Resolving an Offense

by Tim Isbell, August 2015


The Bible prescribes a particular process for when someone hurts you. With minor modifications, it also works in secular environments. The three steps come from Matthew 18.15-17:

  1. Go to the offender personally.
  2. Take someone with you.
  3. Take the issue to the church.
Too often, when someone offends us, our first move is to gossip with peers or to elevate the offense to someone in charge. But there is a better way.

This post first provides advice for each step in the Christian context, such as within a church. Then it explains how to modify the process to work in secular settings, including school and the workplace. Even if your primary application is in a secular context, please read the first part because it greatly informs the second part.

Applying Matthew 18 within the Christian Community

If you want someone to pray for your situation, ask for it in general terms - without mentioning the person involved or the situation. This approach avoids the tendency to gossip. Now here's some advice for each step:

Advice for step 1: going personally to the offender.

  1. Before you go: pray and await God’s “release." Expect this to take a few days. You'll know when it's time.
  2. Avoid explaining your position by phone, letter, or electronic means. Use one of these to set up a face-to-face meeting a few days in the future.
  3. Go with a humble and gentle spirit. Galatians 6.1 teaches My friends if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.
  4. Start with your confession, if needed. The offender seldom owns all the guilt. To understand how to offer a clean confession, check out this Confession link.
  5. In the face-to-face meeting, speak the full truth in love (Ephesians 4.15). Resist the common result of stopping at 90%. - include the last 10%.

Most conflicts end right here, in step 1. But if not, move on to the second step.

Advice for step 2: take someone with you.

Our first instinct is to select a friend who we expect will take our side. Don’t do this. Instead:
  • Select someone who is a good listener, wise, discerning, AND (whenever possible) someone both you and offender respect.
  • If the issue is very complex or severe, the 3rd person may need to be a trained counselor.
Here are guidelines for the 3rd party's role in the meeting. You will probably need to explain these to the person when you recruit them into this position. 
  • Their purpose is not to referee, direct, arbitrate, or mediate.
  • Their role is to listen, ask questions only for clarity, and be present. Just the presence of a 3rd party does a lot to clean up the communication between you and your offender - even if the 3rd party says nothing.

Very few conflicts go beyond this point. But if you need to, move on to step 3.

Advice for step 3: take it to the church.

When I was the pastor at New Life, I told the church that when we need step 3 they could expect me to ask the Church Board to select 3-4 people to represent the church. These people would be high-integrity, wise, discerning Christians from among themselves - or maybe beyond the Board. I must admit that I never took an issue through step 3, though perhaps I should have a time or two. And I'm convinced it is the Christian thing to do.

Taking an issue to the church is a good step for two self-professing Christians before one of them triggers a lawsuit with the other. I’ve never personally experienced this, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s also good advice before filing for divorce. Christians fighting each other in court is a poor witness for their Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 6.1-8).

In step 3, expect both parties to meet together with the oversight group. In that meeting, the group must listen, completely, to both sides, and ask questions for clarification. And the group needs to provide a decision or proposal of what to do next. Maybe it will be advice, probably it will be directive.

Hopefully, the participants will submit to the process.

If not, the unity of Jesus bride (the church) is at stake, and this unity is precious. So if the disputing people not submissive to the church, the church may need to ask one or both to leave the church.

Matt 18 is not easy. It takes work and courage, which are the two Acts of Love. Avoidance of Matthew 18 is not love; it is some combination of laziness or fear.

Applying Matthew 18 in the workplace

I served as a VP in a fast growing technology company in the 1980’s. We had the inevitable interpersonal difficulties that occur when people work together for long hours under high pressure. Sometimes these grew to impact the quality or velocity of work.

Eventually, someone would tip me off about an interpersonal problem within the organization. Other times, the offended person would find the courage to walk into my office and complain about the peer or their boss. Occasionally, I'd spot the conflict on my own.

Once I was aware of the conflict, I’d pray about it for a day or two and then take the offended employee aside and ask him/her to use this modification of the biblical process:

  1. Set a time to talk humbly and respectfully with the offender, letting them know how they are making you feel or are otherwise affecting you.
  2. If they give you the brush-off, take a co-worker with you and try again. Make it a co-worker that both of you respect and explain their role as described above.
  3. If that doesn’t work, go see your manager (or, if their manager was me, “Come back and see me after you do steps one and two.”)

Employees received this process well. Some were curious about its source and I’d tell them that it came from the Christian Bible, with a little modification for the workplace. No one ever seemed offended. Typical responses were that it made sense, it required courage, and they were surprised that it came from the Bible.

(Note: My source for these implementations of Matthew 18.15-17 was a sermon from Willow Creek Community Church), probably in the 1980s.)



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