Not If, but When … Another Church Member Sins Against You

Mutually navigate the work of forgiveness

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Monthly graphic for January, focusing on faith & forgiveness featuring an image of friends embracing

This post may be used for individual Biblical reflection or for small group study. 

Read Matthew 18:15-20

As a pastor and someone who should be good at forgiveness, I still struggle. If I’m truthful and honest, forgiveness is quite hard! I’m not a forgiveness expert and it is something I always seem to be working on. Due to hurtful words and actions towards me, specifically by church members in the past, my faith and approach to forgiveness has been slow and much more complicated than I’d like to admit. And yet, as challenging as it is, living into being forgiven and forgiving others is something I try to lean into and practice daily. Why?

Because I mess up and so do others. All the time. 

When we live in community, things can get messy. As we operate out of our own narrative, we can be misunderstood, as are others who live out of theirs. The reality is, we only know our own stories well and even then, it might take a lifetime of unpacking and really examining ourselves to understand who we are. Ninety-nine percent of the time we have no idea what the narratives of others hold. We do not know what abuses, grief, sadness, shame, or sorrows they carry. Something is bound to be misconstrued or taken out of context and then, brokenness occurs.

When we live and communicate out of misunderstanding, hurtful words are spoken, people are blamed, fingers are pointed and emotions run high. When processing in a church community (or any community for that matter), these individual frameworks are where we operate from, therefore it essential to stop, deeply listen, be curious and double check with the other human(s) we are in relationship with. If we can truly hear where the other person is coming from, things can change. 

“Once we feel understood, we see options we couldn’t see before.”—Amanda Ripley, High Conflict

In this text from Matthew, Jesus sets out a process for how to address brokenness and seek forgiveness and reconciliation in the church. Maybe Jesus was the pre-author of Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown. I’d go as far as to say that in Brené’s current work of this book, she would agree that this is a great process for how to approach our fellow humans who have hurt us and for those whom we have hurt as well. 

First: “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.” 

  • Have you ever sat down one-on-one with someone and navigated the process of sharing your hurt in a way that the other person was able to hear? What happened if they were not able to hear? Was there resolution?

Second: 16But 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. 

  • Have you ever sat down using a mediator, coach, or facilitator to navigate a conversation so you could share your hurts and the other person might be able hear what it is you are saying? What happened if they were not able to hear? Was there resolution?

Third: 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; (I prefer to think of this as going to the church leadership, because the process must be conducted with healthy boundaries. My hope is that the church leadership has tools for navigating these types of conversations and if not, has the resources to do so). 

  • Have you ever sat down with the church leadership to address a hurt and tried to navigate a way forward so that you and the community can find ways to listen, forgive and move forward? Was there resolution?

Fourth: 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. (The space between a member of the church and Gentile or tax collector is far apart: socially, politically, ethnically, etc.) 

  • Have you ever found that as a last resort, you needed to separate yourself from the other person? Have you ever had to impose boundaries for the protection of yourself and/or the community? 

18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 

Jesus reminds us we have choices to make; if we and our fellow humans hold onto the hurt, pain, and sin, and do not make attempts to forgive and heal, we will continue to carry the hurt, pain, and sin with us. We are then stuck, unable to move forward with the relationship into the future. Unless both people are willing to come to the table and mutually navigate the work of forgiveness, it is almost impossible to have resolution. Jesus gives us two options; hold onto the wounded or brokenness or, lean into the power of forgiveness and experience the release that comes from it.

19Again, 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. 

Jesus is inviting us to live into our relationships, modeled in his love and care. The process of forgiveness is listening compassionately, staying curious, double checking, which all needs to be accompanied by accountability. Forgiveness not only changes one person, but both.

I think that’s what Jesus means when he says, 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Christ’s presence shows us the power of forgiveness and healing for community and leads us forward into a future together. Bidden or not, Christ is present.   

  • How has recognizing the presence of Christ in challenging situations helped you navigate the situation?
  • How does it feel when you are forgiven? 
  • How does it feel to forgive someone else? 
  • How might we as the church be better at living into our identity as forgiven people? What does that look like?

  • Emily Rova-Hegener

    Pastor Emily Rova-Hegener currently serves at Luther Seminary as a Contextual Learning Associate, where she supports seminary interns and their supervisors. She has served congregations in Grand Rapids, MN, Silverdale, WA, Eveleth, MN and St.Paul, MN, in addition to being a Global Mission Associate with her husband and boys in Oslo, Norway. Her passions are writing, cooking, hiking, skiing, photography and traveling anywhere and everywhere.

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