Jesus gives us a 3-step approach for handling when a believer sins against us, with love being the guiding principle.
If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 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. (Matthew 18:15-17)
As disciples, Jesus Christ calls us to love one another and to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-47). He also tells us to forgive others.
It sounds like Jesus wants us to go to great lengths to live at peace with everyone and not to avenge ourselves when we are wronged.
So at first glance it may be surprising to come across a passage like this one, where Jesus teaches us how to confront a fellow believer when they have wronged us, to the point of shunning them if necessary.
However, a thoughtful examination reveals this is consistent with the teachings about how to treat each other, calls to live in holiness, and the character of God.
If Another Believer Sins Against you
The opening phrase in this passage assumes a few things:
- You are confronting a fellow believer. If wronged by someone who is not a follower of Jesus, Christ teaches us not to seek restitution from that person (Matthew 5:38-42). This doesn’t justify the other person’s actions, it doesn’t imply they aren’t accountable, nor does it require you to remain subject to repeated sins against you.
- You have already forgiven this fellow believer in you heart. Jesus commands us to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22). The purpose for going to this person is to restore fellowship with them.
- The grievance is over sin, not some behavior or action that you have observed in the other person that bothers you. The Bible teaches us not to bring up complaints to each other (James 5:9).
- The grievance is personal. It is not your job to be a righteous defender for others. You can only speak to how a sin has affected you if it was against you.
- Finally, this is a time for confronting the sin of another disciple, not the person. This is about accountability, not accusation. It is possible this person isn’t even aware that they have wronged you. Lovingly helping a fellow disciple see actual sin they need to repent of is helping them.
Go Privately and Point Out the Offense
We are to go directly and privately to the other person, with loving intent, already with an attitude of forgiveness. At this point it should be between the two of you, regarding the specific trespass.
Even if your intentions are good, talking about it with someone else before bringing it to the other believer’s attention can turn into gossip and, unintentional or otherwise, slander.
Again, a loving attitude is what is called for here. If the sin was unintentional or careless, seeing your woundedness should produce contrition in the heart of a fellow believer.
If it doesn’t, it is likely one of two things: either the other person has a heart problem, or you may not be seeing the issue as clearly as you think.
Either way, if the initial meeting does not result in reconciliation, then it is time to enlist trusted advisers who will continue with you in keeping the matter private, and speak with the other person a second time.
Take One or Two Others With You
As the grieved party, it will be up to you to continue forward on the path to reconciliation by enlisting 1 or 2 others for a second conversation with the offending believer.
You may look at this as gaining numbers on the offending party, but this is not about gaining an advantage over the other person.
Adding wise counselors to the conversation helps ensure it is being handled objectively and truthfully. While they are your witnesses, they will be free to become neutral mediators if they see a more complicated issue.
Accepting this check on your motives and perspective will verify your humility in pursuing reconciliation. The alternative is to go no further than the first conversation and cut short the reconciliation process.
This leaves you with two choices.
One, you can move forward and pretend everything is alright, opening the door for bitterness or inauthenticity.
The other option is to decide it is not worth the work and break fellowship, which is taking judgement into your own hands, which God tells us not to do. God is our judge (Psalm 75:7).
Assuming you are being loving and humble in pursuing reconciliation, if the other believer continues to deny their sin or refuse to seek forgiveness, then this becomes a problem for the larger fellowship of believers – another reason witnesses are wise to have.
Take Your Case to the Church
If there is still no change after a third round before a larger fellowship of believers (the church), assuming the verification of the person’s wrongdoing and lack of repentance, they are to be disciplined by disassociating them from fellowship. This same principle was likely on Paul’s mind when he instructed the Corinthians in church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).
Unfortunately, there are few church bodies who are heeding this instruction today. When so many are leaving the church already, perhaps it is seen as foolhardy to openly discipline church members. Or maybe this form of discipline is seen as too harsh.
If so, what are we to make of the fact that this process comes from the lips of Jesus himself?
God’s discipline may seem harsh to us, and certainly harsh to the world. However, God’s discipline is not punishment. It is for guiding the disobedient to repentance.
Note they haven’t been cut off from God’s mercy, just the benefits of fellowship. Hope for restoration still remains, and if they do eventually repent, they are still able to be restored. The requirement for restoration is repentance of their sin.
Going through all these steps may strike some as tedious, but they also protect us from turning the pursuit of restoration into personal revenge. It is important to remember that this is about the act, not the actor.
Confrontation is never comfortable, but helpful for us in avoiding bitterness, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy.
When we follow the steps of restoration in the guidance of Christ and the attitude of a disciple, we can avoid the trap of seeking our own justification when a believer sins against us.
Here are some more verses about restoration between believers:
Proverbs 28:13; Isaiah 33:22; Micah 7:18; Romans 6:13; Romans 12:19; Galatians 6:1-2; 1 Peter 4:8