At one point in our lives my husband and I oversaw several small groups at our local church. Our job was to be a resource for the leaders, helping them navigate the challenges they faced as they served God in this way. Now and then one would call because there was a problem.
One time a leader I’ll call Ron contacted us about a couple in his Bible study who had sinned against the group and refused to repent. Since their desire was to forgive the offenders and restore fellowship, Ron asked if we would first meet with him and his wife to understand the issue and then confront the offending couple according to Matthew 18:15-20.
Lots of us are pretty familiar with Jesus’s instructions on how to deal with these situations. If someone sins against us, meet with them one-on-one. If that does no good, try again, bringing one or two others along as witnesses. And if those measures fail, bring it to the community.
We think we know the purpose for the second step: bringing others along will make it more likely that the offender will repent.
I think there’s more to it than that.
When Jim and I met with Ron and Marcia, for the life of us we could not figure out how the other couple had sinned against the group. It seemed to us to be a personal matter related to how they chose to raise their children. We spent several hours with Ron and Marcia, going over the incident from every possible angle. But in the end we just couldn’t see it.
None of us can see things fairly all the time. We have our prejudices and predispositions and emotions and worldviews that get in the way. We think someone has sinned against us or against God because that is not the way we would do it or because it hurt our feelings. We don’t realize the real problem might be our need to control outcomes or our sense of the type of treatment we deserve.
Bringing a neutral party to the table is designed to ensure justice, to make it more likely that a fair decision is reached. We see this in the way Jesus alluded to Deuteronomy 19:15 when he talked about bringing witnesses.
One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
Just as important as dealing with offenses is ensuring we don’t go overboard, imagining that every oversight or slight or unfulfilled expectation indicates sin. It might and it might not. That’s why we need an outside perspective.
Which we love to get. But too often we do it in the wrong way.
Instead of finding a neutral party, we seek out our friends and spin the story so they’re convinced that wow, we were really wronged. Maybe we aren’t intentionally spinning a tale, but our friends never hear the other side, what our spouse or coworker or friend or store clerk or church member has to say about what happened. So they side with us.
The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him. (Prov. 18:17)
A lot of times it stops here. Our offender didn’t apologize, but we feel vindicated anyway because our friends stand by our side. If we do happen to take the next step, our “witnesses” have been primed to believe we are in the right, making it hard for them to be neutral. We gang up on the accused and justice is not served.
I suppose what I’m saying is obvious.
But if it is, why do I keep seeing this?
Why do I keep seeing people hurt by our inability or unwillingness to open these situations to proper judgment, one that might even conclude we were more at fault than the other party? Why do I keep seeing individuals blamed and maligned for doing their job, for calling us out in our sin or speaking the truth in love or defending their own innocence?
Some of you know. Some of you know because you have been slammed to the carpet by exactly what I’m talking about. You were accused, tried and executed before you had the chance to defend yourself. Your side of the story was never heard, because no witnesses were brought in or because the witnesses were biased in favor of the other person. There was no neutrality, no justice, no concerted effort to be fair.
I’m so sorry.
And some of you have done the slamming. You’ve used your powerful position or your dominant personality or your louder voice to prove you were in the right and the other was in the wrong. You were hurt or offended and you convinced your friends it was for real, that someone did you dirty. But you never opened the situation to unbiased witnesses who could weed through all your assertions of victimization.
I’m so angry.
And some of us, perhaps most, have been on both sides of this equation, to one extent or another. Doing what we never thought we would do. Falsely accused then falsely accusing. It’s so hard to arrive at the truth.
I’m so convicted.
Forgiving is a mistake when there’s nothing to forgive, when we’re mistaken about being wronged. We need to establish the validity of our claim before we move on to forgiveness. If we’re right, if we truly were sinned against, then of course we ought to forgive. But that’s step two. Step one is figuring out what really happened.
Ron and Marcia didn’t like our response so they took matters to the next level. They met with our supervisor and finally with the small groups pastor. But they never got what they were looking for; no one supported them in their view that they had been sinned against. Instead of listening to reason, Ron and Marcia continued to insist they were right. In the end the group unraveled and everyone went their separate ways.
Part of the importance of being human includes the reality that we are morally accountable for our words and deeds. And for those of us who hold to Christian beliefs, we accept that we will stand before Jesus one day and see our life work tested by fire.
I don’t know about you, but there are some things I’d rather straighten out here, however painful it might be. I don’t want to wait until I look Jesus in the eye to realize I insisted on going through life with a skewed view of reality, mistakenly believing I needed to forgive someone when there was truly nothing to forgive.
That’s one mistake I’d rather not make.
 Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, 686, argues that Jesus’s words in Matt. 18:16 are a clear reference to the Deuteronomy passage.