You are not to behave in a way that communicates you are offended (i.e., being passive-aggressive; acting rudely towards the offender, giving them the “cold shoulder.” etc..). You are to go and speak to your brother. Morris comments, “Go means taking the initiative; the person in the clear is not to wait for the sinner to come to him.”[2] It may be the case that the offender doesn’t even know that he has offended you. It may be the case that he is aloof and ignorant of the matter. You must take the initiative because he is your brother, and you are to love him as Christ has loved you. As Jay Adams points out in his book on this subject, the offender must go to his offended brother, but there are times when the offender doesn’t know he has sinned against a brother. The principle of charity, therefore, requires that the offended party seek an audience with the one who sinned against him. (See Matt. 5:23-24; Lk. 17:3).[3]

Remembering to go to the offending brother speedily is also essential. It would be best never to let the sun go down on your wrath (Eph. 4:26). You should never allow multiple Lord’s Days to pass without resolving the offense. Therefore, you should seek to resolve it before the next Lord’s Day. Allowing it to go on unaddressed for an extended period only harms your soul and your brother. Friends, that is not love. To refuse to go lacks love and grace.

Sixth, you are to remember that the goal is reconciliation. The goal is not to highlight the offender’s sin and embarrass them. The goal is restorative. The brotherly relationship is restored if the offending brother listens to you and seeks forgiveness (Jas. 5:19, 20). “Reconciliation is a matter of restoring friendship, so it is not enough to merely bury a matter; both parties must work toward a new and proper relationship for the future,”[4] Jay Adams rightly states.

Seventh, you are to forgive the offending brother from the heart. If a heart of repentance is offered, you are to receive it and restore your brother to the standing with you that they enjoyed before this offense (Matt. 6:14-15; Eph. 4:31-32). Remember, you have often offended your heavenly Father and sinned against him. Yet, he forgives you each time you violate his law (1 Jn. 1:9). Therefore, you must forgive from the heart, or God will not forgive you. Jay Adams writes, “When he [the offended party] says ‘I forgive you,’ he makes a promise (which is what forgiveness is) never to raise the matter again. He promises not to bring it up to you, nor to anyone else, and not sit and brood on it. The matter, he assures you, is closed.”[5] (Emphasis added).

This option is, indeed, a weighty one. It is hard, as it should be. It is hard because if it weren’t, the church would turn into a bunch of sin police, running around confronting everyone over everything.

There is a second path God’s people can take when there is offense or conflict in the church. This road involves allowing love to cover a multitude of sins. It leads to being able, by God’s grace, to let your love for your brother cover that offense or sin as you consider all the known circumstances.

II. Love Covering a Multitude of Sins

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Pet. 4:8, ESV)

Hatred stirs up strife,
     but love covers all offenses. (Prov. 10:12, ESV)

What does allowing “love to cover a multitude of sins” look like?

First, it is an attitude that does not allow you to be easily offended by the actions and sins of others around you. Instead of considering your emotions in the case, you consider that of your brother. Some sins are very difficult to cover with love. Some things should never be covered in that way. Some circumstances should be exposed by following the first road as stated above. However, there are many cases in the life of the church where you can quickly identify as something that can be covered with love by giving the benefit of the doubt and moving on. That is the love the apostle Paul highlights in 1 Cor. 13: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” (Emphasis added). Practice giving others the benefit of the doubt. Our culture is full of people who are offended about everything. God’s people, who have been forgiven and given much, should be less easily offended by others.

Second, it is a willingness to treat the offending brother like it never happened. Consider the work of reconciliation and redemption secured by the work of Christ. Sin was not excused, and it was not ignored. It was handled, but not by you. It was taken by someone else, the Lord Jesus Christ. The love of Christ “covered” your sin, removed it as far as the East is from the West and buried it in the deepest ocean. The love of God covered your sin in the work of Christ, and he remembers it no more and does not treat you as a stranger and opponent of the Kingdom of God. Instead, he welcomes you as a son, invites you into his family, and treats you as one of the family. He covered your sin with the love of Christ. He didn’t ignore it but covered it and cleansed it forever. Covering another’s offense with love may be challenging for some people. If that is you, you must follow the abovementioned road. You risk resentment and bitterness if you cannot allow love to cover many sins and refuse to speak to your brother about the offense. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you are still bothered by the offense and sin of another one day after it happened. If so, you are probably not covering it with love but harboring resentment. If that is the case, seek out your brother and follow the abovementioned steps.

III. Some Questions and Answers

What do you do when the offender will not listen to you?

