The practice of reconciliation: reading Matthew 18.15-20 and John 20.19-23 with Stanley Hauerwas and others


May 22, 2013 by jmar198013

“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” (Matt. 18.15-20 CEB)

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20.19-23 NRSV)

In my life in the church, I have never observed the process of mediation and reconciliation described in Matt. 18.15-20 practiced on the terms Jesus named. When I have seen it invoked, it has not been in response to a wrong done by one believer to another, nor a conflict that there is difficulty in resolving. Rather, I have only seen this process pressed into the service of booting someone out of church. Or, according to popular Campbellite euphemism, “withdrawing fellowship.” Thus Matthew 18, rather than being the crucial practice of naming and forgiving sins that Jesus intended, becomes a mere legal formality, a “procedure” we undertake before banishing the offender from our midst. It has also been my observation that by the time Matt. 18 is put into practice, whatever the matter is has already gotten out of hand. It’s sort of like shutting the stable gate after the horses have already run away.

John 20.23 seems like an odd passage to pair with Matt. 18.15-20. It just seems like an odd passage period. In this passage, Jesus says, If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven. But doesn’t Jesus elsewhere teach that our forgiveness and our willingness to forgive are intimately connected (Matt. 6.12, 14-15; 18.21-35)? I want to suggest that, in fact, John 20.23 and Matt. 18.15-20 are good commentaries on one another. Notice that there is a similarity in how the language is structured between them:

I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven (Matt. 18.18).

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (John 20.23).

I believe that there is a strong correspondence between fastening or binding and loosening in Matt. 18.18 and not forgiving and forgiving in John 20.23. I am by no means the first to make this connection: John Howard Yoder did so many years hence, and I am certain he had an ample history of interpretation for so reading these texts. But I would also suggest that for us to perceive the connection between the two passages, a reorientation of our language is required. In other words, we will need to understand that when we encounter words such as forgiveness or reconciliation in the Bible, those words may have very different meanings than we suppose. For instance, Hauerwas, commenting on Matt. 6.11-12, says:

The debts we have incurred as well as are owed to us come in many shapes and sizes. In our day we are tempted to think of debts in terms of psychological exchanges, but the debts we owe and are owed us, at least if we remember Lev. 25, are as real as the next meal we eat . . . This makes us wonder if we really do want to pray that our debts be forgiven as we have forgiven our debtors . . . because so much of life is spent trying to avoid acknowledging that we owe anyone anything . . . The willingness to be forgiven, which may require that I have my “enemy” tell me who I am, is the only way that that reconciliation can begin . . . To learn to have our sins forgiven, indeed to learn that we are sinners needing forgiveness, is to become part of the kingdom of God. If we do not learn to forgive then we will not be forgiven, we will not be part of the new reality, the new people, brought into existence by Jesus. To forgive and to be forgiven is not some crude exchange bargain to “get on with life,” but rather to participate in a political alternative that ends our attempts to secure our existence through violence. (In Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006], 78-79, emphasis mine)

Hauerwas reads forgiveness in a narrative fashion; forgiveness is not about absolving us from guilt or a forgetfulness of our wrongs. Rather, it means having our particular stories–our pasts and presents with their wrongs and defects–being drawn into the ongoing story of the church, the forgiven people God has formed through Christ. He describes forgiveness on these terms as participation “in a political alternative that ends our attempts to secure our existence through violence.” Why is forgiveness an alternative to securing our lives through violence? Because being part of a community with a process like Matt. 18.15-20 in place means that we get to take part in the life of a people that resolves wrongdoing and conflict in a particular way–one that encourages confession, repentance, and reconciliation–rather than simply killing the offender. The end of Matt. 18.15-20 is restoring a broken relationship, not punishing the wrongdoer. Furthermore, it is based on the assumption that we all stand before God as debtors in need of forgiveness (Matt. 18.21-35).

