Rev. Shane on Prayer (Part IV)
Dealing with Conflict
Matthew 18:15-17 is our key scripture in ChristChurch culture to handle problems. When issues arise here, and they do, we turn to these instructions of Jesus to resolve them. Matthew 18:18-20 also gets a lot of work. It says that where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name and ask the Father for anything it will be granted. I have always viewed these back to back scriptures as two separate thoughts; a teaching from Christ on church discipline followed a teaching on prayer but it has become clear to me they are a single thought. In my last article, we explored Jesus’ prayer in John 19. Jesus’ primary petition was for unity in His church. Though this is clearly a petition that has yet to be fully answered, we may wonder why unity in the church was so important to Jesus. Certainly unity is a powerful witness to the world, certainly things are a lot nicer without drama, certainly people rocking the boat are never the ones rowing it but there is something much larger looming here. I believe humans are hardwired in such a way that working together in unity of purpose produces exponential results.
In Part Three, I spoke about the presence of Satan as an adversary of the people of God; desperately trying to keep us from advancing in our mission of connecting people to Jesus Christ. One of the enemy’s primary strategies is to use people to sow discord. There are people on Satan’s payroll in most every congregation in USAmerica and most of them would be horrified to know who is signing their checks. In their minds they are not gossiping, they are expressing concern; they are not quenching the Spirit, they are discussing how things could be done better; they are not ushering in confusion, they are calling it like they see it; they are not being used by Satan, they are just not happy with a few things. Conversely, I have heard many preachers say that their congregation is just a couple of funerals away from a revival; as if the only way to deal with disagreement in a church is to let it die of natural causes. The reality is that discord never dies in a fallen world. When one person working on Satan’s Counter Espionage Force finally dies off in a church I assure you three more are standing in the communion line ready to take over. Christians are given a very clear process for dealing with dissonance in the church; the problem is that we often chose to handle it our way and not God’s way. Our passage today clearly states that agreement in the church unleashes the power of prayer! We are going to look at how Jesus told the church to handle conflict and then discover the power that living in right relationship God and each other releases from the church to the world!
V. 15 If another Christian sins against you, go privately to that person and point it out This counterintuitive teaching addresses how those in the church should treat others in the church which whom they have become cross-threaded. Imagine someone in the church has deeply offended you. What do you do? Sometime doing nothing is the right thing. I actively refuse get offended by people if I can possibly avoid it but Melissa constantly reminds me that I have the hide of an elephant and most people don’t. So if someone offends and you are thick skinned enough to honestly overlook it, you probably should. But if the hurt is so great that you need to talk about it for you to heal, you no longer have the choice of inaction. Your choice now is obedience to God or disobedience. Tragically, many people deal with hurt by talking to everyone but the person who hurt them. This is sin. Dealing with things in this way is direct disobedience to Scripture and those who do it have been used as instruments of Satan whether they realize it or not. Such behavior cannot be tolerated or the mission of the church will be threatened. Jesus taught us when we are offended and can’t shake it off we are to go directly to the person who offended us and have conversation around the point of offense. This is the hardest possible option and the only Christian option. So here is the rule of thumb; if you can’t keep it to yourself, you must take it to the person who offended you.
If the other person listens and confesses, you have won back a brother or sister I have found that disagreement in a church is more often a matter of misunderstanding and a failure to communicate than a matter of maliciousness. I am often asked to identify the people who have most influenced me as a leader. Just behind Abraham Lincoln and before the Apache Chief Cochise is Sheriff Andy Taylor. Andy believes folks from Mayberry are essentially good people and if you sit and talk to people face to face and hold emotions in check, you can work most things out. I believe that too. If the cause is miscommunication and not spitefulness on the part of the offender and the desired outcome is reconciliation and not retribution on the part of the offended, we have a great place to start healing the relationship.
V. 16 But if that doesn’t work, take one or two other people with you so your conversation may be confirmed by one or two witnesses Step two is just like step one but some time has elapsed and there are now witnesses in place to move the situation toward agreement. Have you ever looked back on a heated conflict and realized it really didn’t have to go there? If you had just held your tongue here or not gotten so defensive there, things would have gone much differently. Often the content of a disagreement is very solvable but the attitudes and posturing of the people in the discussion never allow things to be resolved at a substantive level. I am a firm believer in letting “cooler heads prevail” and usually when there are referees around the players behave better!
