Most critics of nonviolence assume that adherents believe in remaining aloof of conflict, either by allowing themselves to be run over or by turning a blind eye to offense.  This simply is not the case.  The Christian pacifist seeks conflict resolution through reconciliation, not through overwhelming force. 

They follow the Biblical model given them by Jesus:

If your brother sins [against you],

go reprove him,

between him and you alone.

If he listens,

you have won your brother.

If he does not listen,

take one or two others with you.

The evidence of two or three witnesses

is required to sustain any charge….

If he does not listen,

tell it unto the Church;

And if he neglect to hear the Church,

he shall be unto the community of Saints

a heathen and a publican.


Matthew 18:15-17

It is important to confront sinners and not just our personal offenders.  The importance is not to secure their punishment or to embarrass them (Pro. 25:9-10).  It is to help the sinner along to a recognition of the wrongness of their actions (Lev. 19:17).  Confession is the first step of repentance and of reconciliation with God and with victim (James 5:19-20).  The purpose of God always has a social shape.  The purpose is peace in real human shared experience.  In this text, Jesus instructs us most concretely how to go about that.  He prescribes a procedure for conflict resolution (1 Cor. 9:19-21, Law is a concession of violence with limitation upon the actions of the offended.  Were it not so, the Constitution of the United States would not be a limitation upon, rather an open-ended endorsement of, violence carried out by governments).


Conflict resolution has in our time become a recognizable term.  It is a social science, it is a subdiscipline of psychology, and it is a social service skill.  A responsible Saint will be a student of resolving conflict through deescalatory means.  I take note of that development, not as support for the teachings of Jesus, but as a currently understood name for what Jesus here offers.

This teaching may very well be so commonsensical and so functional, and even so familiar from our church tradition, that one would be asking why it should be worth the trouble to talk about it directly.  Yet for others it may be new, unfamiliar, or even in principle, questionable or illegal.  It does run counter to some patterns of good manners in our “polite” society, where a large part of social maturity either consists in learning to keep our hands off other people’s business or consists involving ourselves in the business of others through improper and violent, albeit legal, means.

I was speaking recently with a psychologist who is a member and he reported that people would think that it would be a simple matter to live up to the idea of regular fraternal admonition, being open about offenses.  But that is always difficult, he said, even after years of experience as a therapist and a Christian.  People do not respond to transparency about weakness and error the way they should, thereby breaking down lines of communication and of reconciliation with and amongst sinners.

Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel is all about forgiveness (cf. Luke 17:3-4).  Before our passage there was the warning against offending a little one.  There was a call to make sacrifices, giving up even an eye or a hand, rather than to offend.  Then there was the parable of the lost sheep.  After our passage there is Peter’s question, “How often must I forgive?”  Then there is the unforgiving debtor, concluding with, “God will not forgive you, unless you forgive your brother.”

So the purpose of approaching and rebuking the brother or the sister is to forgive and to inspire repentance.  The reason to forgive my brother or sister is that God has forgiven me.  It is not to shame or to collect evidence against or to punish or to secure the collection of restitution in principle and interest (Lev. 6:5).  It is to forgive and to facilitate repentance.

For some, the purpose of church discipline is to preserve the reputation of the church.  For others it is to teach a lesson.  For others still it is punishment.  Not for Jesus.  For him the only point is pardon.  Of you it is required to forgive and if your brother listens, you will have won back your brother and the Lord will forgive him also.  That’s all.  No prerequisites, no follow-up.  Punishment is not a requisite of a repentance that brings forgiveness.

There is something unique about this one Christian duty, which is not said with the same simplicity about any other duty, precisely because it is more than just a moral duty. Most of the time, New Testament statements about what God requires of us are that we should believe and obey, but seldom is our obedience a condition.  Here we are told far more precisely that our forgiving is a part of our being forgiven.  That is also said in the rest of Matthew 18, and in the Lord’s Prayer, in Jesus’ comment on the Lord’s Prayer, and twice by Paul.