Underwriting Hauerwas’ claims about the historical and storied nature forgiveness is a word from his colleague L. Gregory Jones. In a footnote, Hauerwas cites Jones’ observation that:

[O]ur own moral histories are precisely what are at issue, because forgiveness is focused on the reconciliation and healing of our broken pasts, not simply the absolution of guilt.” (In Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 213)

This way of viewing forgiveness is encapsulated in a pithy word from the ever-quotable Anne Lamott:

Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.

Forgiveness means that we cannot shut the door on our pasts, nor the pasts of those who have harmed us. It also means that if we are going to acknowledge that God is God, we have to let him be God of the one who does us wrong, and not only of us. Matt. 18.15-20 is not a passage primarily relegated to the function of “church discipline” in a punitive form. Rather, it is an integral part of the church’s identity as a forgiven and reconciled–and hence, a forgiving and reconciling–people. It should be a routine aspect of our life together as the church, because wherever people gather and live together, there will be conflict. Furthermore, it serves as an opportunity to share with others the experience of being forgiven that is at the heart of who the church is. Again, Hauerwas:

If we believe that another member of the church has sinned against us, we are to go alone to that member and point out that fault to him or her. Jesus does not say we might think about going to the member if we think we have been wronged. Rather, he tells us we are obligated to go and confront the person whom we believe has sinned against us.

The first reaction, a normal reaction, to Jesus’ instruction is to think that this procedure is far too extreme for most of our petty conflicts. I may be angry at someone, but if I wait I may discover I will get over it. Who wants to appear to others as one who is too easily offended? However, these responses inadequately understand the kind of community that Jesus thinks necessary if we are not to be stumbling blocks for the little ones . . . A community capable of protecting the little ones . . . is a community that cannot afford to overlook one another’s sins because so doing keeps the community from embodying the life of grace determined by God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of his Son.

The sin that another member commits is not just a sin against the person injured; rather it is a sin against the whole church . . . [Confronting] the brother or sister whom we think has sinned against us is . . . an indication of the kind of community that Jesus has called into existence. This is a people who are to love one another so intensely that they refuse to risk the loss of the one who has gone astray–or the loss of ourselves in harboring resentments.

Thus Jesus tells his disciples that if the one whom they believe has sinned against them does not listen to them then they are to take with them one or two others so that all that is said can be confirmed. If the member still refuses to listen it must be told to the whole church. If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, then they are to be treated as a tax collector or a Gentile, that is, as someone who is no longer privileged to be a participant in the community of those called by Jesus . . . Excommunication is not to throw someone out of the church, but rather an attempt to help them see that they have become a stumbling block and are therefore already out of the church. Excommunication is a call to come home by undergoing the appropriate penance. (Matthew, 164-65)

As I said at the outset, I have never seen Matt. 18.15-20 employed in any congregation I have inhabited as a tool for conflict resolution. What I have experienced is a perverse inversion of the process. Person A offends or hurts person B. Person B does not go alone to person A to seek reconciliation. Rather, person B tells persons C, D, and E what person A has done; then persons C, D, and E relate it to other persons and it may get back to person A when an elder or someone else from the church asks them about it. I say this by way of confession. To my shame, I have gone about things this way. I have also had others do this to me in response to my sins or a misunderstanding between us. It is never a pretty situation. Personal confrontation is awkward, but what is much more awkward and messy is when one is confronted second- and third-hand. Matt. 18.15-20 is an alternative to this way of dealing with conflict, which invariably makes the conflict nastier and resolution and reconciliation much more complicated. The process of forgiveness and reconciliation Jesus describes in Matt. 18.15-20 is an alternative to the way things are typically done in the world, where grievances are nursed into resentments, those resentments fester into mean words and gossip, and before we know it we have killed someone. Hauerwas concludes:

