Every morning and night in our news feeds, we hear of conflicts far and near. Living in New Zealand, we see Middle Eastern wars, suicide bombings, and terrorist attacks as a world away but domestic violence is always near. Neighbours quarrel, racism flares, communities divide, churches split – sometimes it seems the words chiseled in rock outside the United Nations are only a dream:
We all recognise there is a vast need for peacemaking in our world, nation, workplaces, neighbourhoods and homes, but how? How do we actually make peace? Happily, there’s a way – one tried and true, which has worked whenever it’s been followed but it takes time, a carefully defined process, and a dollop of character, especially courage. Many bail out at the first sign of conflict because peacemakers can be shot at by both sides. No wonder then that Jesus said:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”1
In Biblical days, “sons of God” meant mature heirs who have come into their spiritual inheritance2 and, according to Jesus, we can identify or recognise them by their ability to make peace. This also means that if we are not actively peacemaking, we are spiritually immature – we are still ‘mere men, infants in Christ’.3 Does that shake our complacency? If you need some inspiration, consider Rosa Parks, Tohu Kakahi, and Te Whiti O Rongomai.
A major outcome of the kingdom of God truly coming among us today is that we will hammer our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Instead of our words wounding and damaging each other, God will be using us to plough and prune to produce the fruit of the Spirit in each other.
We therefore should recognise conflict as an opportunity for His kingdom to come on earth here and now. The first missionaries in New Zealand, both European and Maori, quickly became renowned for peacemaking between warring tribes after some 20,000, i.e. 20% of our total Maori population, had died in their Musket Wars (c. 1818-1830s) and many more had been enslaved or become refugees.4 Sadly, this beloved role of peacemaking is today often minimised or presented as exploitative by our secular historians and popular mythology but we should nevertheless follow the example of our spiritual pioneers.
This study aims to spell out the way taught by Jesus and Paul, available for anyone today who is willing to humbly, patiently, and courageously walk this way and see the extraordinary benefits.
It all starts with you and me. Jesus went on to say:
“Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.”5
He had just explained that “everyone who is angry with his brother” or even insults him “shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell”6 “Therefore if you are presenting your offering…” 7 In other words, our relationships must include resolving issues of anger and insults, real or imagined, even before we go to church to worship God.
Let’s begin with some definitions:
Peace – the state of rest, health or well-being. However, a false peace can be created by overwhelming abuse or coercion so “peace is not the absence of war but the presence of justice”. Isaiah put it this way: “The outworking of righteousness/justice will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever”8. Conflicts need to be resolved by seeking, finding, and communicating truth and what is just (e.g. South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”), to put things right where they have been wrong.
Sin – the most common word in the Scriptures to describe the root cause of all conflict and separation (e.g. Isa 58:1-2, 1 John 1:5-10). This generic term covers the whole gamut of wrong-doing, from minor mistakes and failures, any falling short of perfection, to the wickedest behaviour.
Walking in the light – choosing to be open, honest and vulnerable in order to seek, find and communicate truth in order to redeem and put things right.9
Stronghold – mistaken belief or prejudice that prevents progress or spiritual growth.10
The Way or Process
The “way” is not the destination but the only means or process of reaching it. We have to commit ourselves to respecting and being patient with each other as we take the time necessary to follow as many steps as become necessary of the seven in the Biblical process. Tragically, these teachings (e.g. Matt 18:15-17, 1 Cor 5:1-6:8 and 2 Cor 2:6-8, Gal 6:1-5, 1 Tim 5:19-21, 1 John 1:5-7) are often either not practised or unsuccessful because of flawed understanding or application, but that should never prevent us trying to rightly understand, apply and practise what the Scriptures teach.
Matt 18:15 begins “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private” so it is often assumed this is the starting point for all conflict resolution. However, this is actually step three in the process – before that, Jesus taught:
“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?… First take the log out of your own eye…”11
This means we have to take a step back to first deal with our own eyes, but even this is step two. The first step is actually to seek God’s will and consider if we are to do anything at all:
Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins12
Most of the time, we are not to take offence when others sin against us but instead to love them enough to cover or hide even “a multitude of sins” so that they are not seen by anyone else. We are similarly commanded to turn the other cheek and walk the second mile,13 to be “shock-absorbers” rather than amplifiers to remove some pain in our vicinity.
