Conflict Resolution in the Church and in the World
The Gospel reading for this Sunday, from Matthew chapter 18, has been referred to in at least one commentary as the “Matthew 18 Process” for resolving conflict. In this time of heightened stress and tension for many, this time of novel coronavirus, economic uncertainty and a presidential campaign that has taken itself to the streets, particularly the streets of Kenosha, Portland and Minneapolis, we must recognize that the “Matthew 18 Process” is not the simple, clearly stated answer that it seems to be. Here is the reading from Matthew –
Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Seminary professor Audrey West tells us that church conflicts, from which our church is no exception, “fester (or explode) thanks to fear or misplaced loyalty, and people talk more about one another than they talk with one another. Stir into the congregational mix divided loyalties and power dynamics—not to mention the challenge of discerning what actually counts as sin—and it is tempting to throw one’s hands in the air about prospects for resolution.”
From many years of personal experience in a business where I was required daily to negotiate settlements large and small, an immediate takeaway is that there are always at least two sides to every issue or conflict. And rarely is one party completely right or completely wrong. As Professor West points out, “For many people, it is easier to identify the ways they have been harmed than it is to recognize the ways their actions can harm others, even if unintentionally. Perhaps one of the most difficult truths of this passage is a reminder of the human capacity to cause harm to others—both in the systems in which we participate as well as in our personal actions (or failures to act).”
A promising solution is clear and open communication, which requires as much (or more) honest listening as it does honest speaking. And we know that listening is hard. Maybe that is why the process Matthew has Jesus describe involves listening at every step of the way.
The message here is that, to listen closely to the truth of others is an essential element of a faith community grounded in the ways of Jesus. He prescribes a difficult process, and he calls all parties to accountability. But his presence with us through whatever happens ensures us to live into our calling.
Stay safe and have a blessed week!