Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15–17).
Based on the words of Jesus, the path to reconciliation is clear and simple, but not easy. Take a look at the steps describe by our Lord to reconcile with other believers.
Step #1: You go.
This is a counter-intuitive step for most people that have been hurt by someone. Our natural reaction when we experience pain is to move as far away as possible. Why would I want to be close to someone who has hurt me or done something against me? This is understandable, but here is an opportunity to be Christ-like in our character. Just as Jesus came to us “while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8), we are instructed to go to someone while they are still in their sin against us. We are not called to wait until they repent for us to be reconciled, but to go while the wound is still fresh and untreated.
Also, note that this action requires a face-to-face private meeting. While in Jesus’ times there was not an option to email, text, or call someone, I still believe that the key verb is a literal instruction to go to the person that has sinned against us. God could have stopped at revealing his will via the Law and the Prophets, yet he became man and lived among us. It makes sense that because an intimate relationship between brothers has been affected, only an intimate conversation and interaction can restore the relationship.
Step #2: If step #1 worked, STOP!
Over-simplistic? Maybe, but it’s easy to overlook this step: “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” If step #1 worked and our brother listens, understands, and apologizes, then we are to forgive and fully engage once more on the brotherly relationship. While this is not in the text explicitly, I believe that it implies that the matter should be laid to rest and no longer affect the relationship. We should not continue to bring up the offense or to take drastic steps from preventing such offense from occurring again. If this event is ever remembered it should only be to praise God for the grace that he poured on both of you in allowing you to experience restoration.
Step #3: If necessary, escalate progressively
If your brother or sister doesn’t receive you well and is unable to accept responsibility, then bring a mutual brother of mature character to help you plead your case. This is still a small and intimate meeting. The purpose is not to condemn the sin and refusal of your brother, but to help persuade him to repentance. This small group is to be a witness to the need of repentance. If your brother repents, then the intervention is over and step #2 applies. If there is no repentance, then the small group serves as witness to the unrepentant heart of the offender as he is brought before the church. If the offender then listens and repents, he is restored and forgiven as described in step #2.
Step #4: Discipline
The sad truth is that we all are resistant to accept responsibility for our sin. It takes the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to help us listen, understand, and even repent. That is why Jesus instructs us that if a brother refuses to accept responsibility and repent, he is to be removed from the fellowship of the church and treated as an unbeliever. While there is no indication that this person is to be cast out of the fellowship, he or she is not to receive the benefit of being counted among the believers. In other words, serving in the community should be out of their reach as well as teaching, holding leadership positions, and partaking of the sacraments. If this person has failed to listen to the call to repentance, then in the eyes of the church he is like an unbeliever.
The Heart of God and Reconciliation
From the very first moment we understand that we are the reason that Jesus came, we get a glimpse of the heart of God and his unquestionable desire to restore us to himself. We also realize that not all humans will be restored to a relationship with him. Yet, I find it amazing that my sin did not—and still doesn’t—keep him away. His promises are renewed each day, even those days when I’m living in sin. Granted, he withholds his unique blessings for me such as his peace. Nonetheless, he is always near, accessible, and ready to pour his mercy and forgiveness on me. Therefore, we are to continue to make reconciliation the goal of discipline. While at times the communication between brothers will be interrupted due to sin, the lines should always be open. We should periodically make the effort to reconnect and provide a way back to the fellowship.