Peace in the church is enjoyed in the way of repentance and forgiveness, so that when members of the congregation sin against each other they confess their faults one to another (James 5:16; Matt. 5:23-24) and forgive each other (Matt. 6:12, 14-15; 18:21-22; Eph. 4:32). Therefore, when your heart desires the peace of the church, you pray that God’s mighty grace will work in the church so that all those who have sinned against their neighbor will confess those injuries and wrongs, and so that all those who have been sinned against will forgive the neighbor his trespasses.
But how will this happen except something even more basic takes place? Brethren in the church must go to one another. Only when brethren go to one another, can they perform the speaking activities of confession and forgiveness, or through communication clear up any misunderstandings.
The point of this article then is very simple. It is as simple as its two-letter subtitle: Go. But often the simplest teachings are the most difficult to practice. To “go” goes against the grain of our sinful nature. Indeed, if there will be peace in the church, God must graciously give to us in the body of Christ a spirit of meekness and then cause us to go to one another, with the Scriptures, for the resolution of conflict.
You believe your brother or sister in the church has sinned, either in general, or more particularly, against you. Or, you are convinced your minister was teaching theological error in his sermon or that he made a very wrong and harmful application. Or, you believe your consistory or school board has made a very bad decision. Now, maybe the individual or body with whom you have a great concern has done something wrong, maybe not. Maybe you are misreading actions, misinterpreting words, or hastily jumping to conclusions based upon incorrect information you heard secondhand. Regardless, you are convinced there is serious error. You are not merely temporarily displeased about some little irritant or minor offence that may have been unintentionally committed. You will be able to overlook petty annoyances and cover them in love knowing your own imperfections and folly. Rather, you are truly aggrieved because you are convinced that great wrong has been done and that there may even be a pattern of disorderly behavior contrary to God’s law. Your spirit is restless and you cannot stop thinking about it. In fact, you believe that your brother’s soul is in jeopardy so that he must be gained, the wellbeing of the church is at stake, and God’s wrath is kindled. You believe this sin stands between you and the brother so that fellowship is impossible and you will not be able to sit in the same pew as he on Sunday. Now what?
Scripture says “go”
The all-important and simple command of our Lord is “go.” Go to the brother. Go to the sister. Go to the preacher. Go to the consistory. Go to the school board. In the well known words of Matthew 18:15, which begin what we commonly refer to as “the way of Matthew 18,” Jesus says, “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” According to the 72nd Article of our Church Order, these words apply when there is a sin that “is of a private character, not giving public offense.” If you have been injured by a brother or sister in the church, the first step to be taken is to go to him alone and tell him his fault. For the purpose of this article, I am not interested in a full exposition and application of the way of Matthew 18. Rather, I am interested in applying broadly the underlying principle of our Lord, namely, that when you have a problem with someone, when you have a concern about something, when you think someone has erred, and you cannot overlook it and move on, then you must go to that person or party privately.1 Quietly go to the source.
This underlying principle is found in other passages of Scripture, such as Galatians 6:1, “Brethren if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” How can we “restore” our brother except we go to him? Or, James 5:16, “Confess your faults one to another….” How can we make confession to our brother except we go to him? Or, James 5:19-20, “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him, let him know, that he which converted the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” How do we “convert the sinner from the error of his way” except we go to him? In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus teaches, “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother and then come and offer thy gift.” There it is again, “go.”
This principle also underlies the Reformed way of protest and appeal. If a member of the church is aggrieved by the decision of an assembly, then the member may and ought to go to that body and demonstrate that the decision of the body is in “conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order” (Church Order, Art. 31).
There is something so simple about this command and approach. From a certain point of view, the command “go” is common sense. Suppose you live in a residential neighborhood and your next-door neighbor has underground sprinkling. One of his water lines or sprinkler heads along the property line sprung a leak, and now there is a small geyser that is shooting into the air enough cubic feet of water to flood your patio in less than an hour. This is a problem adversely affecting you and your neighbor. What are you going to do about it?
Anyone with a little kindness and a little common sense knows that if there is a problem in life, you ought to address the problem by going to the source. Either you attempt to stop the leak yourself, or you knock on your neighbor’s door and tell him about his problem so that he can address it. You go…to him. You do not sit back and watch the geyser while fuming that your patio is being submerged. You do not call the local news media and ask them to come do a story on your neighbor. You do not go door-to-door and badmouth him to others, or vent on the neighborhood’s social media page. You go. You go to him. Wouldn’t you want him to knock on your door if there was a serious problem in your yard, especially a problem you did not even know about? Go!
The Dutch have a unique expression that embodies this simple command “go.” The expression is iemand onder vier ogen spreken. It can be translated like this: “to speak to someone in private.” A very literal translation is: “to speak to someone among four eyes (vier ogen).” This expression refers to a confidential conversation that takes place in private between two individuals with four eyes, only four eyes. This is not a biblical proverb written by inspired Solomon but a common expression understood by humanity in general. If you have a problem with someone, go to them privately, two eyes to two eyes, and talk.
