…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–24)
If your brother sins against you, go… (Matthew 18:15)
In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold. (Ephesians 4:26–27)
Over the last months, I’ve urged you elders/pastors in Christ’s church to be busy with the ministry of reconciliation. Citing Ken Sande’s fine book, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), I’ve challenged you to recognize some principles that guide this important ministry. I recalled Sande’s challenge, first of all, to glorify God in the process of peacemaking, recognizing that our obligation doesn’t only spring from a desire to please ourselves or others, but to please God, who wants His people to live in harmony and reconciliation. Then, I recalled the surgical duty to get the log out of your own eye first, before examining, judging, or criticizing a brother or sister. Last month, I pointed out the call to go and show the brother his fault, a call to loving but firm confrontation within the church of God.
In this month’s column, I want to address your attitude toward peacemaking. Take a moment to read the Scripture texts quoted at the top of this article. What is it that they all have in common? On the one hand, it’s clear that all deal with conflict or sin that has come between believers (“brothers”) in the body. But perhaps more to the point is the fact that in each case, you are asked to do something willingly, something that goes against the normal grain of the human heart.
In the first case, where your brother has something against you, you are to “go and be reconciled.” I repeat, you are to go. No room for the attitude that would wait for him to come to you. You are not permitted to say (to yourself or to others), ”If he has a problem with me, let him come to me. He’s got a mouth!”
In the second case, the text presumes the opposite scenario, not that your brother has something against you, but that you have something against your brother. The flip side of Matthew 5; here’s a case where you’re the offended party, the sinned-against one. But the command is the same. You are to “go and show….” No room here for the attitude that waits for the other sinner to come to you, hat-and-apology-in-hand. No, says Jesus, you go. Don’t wait.
In the third case, a situation is described that is familiar to all. Anger arises, perhaps within a married couple, perhaps between business partners, maybe between two sisters in Christ whose feelings have been hurt by casual comments made by one. The human tendency is to nurture the anger, to feed it, tweak it, refine it, focus it, cling to it until it becomes a long term bitter grudge that threatens the existence of the relationship. The anger then explodes into other sins: the wife verbally bites her husband’s head off. He storms out of the house and stays at work till all hours of the night. A sister in Christ won’t have anything to do with her long term friend any more, but slanders her among others. You all know the drill. In anger, we commit sins we probably wouldn’t commit in calmer spirits.
In such a setting, the Scriptural call is not to justify the anger. not to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, not to “give it a couple of days” to see how each feels. The Scriptural call is to deal with it now, not later. To resolve it before the sun sets. To effect reconciliation before the devil can effect division and break the harmony of the one body of Christ.
REVERSING A PATTERN
For most of us, confronting conflict is painful and unhappy work. (I’m always suspicious of the motives of people who actually enjoy confrontation!) For most of us, the pattern of dealing with conflict is avoidance. It astounds me how much patience impatient people can have if the issue is confrontation. We’d rather do nothing and hope that the conflict will go away. In some cases, I’ve seen brothers or sisters “do nothing” for 20 or 30 years, avoiding the conflict at all costs, all the while living in tension, I grudge and unresolved sin. Their “avoidance,” unhappily, is not inactivity, but destructive activity.
The pattern is deadly. The last passage I quoted from Ephesians 4:27 is crucial. When sin is unresolved, the devil gains a foothold. Consider: Verbal insensitivity generates hurt feelings. Hurt feelings, if not dealt with, soon become bitterness or hard feelings. Bitterness and hard feelings reveal their character in divisiveness, sarcasm, hatred. And soon, a simple verbal offense breaks the body of Christ. I’ve seen it a hundred times in marriages. I’ve seen it a hundred times in the church.
To function effectively as peacemakers, elders must begin with themselves. We must personally commit to the immediate obedience Christ calls for. We must “go” — whether the offender is someone else or we ourselves. We must “seek reconciliation” right away, whether it’s comfortable or awkward to do so. We must do so because if we don’t, the devil wins a victory and the precious bride of Christ suffers a wound.
Then as elders we must teach, both by example and by explanation, this pattern of immediacy to the flock of the Good Shepherd, for whom the pattern of avoidance is deeply ingrained in sinful hearts. In your visits to homes, discuss conflicts you are aware of. Ask about harmony in the home and in the church. Keep your ear to the ground to listen for the rumblings of division within the flock. And then act to show the way.
Elders can serve a wonderful role in teaching the people of God to fight the sinful patterns of the world in regard to peacemaking. It requires diligent effort and commitment. But the Lord’s encouragement is wonderful: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Never forget that!
Dr. Sittema is pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Dallas, Texas, and a contributing editor of The Outlook.