Imagine living in an overly-sensitive society where every slight or trifle produced howls of hurt, outrage and revenge. On the other hand, some sins are so obviously destructive to everyone that they have to be stopped by someone. We therefore have to deal with our own sins and to pray about whether to cover or confront the sins of others.
The seven steps begin with two that acknowledge we may not be in perfect shape ourselves and are interspersed with eight essential preparatory steps. This is why many of us don’t persevere and succeed, because “the way is narrow that leads to [all aspects of spiritual] life, and there are few who find it”.14 (comment inserted) Here they are for all of us who want to be mature:
- Walking in the Light – 1A Our flawed standards of judgment 1B Our fallible perception
- Removing our own logs – 2A Our flawed attitudes 2B Our natural loyalties
- Confronting sin – 3A Judging seriousness 3B Going in private as a brother and sister
- Going with one or two others as witnesses – 4A Preserving privacy 4B Changed roles
- Telling the church
- Relating to the self-deluded
- Welcoming back
In over forty years of ministry and following these steps, I have only twice needed to go to step five, once promised to go to step six, and only once had to. On every other occasion where the first four steps were accurately followed, there was reconciliation. However, on every occasion where any of the first four were ignored or misapplied, there was no reconciliation but broken fellowship and split churches.
STEP 1 – “Come, house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the LORD”
The words chiseled in rock outside the United Nations are quoting Isaiah’s prophecy and, tragically for the United Nations, they’ve left out the essential parts of the promise, both before and after:
And He will judge between the nations,
And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they learn war.
Come, house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the LORD.15
These extraordinary outcomes will only be reached when we let God be the judge, when we walk in His light. This is the only basis for true fellowship with God and with each other:
God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.16
His light can show any of us the sin that is dividing us and His blood can free us from its guilt.
So when should we confront? When it comes to personal offences, if we find we can no longer cover a brother’s sins because we are too hurt or losing trust in him, the relationship is endangered; “trust is a finite resource” so, at this point, we have to speak up:
Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed.17
We must commit to: walking in the light of the Lord.
This means we have to allow for:
A) Our own flawed standard of judgment.
Moses commanded Israel:
“You shall seek the LORD…You shall not do at all what we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes.”18
We are to seek what is right in God’s eyes and not our own.
We must commit to: seeking His ‘rendered decisions’ and accepting His standards lest we “condemn the innocent” as the Pharisees did.19
B) Our fallible perception.
Jesus notes it is inevitable in all of us that “you do not notice the log that is in your own eye”. This leads inevitably to flawed judgment so we must first listen and clarify before we reach any conclusions:
He who judges before he hears a matter, it is folly and shame to him.20
We must commit to: listening to each other’s account or perspective and to giving an honest account of ourselves to any who ask.
Because we can’t perceive everything, we are only to judge words,21 behaviour22 and fruit23 but not motives.
Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.24
Of course, we can ask why the other person acted or spoke as they did, and we can usually eventually uncover our own motives, so open and honest dialogue can eventually resolve most issues.
We must commit to: truly believing the best of each other’s motives,25giving each other the benefit of the doubt unless God specifically reveals otherwise and confirms it.26
STEP 2 – Removing Our Own Logs
A. Our flawed attitudes
“Only through pride comes contention”.27 Pride caused Satan’s downfall and will always cause ours as Peter warned us:
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.28
Sometimes the only reason we are contending or arguing is because we’re unloving, jealous or ambitious for our own agenda or glory:
For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.29
Our perspective can also be distorted by greed30 and fear.31
We must commit to: loving and seeking God’s will for each other rather than our own.