Although this article seeks to deal with the initial step, which is often enough to resolve most offenses and conflicts, there are situations where there is no repentance or reconciliation. First, this step is not merely a formula to follow but a pastoral exhortation to love your neighbor enough to labor with them to resolve the problem. That may mean going to them more than once. There are cases where that is wise. However, there may be cases in which that is not possible. Therefore, second, seek out a few trusted church members or church officers and approach the offender together. Remember, these trusted members or officers should still be unaware of the exact nature and details of the offense.

What is the purpose of witnesses?

That isn’t easy to answer, but the fundamental purpose is the same as the first step: to aid in repentance and reconciliation. However, at this point, the process needs to be witnessed in keeping with Deut. 19:15. Leon Morris writes,

“[The offended] is to take a small number of others (one or two does not specify the number, but clearly a small group is meant; the matter is to be kept as quiet as possible) …Nobody is to be convicted on the evidence of a single person; everything must be attested by two or, better, three witnesses. Where it is important to have the exact words attested, there must be two or three people who can vouch for what was said. Jesus is not, of course, talking about a trial, and in any case the one or two more are not witnesses of the offense; they can testify only that they have tried to help the offender.”[6]

The help offered is that of compelling the offender to repent and be reconciled to the offended.

How can I know if I am letting love cover many sins?

If you find yourself treating the offender in different ways than you did before, avoiding them, or refusing to engage them within the Christian community, then you are not letting love cover the sin. In that case, you should seek reconciliation through the steps outlined above. You cannot say you are letting love cover sin and offense as merely a way to avoid the hard work of Biblical confrontation.

What if the offense continues to come?

That is always a possibility. The church is full of sinners. The answer is the same: if you cannot allow love to cover it, you must confront it. There may come a time when you must confront a brother out of great love for them. They may be carrying a blind spot in their life. They may be struggling with that sin; perhaps the Lord will use you to help them overcome it. They may be wrestling with many things. Whatever the case, you must always be willing to forgive from the heart to an infinite degree (Matt. 18:21-35).

What if the offense is between you and one of the officers in the church?

Those conflicts are difficult and painful at times. Yet, the solution is the same as outlined above. The apostle Paul tells his young pastor to resist charges against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19). You will note that the same bar is set as that of those differences and conflicts between members. The elders or pastors of the church are your brothers. They are afforded the same expectations as those issues that arise between members. You should go to them alone and discuss your grievance and offense with them.

Does going to the offender require doing it in person?

This is an excellent question and one that deserves a response in a world of email and text messaging. It is easier to confront a person over email or text messages. However, there is an element missing. It is two-dimensional. It is one-way communication. The medium controls the message, as Neil Postman rightly points out in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Therefore, it is better to confront an offender in person. There may be times when that is not possible due to distance or other circumstances beyond your control. In that case, using a medium that emulates an in-person experience as much as possible is preferable.

How many times am I required to forgive my brother?

The Lord Jesus answers this question in Matt. 18:21-22 when Peter asks, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” The point is not in the math answer. The point is that you should forgive each time it is offered to you. That can be difficult, especially when it is the same person about the same offense. However, you are to forgive them, regardless.

What about those offenses that appear to be public versus those that are private?

These circumstances are not easy to discern. Of course, there are obvious cases in which a public offense is simple to assign. For example, a member of the church loses their temper and begins to act out against you in front of numerous people. Yet, in most cases, offenses are private. Sadly, many people in the church avoid the Biblical process because they determine that the issue is public. With that said, just because a matter is deemed public does not mean that you should make it known publicly. You are free and encouraged to follow the steps outlined above.

Conclusion

Conflict will occur in the church. It happens between members and members, members and officers, and members and pastors. God expects his people to resolve it in a way that seeks the peace and purity of the church. Many conflicts are misunderstandings. Many conflicts are not that significant or severe. Many offenses are committed without intent or ill will. Many times, there are pieces of information missing in the conflict that, when discussed, shed light on the matter. Yes, there are also serious sins and offenses committed. If love cannot cover it, you must confront it. There is never a time when you can simply wave it off, treat the offender as dead, ignore them, or behave in a way that is inconsistent with the Gospel. Each of you has been granted much from your Lord. He has dealt with the infinite conflict between you and your heavenly Father. As such, you must emulate the Savior and deal kindly with those who offend you. Conflict is difficult, but it does happen. Loving, biblical confrontation is equally difficult. It is neither loving nor good to avoid it. It does not show love to your neighbor. After all, love is the hallmark quality of the professing Christian (1 Jn. 3:11-18). God’s people ought not to be pedantic about everything. However, if an offense is made and a sin committed, it honors the Lord to follow one of the two roads mentioned as you seek to strive for the unity and peace of the church.

[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 467.

[2] Morris, 467.

[3] Jay E. Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline, Jay Adams Library (Grand Rapids, Mich: Ministry Resources Library, 1986), 48.

[4] Adams, 54.

[5] Adams, 53.

[6] Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 467–68.

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