“If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.
If he or she listens to you, you have regained them. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the brother or sister refuses to listen, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” -from Matthew 18
The psychologist Scott Peck wrote that communities of people often pass through four stages of relational development. Peck called the most common, initial stage of building community “pseudo-community”: and sadly, “pseudocommunity” is often the only stage that many communities will know. In pseudocommunity, everyone pretends that they are already a community, and that they really know each other, even though they really know very little about each other. In pseudocommunity people assure themselves they have only superficial differences, and no reason for deep conflict. All of the women are strong, all of the men are good-looking, and all of the children are above average. Every sermon is “interesting,” or at least, “thought-provoking.” Every paper is at least a B plus. In pseudocommunity people mind their manners with each other, no matter what they might be thinking behind the veil of a polite smile. Conversation stays at a very general level. “How’ve things been goin’ lately?” “Good, busy. And you?” “Yeah, me, too.” In pseudocommunity, pain and conflict are avoided at all costs, and when they are addressed are referenced only indirectly. What people really feel isn’t shared until the meeting after the meeting in the parking lot. The implicit goal of pseudocommunity is a bland world of pretense where no one’s feelings get hurt in public. When another person sins against you, you take it in silence and seethe later with a friend, or maybe if you’re really upset you fire off a passive-aggressive email in private. When someone sins against another, you shake your head and lament their sin and mind your own business. (Of course, a world where everyone minds only their own business is also a possible definition of “hell.”) Pseudocommunity is an affable but discontented village of little lies. It accepts the trade-off of some truth for the sake of a shallow peace that is boring, but that least it feels safe.
Matthew 18 is Jesus’ assault on pseudo-community: “If a brother or sister sins against you, go and tell them to their face. If they won’t listen, bring two others along with you as witnesses. If they still won’t listen, call a meeting of the whole church. And if they won’t listen to the church, treat him or her like a Gentile or tax collector.”
Jesus calls us to be more than a pseudocommunity: he calls us to be a forgiven and forgiving people so saturated in grace that we can take the risk of being honest with each other.
We take this risk of loving truthfulness first, because of what sin is. For Jesus, my sin is not a private matter between me and God. It is a public menace to the relationships among God’s people. It is not just my business, it is the business of everyone who knows me: and that means it is worth having the occasional hard conversation about. Many of our worst conflicts in the church happen because at some point someone had the opportunity to say “Can we talk?” to someone else they were concerned about – but they didn’t, and now things are worse.
My mother just had to have a conversation with my grandmother about how the time has come for my grandmother to hand over her car keys and stop driving. Not an easy conversation to have, especially when you consider that my grandmother is a stubborn older woman who once chased a thief through the grocery store parking lot after she saw him trying to steal her number 43 Richard Petty license plate. But after my cousin had a pulse-racing Nascar-like ride with my grandmother to town, my mom decided the time had come for her to hand over the keys. “Mawmaw, can we talk?,” she said. “We’re concerned about you.” My mawmaw’s response was tell the family, “Stay out of my business.”
She didn’t understand this wasn’t just her business. It was the family’s business, because we are going to be the ones called to an accident scene one day, and it’s not just our business, but the business of every other person behind the wheel and on the road. Do not drive near Reedy fork in Greensboro until this is resolved: my grandmother with keys in her hand is a ticking time bomb.
So is sin, so are all of the ways we refuse to love and to be loved. It’s not just my business. Sometimes someone needs to take us aside and say, “I’m concerned about you. Consider letting go of those keys you are gripping so tight.”
Of course, that hurts. In that way, sin is like a splinter in your finger that needs to be removed before it becomes infected and makes the whole body sick. But we know it hurts to have somebody poke at a splinter: it hurts even when you are the one doing the poking. When my five year old daughter gets a splinter now, she won’t tell me about it. She has learned that splinters mean tweezers and scraping and crying and hurt. Better to just pretend there is no splinter there. “What splinter?”
And do you know what? Sometimes I want to pretend she doesn’t have a splinter, too, because taking it out is going to hurt me as much as her. I want to look at her finger and say, “What splinter?” And I can almost persuade myself that my looking the other way is called “love.”
But Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a sister or a brother from the path of sin.”
Point out the splinter, Jesus says. That is called “love.” Blessed be the tie that . . . binds.
We take the risk of loving truthfulness because we know that sin is more than my business, it is the community’s business.
(To read more on why we dare to create conflict in the church, read Part II of "The Tie That Binds."