It’s probably still the best plan of action to at least try to follow the Matthew 18 pattern as close as you can for as far as you can. We shouldn’t be in a rush to write someone off (1 Cor 13:7). We don’t want to assume the worst. We should long for restored relationship more than personal vindication.
Matthew 18:15-20 presumes a fair bit of openness between the people of God in a local church. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matt 18:15). These instructions are counter-cultural to many church environments I’ve been a part of, where it seemed common for an offended person to talk to almost everybody else rather than the actual person who had wronged them.
This is particularly true when the dispute includes the church leadership. Despite Paul’s command not to “admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim 5:19, cf. Matt 18:16), many church-goers apparently feel very free to broadcast their leaders’ supposed shortcomings far and wide, with little impulse to actually talk to those leaders themselves first.
How do people find their way around such clear biblical mandates? The most common excuse I’ve heard for not having a Matthew 18:15 conversation is that the offended person didn’t think the offender will listen to them. This excuse can take many forms:
- “I really didn’t think that I’d be heard.”
- “That person just doesn’t listen to people.”
- “Last time I tried to talk to them, I didn’t feel heard.”
- “I didn’t think the conversation would go anywhere.”
Sound familiar at all? If so, how should we respond to this? Here’s four reflections on this apparent Matthew 18 loop-hole:
1. Being understood is not a prerequisite for obedience
Matthew 18:15 doesn’t say, “Go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone, but only if you think he’ll listen to you.” Whether we think the other person will listen should have nothing to do with whether we’ll obey Jesus or not. Why would we think that, just because the first conversation will be unsuccessful, we’re allowed to skip the process entirely?
Ironically, verse 16 and following contain a number of follow-up steps which describe what actions to take in the event that the offender doesn’t listen—and none of them involve not having that first conversation. Jesus expects us to obey Him, regardless of what we think the outcome might be.
2. “Feeling heard” may not be the same as being heard
Apparently, “heard” is a feeling—at least given how some people talk. Phrases like “I really felt heard,” or, “I didn’t feel heard” give the impression that our emotions are a reliable guide to the effectiveness of a conversation.
Sadly, some take it even further. In my experience, some people only “feel heard” if the other person agrees with them. When they have a problem with someone else in their church, or particularly their church leadership, they don’t come with a humble attitude that seeks understanding and clarification. It doesn’t occur to them that perhaps they have misunderstood, or even that they could be in the wrong. They come to deliver a verdict, and any attempt to help them see things from a different perspective will be interpreted as “not feeling heard.”
Once again, Matthew 18 puts us back on track with its careful checks and balances. The involvement of the body of Christ, first as one or two witnesses (v. 16), and then as the entire church (v. 17), prevents one person from acting as judge, jury, and executioner. Submitting to the Matthew 18 process requires each party to accept that they might not know, see, or understand everything perfectly.
“Love…does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor 13:4-5). And once we get that, we should have no problem with the fact that some people will hear us just perfectly—and still disagree with us.
I’m pretty sure Moses didn’t “feel heard” (at least in the modern sense) when he was dialoguing with God in Exodus 3-4.