Matthew 18 is the normative way of dealing with most conflicts between believers in a church. However, it is not the only way of handling every possible conflict. Recently I had the opportunity to hear Matthew 18 abused by someone who essentially used it to deflect criticism. Intuitively I knew it was being abused but I couldn’t quite put my finger on how. Until now…
James Duncan, from the blog Pajama Pages, wrote an enlightening post which addressed some of the issues around the recent Mark Driscoll hoopla (something I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on myself.) The part of the blog that interested me most, though, was his observations on Matthew 18.
Specifically, Duncan says, Matthew 18 assumes several characteristics about the two believers caught up in a dispute. (1) Affinity: They have something in common/mutual beliefs. (2) Access: They could meet in order to resolve a dispute. (3) Abuse: The offended party is the one that was sinned against. (4) Authority: If the dispute cannot be resolved between the two parties they can go to a higher authority in the church. This seems to assume that there is not a significant power differential between the two parties. (5) Anonymity: The scenario anticipates that the dispute is presently a private matter. Matters that are already public aren’t covered under Matthew 18.
Matthew 18 is a good guide for dealing with disputes in the church. It is built into our church’s constitution as the process for church discipline. I’ve seen it used well. (The times that it’s used best are when the parties are reconciled and nobody else even knows it happens.) But it can also be abused, and often is used as a way to deflect criticism, especially by church leaders.
We need to be wise in dispute resolution. Use Matthew 18 as a light, not has a blunt forced object. And, please don’t hide behind it.