One of the most poignant illustrations of how offense should be handled is found in the story of Iketa. This man, an Ecuadorian Indian, was responsible for the deaths of more people that has been accurately documented. He was responsible for the death of Nate Saint, a missionary who, with his companions, was murdered when they tried to take the Gospel into the jungles of Ecuador.
You can’t find a bigger offense than murder!
Did the families of the victims wait for Iketa to recognize his fault and come to them to ask for forgiveness? No, they didn’t. Instead, the missionaries, including some of the wives of the murdered men, went back to deliver the Gospel to those who had committed the crimes. As a result Iketa, and others, came to faith in Christ. He was there in 1992 when Marg, Nate’s widow, came to present the Auca Indians with the New Testament in their own language.
The offended went to the offender. Just as God, as the offended, did not wait for us, the offenders, to come to Him and ask forgiveness, but sent His own Son to provide the means of reconciliation, so the Scriptures tell us that when we are offended the first move is ours.
The key passage to support this instruction is Matthew 18:15-20.
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I tell you that if two of you agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
Notice that the instruction concerns what we need to do when another believer has offended us. But the principle of the the tax collector and pagan, or how we deal with non-believers, is illustrated by what God did in coming to us, and what the missionaries did in returning to Iketa.
In dealing with a brother who has offended us, we initiate the process of reconciliation. First of all we go in private to that person and tell them what they have done to offend us. In some cases we may discover that there was no offense intended and it was a misunderstanding, or that the person wasn't aware that we took offense, or recognition of the offense might be instant and an apology might come immediately. The process toward reconciliation and forgiveness might be quick and relatively painless. That is as it should be.
But if the offender does not recognize his fault or refuses to ask for forgiveness for a fault he does recognize in himself, then the second step comes into play. We are to gather a couple of trusted friends and share our problem with them and ask them to come as witnesses to our attempt to reconcile. It also delivers a message to the one who has caused the offense, telling him or her that we take this seriously—both the offense and our desire to restore the relationship.
If this second attempt does not produce a good result, then the matter is to be taken before the church. A person who will not pay attention to the church’s attempts at reconciliation is, by Biblical standards, not a believer at all and should be treated as such.
How do we treat an unbeliever? Well, history tells us that when we practice church discipline (which isn’t often) we don’t always handle it well. The idea here, as in the illustration from Ecuador and the illustration from God’s treatment of us, is that we try to bring this person into a genuine relationship with Christ. We pray for that person, witness to them, love them, and work to restore their relationship with God. We are to reach him or her for Christ and love them right to the foot of the cross. Until their relationship with Him is right, their relationship with us will never be right.
When we follow the Biblical protocol for reconciliation, then we have the promise of God’s blessing on the process.
Let’s return to the matter of the witnesses that are mentioned in Matthew 18. What is the importance of this step in the process of reconciliation?
Proverbs 11:14 says: “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisors make victory sure.” The prayer, support, encouragement and wisdom of others in whom we have confidence can help us approach the one who has offended us in as irresistible a manner as possible. And their presence as part of the process gives us credibility if we are forced to take the third step and go to the church for help.
Credible witnesses were important in the system of justice God put in place, through Moses, in Old Testament times. Deuteronomy 19:15, which says: “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” But even during the time of the apostles, the presence of witnesses was critical to any disciplinary action taken by the church. Paul writing to the church in Corinth (a church that had lots to discipline) wrote: “I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged. This will be my third visit to you. ‘Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others…”
It is easy for us, as the ones who are offended, or as the church facing the need to discipline a member, to forget that “there but for the grace of God go I.” None among us is exempt from exactly the same sin that we see in others. Galatians 6:1, 4, 5 reminds us about what our attitude should be when we face someone who has offended us.
“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted…Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to someone else, for each one should carry his own load.” This is in keeping with Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 7:3-5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speak from your brother’s eye.”
The process of forgiveness and reconciliation is not something to be ignored or to treated lightly. Nor is it to be started without careful self-examination. But it must be done. Paul goes on in Galatians 6 to remind us that as brothers and sisters in Christ it is our responsibility to seek reconciliation. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2). This is the law of love by which the rest of the world will know that we are followers of the Lord. Our brother’s sin is a burden we carry just as all parts of the body suffer when cancer strikes another part of that body.
But how often do we forgive? How often do we engage in the process of forgiving and being reconciled before we give it up as a lost cause? Peter wrestled with the same issue. After Jesus gave His disciples the protocol for reconciliation Peter asked the Lord how many times he should forgive someone who offended him. He suggested that seven times might be good. Seven was a perfect number in the minds of the Jews. As well, legally, a Jew only needed to forgive three times before he could legitimately harbour an unforgiving spirit! Jesus’ answer would have surprised everyone listening: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). This was not meant to be taken literally, but served as an illustration to the disciples that forgiveness is limitless. How limitless was further illustrated in the parable that Jesus told following this startling statement.
A king discovered that one of his servants owed him a whole pile of money. The king, well within his rights, ordered the man’s family and all his possessions sold to pay the debt. The servant pleaded with the king and the king relented and went so far as to cancel the debt entirely.
The servant left the presence of the king but ran into another man who owed him a few dollars. When the debtor pleaded that he couldn’t pay, the servant ordered him to be thrown into prison until the money was paid back.
The king heard what had happened. He was justifiable upset. He had forgiven the huge debt held by the servant, and now the servant refused to forgive a little debt owed to him. The king expected a “pay-it-forward” attitude from the man he had forgiven. As a result the king threw the servant into prison until his debt had been paid. Then Jesus concluded the story by saying: “This is now my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
The parable, of course, illustrated how much God has forgiven us compared to how little we have to forgive in others. How dare we be less than as merciful with others as He has been with us?