Three-step Counseling

September 10, 2017/Matthew 18:15-20

We think of Jesus as the great teacher, and the great healer, but in these verses we meet Jesus the great counselor.  These verses from Matthew offer counseling basics that all of us would do well to follow.

Where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, he assures his hearers, he will be there, right in the middle of them.  That’s reassuring, because Jesus obviously knew that where two or three people were, there also were likely to be disagreements, arguments, falling-outs.  How was a follower of Christ supposed to deal with these inevitable complaints and fights?  How was the church supposed to deal with them in a way that would preserve the fellowship of the community?

So Jesus offers a three-step program for conflict resolution:

Step one: if somebody sins against you, go talk to that person.  That seems fairly simple, right?  But that is not how most of us handle conflicts, either in the church or in other areas of our lives.  We tend to find it far easier to go talk to someone else – someone other than the person with whom we have a beef.  Maybe we do that because we want to be sure that our complaint is legitimate.  By talking to someone else, we receive reinforcement that we have a right to be hurt or angry or sad over what someone has done to us.  Or maybe we talk to someone else because, for some reason, we have a hard time facing conflict directly.  We find it much easier to talk to our best friend or our husband or our coworker.

But that approach doesn’t really help, does it?  Counselors have a fancy word for taking our problems to a third person.  They call it “triangulation.”  When you triangulate with someone, you are not communicating with the person who has wronged you; you’re communicating with someone who has nothing to do with your disagreement.  Your communication doesn’t flow in a straight line from you to the person who has “sinned against you,” to use Jesus’ words.  Instead, you create a second line of communication with an outside person.  And if that person goes to the person with whom you’re upset, you have a triangle with information flowing all around, but never directly between you and the person who has wronged you.  With a triangle, not only does the problem not get solved, it often gets worse.

So Jesus tells his hearers, first, go to the person who has sinned against you.  If he listens to you, Jesus says, you have “regained that one.”  Eugene Peterson in The Message translates Jesus’ words like this:

“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.”  Instead of “fellow believer,” the Revised Standard Version says, “if your brother sins against you.”  Your brother.  Wouldn’t you do anything to regain your brother?

But what if he doesn’t listen?  What if, to use Jesus’ words, “he will not hear you”?  Step two: if he won’t hear you, take one or two other people and go back to him.

That should be easy, right?  After all, if our natural tendency is to go to a third party to begin with, it should be really easy to invite that third person to go with us to talk with that scoundrel who has us so upset.  Right?

Hmmm.  Somehow, talking with that third person alone – that is, without the “sinner” in the room – is easy as can be.  We can talk for hours.  We can review everything that was said between that scoundrel and us, everything he did, how we felt about every syllable of every word, and how wretched and angry and upset we are about the whole mess.  But take that person with us and actually talk to that cad?  Well that’s even harder than going to talk to him alone.  Maybe, with that third person in the room, we will come to realize that we had a part in the disagreement.  Maybe we will hear, for the first time, that the scoundrel is not quite as bad as we would like to make him out to be, that his intentions were not all bad, that he didn’t really mean to hurt our feelings so badly.  Maybe we’ll find out that the real story is not exactly the story we remembered.  Maybe we’ll find out we were wrong, too.

Jesus doesn’t say that.  He doesn’t suggest that his listeners have done anything wrong.  He seems to assume that the other person really is at fault, really has sinned, really does need to be straightened out.  But in the back of our minds, we wonder.  And maybe that’s the reason Jesus suggests step two.  If we want to bring a third person into this conversation, let’s be sure it really is a conversation, and that the conversation is between the two people who have the most at stake – and the most to lose.

But what if you’ve done all that?  What if you’ve talked to your brother, one-on-one, and he hasn’t heard a word you said?  What if you’ve taken a friend along, and he still hasn’t heard what you’ve said?  Step three, Jesus says, means bringing the church into the conversation.


Why on earth would Jesus want us to bring our conflict into the community of the church?  Why in the world would he want us to tell the whole church our problem and have everyone there involved in a conversation with our brother?  Why?

Here’s the thing.  When a disagreement festers between two people in the church, the whole church already is involved.  Even if not every person knows the whole story, they see what’s going on.  They watch the tension between the two of you.  They see how hard you work to avoid each other.  And if you were close before – if you and your brother used to go to lunch every Sunday after worship, if you used to sit side by side during the sermon, if you used to go forward for communion together – it will be pretty obvious to the whole community that something is wrong.  Something has happened.  And that something will begin to infect the entire community.

Jesus tells his hearers to involve the whole church in resolving the conflict because the whole church is affected by it.  The whole church will suffer.  Later, Peter will ask Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him?  As many as seven times?”  No, Jesus will tell him.  No, Peter; that is not enough.  “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  “The church is a place of mutual interdependence, where each member is incomplete without the other, where the suffering of one is the suffering of all, and where the honor of one leads to the rejoicing of all.”[1]  Jesus’ focus is not on punishing the sinner.  It is on reconciliation, on rebuilding the community.

15 “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.  16 If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again.  17 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.  18 Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven.  What you say to one another is eternal.  I mean this.  19 When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action.  20 And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there” (The Message, Matt. 18:15-20).

[1] Jin S. Kim, Feasting on the Word A/4, 44


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