There may be some people who can “forgive themselves,” in the sense of the simple mental operation whereby they tell themselves, “I am forgiven” or even “I am okay.”  Or they may tell themselves, “No one should be offended at what I did” or “I am not to blame.”  But if they can, the meaning of pardon is cheapened.  Most people, if they told themselves they were forgiven, would not believe themselves, and rightly not.

There may be others who can forgive another person without telling them (they are able to cease to reckon the offense against the other person), but that too is a cheapening of the relationship, because it withholds good news.

How shall we relate the gospel that came to Jerusalem by covenant to all the other people who are not covenanted?  What will bring the nations in?  Can people make peace without being Christian?  Some of us would say, “Of course.”  Others would ask, “How could that be?”  Does that not bypass the centrality (for person needing to be saved) of the issue of faith, or the centrality (for the believer) of the duty to do missionary work?  All of these texts tell us that there is a two-way link between our peacemaking and divine forgiveness.

One unspoken command in Jesus’ instruction is almost as important as the explicit one.  When Jesus says, “Go to him alone” that means, “Do not go to others.”  Don’t spread the bad news.  Don’t activate the gossip network or prejudice others against the sinner.  The Lord wants to cut off retaliation and hate, not foment it.  Don’t line up allies on your side of the issue before confronting the sister or brother.  Don’t amplify your view of the things.  Don’t isolate the offender, increase the distance, and reinforce your anger, if your intent is really to pass on the forgiveness which you have received and keep receiving from God.

The effort to reconcile widens with more than one attempt.  The reference to “two or three witnesses” is not something Jesus made up.  It is part of the process prescribed by the Old Testament law.  In the awareness that any denunciation might be not all of the truth, the “two or three witnesses” whom Moses called for are as much a check on my testimony as they are a reinforcement of my pressure on the offender.  They mediate rather than reinforce, and if I want to forgive, I will want them to mediate.  Their entry into the conversation gives both of us a chance to reassess and maybe to back off.

But all the efforts may fail.  The three successive widening phases of pleading (which would normally mean more than three meetings) may conclude that we have on this matter no common value or commitment—that forgiveness is not wanted.   Then we face a prospect which the early Christian church and the synagogue probably had less trouble with than we do: “Treat him like an outsider [heathen].”  Admit the fact that he has excluded himself—that he does not care to be reconciled.  Under the Law of Moses, physical injury, up to and including death, and slavery were permissible (carnal punishments).  Under the Law of the Gospel, indignant estrangement [disfellowshipment] and excommunication are suggested (eternal consequences).  The penalties have changed, not the procedures (1 Cor. 6:1-12 cf. 2 Cor. 7:12 cf. Col. 3:13 cf. 1 Th. 4:6).   The Lord did not require the adulteress to be executed.  Instead, the Lord prefers reconciliation (Matt. 5:28 cf. 1 Cor. 7:11).

In our age of pluralism, when we are less sure of our own standards, in our age of individualism in which we say that everyone must follow her own conscience, we are embarrassed about being this serious.  We want to do as the Scribes and Pharisees and take our offenders before Caesar instead of the Lord.  This phrase of Jesus is misunderstood unless we remember how Jesus treated the tax collectors.  He didn’t hold it especially against them that their involvement with the Romans was bad.  He related to them personally.  He went into their homes.  He compared some of them favorably with the Pharisees, and yet he did call them to repent.

We are afraid in our modern polite pluralism to tell anyone that our community with them has limits.  Thus we jeopardize the possibility of deepening solidarity in our own ranks, and we sacrifice the possibility of moving the offender to genuine reconciliation, by daring not to say, “You have left us.  You have denied your fellowship with us.  We want you to be one of us, but we can’t have you as one of us as long as you persist….”   If we as Saints are not proactive in reconciling sinners amongst us or of excommunicating those who refuse to reconcile, then solidarity breaks down and the offended are highly tempted to sin against the Lord by turning to Caesar.  To the heathen a Saint must not go with his offender, but the Church still has an obligation to victims who are outsiders.  More than saving the reputation of the Church, the sinning Saint still has for an obligation to reconcile his heathen victim by whatever means required and outsiders are not covenanted to resolve disputes before the Lord.

