A leader of a church once left said church with the stated reasons that he didn’t like the kind of pants that I wore. In the annals of another church, a long time member once left because he fundamentally objected to the sanctuary having ceiling fans. From his perspective, they made the place feel like a saloon. A member once shouted at me that I was driving the Holy Spirit out of the building because I kept the sanctuary too cold during worship. Others continued to tell me that they were burning up. An adult once yelled at me, another adult, for sitting on a counter like I was a naughty child. A pastor turned agnostic friend of mine, in discussing why she left the ministry and the faith, ask me plaintively, “Why aren’t they better? This should be the place where people treat you the best. Why are they worst sometimes?”

I still don’t have a good answer, but I know what she means. As the Body of Christ, churches should be a haven, a place where we get treated the best, where people have the most empathy, and where we can most easily settle differences. Indeed, the Holy Spirit binds us together. We all believe in its transforming power. However, as my examples above imply, so often, this doesn’t happen. Human frailty and unresolved conflict can fester into mistreatment. Should it be this way? No. Is it all the same? Yes, unfortunately, and it has a profound impact on the faith experience of many. One might expect mistreatment in the broader world, but God created the church as the alternative to a broken world. As a pastor largely serves churches with severe challenges, maybe, I’ve earned a skewed perspective, but I know well the casualties of when the church doesn’t rise to the standards set for us by God.

Unresolved or poorly resolved conflict plays a huge role in this. Groups of people inevitably have disagreements and differences of opinion. No two people agree 100% of the time. Innately, we know this in our friendships, families, and marriages. We face the same in church. Our passage today confirms that God shows up for a crowd of two or more. Conflict does as well. The vital question for churches across the centuries is what we do with this conflict. Biblical scholars believe that Matthew includes this material about conflict resolution specifically because he believed that his Christian community needed to hear it. We need it at least as much now.

Step 1 – Don’t let it linger.

Most people, especially in “nice” places like churches, avoid conflict. We get wronged. We swallow it. We get wronged again. We shallow it. This cycle repeats until one day we either snap or leave. Few things do the soul more good than a lovely festering conflict. That’s in no way a recipe for disaster.

Christ’s instructions in Matthew 18 value directness. The process starts with the wronged person going to the one who did the wrong and informing them of the offense. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” (Matthew 18:15 NRSV) Hiding from the conflict only gives it the opportunity to amplify within you. The perpetrator may not even be aware of the offense. If they are, they may fear your reaction. Certainly, Christ advocates here for valuing their humanity. The word that gets translated here clunkily as “church member” is adelphos, which more often gets translated as “brothers and sisters,” reiterating the closeknit familial nature of church relationships. Also, giving this conversation a chance to happen in private gives everyone a chance to save face if faces can be saved. Either way, you break the cycle of escalation by taking initiative and attempting to work through it.

Step 2 – Use your resources.

A church intentionally brings people together into the aforementioned familial type bonds. That opens up the opportunity for conflict, but it also gives you people who can help you. After the one on one conversation, Christ instructs us to bring the community into the conversation. Whether we realize it or not, unresolved conflict impacts the whole body. We all know what it feels like to walk into the a room where the vibes felt off. I once served a church with so much unresolved conflict, it had already killed one church and threatened to kill what got birthed out of the first church’s demise. We have a family with wisdom, different perspectives, and greater neutrality. Relying on them means following God’s purpose for us, not showing weakness. We all share a connection. By having conflict somewhere in the body, the community already feels it. You’re not bringing them into something that doesn’t affect them.

Step 3 – Give up sometimes.

This sounds counterintuitive. This passage directly follows Jesus leaving the 99 to find the one. Here, if the doer of wrong persists, we treat them as a “gentile or tax collector.” It feels harsh. However, we cannot change one who doesn’t want to change themselves. Not everyone has to respond positively, and at some point, we have to leave them to that for the sake of ourselves and our community. Jesus came to save gentiles and tax collectors, so they have the same hope of finding their way back as they ever did. Each person has the free will to choose right or wrong, and we can lose ourselves in chasing someone to change as much as we can in swallowing the conflict rather than seeking to resolve it.

We cannot eliminate conflict. Handling it poorly or leaving it unresolved does tremendous damage to the Church. It drives people out, keeps them away, and leaves them damaged in what God intended as the safest space. Church life should bring wholeness not wreckage. Actually, doing the difficult work on resolving conflict helps us rise to that standard.