© 2021 Tanya Goffin / Harvest City Church

In Matthew 18:15-35 Jesus teaches His disciples His prescription for conflict resolution in the church. The situation He is addressing here is a very common one: a church member feels upset or ‘got at’ by something someone else in the church has said or done which they find personally offensive. This can arise between any two people in church, but in practice is most often directed towards the senior pastor simply because they speak the most ‘words’ to the most people and are ultimately responsible for major decisions made in the church. The passage makes clear that the consequences of unresolved offences are potentially serious both for the offended person and the church—with implications both in the present and in eternity.

Many senior pastors would understand King David’s words as he reflects on a lifetime of people being offended with him!

Consider, Lord, how your servants are disgraced! I carry in my heart the insults of so many people. (Psalm 89:50, NLT)

When we are aware that we have sinned against someone in the church or inadvertently offended them, Jesus lays on us the responsibility of seeking them out as soon as possible and being reconciled.

‘So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.’ (Matthew 5:23-24, NLT)

When we become offended (it is inevitable from time to time as we are all sinful human beings!) Jesus teaches us to do the opposite of what most people would naturally do. The natural reaction is to develop festering anger and resentfulness, engage in gossip (i.e. talk to others in the church rather than directly to the person who has offended you) and ultimately to seek some sort of revenge. The underlying heart issue in someone who chooses to deal with offence the world’s way is always pride: there are no exceptions. If there is no soul searching, humility and repentance, the road inevitably leads away from church and away from God with all the spiritual (and physical/mental) consequences of bitterness and unforgiveness.

Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. (Hebrews 12:15, NLT)

Unresolved offence is Satan’s favourite and most effective method of causing division within a church—and especially a church leadership team. If ongoing, this will at best make the church ineffective and possibly destroy it altogether. It is important for all of us to realise that Satan knows what ‘presses our buttons’ and therefore to closely guard our hearts against unwittingly allowing ourselves to become his tools in this area. It is therefore important that we continually allow the Holy Spirit to reveal our hearts to us so we are aware of our own vulnerabilities.

But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. (James 3:14-16, NLT)

In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus gives us four steps to go through when we feel offended with someone in church. We should only start this process if we cannot let go of something that has been said or done that offends us.

Step 1

Go directly to the person who has offended you and try to resolve the issue just between the two of you. It is important that there is an attitude of reason and humility and not passion and emotion. In practice, the overwhelming majority of situations in church where offences arise do not happen out of deliberate malice. They are unintentional and simply require clarification and a simple apology. Often, the words spoken have just been misunderstood or the person offended is not aware of the full story behind the incident that has led to the offence. The example I often use is one where a person has taken offence because the pastor ‘blanked’ them, not realising that he had been up all night looking after a sick child or was getting over a migraine.

The result of obedience to this first step is that the initial contact should simply be between the people concerned. Contacting others to discuss the situation is gossip and condemned in the Bible. In addition, if we are contacted by a friend in church to talk over a situation involving that friend’s offence with someone else in the church we must choose not to be complicit with gossip and stop the conversation, reminding them of what God commands in Step 1. If the ‘someone else’ is within reach, offer to bring them over for a face-to-face chat with your friend.

When arguing with your neighbor, don’t betray another person’s secret. Others may accuse you of gossip, and you will never regain your good reputation. (Proverbs 25:9-10, NLT)

Steps 2 and 3

If Step 1 had not resolved the issue, Jesus then instructs us to involve others. Step 2 might include taking the matter to trusted leaders for further arbitration (Harvest Group leaders, Pulse or Ignite leaders, depending on the situation) and then in Step 3 also involving the senior pastors if needed. We need to note that this still does not permit gossip and discussion outside of this group. In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant, illustrating how offence and unforgiveness can lead to the spiritual equivalent of being ‘put in prison’. Many pastors and leaders have had the sad, repeated ordeal of being aware a church member is offended with them because it comes back to them through others the church member has gossiped to, but are stuck because the person concerned will not obey Step 1.

Step 4

Step 4 is the removal of an offended person from the church fellowship. This is a very last resort and is a situation where the offence has developed into resentment and bitterness against the church and the pastors with the risk of division and spiritual harm to others. The aim even here is that this drastic action will lead the person to repentance and restoration. Furthermore, Jesus makes it clear in verse 18 that there are eternal consequences: in heaven, God will endorse the decision of a church that has behaved righteously and justly in this area.

‘If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.’ (Matthew 18:17-18, NLT)

If people are causing divisions among you, give a first and second warning. After that, have nothing more to do with them. For people like that have turned away from the truth, and their own sins condemn them. (Titus 3:10-11, NLT)

In summary:
  • Choose not to get offended. All of us have offended God with our sin many times more than any offence we have received. In the light of life, death and eternity, most ‘issues’ are minor and matters of style and opinion, not central doctrine or morality.
  • If someone in the church does offend you, sort it out quickly with them directly and no one else. Do not gossip. Go to Step 2/3 if necessary.
  • If you are aware of encroaching resentment and bitterness, this is spiritually serious and a symptom of pride. It requires a response of humility and repentance before the throne of God.