The weakness of Saints who go before Caesar with their brethren has some good explanations. They are not in the text but they are in our history.  Some past abuses have destroyed the credibility of the church’s efforts to forgive.  Those abuses still resonate when we use the term “church discipline.” Standards have been applied of whose correctness the offender was not convinced, or to which the offended had never freely adhered.  Standards have been applied by clerical authorities instead of by the persons nearest the offense.  Victims were not allowed part in the repentance process where restitution was concerned.  Instead of involving victims in the restitution process and mediating a pacific resolution, ecclesiastical authority has in many instances simply abdicated to the secular authority the resolution of disputes amongst its own members.  Penalties have thereby been applied for the wrong reasons: to punish, to defend authority, to prevent change.  They have been applied unfairly, dealing more harshly with the sins of the weak than with those of the strong.  You may extend the list of abuses, there are more.

We should not let abuses frighten us away from the proper gospel process.  It is not our own concern that we fail to discharge, but the Lord’s.  He is the one who wants the forgiving to go on.

The next verses, “Where two or three agree in my name, I am there with them,”  are not talking about the general value of small groups or of common prayer.  The “two or three” are the witnesses of verse 16.  The agreement among them (the Greek term is the same as our word “symphony”) is their common reading of the case.  The presence of Christ is what empowers their conversation and validates their conclusion.  What they decide stands in heaven because he was there with them deciding it.  What is resolved in private between offended and offender or is resolved before the church is acceptable with God.  Resolution and reconciliation does not require state action, prosecution or litigation.  While a penitent sinner may have to suffer such, either because one’s victim is an unforgiving Saint or an uncovenanted outsider, physical depravity and injury are not just penalties required by the Lord.

So much for the words of the text.  We have laid upon us a procedure for concrete peacemaking even the outsider can follow.  There are plenty of mediation services available to the outsider and for the Christian there is the church.  A pattern for practice and training in the acting out of the making of peace is available.  To not even try before resorting to force of State should be unconscionable.

Pragmatic Reconciliation

To facilitate repentance means to mediate with one’s offender for restitution.  Restitution is not forced through litigation, nor is it achieved by driving hard bargains that are retaliatory.  Forgiving is a recognition of the Lord’s willingness to make up the difference for an offender whose best efforts cannot satisfy social justice.  The Lord makes up the difference by spiritually forgiving the sins of victims in direct proportion to social forgiveness the victim facilitates for a personal offender. A victim who wants equal or incommensurate justice can expect the same from the Lord. There is no question that the price of mercy for a victim is great, but the payoff in the next life is well worth it. The price of justice is even greater. If after having been socially saved by a victim an offender does not repent, the sin is magnified.

While the above paragraph is undoubtedly true, viewing reconciliation as a way of benefiting oneself in this life or the next, either as a perpetrator through repentance or the victim through forgiveness, does little to motivate genuine reconciliation. It is selfish and, therefore, not genuine repentance, not genuine forgiveness.  It results, not in a reconciliation, but in estrangement.  While the retaliatory reflex is cut off, society continues to be disconnected.  Therefore, we are very tempted by the above paragraph to suggest that man, once being selfish in his demands for justice, is always selfish, even in his demands for mercy.  Man is pragmatic. If he does not go to war to save himself, then the only option to save himself is to withdraw.  This is deterministic thinking that creates a false dichotomy.  Retaliation or withdrawal are not our only options.  To get where we are going, to genuine reconciliation and the building of a Kingdom worthy of Heavenly Father’s presence, we must answer the hard questions:  Can man change simply by learning?  Or does his heart also need to change?  Is the Gospel about saving ourselves or saving each other?  How do we change man’s heart even when his thinking has changed?

