One of the more difficult things to handle in the life of the church is conflict. It is inevitable that conflict occurs, because people are people. Jesus gave his disciples instructions on what to do when there is conflict.
"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.
The principles are pretty straight forward. At the heart of Jesus instruction is the desire to regain a relationship. By going to the offending person privately you have a much higher chance of successfully convincing them they have harmed you. Very often we tell an authority and the authority confronts the person in question. This doesn’t communicate the same commitment to relationship that going privately does. People are less likely to become afraid if it is just a peer that confronts them. When trying to get through to a dysfunctional person you want to do everything you can to affirm how much your relationship with them matters to you so they don’t feel condemned, shamed and become defensive. If you desire someone to change you want them to understand their actions are wrong. You don’t want them to feel like they are a horrible person. The goal isn’t to make people feel bad or punish them, it is to help people become safe, functional members of your community.
Don’t be legalistic about this rule. If there is conflict between two people and they are already cynical and distrustful of each other having them meet privately probably will just make things worse. The question you have to ask is “Who is the best person to talk to the dysfunctional person and what is the best way to talk to them?” Consider your plan of action carefully and look for the best possible outcome for everyone involved.
Perhaps there is some other crisis that is more important and the issue at hand can wait. If someone’s dad died you don’t confront them on how they don’t do a good enough job cleaning the church bathroom. There is an obvious judgment call that needs to be made. If the person is continually damaging others you accelerate the process. If the problem isn’t a major one then just wait until it is a good time to talk to them.
Sometimes talking to someone one on one doesn’t work. The next step is to escalate by confronting the person with one or two others. The offending person might be in denial, they might think the problem is just you. By bringing more people in to the situation you can establish that the problem isn’t just the figment of someone’s imagination.
Remember to give people time. There are a lot of honest people that don’t react well to an initial confrontation but after some time and the emotions settle they come around. Give people the time to process what they heard. I’ve taken months to talk to someone just because I know they were going through a really rough time and they aren’t coping in a healthy way.
If having two or three people confront the person doesn’t work the next step is to apply more leverage. At this point you are starting to pick between bad and worse options. Exposing someone’s failings to a group of people is going to do some damage to everyone involved. It is a difficult thing for most people to do. My guess is that well over half of the world would rather let things slide than risk hurting someone’s feelings by telling them a difficult truth. Sometimes this bad option is better than the worse option of doing nothing.
It is a drastic step but it is good for a couple of reasons. Some people will respond if several of their best friends tell them they are in the wrong. When taking the issue to the whole church you have to have a strong case against someone that would past the scrutiny of several people. Notice there is no room in this for heavy handed backroom tactics by leaders. How many controlling church leaders conveniently punt out their critic’s one or two at a time and tell the rest of the congregation their very biased version of the story?
If the whole community can’t convince someone to stop hurting others then they should be removed from the group until they are safe again. It is really important that this is communicated. Regardless of what you say people will come away feeling worthless and condemned but it is worse if you treat them like they are worthless. Don’t ever write people off. Always leave the door open to reconciliation and restoration.
Now there are times in which this process doesn’t fit the situation and it is appropriate to skip or modify steps. In most cases the primary goal is to restore relationship but if that appears unlikely then your goal is to keep people safe.
If the offending person is abusive don’t expect an alleged victim to talk to them in private so they can be abused again.
If there is an established pattern of abuse by someone in a position of power and previous attempts to confront the person have failed there isn’t any point to sending another person to confront them personally. Abusive leaders have very effectively hid behind a truncated legalistic interpretation of Jesus’ words here. As soon as someone confronts them they go on the offensive and discredit the person that confronted them. Many honest people have been labeled divisive or rebellious just for asking the wrong questions.
Now if you don’t follow step one the many leaders will complain that you didn’t follow the procedure. In some cases this is a legitimate but separate issue. Just because someone is bringing up issues in a poor way it doesn’t mean the issues aren’t relevant or true. If someone has a problem with me I’d hope they could tell me personally, or at least tell someone else we both trust and talk about it before it becomes the topic of gossip. However just because someone doesn’t confront someone the best way doesn’t mean their complaint is illegitimate. It is rarely easy but a good leader will make an attempt to see past the misguided actions or inflammatory words of a critic and consider the kernel of truth that might be found in the complaint. It is a credit to a leader when they have people around them that can see through the kerfuffle and say “you know so and so has a point here.” Counter accusations are not a defense for sinful behavior.
There are times when following Jesus’ directions here isn’t enough. If there are allegations of abuse whether it is physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual there needs to be a proper investigation by an appropriate authority. Often in cases of abuse or exploitation what we see is just the tip of the iceberg and there is a lot more going on that is concealed. We need people looking in to the situation with the ability to get to the bottom of things. This usually involves social safety agencies, child protection services, and law enforcement. It can turn out to be a big mess but the alternative is worse. Far too often churches have been satisfied with shallow investigations while abuse continues. Victims often grow up to be abusers and the cycle continues.
If you know with great assurance that someone is a danger to others your first priority must be the protection of innocent people. If you have firm evidence some one sexually assaulted someone in your church you make sure they don’t go anywhere near the alleged victim or other potential victims until a thorough investigation is finished.
Why do I feel the freedom to more loosely interpret Jesus’s instructions? Because Jesus didn’t always follow the procedure he outlined in Matthew 18.
Read through Matthew 23. Did Jesus personally approach the Pharisees in private before lambasting them publicly? Paul corrected Peter in front of a whole crowd of people (Gal 2:14). Paul pointed out the false teaching and faults of the self-proclaimed super-apostles in a letter. He had no opportunity to confront them directly. It doesn’t appear that John confronted Diotrophes in person either (3John 1:9-10). There are lots of examples where it wasn’t feasible to confront someone personally.
In general I see Jesus’s priorities following along two lines. If it is feasible do what you can to restore relationship causing the least amount damage. Failing that do what you need to do to ensure people are safe.