Jesus assumes that those who follow him will wrong one another and, subsequently, they will be caught in what may seem an irresolvable conflict. The question is not whether such conflict can be eliminated, but how his followers are to deal with conflict. He assumes that conflict is not to be ignored or denied, but rather conflict, which may involve sin, is to be forced into the open. Christian discipleship requires confrontation because the peace that Jesus has established is not simply the absence of violence. The peace of Christ is nonviolent precisely because it is based on truth and truth-telling . . . That is why Jesus insists that those who would follow him cannot let sins go unchallenged. If we fail to challenge one another in our sins, we in fact abandon one another to our sin. We show how little we love our brother and sister by our refusal to engage in the hard work of reconciliation . . . The question is not whether we are to hold one another accountable, but what is the basis for doing so and how is that to be done. To be sinned against or to know that we have sinned requires that we have the habits of speech that make it possible to know what it is to be a sinner. On only this basis do we have the capacity to avoid arbitrariness of judgment. (Matthew, 165-167).

Matthew’s Jesus names this process of forgiveness, which may involve mediation and intervention from others in the church or by the church as a whole–binding and loosing (or as CEB has it, “fastening” and “loosening”). He is referring to the outcome of the church’s decision-making process. It may be that I was wrong about being wronged, for instance. Multiple witnesses confirming the truth about what has happened may be helpful in pointing this out. Jesus’ point is that decisions about who to bless and who to blame, and what amends may need to be made, are made in the context of a restorative dialogue among members of the church. Jesus also promises his ongoing presence with the church as we undertake this decision-making process where there is conflict: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them (for more on Matthew’s emphasis on Christ’s continued presence with the church, see my Reading Jesus’ walk upon the water in Matthew with Richard B. Hays). The dialogue process for forgiveness and reconciliation described by Jesus in Matt. 18.15-20 is a context for moral discernment, a discernment that is based on “the habits of speech that make it possible to know what it is to be a sinner” and helps us “to avoid arbitrariness of judgment.” And yet even this process itself is not exempt from being corrupted by the shortsightedness of being sinful creatures. When we are dealing with conflict and with sin, there are hurt feelings and competing truth claims that may be difficult to parse out. We need Jesus’ presence with us as we undertake this reconciling dialogue. This is where I find that the connection with John 20.23 is essential. To fully see the connection, we must also read the words that immediately precede John 20.23:

[H]e breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20.22-23, emphasis mine)

In Matt. 18, Jesus promised his presence with his church whenever they are engaged in the process of moral discernment he described. John 20 is giving us the same promise in a different format. Forgiveness of sins and retaining of sins are just different ways of naming the “loosing” and “binding” of Matt. 18. But the process is guided by Jesus’ presence in our midst. John 20.22-23 says that this presence comes in the form of the Holy Spirit. Jesus dramatically enacts this gifting of the Spirit to the church by breathing on his disciples. He is breathing his own life–the Spirit that animates his life–into his church. When read in tandem, Matt. 18.15-20 and John 20.19-23 promise the church that when we deal with sin and resolve conflicts through the peaceful process of discerning dialogue with the Spirit of Jesus in our midst, our decisions are decisions that heaven itself can stand behind.



2 thoughts on “The practice of reconciliation: reading Matthew 18.15-20 and John 20.19-23 with Stanley Hauerwas and others

  1. Jack Hairston says:

    After sixty years as a Christian, never have I seen the four steps of Matthew 18 carried out, but our congregation keeps teaching that Christianity is all about relationships. (If you see your child smack his sibling, then come to you for a hug, will he get the hug he expects?)

    The definition of forgiveness that I use is: Giving up all right of revenge. This makes forgiveness unilateral. I can forgive regardless of the other person. Forgiveness does NOT restore the relationship–that’s bilateral, and it might never happen in this life.

  2. jmar198013 says:

    The child would presumably get their hug after they are disciplined for smacking their sibling.

    You’re right–forgiveness doesn’t restore a relationship, for that depends upon the other person’s willingness to own the wrong they have done and accept your forgiveness. But forgiveness is a precondition for reconciliation. You can’t have reconciliation without forgiveness.

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