If Two of You on Earth Agree
In every age, the best of humankind has struggled to find the right balance on the scale between “Doing Justice” and “Showing Mercy.” It is a struggle for civilizations and for individuals. In your own life you have likely had to choose one over the other and wonder if you tipped the scale in the right direction. No matter which way the scale tips, there is always some accusation or concern that we have gone to one extreme or the other.
We can enumerate the problems of being too lenient. We may wish to be merciful and forgiving, but if we do not recognize how deadly and dangerous sin truly is, then it will destroy not only the sinner, but the body of believers too. Unaddressed sin is like a virus or cancer. From a purely pastoral perspective, being too lenient on sin avoids opportunities for growth and positive change.
On the other hand, taking a tough stance against sin may cause us to forget mercy, and we easily become too judgmental. We forget why must deal with sin; instead, we confront sin because we just think we are supposed to, and we end up failing to help others. We get fearful rather than hopeful. We get angry rather than humble. We must remember that when we confront sin, we are also confronting sinners—real people with real problems. These are people whom God loves. But sometimes they sin against us.
How do we do justice and show mercy at the same time? They seem contradictory, and fusing them together is a rather sloppy job of spiritual and social welding. And if we must err, which option is best? Do we err on the side of leniency or judgment? Can we ever be absolute about it?
Making such a decision is not a good choice. It assumes a false difference because these extremes, leniency and judgment, are not that different. They each tolerate and overlook a different set of sins.
On the side of leniency, the sins of indulgence, selfishness, lust, greed (just to give a few) are tolerated. We press forward with the motto “to each their own” or we become self-centered and self-conscious about how merciful, benevolent and open-minded we might appear to others.
On the side of judgment, the sins of arrogance, self-righteousness, dissension, gossip, hatred, and prejudice are not only tolerated, but we equate our prejudices with absolute truth and spiritual purity.
Both tendencies are rooted in earthly, non-spiritual ways of looking at the world. What we strive for is a higher, spiritual way of dealing with the reality of sin and with one another. As disciples of Jesus, we have the audacity to pursue a way of doing things that would affirm the worth of others and the importance of community yet would not avoid the real injustice of sinfulness and the danger that it poses to ourselves, others, and the community. But what does such a way of life look like? Here’s a hint: check out Matt. 18:15-20.
In the middle of a sermon about life in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus describes a simple process that guides believers in managing and overcoming the sin that disrupts our lives and our life together. If we ever hoped for a clear statement from our Lord about what precisely we are supposed to do, then this is it. If we would truly follow this simple teaching, then the church of God could overcome so many problems. We would win credibility among outsiders who notice how we handle sin and disputes in a way that would boggle the collective mind of the culture.
The process is simple and has four steps. Forgive me for seeming legalistic, but these steps must be followed in order—not because it is policy, but because the whole process only makes sense in this sequence. Why? Because each step, if successful, becomes the last step, for the goal in every stage is repentance and reconciliation.
Step 1 is a private conversation.
Has another person sinned against you? Go and talk to them. Have you sinned against someone? Go and talk to them. We could parse the words of Jesus and rigidly assume that the violator has to approach the victim in each case. But that misses the gist of the teaching. The intent is the same. If you know that you have offended someone, then do something about it. It is called making amends. If you have been offended or mistreated, your best option is not to go about grieved, grumbling to others or trashing the character of the other. This doesn’t rule out the possibility of seeking reliable, confidential counsel, but let’s be discreet. And here’s the principle: Do you seek to harm or to do good? What is your goal? If you and the other person can come to an agreement and reconcile, then leave it with God. Here’s the glorious part: Christ is with you in this. If you both agree, he agrees with you. The matter is settled. Sin has lost its power and we have tasted just a little of the kingdom of heaven. But if there is a no agreement …
Step 2 involves a few wise peacemakers.
People do not always agree, but there’s no reason to escalate to step 4 or lose hope. In the old days, we would write letters or publicly denounce people in “brotherhood journals” (what an oxymoron in this case). If the goal of such action was reconciliation and repentance, then I have never known of a case where it succeeded. In the 21st century, we have progressed. Now we utilize passive-aggressive comments and social media. It’s much cheaper than publishing a journal. Social media or texting is no place to settle and argument. Healthy families fight, but unhealthy families fight in the street.
There is an appropriate way to bring in “the family.” We can seek help from those who are interested in goals of agreement, reconciliation, peace, forgiveness, and overcoming sin. Who are these wise folks? They could be anyone. They are trusted people. Ideally they are patient people who are respected by both parties. They can defend the interests of both parties and the community of believers (justice). They recognize that the accused may be stubborn and reluctant to admit guilt or that the accuser may be too harsh (mercy). Such wise peacemakers remain as partners in accountability. They are much more than judges asked to rule on arbitration. They are peacemakers, and Jesus says that they are blessed. Now, when an agreement is reached, these peacemakers are also part of the agreement, and when the temptation to re-open the case comes along, they act as witnesses to remind the parties that the matter has been bound or loosed—and that that decision was also heaven’s ruling because Christ agreed with us all. Even if we do not agree in every detail, we agree with the heavenly goals. However, if someone in this matter still doesn’t agree …
Step 3 means warning the church.
This is tough, and it means the destructive nature of sin is going viral. This is when the church needs to be told. Not as a matter of “marking out the sinner” as if we were 17th-century puritans, but the warning is to remind us that humility is the balance between justice and mercy. On one level, the church (the community of believers) needs to reach out to the sinner and work toward reconciliation. This is a work of merciful love. All the members of the church are responding in prayer and outreach to effect reconciliation. On another level, this is the church’s tonic against gossip and division. The wise witnesses have been involved at this point, so their testimony is a respected guide to the community. And yet, the goal is still the same as always: reconciliation and agreement with Christ. Can you hear Jesus implying that all of this should be enough? But just in case it is not …
Step 4 is the bold move to treat the unrepentant sinner like an outsider.
This is not excommunication. It is not “church discipline” in the sense of a public execution of someone’s character. It isn’t “marking out the heretic.” This is not a fear tactic. This is not the kneejerk reaction of pearl-clutching hypocrites from the cast of Footloose. This is the unfortunate and only possible outcome if all else has failed. The most accurate term may be “shunning,” but that has a negative connotation. Perhaps we do not need a term, but only the sorrowful recognition that the community of believers is torn between mercy and justice, and through no desire of their own, they must treat the stubborn sinner as an outsider because that person is not interested in agreeing with Christ for the sake of reconciliation. I understand that this is much less informal than institutional options, but it is the reality that families sometimes experience when a member of the family is so dedicated to destruction because of addictions, denial, or violence. The family has to set boundaries or they will suffer the same destruction and there will never be an opportunity for restoration. A church family may have to do the same. Yet, even when the church shuns a person, the hope is that he or she will change and come to a loving agreement that Christ will support.
Let’s back away from each step and see the process. Christ promises to be engaged with us at every stage of this process. When we ignore his promise to choose our own way, it’s usually when we want to win. It is usually when we want to be validated. It is usually when we would rather be in control. It is usually when we choose to be afraid or paranoid. It is usually when we assume it is easier to just tell others, or to avoid conflict and resort to resentment.
Jesus follows his rather practical and pointed teaching with a parable that reminds us how we live in the mercy of a just God. Recognition of God’s grace keeps us humble. Humility opens our hearts and our ears to hear. Just think about it, Jesus Christ could be in our midst in every way if we will take seriously this teaching about reconciling agreement.