Conflict Resolution in Three Easy Steps

Conflict Resolution in Three Easy Steps

Rev. Robert P. Hoch, Ph.D.

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church

September 6, 2020

Baltimore MD 21201


Matthew 18:15-20

15“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. 16But 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. 17If 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. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Many of us are averse to conflict. We feel aversion to conflict in a physical way, with elevated blood pressure, heart palpitations, sweaty palms, shallow breathing. Maybe it’s because we know it isn’t fast or orderly work, or perhaps even successful work. Why bother? Experience teaches us that despite how neat and clean Jesus’ directions on how to resolve conflict may at first appear there is nothing easy about it. Even so, you almost forget about your sweaty palms as Jesus outlines what might be a praiseworthy process for negotiating with conflict. If we’re not in the heat of conflict, these three steps or something like them may sound reasonable, attainable. So, maybe, in some way, the steps outlined by Jesus are easy. Maybe if Jesus can coach us in how to manage conflict, maybe that would be a sermon worth listening to? So, Jesus has our attention this morning.

Jesus isn’t usually a policy wonk, but in this text, he comes really close to giving us a personnel policy for conflict resolution in the church. It begins with a theoretical, “if someone in the church has injured another member of the church”—

  • Step 1: the injured person is to go to that person and talk to them, one-on-one. If the offender acknowledges the objectionable behavior or action, whether intentional or unintentional, all is well, and community is restored. If, however, the offender does not acknowledge the offense, proceed to . . .


  • Step 2: Assemble two or three people who can serve as witnesses to this conversation. If the offender acknowledges the offense, intentional or not, community is restored. If, however, the offender does not acknowledge the offense, proceed to . . .


  • Step 3: Bring this person before the entire church, where the victim can air their grievance before the offender and gathered community. If the offender acknowledges the injury, whether intentional or not, community is restored. If, however, the offender does not acknowledge the offense even here, then let that person, in Jesus’ words, be as a Gentile or tax collector to you. The fancy word for this is excommunication, putting the offender beyond accountability to the church. Maybe we would simply say, “Outside the community.” Personally, I prefer Tom Long’s take on this. He says it is Bible-talk for, “Just leave them the hell alone!”


Maybe Jesus’ procedure succeeds or maybe it doesn’t . . . either way, these three steps do not necessarily constitute good news. This process is likely to go on for a very long time. This is going to be terribly involved and emotional and draining.  Let me confess that mostly I’m ready to cut out at verse 15: “If another member of the church sins against you . . . well, leave them the hell alone! And leave me the hell alone! I need to get on with my life!” This is not three easy steps to conflict resolution. If anything, Jesus seems to extend and deepen our conflict . . . not with chaos perhaps but with attention to that the kind of situation we’d just rather not acknowledge. We’re cowards when it comes to acknowledging our offense. Even if we know in our heart of hearts that we have caused heartache, we resist acknowledging that injury. And if we are the injured party, we’re often fearful, and with reason, that we will not be heard. And sometimes, there is no means to achieve this resolution — the parties involved have moved on, died, or the whole thing just seems irrelevant except to us, the ones carrying the injury, who continue to feel as if we are outside the care of the community of faith.

A vital relationship has been broken.

That’s always difficult, but perhaps especially tragic in the church, where relationships are all important. People in church are called to love one another . . . and that’s great, right up to that moment when we don’t. We imagine the church is a place where we all get along . . . and we’re shocked when we fight like cats and dogs. When peace like a river runs through our church, we think all is as it should be; but when the fire of conflict races through our fellowship, we feel as if all is lost.

I am fond of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insight into this problem. He says that the greatest enemy of the church is not the real church – the real church with members who behave badly or thoughtlessly, the real church where people, sometimes without meaning to, and sometimes intentionally, hurt one another — that’s not our real enemy. The enemy of the church is the ideal church, the church where everyone is thoughtful, everyone is fair, everyone is generous, or at least they are most of the time, but most importantly, in the ideal church, no one needs real forgiveness, or substantial healing, or deep reconciliation. All that stuff is just window dressing in the ideal church. Just words without a real target, without real soil or soul.The church where we know it all and the stained-glass windows are there because they make us look pretty. The church that doesn’t know it needs God’s healing — that’s the real enemy of the church.

