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Resolving Conflict: How to Apply Matthew 18

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At present, I’m in a couple of intense conflict situations. In each case, someone has said hurtful things about my ministry to other people. They haven’t come to me, but they have said that the way I do things is unbiblical. In times past, this would have ruffled my feathers. But I’ve come to …
By Seth Barnes

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At present, I’m in a couple of intense conflict situations. In each case, someone has said hurtful things about my ministry to other people. They haven’t come to me, but they have said that the way I do things is unbiblical.

In times past, this would have ruffled my feathers. But I’ve come to realize that conflict is normal and I’ve seen that Jesus gave us a specific set of instructions for how to deal with it in the 18th chapter of Matthew.

Because conflict can be so difficult, he even makes provision for us to get help from other people. All of us periodically lose our way, and when we do, we need others to look for our hearts. Here’s how:

1. Awareness

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” (Mt. 18:15)  

Principle of Greatest Awareness: Communication must be initiated by those who have been offended.

What is your response when you’ve been offended? Is it to nurse your hurt? To share it with someone else? To pout until the person notices how hurt you are?

God knows our tendency, and so he makes it the first principle in the passage. It requires that we extend grace and focus more on peace-making than on our own right to feel hurt.

Consider this journal entry of mine:  

“Extending grace in relationships is often a huge act of faith. A co-worker (I’ll call M.) seems to critically analyze my every move for a possible misstep. 

A month and a half passes, and our relationship worsens. During my prayer time, my thoughts and prayers center on M. She just leveled a withering attack on me. I don’t listen, she says. She doesn’t agree with my way of doing things. I don’t stick to principles; I compromise our integrity.

In the face of this, I choose to extend grace. Later M. re-considered her views of me. Co-workers helped her appreciate my strengths. After half a year she was able to tell me that. Three years later, she was one of our most mature workers. She was able to counsel with staff about the importance of extending grace. She became an ally in promoting team unity. 

Now, consider the typical way in which this scenario goes in Christian circles. The boss has the power. He doesn’t tolerate insubordination and fires the critical employee. This employee finds that her suspicions are confirmed and becomes more critical and bitter, either leaving the ministry, or going on to another ministry to poison its wells. 

Notice too that awareness of an offense does not mean taking on the offense. If you’re in a conflict, you may need to repent of taking on another’s offense.

2. Mediators

“But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Mt. 18:16            (also, see Deut. 19:15)

Principle of Corroboration: Conflicting perceptions are resolved through mediators.

Anyone who has used a marriage counselor to work through a problem knows that a good mediator can help you sort out conflicting perceptions. If the person who has offended you won’t listen to your side of the story, by taking a mediator or two along, you stand a much better chance of sorting through things.           

3. Relationship

“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church;” Mt. 18:17a    

Principle of Relational Responsibility: In Christian relationships, there is no easy out.

At this point you may be asking: Why does God ask us to go through all this mess? Why can’t we just bury our conflict? It’s because of relationship.

Because the body of Christ is interconnected, if a conflict has the potential to result in discipline, the body must be involved. Some would say that the body of Christ can’t handle this kind of dissension being aired publicly, but the Bible is clear. We’ve got to believe that God intends such a process to strengthen the church.

4. Applying Grace

“If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Mt. 18:17b

Principle of Intensified Grace: Some nuts require a tougher nutcracker.

Some people take this passage to mean that we would look down on a pagan or a tax collector, so we should look down on the people who are dumb enough to reject the discipline of the church.

In, The Message, the intent is more accurately communicated: “If he won’t listen to the whole church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” In other words, if Christ-followers fail to bring peace to the situation in question, then an even greater measure of grace will be necessary.

God is serious about peacemaking.   Allowing someone to walk away from the church carrying an offense or a misunderstanding simply is not an option for Jesus.

5. Spiritual Warfare

“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Mt. 18:18         

Principle of Deeper Prayer: Complicated relational problems require spiritual warfare.

There comes a point in trying to resolve a relationship problem where your spirit tells you that you’re up against something that is bigger than you realized. It may be that spiritual forces are at work to prevent reconciliation.

Sometimes we need to bind the evil spirits that want to thwart our attempts at reconciliation. We need to loose grace and peace on the individual who may be unable to see the truth because he’s been blinded.

6. Intercession

“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Mt. 18:19     

Principle of Intercessory Agreement: Agreeing with brothers in prayer increases the power of the prayer.

The measures Jesus recommends are progressively more powerful. We know there is power in the prayers of brothers. When we’re up against something particularly difficult, we should get our brothers together and attack it with the weapon of intercession.

Notice the extreme power we are given. All we have to do is agree in prayer with a brother or a sister and our request will be granted. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus shares the parable of the 100th sheep. If a sheep has wandered off and we ask that he be returned to our flock and reconciled to the body in Jesus name, then the Bible says that it will be done.

7. Forgiveness

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how may times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy seven times.’” Mt. 18:21-22  

Principle of Perpetual Forgiveness: Never give up looking for the 100th sheep.

At what point do we give up so that we can take care of the other 99 sheep? Never. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Jesus pleads with the Father in John 17 that we be brought to complete unity so that the world would know that God sent him.


Most people give up on relationships after they have been hurt a certain number of times. But, we must never give up forgiving. We must never give up searching for lost hearts.

The very act of seeking reconciliation when we have already been beaten up produces the sanctification in us that God desires. It is a humbling process. God is as interested in the integrity of this seven-step process as he is in the fruit of reconciliation that it produces.

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