This teaching of Jesus is so practical, that even businesses and other non-religious organisations have adopted aspects of it, in order to improve their efficiency.  Yet, despite its almost universal relevance, it is hard to find a church anywhere that is practicing this formula for settling disagreements today.

The formula appears in the 18th chapter of Matthew, verses 15-17, and it includes three stages.  Each one of them is important, but the first is probably the most important.

It says that we should talk directly to the person with whom we have a disagreement, rather than discussing the problem with anyone else.  The tendency to gossip is almost universal, and it comes most often because we don’t want to take a chance on getting someone upset with us by issuing our complaint to their face.

It is easy to convince ourselves that telling someone straight to their face that we think they are doing something wrong is a bad thing… that it will lead to unnecessary bad feelings between you and that person.

There is some truth in that, but far more damage is going to result if you talk to someone else about your disagreement.  If you can avoid talking about a disagreement altogether, that’s fine.  We often have to “agree to disagree”, meaning that we just accept that we see things differently, but we don’t feel a need to push for change to the point where it will become a source of stronger disagreement.

So the first stage of what Jesus taught about disagreements is that we must not gossip.  It is difficult to exaggerate the amount of hurt that is done every day through gossip.  And it is so unfair.  

If you think I did something wrong and you don’t tell me, I can neither explain how you may have misunderstood, nor can I offer to change my behaviour if I see truth in what you have said.  If, on the other hand, you talk to other people about what you think is wrong with me, then you may be assassinating my character secretly, because you are creating a bias against me in the person that you are talking to.

If someone comes to you with a criticism about a third party who is not present, your first reaction should be, “Let’s invite this other person to be present before we say anything more.”  If you do not challenge the gossip, then you become just as guilty as the one who is murmuring.  And if they refuse to let the party being criticised hear what is being said, then you need to refuse to hear anything more… and probably let them know that you are going to pass on what they have already said, and reveal your source.  It is the only way to be fair to the other party.  Then THEY have the option of dealing with the disagreement on a level playing field.

People everywhere tell themselves that they can listen to private criticisms about other people and not be prejudiced by it; and yet the very fact that you have not involved the other person amounts to a bias to begin with.  You think that YOU can resolve the matter better than the person who is being criticised.

A true peacemaker will bring both parties together and look for ways to move forward in a way that helps everyone involved.  This is the second stage of what Jesus taught.

He said to bring one or two other people to the meeting, so that those other people can help both sides to be heard, and so they can use their own discernment to locate where the problem is coming from.  They may be able to exert enough pressure to get the other person to change; but they may also be able to recognise that you are making too big a deal about the other person’s behaviour.  All of this is practical and helpful.

Finally, if the matter still cannot be resolved, then it becomes necessary to involve as many people as are members of the local organisation, with a view to ending the tension, or else asking one or both parties to leave the fellowship.  This is extremely distressing to organisations (churches) that put their hope in quantity more than quality.  If, for example, both parties are good financial supporters of the church, the pastor is very likely to do everything in his/her power to sweep the matter under the carpet.  He is afraid to lose either of them, and so he will be somewhat powerless as a leader until he deals with his own greed.

Don’t fall for efforts to dismiss the matter too lightly.  The disagreement has only reached this level because one or both parties think/thinks the problem is serious enough to accept a decision that kicks someone out of the fellowship.  By all means, consider compromises; but if one cannot be found, then you really must decide who will go.

It may happen at this level that someone says something like this, “I still do not believe they are telling the truth; but I’m fine with us just letting it pass for now, and see if things improve.”  At least the three stages of disagreement have been observed, and the matter has been brought out into the open.  Sometimes that is all it takes for someone to change their behaviour, even if they were NOT humble or honest enough to say they were sorry at the time.

In conclusion, I do not think that these instructions by Jesus are optional for anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus.  If a church is not using this pattern for dealing with disagreements, then they and we need to seriously question whether it really is a Christian church, built on the teachings of Jesus.  It can be quite surprising how many churches don’t really care what Jesus taught on the subject.  They will continue to gossip anyway.  Stay away from such churches!