For Jesus, repair seems to be the whole point of the church and not anything else. The longing for wholeness. In Jesus’ teaching of the lost sheep, just previous to today’s text, he believes that if a shepherd has one hundred sheep, and one goes missing, that shepherd will leave the ninety-nine and go looking for that one. And when he finds the one that strayed, and that one is restored, the shepherd rejoices, feels happy even more than he does over the ninety-nine that never strayed. Maybe you’re thinking, why can’t God be happy about those of us who didn’t stray? We were a good church. Why, God, do you care about the one crummy sheep and yawn over the ninety-nine good sheep? But maybe we don’t know real sheep: there’s no sheep on earth that never strayed! You remember the psalmist: “All like sheep have gone astray.” Sheep stray. It’s in their nature. And it is in God’s nature to restore!

Even when Jesus finally says that sometimes people are just not going to be moved . . . “Let that one be an outsider to you.” Literally, he says, “Let that one be as a Gentile sinner or tax collector to you.” And of course, this drips with irony — you know who Jesus befriended more than anyone else? That’s right, Gentile sinners and tax collectors. Maybe what is paramount for Jesus is not the sin — and we should say that we are talking here about personal offenses rather than global kinds of offenses — but it’s not the sin, or maybe the confession, or even the steps he outlines, but the restoration of a vital relationship.

Jesus does supply an order here, these three steps. It is not a rule as such, but it may be an acknowledgment of the delicate art of the restoration for community. Offenses are substantial. They are. But the art of restoration is at least as compelling and probably more compelling. Think of the primal narrative of offense against God, the story of Adam and Eve. And it seems like pretty massive stuff. Read the speeches of God to our ancestors: From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. In other words, I brought you into this world and I can take you out! And then God pushes them out of this paradise into a cold world. Kind of heavy. The world must have felt really heavy right at that moment, sinking into oblivion heavy. And yet, in the next breath, God finds Adam and Eve and says, “Come over here you two!” And they come. And God puts their arms into the biblical equivalent of warm, puffy coats, and bundles them up with scarves, pulls a knit hat over their exposed ears, zippers them and buttons them, and kisses them until they look like little red-cheeked puffballs.

The offense separated, but the love of God, mercy of God seems almost more beautiful than the loneliness of perfection in paradise, or the loneliness of justice without mercy. Restoration of relationship. It’s not only what it restores, but what it creates. It’s the most important thing, says Jesus. It is better to experience God’s mercy in brokenness than it is to be perfect, without blame or injury, and have no need of love, have no need of mercy, to have no need of the other.

It is better to be healed with humility than it is to be sick with pride . . . it may be better, but it’s difficult to acknowledge an offense. I was being something of a noodge the other morning. I learned a new word in our Ruth study on Thursday night. A noodge is a Yiddish term for a person who is pestering, or annoying, or complaining. I was being a noodge. And I guess I knew my noodginess but I wasn’t ready to acknowledge that, didn’t have the presence of mind to cope with it right then, so I went for a run — or actually, I was told to go for a run!

Kind of like a procedure, following it for conflict resolution.

At the end of the run, a quote from C.S. Lewis drifted back to mind, nudging my noodge: “The hard part of the Christian life,” he writes, “comes at us at a time when most of us don’t expect it. It comes at us first thing in the morning, when our wishes, our desires, our fears come rushing at us like wild dogs. The first thing we need to do is push those dogs back so that we can listen for another voice, a gentle voice, a voice with a different perspective. This is the first thing we must do, and do so continuously throughout the day, coming in out of the wind of our frenzied needs, wishes, and wants” (author’s adaptation). I realized that my noodginess was one of my wild dogs . . . that dawning realization was a bit of triumph for Rob Hoch. Noodginess. But another feeling crept into me: I didn’t want to acknowledge that I had been a noodge.

And then realized the real wild dog was my pride. Noodginess is one thing. Pride, that’s another. That was the wild dog that I needed to confront. And I did and it wasn’t okay and that was okay. But what was really interesting: it wasn’t so hard.

At the breakfast table, where all the most important things happen, I acknowledged my noodginess. My noodginess was acknowledged in return, without rancor; my apology accepted, and then we got on with the day. Because life carries on. And we did so together, knowing that it is more important to love one another than to be perfect without each other; more important to be reconciled than it is to be right.

It could have been a very long day. A heavy day. But by God’s grace, the burden on our shoulders was almost easy with kindness.

Maybe that’s for us, the church God loves . . . we’re bundled up in God’s mercy, from the head to toe, loved by God.

I guess that shouldn’t surprise us, but it still does.  Jesus said to us, “Come unto me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on your shoulders and learn from me; because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”