Confronting Conflict with Courage and Compassion, Part 1

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
June 29, 2014
Matthew 18:15-22 

Confronting Conflict with Courage and Compassion—Part 1

15 ‘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.* 16But 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. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.


Some time ago a friend sent me a link to a website called the Bureau of Communications. It is a humor website containing all sorts of official looking forms you can send to people, with blanks you can fill in to personalize it. There’s one for “Unsolicited Feedback,” Form FB-999 

Dear (name), I can no longer contain myself. I need to let you know that I feel your (behavior) is quite (your honest impression). I would propose that you consider (proposed solution), because if you don’t, (unintended undesirable consequence). …If you do manage to make this change, I promise (hyperbole-laden claim). Thank you for your consideration. 

There’s a place to bubble in “Who feels this way”: Only Me, Everyone You Know, Strangers Too. 

And there’s a place to sign at the bottom, or you have the option to check a box marked, “Anonymous.” 

Ah, anonymous feedback. It’s an unfortunate way of life in too many churches. I have a pastor friend who received a note several years ago detailing a litany of complaints, “signed” by three anonymous people in the church, with a P.S.: “Your sermons are too long.”

Wherever you see “Anonymous,” or his good buddies, “some people,” lurking around, you can be sure that there is some kind of unhealthy power dynamic going on. In some cases, people with the complaint go anonymous because they don’t feel they can come forward with it without suffering ridicule or rejection. They feel they have no power, and so they complain anonymously, the only way they feel they can. But then when they do so, the power shifts too far in the other direction, stripping the subjects of the complaint of their power. Because they do not know the source, they cannot address it, apologize or explain; consequently, they can become defensive, jumpy and paranoid, eying everyone suspiciously, wondering, “Was it you who complained? Was it you?” 

I do think there is a place for unnamed feedback—the whistleblower, for example, who sees injustice in a corporation or system and is morally obligated to speak out. But for a Christian community, anonymity is by no means the ideal.

Conflict is inevitable in any community. In fact, you actually want a certain amount of conflict in a community; it’s a sign that people are being authentic, that they aren’t just going along to get along. In a church community, we might say that conflict is a sign that the Spirit is nudging us along, we are growing, we are being real with one another and we care enough about one another to hold each other accountable to the claims of the gospel. Today’s scripture has Jesus saying, “If one member of the body sins against you,” but he spends enough time on the topic that it seems clear that he expects this not to be an “if conflict occurs,” but a when. Certainly almost 2000 years of church history would bear this out! No, conflict isn’t the problem—how we deal with it is the problem. 

A pastor friend of mine established a series of commandments related to  conflict—principles she pledged to follow with her parishioners. At the top of the list is that she will not respond to anonymous comments. In return she pledges to be approachable so that people can come to her with grievances or concerns.

These days Mr. and Mrs. Anonymous are not just wreaking havoc in the church. They are also all over the Internet—leaving comments on blogs and in chat rooms. It seems that basic civility is not required if you’re never going to see the person face to face.

Technology has opened up all kinds of new ways for people to blast one another, to be passive-aggressive, whether anonymously and otherwise. Perhaps you have heard the Carrie Newcomer song, “Don’t Push Send,” about the perils of e-mail. It’s a cautionary song, with each verse detailing some tale of woe:

The day was tough the week had really been somethin' 

Jane got a message that pushed her buttons

She shot back as if her words were guns

Capitalizing every single one

She should have waited she should know 

E-mail doesn't mix with merlot

She had to write back as you could guess 

Pleading e-mail recklessness and PMS 


Chorus: Don't push send

Don’t push send

There are things that you can never quite amend

I tell myself again and again

Don’t push send

(Carrie Newcomer, “Don’t Push Send,” from The Geography of Light)

Perhaps if we were to rewrite Matthew 18 the way people really practice it in the 21st century it would say,

“If another member of the church sins against you, IM that person to point out the fault. If you receive no response, send another message and carbon copy two people, so that every word may be confirmed by witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, post the offense on your FaceBook for all the world to see, and if the offender still refuses to listen, remove them from your address book and de-friend them.”

We can do better. 