B. Our natural loyalties
We are often tempted to take sides but ‘party spirit’ is a ‘deed of the flesh’32 so Paul appealed to the Corinthians to let go these loyalties:
For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul” and another “I am of Apollos”, are you not mere men?33
As the proverb goes, ‘love is trying to find what is right instead of who is right’. Paul also wrote that ‘love rejoices in the truth’.34
We must commit to: being loyal to the truth above being loyal to even our closest friends and family.35
STEP 3 – Confronting Sin
A. Judging seriousness
Some sins are so serious as to require mandatory criminal proceedings (e.g. child molestation) or specific expertise (e.g. sexual or spiritual abuse). These must be raised with experienced elders or leaders who can contact the police or do whatever is necessary (e.g. 1 Tim 5:19-21). Other sins may not be criminal but still spiritually fatal so we need to act:
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.36
However, the vast majority of our failings simply need a patient and gentle word:
By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue breaks the bone37
Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.38
We must commit to: accurately weighing up each situation and confronting appropriately.
B. Going in private as a brother or sister
So, given that we have a clear sense God wants us to confront and we have internally checked our own motives and perspective, we can now begin the process that Jesus commands:
“If your brother sins go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”39
Because “love covers”, we are not at this stage to talk to others (which can be gossip) or in front of others (which can be humiliating). We are not to be moral policemen but to value each other enough to care what God is doing in and saying to each of us. This usually requires some prior relating, talking with each other as brothers and sisters who are all trying to live as our heavenly Father wants.
We must commit to: speaking personally and privately to the brother or sister
STEP 4 – Going with one or two others as witnesses
“But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that ‘BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE ESTABLISHED.’” 40
This step requires several changes, to ensure the process remains one of finding truth rather than the exercise of authority or power:
A. Preserving Privacy
Finding “one or two” to take with you necessarily requires dialogue with others which can easily become gossip so this should be restricted to a call for backup and on a need-to-know basis, remembering the warning:
He who conceals a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends.41
The goal is only to find someone who sees the issue as you do, who will be willing to give their own independent testimony, and this necessarily changes all the roles, as considered next.
B. Our changed roles
We may seek someone to act as an impartial mediator:
I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren?42
The presence of another to observe and record can often help to improve everyone’s behaviour but mediation can also lead in two helpful directions: either our perception will be confirmed, so we will have another “witness”, or our perception will be corrected, which keeps us all honest.
If, on the other hand, we need to take “one or two” with us, we are now to go not as brothers before our Father but as “two or three witnesses” into a courtroom. It is also usually misunderstood as to who is to be the judge here. Jesus is quoting Deut 19:15 & 18 which tells Israel how to judge, and He’s calling on us to allow the sinning brother to sit as a judge, to listen to us as the “witnesses” before he judges his own behaviour. 43 This leaving of the authority and power with the sinning brother refines the process to one of finding truth.
We must commit to: seeking/accepting mediation, knowing that either or both parties may be corrected on the issue, and any others arising.
We must also commit to: allowing the sinning brother to judge his own behaviour from our testimonies, knowing he may need a reasonable time to pray and think it through.
STEP 5 – Telling the church
“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.”44
This step has sometimes been conducted in churches similarly to Chairman Mao’s infamous ‘struggle sessions’, where whole villages would gang up on any rebel to Mao’s thoughts. The result was not the establishing of truth but brain-washing through coercion. Compare this with ‘walking in the light’, letting the whole church know the issue so that each member can tell the sinning brother their own perception but gently.45
Even if he then refuses to listen to the church, the worst punishment here is not ex-communication but rather that he be considered and treated as an unbeliever. And how did Jesus apply this? He still ate with “tax collectors and sinners”,46 even with Judas at the Last Supper and to whom He offered His friendship up to the very end. 47 In other words, since the sinning brother is no longer behaving as a believer, we are now to refuse to recognise him as a believer and brother but instead as an unbeliever and a friend.
We must commit to: telling the church, not to gang up or to humiliate anyone, but so that all may properly hear the issues, make their own judgments and then tell the brother their own perception of the truth.
