Church according to Jesus
It’s amazing how little we think of Jesus. Seriously. The 21st century has brought numerous improvements in daily life and even in church life. But many of Jesus’s most obvious teachings are ignored. This is most true of Jesus’s teaching on conflict in the church. His teaching is straightforward, profound, bold, and … never really followed.
But have we not come to such an impasse in the church universal today that, heaven help us, we might have to listen to Jesus? His two teachings in Matthew about conflict are an antidote to so much of the cancer that kills churches. Cancer that usually shows our desire to be in control and have power rather than serve. Maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe Jesus is right. Either way, a closer look at these two passages might do us all some good.
First, this passage:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23-24).
The context here is Jesus talking about anger. But the context within that is that of someone who was worshipping at the temple when they remembered that they may have wronged someone or that someone might have something against them. Jesus says to get up and reconcile. Right then, right there. In fact, don’t even finish the prayer you started.
Why is Jesus so passionate about this? Well, several reasons. Anything that we bring with us in terms of bitterness, hatred, anger, or relational strife affects our worship and the worship of others. You might say that the church is like a human body that has an injury. If your leg is hurt, the whole body is affected. If you and someone within the church are having conflict, it affects the whole church. This is true even if only a few people know. God knows. And the reality is that your worship will be affected, which will affect others negatively. Jesus is so passionate about this matter that he would rather you reconcile with someone than come to church. Think about that. Think about what kind of community that would be. What kind of community that would create—one where relationships were prized over schedules and worship services. It makes it all more real, doesn’t it? And that’s the kind of place the Holy Spirit wants to be.
Imagine this scene. Sunday morning in your church. The minister stands up and greets everyone, reminds you about the church-wide potluck scheduled for next week and asks, again, that people consider helping in the nursery. Then, out of nowhere, the minister says, “Now, in accordance with the command of our Lord and Savior, we invite everyone to reflect on whether or not they have caused any hurt to anyone else in our community. If so, we invite you to seek that person out to apologize and seek forgiveness. Until everyone has had a chance to do this, we will not continue our worship.”
Awkward. Crazy. Necessary? What would we do? Maybe there’s a better way to do this logistically, but the principle is sound. The principle that Christians should always be the first to admit that they are capable of hurting someone, that they value relationships over their own pride, that they know their ego gets in the way, and that we have sin in our life that causes us to hurt others.
What would that look like? Indeed, Jesus says that would look like church.
Lesson number two comes several chapters later:
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matt. 18:15-20)
A few things of note here:
Jesus suggests a process of how to involve others. He says to start by going to the person first. In my experience, 90% of all church conflicts would be solved by this one thing. But instead of this, we go to everyone else to help us invent a story about the other person. This stops that in its tracks. The other option here is to let it stop with you, to overlook the offense and move on (Prov. 19:11). But sometimes things don’t go well when you go to that person, so you bring others in on the process. That’s community. Community fights for people to be together; it doesn’t keep them from each other through gossip or “backbiting” as the Scriptures call it.
But sometimes—and I believe this is the rarest of cases—the entire church needs to be brought in on the conflict. Imagine that. This flies against everything our modern sensibilities have taught us. Jesus has no such qualms. If you are a member of the church, then the church (and specifically Jesus) has a claim on your life and relationships. If your relationships hurt the church, then the church is part of that conversation. How this happens in practical terms is of course up for debate. But what happens next is even more radical.
Apparently this process can lead to a person not admitting wrong. So Jesus says to “treat them like a Gentile or tax collector.” Now our unredeemed mind may assume that means to exile them and not have anything to do with them. Until you ask the question, “How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?” Exactly. He pursued them. Loved them. Was patient with them. That’s the goal. That’s what Christian community looks like. Even when someone is obviously in the wrong. That might not mean you’re best friends with someone; it might not even mean that you are around them much anymore. But that doesn’t change the fact that you pray for them and hope the best for them. That’s why Jesus says, in maybe the most misquoted verse in all of Scripture, that where two or three are gathered he is with them. In other words, when two or three are gathered trying to work something out, Jesus’s Spirit is there, because he values unity above all things.
This cursory look just scratches the surface. But if we are to call ourselves disciples of Jesus, maybe we should lean into what he says instead of trying to dodge it. Commentaries, after all, make us all pretty agile. God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And may we be a part of it. Even if it’s awkward.