Southminster Presbyterian Church

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Confronting and Forgiving

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 18:15-22; Matthew 18:6-14

            William Willimon, a former professor of ministry at Duke University, tells this story about one of his classes on worship leadership.  He writes,

I remember I was lecturing on “effective liturgical leadership.” … A hand went up.  “Doc,” said a large pastor from the hills of West Virginia, “I had something happen the Sunday before I came down here.  Don’t know if I handled it right or not.  I was at the prayer time and so I asked the church, ‘Do you have any special prayer needs?’  A woman raised her hand and said, ‘Yeah, I got one.  I want you to pray that Mary Jones will stop leading my husband into adultery.’  With that, Mary Jones jumped up screaming, ‘You, b***!’ and the two of them locked in a fight, pulling and jerking each other all over the church.  Their husbands got into it too, one ramming the head of the other into the backside of the pew.”

I froze at the lectern, mouth gaping.  What got me more than the story was the class’s reaction.  All of the other students sat passively, some nodding in silent agreement as if to say, “Yep, that same thing happened at my church just last week.”

“So,” he continued, “I came down out of the pulpit, pulled the two women apart, and said, ‘Stop it!  Sit yourselves back down.  Now I’m gonna ask one more time.  Are there any prayer requests?  And I’m gonna see if you can do it right this time.  And if you people don’t settle down and act like Christians, I’m gonna bust some heads.’  … They knew I could bust heads if I needed to.  I was in the marines before the Lord called me to seminary, also did a little pro wrestlin’.  They quieted down and we went on with the service.  Now, Doc, my question is, was this what you would call ‘good liturgical leadership’?” (Christian Century, Feb. 13-20, 2002: 18).

            I wonder how Beaver would handle that.  I have never had a situation like that in any of my churches, but I’ve seen some tense situations between church members—some real problems in church relationships—and that is what Jesus is talking about here in this scripture.

            What I find particularly interesting in this teaching of Jesus is the relationship between confronting and forgiving, between judging and reconciling.  Notice all the verses that emphasize confronting: [Slide 1]

-          [Click 1] Matthew 18:6—“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

I would say that’s fairly judgmental.

-          [Click 2] Matthew 18:8—“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.”

That, too seems a little harsh, though in this context Jesus is probably talking about the church body, not your own body.  He is saying that for the sake and health of the church, it may be necessary under certain circumstances to lose one of your members.  Which is exactly what he says in verse 17:

-          [Click 3] Matthew 18:17—“And if the offender refuses to listen to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

            These are all confrontational verses.  They are telling the pastor to come down out of the pulpit, get into the middle of the fight, and tell people to stop it.  Maybe even bust some heads.

            But then, in the same scripture, Jesus talks about forgiving: [Slide 2]

-          [Click 1] Matthew 18:14—“So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

-          [Click 2] Matthew 18:21-22—“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?”  Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

            The key to this whole chapter is that statement in verse 14: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”  The phrase “little ones” certainly refers to children, but it also includes anyone vulnerable to being hurt, which probably includes all of us.  God wants for all of us a new relationship to God and a new relationship to each other in God’s family.  That is why Jesus came.  But if we don’t start learning to do that here and now, if we don’t begin learning here and now how to have a good relationship to God and good relationships with each other, then eternity is going to seem … well … like an eternity! [Slide 3: Blank]

            So here is the deal: in order that none of these “little ones” in God’s family be lost, there are times we must confront people.

            I have never been involved in kicking a church member out of a church; nor have I have I ever had to come down out of the pulpit and separate people who were fighting in the pews; which is good since I am not a former pro wrestler.  But twice I have been on a Presbytery commission which kicked a minister out of the ministry.  Both cases involved sexual misconduct.  In both cases we heard from witnesses who testified about what happened, and when we confronted the minister about it, we didn’t just send him to another church, we told him he had to leave the ministry, at least for an extended period of time, and get serious counseling.

            I am proud the Presbyterian Church did that at a time when some churches, some professions, and even some politicians were sweeping that kind of conduct under the rug.  Jesus knew how destructive some sins could be to the life and witness of the church, what a stumbling block to faith they could create for “little ones” in the church, or for anyone.  So he insisted that we confront such people.

            But he also talked about forgiveness, which is where it sometimes gets confusing.  He talks about a shepherd who goes looking for a lost sheep and rejoices when it is brought back.  And immediately after that, he tells about a church member who confronts another church member about wrongdoing and rejoices when the other church member is “regained.”

            In one of the previous churches I served, we had a young man who had just joined our church along with his wife and who volunteered to work with our church youth group.  So we did a background check on him, as we do with everyone working with children or youth in our church here.  And we discovered that he had a record of multiple arrests for driving under the influence.  So we went and talked to him about that and to his wife.  We talked about the kind of treatment he was getting and the AA meetings he was attending.  And we connected him with some people in our church who would meet with him and pray with him.  But we still had to decide what to do about his volunteering with the youth group.  We finally decided that since he had no record or any known incidents of abuse or misconduct with children, youth, or adults, except the drunken driving convictions, he could be a helper with the youth group as long as other adults were there (which we always require anyway) but he could not under any circumstances be a driver.  And that worked.  He became an appreciated part of our church community, and the little ones were protected.

            Confronting and forgiving—it is always a tricky balance, whether for individuals dealing with domestic violence or churches dealing with clergy misconduct.  It is always a tricky balance.  But here is the good news: if we meet together to discuss how to handle confronting and forgiving, and if we pray together for God’s guidance in how to handle it, we will get it.  God will help us.  That’s Jesus’ promise in verse 19: [Slide 4] “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.”  Whatever else that verse means, in this context it means that when we meet together and pray about when to confront and when to forgive, when we meet together and pray about how to confront and how to forgive, God will be there and help us figure it out.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7