STEP 6 – Relating to the self-deluded
What if he still doesn’t respond? When Paul gives an example of ‘telling the church’ in his letter to the Corinthians, the issue was very serious and he also adds the last two steps of peacemaking.
First, step five – the issue being plainly told to the church:
…there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.48
Then step six:
…when you are assembled…, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.49
What does this actually mean? Paul goes on to explain that to deliver anyone to Satan is to no longer have any fellowship with him as a brother for as long as he still considers himself to be a Christian. If he realises he is no longer a Christian, this step becomes unnecessary:
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler – not even to eat with such a one.50
Notice, this is only for any ‘so-called brother’ (v.11), to try to pierce his self-delusion of thinking that he can live this way as a Christian. Even now, this does not exclude open and loving dialogue but only keeping Christian company with him.
We must commit to: not associating/eating with anyone who calls himself a Christian but openly lives as Paul details above. Our goal always remains redemptive, to win them back to Christ.
STEP 7. Welcoming back
Among the Corinthians, the handing over to Satan of the “so-called brother” who was living immorally with his step-mother was successful. Paul moved quickly to reaffirm him:
Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.51
‘The majority’ (v. 6) of the church had spoken to him and he had repented so they were now to ‘forgive and comfort him …to reaffirm (their) love for him’ (v. 8). This last step in peacemaking shows the process has always been redemptive, to make peace. It is always ‘in the light’ where sin is faced and forgiven:
God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.52
We must commit to: loving, accepting, forgiving and comforting anyone who is genuinely trying to follow Jesus by facing and working through their issues.
Each step is important and depends on the success or failure of the preceding step, moving from complete privacy to public addressing of issues, in an increasing circle of light. Each step requires us to remain humble, loving, honest and courageous.
If God is to truly be our King and Judge, we must:
- Seek His decisions, as written on our hearts, in the Scriptures, and through wise counsellors
- Begin with the logs in our own eyes, such as pride, jealousy, selfish ambition, greed, fear etc
- Go in private as brother to brother or sister to sister
- Go with one or two others to be two or three witnesses so that the sinning brother can be an informed judge of the truth
- Tell the church so all can confirm the truth to the sinning brother
- Refuse to recognise him as a brother
- Welcome him back as a brother
But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness…53
And He will judge between the nations,
And will render decisions for many peoples;
And they will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they learn war.
Come, house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the LORD.”54
Statue: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2948452
Isaiah Quote: By Capt. Phœbus (talk) 17:01, 31 October 2007 (UTC) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- Matt 5:9
- Gal 4:1-7
- 1 Cor 3:1
- Matt 5:23-24
- Matt 5:22
- v. 23
- Isa 32:17
- Isa 2:5, 1 John 1:7
- 2 Cor 10:4
- Matt 7:3-5
- 1 Pet 4:8
- Matt 5:39-41
- Matt 7:14
- Isa 2:4-5
- 1 John 1:5-7
- Prov 27:5
- Deut 12:5 & 8
- Matt 12:7
- Prov 18:13
- Matt 24:4-5 & 11
- Matt 18:15
- Matt 7:15-20
- 1 Cor 4:5
- 1 Cor 13:7
- Acts 5:1-11
- Prov 13:10
- 1 Pet 5:5, quoting Prov 3:34
- Jas 3:16
- Luke 12:13-15
- Matt 14:26
- Gal 5:20-21
- 1 Cor 3:3-4
- 1 Cor 13:6
- Prov 27:6, Luke 14:26
- Jas 5:19-20
- Prov 25:15
- Gal 6:1
- Matt 18:15
- Matt 18:16, quoting Deut 19:15
- Prov 17:9
- 1 Cor 6:5
- see Luke 12:13-14
- Matt 18:17
- Gal 6:1
- Mark 2:16
- Matt 26:50
- 1 Cor 5:1
- 1 Cor 5:5
- 1 Cor 5:9-11
- 2 Cor 2:6-8
- 1 John 1:5-7
- Matt 6:33
- Isa 2:4-5, emphasis added