What not to do
From our Lord’s instruction, which requires that we go to one another if we believe there are problems creating conflict, we learn what not to do. And what we are not to do is, regrettably, what all of us are all too often inclined to do. If you have a problem with your brother, do not boil in anger like a pot on the stove while you sit by the window watching and waiting for him to come to you. Do not go around griping about him to everyone everywhere in hope that they will take up your business. Do not go through the congregation gossiping about him (there is no gossip in go). Do not broadcast his faults under the guise of love for the church and hatred for sin. Do not write him one of those despicable anonymous letters. Do not have a bad attitude, harbor a grudge, sulk, and withdraw from congregational fellowship until someone finally asks “So, something is wrong, what is it?” Go! Go and talk to him. If it is a private sin, do not go to the consistory, but go to him.
If you have a problem with what your preacher said in his sermon, do not send out a mass email under the title “Listen to this!” condemning your minister with the hope that others will join you in your condemnation of him. Go to him. In fact, instead of going straight to the consistory, the body of elders that does have the oversight of your minister’s doctrine and life, begin by going to him. He is the source and spoke the words you find objectionable. If you were in his position, you would want anyone who has serious objections with your words to come to you. Besides, maybe there is something you are missing that could easily be cleared up. Go!
If you have a problem with your consistory, do not attempt to stir up dissenters and raise discord the way Korah and company did with the 250 princes they won to their rebellious cause (Num. 16). Do not take your issue to the members of the congregation and seek to acquire as many signatures as possible so that you can bull rush your consistory and through strength of numbers intimidate and force their hand. Do not boycott the church, the worship services, and congregational life in order to make a point. Do not run around whispering in ears or shouting from rooftops, “My consistory is incompetent and does not know how to handle .” Do not write a letter of condemnation against your consistory and stuff it in everyone’s mailbox at church, signing off as, “For the love of the truth….” Go! Quietly go to your consistory with your concerns.
In the heart of those who go is, or at least ought to be, love. Even if “go” turns into a long and arduous walk that involves multiple steps and includes the kind of confrontation and back-and-forth that makes the soul shrink back, love will do it.
First, if we truly love our brother or sister with whom we have some serious concern, then we will not talk about them but to them. If the person or body in question has truly done something wrong, what does it matter if the whole world knows, while that person or body does not? It is only when we address the source of the problem that the problem can truly be understood, addressed, and remedied. If we believe our brother has sinned, there must be repentance for that sin; but how can he repent if we do not go to him so that by the grace of God he can be convicted of his sin and turn?2 Furthermore, by quietly going to the source instead of gossiping, backbiting, and slandering, we promote as much as we are able the honor and good character of our neighbor; and this is our duty of love according to the ninth commandment (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 43). Do you not highly respect that brother in the church who has concerns with you, and instead of talking about you, he comes to talk to you? Even if you disagree after talking, how can you not appreciate his willingness to come to you?
Secondly, if we truly love the church of Christ, then we will go to the person with whom we have a serious concern. If the wellbeing of the church is truly threat- ened by what a person or body did or said, then it does not do the church any good to broadcast the fault to the whole world, without going to the source. If we truly love the church, we will go to the source of whatever it is that we believe is troubling the church so that the issue can be resolved.
Thirdly, if we sincerely love what is true, we will go to the source. For, understanding our own weaknesses, we recognize that our assessment of the situation could be wrong. Maybe what happened was unintentional. Maybe we did not have factual information and we rashly judged our brother or a consistory. Maybe there is an explanation we need to hear. In love for what is true, we go—quietly.
You see, one of the greatest threats to unity in the church is our inability or unwillingness to address sin or perceived sin in a biblically faithful way. Sin creates division in the church. Exactly because there will be no sin in heaven, there will be no division or threat of division, and thus no need to pray for the unity of the glorified church. However, as long as Christ tarries and we remain sinners on this earth, every congregation will always be threatened by sin within. Yet, the greatest threat to the unity of the church is usually not sin as such, but an inability or unwillingness to deal properly with sin or perceived sin. A wrong response to what we believe is a problem usually does far more to trouble the church than the problem itself.
The same is true in marriage, is it not? Probably every pastor says to the couple with whom he meets for pre-marriage classes, “You will sin against each other. I pray that it will not be in any significant way that creates deep wounds and lasting consequences, but there is sin in every marriage. Sin as such is not what will erect a massive wall of division between you so that you urgently need pastoral help in marriage counseling. Rather, what will finally cause you to cry for help is your unwillingness or inability to deal with sin, so that little problems become big and unmanageable problems. You need to communicate, prayerfully address your problems and concerns, and learn to walk in the way of confession and forgiveness. May God go with you and grant you His grace.”
So it goes in the church. Thus, for the peace of the church, let us go to one another.
1 See the recent, instructive editorials of Prof. Gritters (Sept. 15 and Oct. 1, 2022) explaining that some private sins, such as sexual abuse, are not to be kept private in following the way of Matthew 18 but reported to the authorities.
2 In Matthew 18:15, “tell him his fault” has the idea of pressing his sin home to him that he may be convicted of it.