Certainly there are times that scripture seems hopelessly old-fashioned. But this is one time when the scripture has it right on. Of course it’s hard to speak the truth in love, and some of us introverted types need a letter to organize our thoughts and stay constructive and on track. But there is no substitute for real face-to-face interaction. That’s what the incarnation of Jesus is all about. God became flesh and lived among us—among people who are sometimes petty, who rub others the wrong way, who just plain disagree with one another. My best friend is a college chaplain who finds herself doing lots of Matthew 18 work. One student will complain to her about another student and she coaches them on how to talk to one another rather than relying on her as the intermediary. The anticipation is almost always worse than the conversation itself.

My friend grounds this work in a theology of the resurrection which says that Christ defeated the powers of sin and death. What this is means is that we are not captive to our missteps and misdeeds. And it means we are called to say to one another in humility, “You know, what happened back there… I don’t think that’s who you are.” 

Craig Barnes, a pastor and author, says this in his book The Pastor as Minor Poet:

I've lost count of the number of times that I've heard parishioners say, "I'm sorry I got into an argument at the committee meeting last night, but I have a short temper. That's just the way I am." I always reply, "No, it's not. You are who God made you to be, and God didn't make you angry. `For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life"' (Eph. 2:10). Who would want to settle for less?

M. Craig Barnes. The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies) (Kindle Locations 1249-1252). Kindle Edition.

Now, can this be done in ways that are shaming and scolding? You bet. And Matthew provides a corrective to this, by having us bring one or two people along with us—objective people, it should be said—not cronies whose sole purpose is to back us up 

Awhile back ago I received an e-mail from someone railing about a perceived slight. I was taken aback by the vitriol and, to be honest, just wanted to hide under my desk, but instead I forced myself to push back from the computer, walk over to the phone, and call the person. And it was a grace-filled exchange. 

(Now we are warned in preaching class not to be heroes of our own stories, so lest you think that I have this conflict stuff figured out, let me just say that the other day I found myself nagging Robert about something… via text message.) 

So perhaps instead of our e-mail translation, we can find a better one for the 21st century. Here’s The Message:

“If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend. If he won't listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.”

It’s a rather elegant process, helping to guard against some of the unhealthy power dynamics I mentioned earlier. There is a system by which church leaders can deal with conflict in community rather than hoping it goes away. And yet the “accused” is also protected from being demonized by one person with a vendetta. And the congregation is not held hostage by unspoken conflict that simmers just below the surface. 

Our denomination’s General Assembly ended about a week ago. We’re still dealing with the impact of decisions that were made there.

There’s no denying that there is a great diversity of opinion in the Presbyterian Church (USA) over a number of matters. Some years back a report was issued by a task force, trying to help the church deal constructively with one another in matters of great disagreement. One of the recommendations of this task force was to reclaim Matthew 18 as a way of guiding our life together—to talk with one another, to work for reconciliation. I am convinced that what will make Matthew 18 work, what will make the church work, is that we are able to see another person’s perspective and say, “I may not see it the way that you do, but I see you. I may not be able to accept what you say as true for me, but I accept you… for you are my brother, you are my sister in Christ.” 

Some years ago, after a particularly rancorous General Assembly, Ted Wardlaw (now president of Austin Seminary) shared this story:

“Maybe it's just my poetic heart, but I saw something yesterday -- in an airport lobby, of all things -- that just took my breath away. All of us sitting around at the gate, while planes came and went, while one flight had equipment problems and had to be cancelled, while many of us were waiting in vain on standby to get an earlier flight out of Louisville. It was a gridlock there at that airport -- three thousand Presbyterians trying to leave a mid-sized town. And I looked up from my coffee cup at one point to see two people standing with luggage all around them looking intently at a ticket that belonged to one of them. One of them -- I'm not sure which one -- was being helped by the other in figuring out some confusing flight information. And that by itself was not so unusual -- anybody with the milk of human kindness should try to help somebody else in a situation like that. What was breathtakingly unusual to me was that one of those two people was Jack Haberer, a pastor from Houston and a committed evangelical Christian, and the other was Janie Spahr, a lesbian evangelist from California and a committed Christian, too. Jack and Janie are equally visible throughout the church, and have been on opposite sides of this important question. But there they were, working together on the shared project of being sure that they both got home.” Source

Where two or three are gathered, trying to find their way home… Christ is present also.

Thanks be to God.


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©2014 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.