Should we forgive each other?
It’s an easy answer. Not only should we forgive but we must forgive if we are to be obedient to Jesus’ commands. For Christians, the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew chapter 18, verse 23–35) nails the point home: we who have been forgiven of much are in no position to deny forgiveness to others.
But the command to forgive in Matthew chapter 18 isn’t given in a vacuum — the discussion on forgiveness is preceded by and in the context of clear instruction in the very same chapter on how to deal with wrongdoing as a community. In Matthew chapter 18, verse 15–17, Jesus lays out a process that will result in either:
#1 The wrongdoer won over in repentance.
#2 The wrongdoer excluded from Christian community.
It’s a teaching that ensures sin will not be tolerated in the church and it complements the command to forgive each other in the same chapter.
We have a tendency to use the requirement to forgive as an excuse to not obey the instruction to confront each other’s sin — this not only allows for continued hurt and offense but also robs others from the opportunity to turn away from their sinful behaviour.
Forgiveness is not forgetting
Too often, we equate forgiveness with merely forgetting. We ‘take it on the chin’, put up with it, or simply avoid the offender. Misunderstanding forgiveness, we ignore sin and neglect church discipline.
Tragically, this can leave the Christian community open to further transgression and, in the extreme example, even abuse. If we equate forgiving someone with merely pretending nothing happened, we end up as doormats for continued wrongful behaviours. The results can be devastating.
The process of confrontation
Read the whole of Matthew chapter 18. Immediately prior to this stringent instruction to forgive, Jesus teaches in verses 15 to 17 about the right way to respond to wrong actions in the church.
First, we are to go to the person privately to point out their fault. Then, if they don’t listen, we are to bring one or two others (to establish witness according to the Old Testament laws). And finally, to involve the whole Christian community. Eventually, if they continue to refuse to listen, you are to treat them as a pagan or a tax collector, that is, as an unbeliever and to separate from them.
This is beautiful, balanced, and practical instruction. How serious does the sin have to be? Jesus doesn’t give any criteria; any sin is to be confronted.
What is the aim of confrontation? Jesus says it’s to win over your brother or sister.
Importantly, the command is not necessarily given to the offended person, but to whoever is aware of the sin. But, note that it would depend on the situation on who should be the one to confront a brother or sister who does wrong.
If you suffer a minor offense it may be appropriate to speak directly to the offender. Remember, according to 1 Timothy chapter 3, verse 5 the elders are responsible to care for the church and so, if in doubt, it is wise to consult the elders of your church first.
This is the church
It’s significant that this instruction is the first time the word “church” is used in Matthew — it’s to be a fundamental feature of Christian community. Referencing rabbinic language of sin and repentance, Jesus states that what the church binds or looses on earth in this process is the also so in heaven.
Continuing to verse 20, we discover that Jesus promises to be together with two or three who are gathered in his name. Clearly, he is not suddenly changing the subject to prayer meetings. No. Instead, he is stating that he is with us in this foundational church practice of lovingly confronting someone of their sin.
Beware the consequences
We are not to have unity at all costs; rather, healthy and thriving communities where wrongdoing is not swept under the rug means separating from impenitent sinners. Yes, it’s a last resort, but a potential outcome nonetheless.
The need to do this is especially evident when it concerns someone who persists in hurting others. If we ignore Jesus’ direction on this point, we risk pushing the victim out of the church instead of the victimiser.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to presume that most dramatic ‘falls from grace’ were preceded by numerous instances of others in the community neglecting to confront sin. Let this be our warning.
Forgive, but that’s not all
Since we all struggle with sin, the reality is that we all will need to be on the receiving end of correction – we should welcome it. Too often, sin is left unconfronted and, because sin has consequences, the whole community is damaged.
We will always each need to forgive each other’s offenses and in turn be forgiven for our own, but that’s not all: We must be faithful to Jesus’ instructions about being in community to lovingly confront and assist each other to deal with sin.
Based in Christchurch, Joshua is married to Jacinda and enjoys writing as a way of keeping his thoughts in order. He also freelances. You can contact him via the bird site (Twitter) @I_do_words