Question about forgiveness and reconciliation

Here’s a question I was asked in a piece I wrote for TheGospelCoalition

What can you do when you feel a person has severely wronged you but the person simply doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong? In this case, the person happens to be a pastor. 

I assume that you’re not dealing with a minor grievance that should be covered in love (I Peter 4:8) or with a non-essential matter (Romans 14:1-3).

I also assume that what you’re referring to fits in the category of Matthew 18:15-18 where Jesus anticipated fractures in Christian fellowship (as Matthew 5:23-24).

The tension we all face is being realistic about life in a fallen world while conducting relationships with humble integrity. Forgiveness is not whitewashing or pretending nothing happened when an offense has driven a wedge between two people. Forgiveness doesn’t require us to neutralize our sense of justice. The very act itself takes seriously the offense.

But forgiveness does involve a surrender of desires for revenge. As such, it is an act of worship in the presence of the God who forgives our sins by acknowledging God’s sole right to punish our offender (see: Genesis 5:15-20Romans 12:17-21). It frees us from grudge-bearing vindictiveness and empowers us to love our enemies as God loved us (Romans 5:8).

But (as I am recommending here) there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s possible to forgive someone without offering immediate reconciliation. It’s possible for forgiveness to occur in the context of one’s relationship with God apart from contact with an offender (Joseph being a great example). Reconciliation is about restoring broken relationships.

On this note, we should attend to the priority Scripture places on pursuing peace:

  • “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
  • “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace…” (Romans 14:19).
  • “Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
  • “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy …” (Hebrews 12:14).

What do we do when peace is not possible? Well, it depends on the nature of the situation. If the person is part of a fellowships of believers (as what you describe), we must follow Biblical mandates for protecting the unity of believers. The steps Jesus taught begin with private confrontation (after the personal preparation of removing logs from our own eyes, Matthew 7:3-5).

If private confrontation does not remove the wedge, private conference must take place involving the offender brother and two or three others (enlisting those who are spiritually prepared (Matthew 7:3-5), spiritually mature (Galatians 6:1), and entrusted with spiritual oversight (I Peter 5:1-4Acts 20:28 ). This only becomes necessary, if the one confronted has as obstinate attitude (v. 16). When a sinning member of the church refuses to heed the confrontation of a fellow believer, thus refusing to be restored to proper fellowship, the circle of confrontation must broaden so that it includes one or two others.

Those called to be part of the confrontation are not required to be eyewitnesses of the sin confronted (If they had been, they should have gone to confront the member themselves). Ideally, it would be good to include people who are known and respected by the erring member but this is not always possible.

The one or two witnesses are involved “so that every fact may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (v.16). Their purpose is not to threaten or intimidate, but to help the erring brother to understand the seriousness of the matter. Their main purpose is not to evaluate the truthfulness of the charge, but to strengthen the rebuke and the call to restoration. After private conference, if the erring member remains obstinate and unwilling to acknowledge and repent of the sin, Jesus teaches a fourth step.

Each of the four steps has as its primary aim the restoration of the brother to proper fellowship. The fourth step is public announcement (v. 17a). Jesus said, “Tell it to the church (the assembly). This step is a sobering reminder that sin is not merely a private and personal matter for Christians. Sin that separates and alienates believers, must be dealt with and resolved.

But how do we take this step of public announcement? In our church (due to size), we’ve sometimes handled this in the adult fellowship group the member participates in. Other times, we’ve communicated to all the covenant members through a special meeting of the membership. Some churches make these announcements during communion. Others will use a letter to the membership. However this happens, all churches should clearly spell it out in their documents and seek agreement from the membership to follow it. This step involves the fellowship in some kind of public confrontation. In v. 17b, Jesus implies that the church (as an assembly) has made an appeal to the erring member.

When the church is informed, (which reasonably implies that the pastors will be involved) .warnings should be made about the need for the whole assembly to avoid gossip, slander and a proud or critical spirit (Matthew 7:3-5Galatians 6:1). Members should not play spiritual detective or allow a lenient or punitive attitude. They should be encouraged to pray for repentance and restoration, and to appeal to their fellow member to submit to the leadership of the Church. In such an appeal, one might humbly say, “I don’t know all the details, nor is it my place to know them, but I do want to encourage you to make things right with the church.”

No one should give the erring member the feeling that he is in good fellowship with the Church (cf. II Thessalonians 3:12-14). Never act in cross-purpose with the church. We should not do anything that would cause disrespect for the leadership. Remember the goal: “Win your brother.” It is redemptive!

The final step Jesus taught is public exclusion: removal from membership. The primary aim of this step is to protect the purity of the assembly (see: I Corinthians 5:1-11). Failure to practice these steps invites God’s discipline on the entire assembly (see:I Corinthians 11:30-32Revelation 2:51620-233:3-19).”

This is a long answer but these are the truths we must work through when faced with a situation like you describe — even if it involves one in spiritual leadership One final word. Be extra cautious with accusations against spiritual leaders. Remember the words of the apostle Paul:

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism” (I Timothy 5:19-21).

Steve Cornell

This entry was posted in Abuse, Accountability, Church discipline, Church Leadership, Conflict, Confrontation, Counseling, Difficult people, Discipline, Elders, Fellowship, Forgiveness, Judging others, Leadership, Life of a pastor, Pastors, Question, Question of the day, Radical love, Reconciliation, Repentance, Restoration, Trouble-makers, Unresolved issues, Worship conflicts. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Question about forgiveness and reconciliation

  1. Pingback: When trust is deeply broken | WisdomForLife

  2. Tim P (who asked the original qn) says:

    Thanks Steve for writing this up. These are really important biblical principles for us.

    It’s also good for us to realise that sometimes we might pursue matters as far as we can (in line with the Rom 12:18, 14:19, Eph 4:3 and Heb 12:14 passages that you pointed us to), but then still not reach a resolution. In these sad instances, the final need is for us to entrust the situation to the Lord’s justice and mercy through our prayers, let go in our hearts and not ascend the moral high ground, remembering that we all fall short – even of repenting fully for the ways we’ve fallen short!

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