Dealing with Problems in a Church

The text for the sermon today is Matthew 18:15-20 (NRSV).

In the original Greek of this text from Matthew, Jesus doesn’t start by saying if a member of your church sins against you.  What he says is if a brother sins against you.  The translator is correct that Jesus is talking about a brother in Christ, not a brother in blood. What is lost by leaving brother out of the translation is the notion that Jesus expected our churches to look like families. Churches were not to be just a gathering of people who want to worship God on Sunday then go on with their lives.  They were to be full of people who were deeply connected to each other the same as brothers and sisters.

It is a good image, except often the relationship between two strangers in a pew is better than the relationship between two actual blood brothers.  Everyone wants a church that is family. They don’t actually want a church that looks like their family, full of thin skins, hurt feelings, passive aggressive actions, jealously nursing grudges.  They want one that looks like someone else’s family, because the family across the street always seems to look better than their own.

Families and churches share at least one similarity, we don’t disagree well. We don’t know how to hold each other mutually accountable.  We don’t know how to move past our issues with each other. We fear confrontation. Even when someone is blatantly inappropriate, we hesitate to suggest that they might be wrong about something. Because we don’t know how to fight in “Christ”, we don’t know how to stay together to be Christ either. Families and churches splinter off and move on, conveniently finding other plans for Thanksgiving this year or trying out that Methodist church down the road.

Jesus seemed to think this was  a real problem and thus suggests a simple three step solution. The person who thinks they have been wronged should go first to the other quietly and have an open, honest discussion with them. The expectation is that this person is not just talking but listening, too.  This is not a court of law where judgments are made and punishments are meted out.  This is two people, brothers and sisters in Christ, trying to bridge a difficult patch in their relationship. They talk privately, listen, and hopefully forgive.

This is step one. The hope of Jesus and everyone is that there is no step two.  If the discussion does not end in forgiveness, if there is still misunderstanding and hurt, then something has to be done. Brokenness in a church between two people who can’t get along or one person acting way out of line, is like a crack, a weak spot overall. Trouble in one relationship can lead to trouble in other relationships as people choose sides and begin to battle. While most of us instinctively either flee or just try to keep our heads down during a knock down, dragged out fight, this won’t help keep the place we love from being destroyed. If we don’t get involved everyone loses. If we don’t for peace in our churches, our churches will be torn to pieces.

Jesus suggests that a meeting is called of two or three leaders from the church to talk to the warring brothers or sisters.  These are to be arbitrators not witnesses. More like a counselor helping a married couple than your cousin Joey called to testify that he saw his cousin’s wife flirting at the bowling alley. Their goal is to heal this riff, to bring repentance on both sides and forgiveness. This is different than determining who is right and who is wrong.

If this second attempt doesn’t work, then the body, the family has to be saved. We are such radical individualists in America, that it is hard for us to hear that for Jesus the needs of the body of Christ always trump those of the individuals within it. Jesus tells the church to gather and decide if this disagreement is serious enough to ask one or both of the parties to leave. This is not for trivial matters of fights over parking spaces. This is for matters that threaten the very life of the church.

If someone is asked to leave, they will be treated like Gentiles and tax collectors.  When I initially read this, it sounded almost like an unfortunate slur. Something your grandpa would say about black people at a graduation party that makes you cringe. Grandpa, people don’t talk like that anymore. We need to remember how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors.  With love, invitation, delight in their presence. On the day we ask them to leave to protect the church, we begin the work of enabling them to return. Who is outside the love of God?  No one. Not even the knucklehead who can’t figure that out.

The truth about community is that we all say we want it and we all have no idea how hard it is to not only find it but maintain it. We shouldn’t idealize our churches. Let’s be honest, they are made up of people, crazy people like you and me. Like families, sometimes we have problems. Jesus commands us to deal with those problems and not ignore them. If we don’t our churches will be weakened. No church, no Christ in the world. This is the greater tragedy. Amen

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