In his sermon, Resentment and Forgiveness, Orthodox Priest Hieromonk Damascene says, “The Holy Fathers tell us that, in order to be reconciled to someone with whom we are at odds, the first thing we are to do is to accuse ourselves, not the other person. If we do not accuse ourselves, we will never find rest, and we will never make true and lasting peace with our neighbor. We will always be holding onto our pride.”
This is Jesus’ ‘step 1’ to reconciliation within the church body: if someone commits a wrong – against you or another*, go to them. Speak privately. Try to work it out between the two of you – and here’s the twist – beginning not with their wrong, but with your own. In 12-step programs, that’s called looking at my part.
This is humility. This is integrity. And this is crucial to true reconciliation.
Only if that doesn’t work do you invoke the 1-2 other witnesses ‘clause’. What do you suppose the point of the ‘witnesses’ is? It certainly ups the ante to involve other people.
But it does something else as well that often gets overlooked: other people may have more objectivity. They may actually see the other person’s point of view. If there’s more to the story, the witnesses can bring that out.
Maybe both of you need to do some repenting. Maybe not. But having others present means this is no longer simply between the two of you and that has consequence for both parties.
What if even that does not work? Well, then, you take it to the church – to the body as a whole. Most interpret this to mean some sort of judicial process is initiated to excommunicate the offender – to kick them out of the body.
But is it? Why else might we bring a matter to the attention of the entire body?
John Wesley sees Jesus’ method here as the means to avoid committing an offense in the first place: Wesley reasons that if we know this is the process and that it will occur regardless of our station in life, it operates as a disincentive for us to do wrong – much as knowing the fine for speeding and knowing that our local cop (yes, Duane, I mean you) always sits in that one certain place will prevent us from doing the speeding in the first place.
And maybe the invitation to take it to the body as a whole is driven by the body’s work of prayer – that is the very next thing Jesus mentions – recognizing that when the body prays, minds and hearts and lives are changed, truly changed.
Regardless of Jesus’ original intention, what both Wesley and the Genevan Reformers grasped that we seem to have forgotten is that the kingdom of heaven is not a courtroom drama. Rather, it is a herculean effort by the God of All to reconcile humanity with God’s self – by avoiding human vengeance, by seeking to prevent sin before it has the chance to gain root.
And this God of loving restoration invites us to do likewise.
*Some mss. say ‘against you’ while others simply say if a brother/sister ‘sins’