Altruistic Reconciliation

Pragmatic reconciliation changes our thinking but it is not sufficient to change our hearts.  Our motivation is still selfish.  What is required to accomplish genuine reconciliation is selflessness.  We asked hard questions about how to get there and now we introduce a concept called Locus of Focus that achieves the end result.  Instead of thinking about what reconciliation has in store for us, we think about what it has in store for others.  As a victim, my concern is for the perpetrator.  As a perpetrator, my concern is for the victim.  What does a failure to reconcile mean for the other party involved in a dispute? The common causes for failure to achieve a change in locus of focus are uncertainty and fear.  Victims are led to believe by agents of wrath that perpetrators are incapable of change and to forgive would be unsafe.  Perpetrators are put in fear of injury and depravity.  Reconciliation in an atmosphere of litigation and retaliation becomes impossible.  Victim and perpetrator are pushed by agents of wrath into self preservation mode.  Their locus of focus is turned inward and even punished if it persists outward.  If a victim cannot be persuaded to fear a perpetrator, the victim will be made to fear the State with charges of obstruction and accessory.  If a perpetrator has confidence that a victim will forgive, then, in the name of “society,” the State will act independent of the victim’s will as a tyranny.  Anything to create fear in citizens to influence them to act selfishly is necessary for the preservation of the State and those who profit from it. Divide and conquer.

Locus of Focus

Reconciliation begins with a leap of faith.  A perpetrator takes a leap of faith on the victim to forgive by repenting.  A victim takes a leap of faith on the perpetrator to repent by forgiving.  Mediation builds the faith and trust necessary to arrive at forgiveness and repentance. Changing the locus of focus of a perpetrator goes a long way towards facilitating change in a victim’s locus of focus.  A perpetrator who feels remorse, admits to the wrongfulness of an act, makes voluntary restitution and commits to forsaking future offenses does much to help a victim feel safe and to forgive.  It promotes a genuine desire in victims to consider the spiritual consequences a perpetrator faces for the commission of sin if repentance is not facilitated through social salvation.  Perpetrators repent because they have a genuine concern for the victims emotional welfare and understand the great spiritual benefit to victims who forgive.  Each party to a dispute has a restored sense of safety and genuine desire toward selflessness to their fellow man.  This cannot occur where relationships are defined by force. Genuine mediation and eventual reconciliation cannot be achieved under duress or the threat thereof. Therefore, the agents of wrath are willing to go to extremes of jailing and imposing protective orders to prevent mediation and restitution between victim and perpetrator.  The masses must be at each other’s throats else what need would there be for police and courts.  Reconciliation must be prevented by law and estrangement enforced.  Putting perpetrators on the run from repentance draws public support for police and helps to persuade victims to fear for their safety and refuse to forgive.  Community sets while the State rises.  Deprived of genuine community and filial maturity, the fabric of society atomizes, the agents of wrath benefit, crime increases, mental and emotional disorders become more prevalent, physical depravity and squalor gains ground, etc. etc. etc.


In conclusion I can only name the directions in which further elaboration would be fruitful.

(1) To bind and to loose refers not only to the eternal consequences that come from being excommunicated from the church, but also refers to the original jurisdiction of parties to the dispute when mediating a resolution.

(2) The “church” is accented by the account of Paul’s asking the Christians in Corinth to use this procedure as an appellate jurisdiction rather than the Gentile courts (1 Cor. 6:1-8), and by the explicit command closing the letter of James (5:19-20).

(3) This procedure is understood as the nonviolent Christian alternative to the sword of Caesar.  This is the manner in which the Church goes about purifying and regulating itself.

(4) There is a growing awareness today of the strategic importance of this kind of reconciling conversation in the maintenance of community and the resolution of social problems.  As I said, conflict resolution through deescalatory procedures has become a social science.  Mediation and arbitration, rather than litigation and prosecution, have become professional social skills.  Treating people as people, rather than as cattle, goes a long way to maintaining the peace. The church knows, even though secular authority and outsiders hesitate to recognize, that this pattern of peacemaking is both possible and indispensable.

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L. Richard Nielsen

L. Richard Nielsen

L. Richard Nielsen

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