Over in Matthew 18:15 we can read what seems to be one of the most useless scriptures in the entire Bible. After all, have you ever tried that advice? Have you, in a state of agitation and upset, ever tried to approach someone who is equally upset and ready to have your entrails for lunch?
I often conjure up in my imagination two brethren squaring off against each other, like a prize fight. "In this corner" we have Joe Member, with a record of two grievances, one insult and one heresy. "In the other corner" we have Tom the Truculent with one grievance, one avoidance and one snubbing. What a match up!
I speak with massive tongue in cheek. But I trust you see my point. Why does verse 15 of Matthew 18—the age-old advice to confront our brother—why does that advice not seem to work? At least not always.
Part of a Process
The answer is painfully simple. That advice is only a part of a process—part of what I would like to call the framework for reconciliation. Actually, verse 15 is the fourth step in a seven-step process. Without the other steps, verse 15, of and by itself, often turns out to be frustratingly futile.
The entire process is spelled out here in chapter 18 of Matthew. The entire context spans from verse 3 to verse 35. If we take the entire context into consideration, if we apply all seven steps, we can achieve true reconciliation with an aggrieved brother. Only then can verse 15 become dynamic, achievable and worthwhile spiritual advice.
Let us, then, take a close look at the process of reconciliation.
First notice verses 3 through 5. We are admonished to be in a certain frame of mind when approaching a brother or sister. That frame of mind is to be that "of a child"—specifically in the sense of humble and not bearing grudges. Verse 4 spells out that step: "Therefore whoever humbles himself." This is not an easy step, especially when tempers are fraying. But none of the steps are easy without the motivation of God's Spirit.
Comparative scriptures on this overriding need for humility are found in Matthew 5:3 and 5 plus Galatians 6:1-4. Also Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 12:3, 10, 16; and Ephesians. 4:2-3. Look them up and see how they establish the need for humility, if we are to be a true peacemaker.
Turning back to Matthew 18, let us look at the second stage in the process of reconciliation covered in verses 6 through 9. That stage is the determination not to give offense. Christ even equates the giving of offense to sin! Strong words indeed. We should never approach an opportunity to achieve reconciliation as a chance to get revenge—"I'll show him"—nor a chance to exert our supposed spiritual superiority. Instead we must see it as an opportunity to, in true Christian humility, achieve peace without offending.
Now notice verses 10 through 14. The third stage is to show respect, to avoid despising and putting down our aggrieved brother. To avoid one-upmanship. This provides a terrific opportunity to put into practice 1 Corinthians 13:4 through 7. It's a chance to approach a fellow child of the Great God, a "brother" as mentioned in verse 15.
Then we come to verse 15 itself, the fourth step. And that step is, simply, privacy, to approach our brother in private. Humanly we want to gather forces of support and sympathy behind us. We want everyone to know how unfairly we have been treated and how much Joe Member deserves correction. But Christ admonishes us to go in privacy—in humility, respect and true brotherhood. If we do that, then verse 15 can work!
After all, wouldn't we want someone to approach us in that spirit and manner?
If the problem isn't resolved, next comes step five, covered in verses 16 and 17. Sometimes we need to seek help—the assistance of those who then become "witnesses" to what is said and achieved. More often than not, just the presence of others settles everything down and allows reconciliation. And seeking the help and counsel of the ministry can help resolve the problem, or even help us see our situation in a new light. We want to be sure we don't blow it out of proportion.
Step six is covered in verses 18 through 20. We need to appreciate that God will back up this process and His government. Compare Proverbs 3:3-6 and 16:7. In these two scriptures God promises to "direct our paths" and even make our enemies to be at peace with us. God can soften attitudes and allow an environment to exist where reconciliation can be achieved, if we follow the advice of His Son in these powerful scriptures in Matthew 18.
The final stage is covered in verses 21 through 35. That stage is, quite simply, for us to be compassionate and forgiving. Compare Ephesians 4:32 and Matthew 6:14 and l5. What a magic stage to set when we approach a brother who may have "sinned against us." It is critical to be forgiving, just as Christ has forgiven both parties involved.
Reconciliation is possible if we approach each other in humility, determined not to give offense, in respect, in privacy, if need be with the help of others, with God's backing, in compassion and in a forgiving attitude.
Who could resist such an approach?
Verse 15 of Matthew 18, then, becomes not one of the most useless scriptures in the Bible, but one of the most powerful and effective, just as God intended!