Growing up, I was one of four children and when we went anywhere in the car, the four of us travelled in the back seat, with Dad driving and Mum in the passenger seat. Whilst we had, what was for the time, a series of quite big cars, cars were smaller in those days and it was really quite a squash in the back seat, especially when we were travelling a long way.
It didn’t take long for the squabbles to start. It was always the same pattern. One would hiss to another “shove up, you’re taking up too much room”. Then the complainant would recruit one of the others, who would agree and they would start hissing together. By this time the front seat would have detected the disturbance and the whole dispute would be open for input from all. This often led to threats to stop the car and “sort us out” or Mum turning around and suggesting that one or other of us moved a little this way or that or straighten up a bit, which would result in a token movement. Peace would then reign for a short while before the whole thing started again.
Today we hear in our Gospel:
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
I have always struggled with this passage because it speaks to me of our back-seat ‘court’ in the car. You see what was happening there was that two of the children agreed to gang up on one of the others and that one was (in my memory) generally me!
So what I hear in this passage is this:
“Have a go at someone you don’t get on with. If they don’t listen to you and do what you want, get someone else to join you in having a go at them. If that doesn’t work go and tell everyone about how bad they are.”
Now we all know that nothing like that ever happens in Churches does it?
So, is this a good blueprint for church conflict today? Should we unswervingly confront one another with these prescribed steps? Ultimately is it right to talk about the possibility of excluding someone from our midst?
Conflicts fester or explode as a result of jealousy, fear or misplaced loyalty, and sadly in may contexts, people talk more about one another than they talk with one another. Stir into the congregational mix divided loyalties and power dynamics, not to mention the challenge of discerning what actually counts as sin and perhaps it’s not surprising that there are so many disputes in Churches up and down the land. All of this in spite of the three-step process outlined in the Gospel.
At this stage it’s important to remember that what really makes a church a church is the presence in one place of so many troublesome people. Before you protest yes you and I are someone else’s troublesome person. So the expulsion of a troublemaker is a last resort, a human condemnation that can have profound divine implications.
Jesus is encoraging the church to be a community that nurtures honest dialogue and doesn’t keep silent when faced with behaviour that harms others. The purpose of this passage is less to define a universal, three-step algorithm for conflict resolution than to model how to walk alongside and protect those members of the community who are vulnerable or don’t have a voice, so that others might hear what they have to say.
There can’t be anyone in ministry or teaching or any other organisation, who hasn’t seen the destructiveness of secrets and hushed conversations when people refuse, or are unable, to speak honestly to one another. Trivia become issues and small issues become big ones and big issues can explode. The escape route is clear and open communication, but that requires far more listening than it does speaking. We have two ears and only one mouth, so that implies twice as much listening as speaking.
How many times does Jesus refer to listening or refusing to listen in those three verses? No fewer than four times. The repetition suggests that hearing each other, really listening to the truth of the other, is vital for a community rooted in the ways of Jesus.
So no, this isn’t simply an algorithm for resolving conflicts. Simply following these steps won’t ensure a fair and reasonable outcome consistent with God’s will. It’s not as simple as that. We know from recent experience with exam results in Scotland and England, that the mechanics of an algorithm don’t always reflect our values or ideas of fairness. Going through something mechanically step-by-step won’t guarantee a decision rooted in God’s love for us.
This sort of process can so easily be hijacked by selfishness,dislike, ganging up and other human frailties. Instead, what really matters is a loving concern for others and for the wider community and it’s that which these steps are intended to foster. For most of us, it’s far easier to notice the ways we’ve been harmed than to recognise the ways our actions harm others, even if unintentionally.
Perhaps one of the most difficult truths of this passage is to remind us of the human capacity to cause harm to others, both in the systems in which we participate and in our own actions or lack of them.
In our car there was probably a fair measure of selfishness and ganging up, but whilst I remember that my siblings usually treated me unfairly. Perhaps I should reflect on the possibility each of them was probably a victim at my hand as often as I at theirs.