If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.Matthew 18:15-20
This text from Matthew offers instruction for the smallest units of the church’s political witness: navigating mediation, power, and values within the community. The passage is frequently applied in faith communities in terms of pastoral authority in community conflict or determining doctrinal boundaries. For those familiar with poor conflict and communication, triangulation and scapegoating in communities, the practical suggestions in this passage bring pastoral relief. Binding and loosing have been solidified in the church as a framework for accepting or rejecting doctrinal commitments. However, these applications can be disjointed from the primary concerns being addressed by Matthew’s gospel around community belonging, social teaching, and discernment. More fundamentally, this passage indicates foundational expectations around power relations, authority, and decision making for the Christian community that not only informs but emanates through the engagement of church in society.
The larger body of Matthew’s content on power, justice, reconciliation, and mediation offers a situational limitation to this particular passage. Chapter 5 instructs conduct for violent attack, legal exploitation, and the abuses of empire. In chapter 10 the disciples are prepared for confrontation with those who disagree with the spiritual and social vision: to shake dust off their sandals upon unfriendly reception. This text is for the community itself, its common life. The application of this wisdom to the church, both in Matthew’s original audience and our own contexts, requires understanding of the power and relational assumptions being made within the text.
The expectations of proximity and equal power are conveyed in the first sentence. Daniel J. Harrington’s Sacred Pagina commentary on Matthew points to the potential translation inadequacy of the “another member of the church” in the opening verse. In a globally and culturally diffuse world of Christianities, this opens countless understandings of ecclesiology and membership. This is only the second time the concept of “church” has been used in the gospel thus far, and Harrington insists it conveys more of a true sibling or chosen family relationship. There is a deeper level of care and mutual belonging than members of an elective social group or even a group of like-thinking persons, both common understandings of church participation, particularly in the individualism of white western capitalist societies. “If a member of your family,” “if a dearest friend” might evoke even more relational clarity in the work of interpretive play and connection for this phrase. This is a community of a new kind of kinship.
The second part of the opening sentence sets up the expectation of mutuality and equity within the community. The capacity to approach another member of the community for a frank and private conversation, to engage in a call for change and accountability without fear of retribution, violence, or disenfranchisement, would presume that this community is of equal station and power, or that a potential privileged offender is sufficiently committed to the Matthean community vision that they would not seek reprise in the face of rebuke.
But this idealistic vision of intimate fellowship and mutual power is taken for granted as inherent to the church only to the church’s peril. When we seek to apply these principles into our communities, families, churches, and other small and immediate political orderings, we should be very clear about where and how power differentials are taking place even within the most tight knit communities or beautiful egalitarian commitments. The church is not immune to the subtle movements of role, relationship, communication, and culture that serve to obscure and normalize social and political power relations, particularly lopsided and abusive dynamics of power and authority. This cannot be overstated: the formula of conflict resolution described here becomes a set up for entrenching abuse when forced onto a victim of violence or exploitation by a church community. The path to accountability becomes a path to harm when the church attempts to ignore developing power difference across race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, or other social relationships within the fellowship.
The tendencies of any group of human beings to normalize power and hide harm are themselves, then, subject to the process Matthew’s gospel is describing. The frankness of communication, of subsidiarity mediation and conflict negotiation, the expectation of honest and mutual accountability described here should also be applied, as healthily and faithfully as possible, to the workings of authority, relationship, and power system within the community.
The progressive circles of community accountability offer a dignity to both the offended and offending party. To the offended, it honors that a grief dismissed is not justice, and invites community support where strength and persuasion of an individual lacked adequate power. To the offender, this approach communicates seriousness of behavior and community belonging. Some interpretations see the final cycle of accountability as a move toward separation from the community: “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” However, such a reading necessitates neglecting the verses preceding this week’s text. Just before this handbook on community conflict, we see the parable of the lost sheep. May we be wary of interpreting scripture in a manner to separate a sheep from the flock. Rather, Gentiles and tax collectors are included in the Jewish community and in Jesus’ vision for the community. They were invited in with clear boundaries, call to a changed life, and the condition of submitting other social, economic, and cultural allegiance to the politics of the kingdom. This final layer of accountability leads not to ostracizing, but to boundary-making and a renewal of the rigorous discipleship commitment and process.
This conflict management approach is characterized by honesty, accountability, and community care resulting in boundary making or reconciliation. It is grounded in mutual care, egalitarian power sharing, and the context of a shared life commitment to the Gospel of Jesus. As we navigate systems of power and common life from the perspectives of faith and theology, practicing this immediate level of Christian politics within its intended limits offers what Daniel Patte calls a resocialization of Christians living in the world. Not only is it a way of navigating our shared life, it is an orientation to conflict and power that shapes our imaginations and expectations for dialogue, accountability, responsibility and community support in conflict, boundary maintenance and creation, and navigating disagreement.
Even with the limitations of its application, this process and its underlying assumptions are formative for Christians, and this small scale ordering of common life is an essential theological politic precisely because the small extends to the large. Writer, facilitator, and organizer adrienne marie brown uses the image of the mathematical fractal in her work. The repeating natural pattern, same across scale, becomes her guide for building social movements. This means that in community or political organizing, or any organization that exists to challenge or change culture must hold its core values at every step of the way. In this framework, organizing strategies, culture, and leadership would ethically align with the visions of the movement. Likewise, the church’s theological and political being requires attention, faithfulness, care, and accountability in repeating integral patterns across scale. When we follow these Jesus teachings on power, relationship, and conflict within our communities, knowing that our lives of faith are intertwined at every level of our being, we put into practice a dignifying ethic of care, clarity, and mutuality.