Kevin and I recently returned from a short visit to South Georgia where all of his family lives but us. One of the joys of every visit we make down to Georgia is time that we get to spend with our four young nephews. It’s always fun to spoil them and then get to leave when they start fighting . . .
I always find myself playing with of my nephews, Landon, age 9 who seems to latch onto me from the moment I walk in the door till the moment we leave. When I can get him off my IPad (where he’s proceeded to load every new video game imaginable) we play board games.
One of the games that we often play together on the floor of my in-law’s living room in Rummikub. Success at Rummikub depends on good draws of chips and insightful strategy of matching rows of numbers and colors.
But, if you draw the smiley face—you find yourself with the game-changing tile! I love watching the glee that comes across Landon’s face when he draws it. For I know in that moment he thinks he’s hot stuff!
For with the smiley face, you can play almost anything and get rid of the numbers on your tray faster.
Much like in other games, the smiley could be called the ultimate trump chip or trump card because when you have it in your line-up, the rules no longer matter anymore. You can really do whatever you want!
In the same way, Matthew 18:15-20 seems to present us the ultimate trump card when it comes to life in Christian community.
And in sum it says this: if someone in the church sins against you, go and talk to them in private. If they won’t listen to you, take 2 or 3 more people. Then if the “sinner” refuses to listen to you then, tell the church. If they don’t listen to the church then let them go on their way without blessing.
Or in other words, my Bible verse trumps you.
You don’t have to do a very exhaustive search on the Internet to find Christian ministries who have framed their governing boards around what many of them call the “Matthew 18” principle.
Everyone from the Association of Christian Schools International to Focus on the Family to Lifeway cite Matthew 18 as the formula by which to handle conflict in the church.
But, the Bible as I come to understand it never gives us a checklist. As Jesus is teaching, it is always about a conversation into what life in the kingdom of God entails. And it is always more complicated than it seems at face value.
Consider this. A Methodist pastor friend of mine in Virginia once told me the story what happened at his church after a long tenure in a particular community. He had become particularly passionate about connecting his congregation with a church in Rwanda.
The Rwandan church was located in a community where hundreds of families were out of reach from life’s most important essentials, especially water. After several exchange trips where members of the Virginian church went to Rwanda to visit and the pastor of the Rwandan church came to America, it was decided that the Virginia church would help bring fresh water to the community.
It would be a large chunk of the church’s budge to fund such a sustainable project—literally nowhere near a major city so they pipelines would be long. But the pastor knew it was the right thing to do. And the Rwandan church couldn’t have been more grateful. Even though one church leader met with him once to explain her concerns otherwise the pastor thought overall the church leadership was behind him.
This was until the deacons from the church board appeared at his house one night. They brought their Bibles and said that they needed a word with him. After settling in into the pastor’s basement living area they read part of our scripture passage from this morning. They told him what they really thought of the Rwandan project.
“It’s our Christian duty to tell you that you’ve sinned. Building that well is a waste of our resources. You should be caring first about the community in the local area first, not the Africans.”
Furthermore (they went on) if the pastor wanted to continue at their church, all contact with the Rwandan church must stop immediately.
But I’m sure you can imagine that this pastor was devastated. Maybe he’s misjudged the pulse of the church and led with a lot of gusto but such did not warrant the “visitors in the night” intrusion as he would later call this incident.
In the end, the church did stop its ministry in Rwanda (sigh) but the pastor (I guess luckily) didn’t loose his job over it.
But what bothered him the most was how the deacons used scripture. It was as if this Matthew 18 passage was the trump card to get the pastor to do what the deacons wanted him to do.
A story like this one is not an isolated example. I know dozens of churches wrecked by conflict that goes back to the same sort of thing. It’s the stuff of the worst of church life is made of.
Our pattern becomes we take scripture. We present it from the perspective of “you’re a sinner” and “I, the real Christian” knows best. And then we use scripture to hurt people. We really hurt people.
This is not to say that discipline isn’t important or sin isn’t really or talking to those in whom we have conflict one-on-one isn’t a good idea. BUT, how we use our so-called trump card of power in numbers has to be handled oh so carefully (if at all).
But it is important to consider that the lection ends this way: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.”
To help myself get the point I wrote it out like this:
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone remembering that I, Jesus, am there with you.
But then 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, remembering that I, Jesus am there with you.
If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church . . . remember that I, Jesus am there with you
As simple as the addition is, it sounds different doesn’t it?
And this is what Holy Spirit abiding with us, and blowing through us, and giving life to the church in the first place is all about.
We are never alone. We are never abandoned. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is with us.
And because of this WE CAN CONNECT to those most impossible people that we don’t understand or appreciate. So, we don’t have to waste so much of our time labeling particular people as “sinners.” But, we let the Spirit of God do the work of joining our hearts.
Thanks be to God that the one who holds the “trump card” is not us– but the great mystery of the Spirit, always at work.