Way back in 1991, the first “for Dummies” book was published. “DOS for Dummies” was a self-help book intended to help the average person understand Microsoft’s MS-DOS PC operating system. It proved to be an immediate hit, beginning a series that has now expanded to over 1800 titles such as “Chess for Dummies”, “Fishing for Dummies” and almost any popular activity that humans undertake. As far as we can tell, there has been no “Reconciliation for Dummies” book published. However, Jesus spelled out a very simple “how to” that gives us a picture of reconciliation in action.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” – Mat 18:15 -17 NIV
Before we examine this passage in more detail, if you have not already done so, familiarize yourself with the first two blogs in this reconciliation series – Meaning of Reconciliation and Reconciliation Models. This will make this blog much easier to grasp.
There are several important things to note about this passage before we dive into it. Firstly, it is brilliantly simple and straightforward and not a difficult process to understand. Secondly, much of what has been taught on this in the past has focused on the latter part of the process (when the church is involved) taking a church discipline perspective. While discipline may certainly be a possible result of the steps taken, the main purpose is to “win over” the other person or in other words – reconciliation. Finally, many read this passage through institutional religious glasses. Our view is that Jesus’ intent was much more focused on personal relationships and had little or nothing to do with institutional religion. These three things should be kept in mind as we further examine reconciliation in action.
Let’s have a closer look at a few words to dial down some of the complexity or religious overtones assumed to be in this passage. To begin, the word translated “brother or sister” is the Greek word “adelphos” which can be either a male or female disciple or even fellowman. It it’s widest terms, you could apply it to any other person you interact with in your community of relationships. Next, the concepts of “sins against you” can mean miss the mark, be mistaken, do wrong, wander from the path or the more typical religious interpretation, violate God’s law. Finally, “point out their fault” goes beyond just pointing out the “sin” but also implies correction.
Rolling all of these first few concepts together in their simplest form, we could propose this paraphrase: “If another person does or says something to you that is wrong or mistaken (morally or otherwise), go and tell the person privately what they did wrong and correct them.” The next key concept to understand is the word translated “listen” which comes from the Greek word akouo. This is much more than simple physical hearing but also includes the concepts of comprehension and understanding and attending to or acting on what one has heard, which implies agreement with the correction. So to add to our greatly simplified paraphrased translation:
“If another person does or says something to you that is wrong and mistaken, go and tell them privately what they did wrong and correct them. If they understand what they did and act on the correction, you have won them over“.
This portion of the passage connects back to the Step 1 noted in our earlier blogs about recognition of the truth in the situation. The first objective of the process Jesus is describing in Matthew 18 is to establish the truth of whatever has occurred. Hopefully this can occur in the first private conversation but his instruction addresses other possible scenarios as well, including the worst case one. Simply put, if the initial private attempt doesn’t work, involve two or three others and attempt the same thing. In this second stage, the goal is the same, understanding, agreement and ultimately reconciliation. However, if that too is unsuccessful, move to stage three, take the issue before the church.
Here again we are challenged with past interpretations and applications of this within an institutional church mindset. A more accurate understanding can be gained by closely examining the word translated “church”, the Greek word “ekklesia”. We have discussed this in much more depth in previous blogs such as Church Redefined? and Do you know what time it is? – (Part 2). In its purest form, the word “ekklesia” means any assembly or gathering of people for a purpose. Of course, in this context Jesus is talking about any committed gathering of believers or his followers. It has nothing to do with institutional religion or structures and has everything to do with Jesus’ followers united together in committed relationship, regardless of the format of their assembly (small group, large assembly or even electronic gatherings). The key is that real relationships exist. Regardless of the format of our assemblies, they are all capable of being surface or skin deep. True reconciliation is difficult to achieve by involving people who are not in relationship with those involved in the conflict. Is it any wonder then that this step usually has more of a discipline flavour?
Taken this way and in the overall intent of Jesus words to “win over your brother”, this greatly simplifies stage three. If we insert the correct understanding of “ekklesia” into our passage and apply our concepts from earlier blogs, if stage one (private) and two (two or three others) don’t result in the establishment of truth in the situation and reconciliation, take the situation to a wider group of Jesus’ followers who are in relationship with all parties involved. The goal again is restoration and reconciliation not institutional discipline. The most important point is that all three stages should involve people in connection and relationship with one another since the goal is reconciliation of all parties involved rather than discipline or punishment.
Finally, the process Jesus outlines also addresses what happens if all attempts at reconciliation fail. If the private, small group and community approaches fail, the final stage is to treat the person as you would a “pagan or tax collector”. These are people clearly outside the “ekklesia” or believing community in relationship with one another. They are people that don’t share your core values or beliefs. However, while distance without connection is certainly implied by Jesus, at this point one might ask how should these people be treated anyway? Or better yet, how did he treat pagans and tax collectors? While worthy of much more reflection, perhaps they should be treated with compassion and invitation to reconcile at any time in the future when they choose to reconsider their position?
As we conclude this reconciliation series, it is important to tie the process described here with the examples we cited in the Reconciliation Models blog. In the case of Joseph, Zacchaeus and Paul, the situations had already progressed to stage three (treat them as a pagan and tax collector). They weren’t part of the community where the offence had occurred (for different reasons). The onus was now on the offender to take the initiative to reconcile. This is very similar to the younger son in the prodigal story. Irregardless of the specifics of these situations or your own, once there is desire for reconciliation and the process begins through the initial contact, the first step must be to establish the truth of the situation. From there forward, the reconciliation process can occur and relationship can be restored.
“Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God” 1 John 3:21
John and Katherine Matthews