V. 17 If they still won’t listen, take your case to the church and abide by the church’s decision The question becomes, “What happens if the church gets it wrong?” In baseball games, umpires sometimes miss calls. The coaches and fans may boo, scream, yell and grouse but nobody is going to quit playing baseball or stop coming to games because a call was blown. The church is not always going to get everything right but Jesus gave the church the responsibility of making the calls and I would far rather get it wrong trying our best to be obedient to Christ than to invite dysfunction because we lacked the courage to follow Scripture.
If they won’t accept the church’s decision, offer them no place in the church Here is the tough part, if a person cannot and will not accept the ruling of the church; they are to be ejected from the game. Not from Christianity, just that church! Biblical teaching is always willing and ready to throw out a bad apple to save the barrel…it is just that we are reluctant. If being nice is a higher core value than being obedient, churches will never achieve even a fraction of their potential. Doing ministry in a fallen world is hard work but if the leaders do not have the courage to enforce church discipline, it is impossible work.
V. 18 Whatever you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven and whatever you allow on earth will be allowed in heaven I have spoken of prayer as the precise place where the spirit world and the temporal world come into alignment. When we handle things the way Jesus taught us, the kingdom “comes on earth as it is in heaven.” When two Christians in conflict are reconciled, the Kingdom has come. When a strife ridden congregation finally rids itself of its chief pot stirrer, the Kingdom has come. When church leadership chooses to function scripturally, the Kingdom has come. When there is agreement in Christ’s Church there is unbelievable power for ministry.
V. 19 If two of you agree down here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father will do it for you If you want to pull this verse out of its context and form a theology around it, you are destined for failure. Get two friends together and start praying that you win the lottery and tell me how that goes. But there is more here than meets the eye.
V. 20 For where two or three gather together in my name, I am there among them As I have taught the ACTS method of prayer, you might infer that personal petitions should make up one fourth of a prayer but I am going to argue that it should really be about one eighth. Personal petitions should come only after we have prayed the petitions Jesus taught us like for the coming of the Kingdom, justice for the oppressed, laborers for the harvest, food for the hungry, God’s will to be done, the strength to forgive and deliverance from evil. Then comes our personal petitions, which may or may not seem quite as imperative once we have prayed for children who are dying of starvation while grain rots on shipping ports or dying of Malaria when we could have easily provided the $10 net that would have saved their lives. I can hear someone now, “Pastor, are you saying the primary purpose of prayer is not to ask God for stuff?” My answer is, “Precisely.” The purpose of prayer is to come into agreement with the will and intentions of God.
Now let me illustrate the power of agreement. In Genesis 11 we have the incredibly odd story of the Tower of Babel. Here is the storyline. God had originally created people with limitless potential to communicate with each other, dream with each other, plan with each other and build with each other. This was a great plan for a perfect world but a horrible one for a fallen world. Genesis tells us humanity came into agreement as to the construction of an enormous city featuring a tower that reached into the heavens. This tower was to be a monument to human greatness and a rejection of God. It is now clear there is so much power in agreement that a fallen and evil race cannot handle it. God directly intervenes; afflicts humanity with different languages and scatters them all over the earth to take the power of agreement off line. The city is called Babel. Ancient Babylon. Modern Iraq.
Now let’s press this thing even further! The curse applied at Babel was temporarily lifted at Pentecost in Acts 2. Gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover were thousands of people from all over the Roman world. When the Holy Spirit came down, language barriers were broken and the church was brought into a short season of total agreement! In the whole of the Bible only two chapters in Genesis and three in Acts illustrate what the world and the church were really supposed to be. The miracle of Pentecost undid for a time what was done at Babel to allow the power of agreement to warp drive the early church from Jerusalem into the world!
Ministry in a church is like a fire hose; we are connected to the Spirit of God on one end and we dispense healing water to the world on the other. Disagreement in the church is a kink in the hose. Unity in the church allows the power of God to flow without hindrance. Matthew 18:15-17 tells us how to get the kinks out without the hose exploding and Matthew 18: 18-20 tells us how much water should be coming out of an unobstructed hose.
Over the past eighteen years at Christ Church health produced growth, growth required change, change brought discontinuity and how we have continued to walk in agreement during periods of discontinuity has kept us healthy and growing! At Christ Church our agreement is found in our shared mission. We exist to connect people to Jesus Christ. When a church is in agreement around a Spirit-inspired mission, the power of prayer brings earth into alignment with the intentions of heaven and the world is changed because of it. Prayer in its most potent form occurs when people pray in agreement with God and with each other. When this alignment occurs, prayer becomes the most powerful force in the cosmos.