A Way to Settle Disputes
IN THESE critical times hard to deal with, individuals and nations alike often prove themselves to be “not open to any agreement.” Often the only point that disputing parties agree on is that they disagree.—2 Tim. 3:1, 3.
But when wrongs or misunderstandings arise, is there no sure way to settle them, to bury them in unmarked graves?
Yes, there is a way. When applied exactly as laid out, and in the proper attitude, this way resolves differences justly. And in most cases happily. But it will not work smoothly and rewardingly for all concerned unless all parties agree to accept and abide by the principles invoked.
These principles were set out in instructions given by Christ Jesus for the guidance of Christian congregations of the first century C.E. They are still used effectively in the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world. Let’s examine these principles, for they are also of benefit to all persons when they seek to settle personal disputes.
Jesus Christ outlined the way in three steps:
“If your brother commits a sin, go lay bare his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”—Matt. 18:15.
Isn’t it generally a nobler and kinder thing, when discussing faults, to do so privately? But here Jesus was not referring to trivial differences. As the context reveals, he was referring to matters serious enough that they could lead to a person’s expulsion from the congregation of believers.
Why Just “Between You and Him Alone”?
Consider some reasons why the first step should be attempted strictly between yourselves, privately, person to person. For one thing, your resolve to sound out matters calls for you to examine your personal motives. Do you simply want to vent your feelings? Or seek retribution? Is the matter really that serious? Have you really been wronged so terribly? Was it possibly all a mistake? Bear in mind what your motive should be: to gain your brother. To win him over, to gain him back. To aid him to remain a fellow servant of God.
Your attempt to keep the matter strictly private should win his respect. It takes courage to make a private approach. How much easier it would be to pour your grievance out on others. But would that be in harmony with “Step One”?
Also, by revealing the details of your differences to others, you, yourself, could end up embarrassed and humiliated. “Plead your own cause with your fellowman, and do not reveal the confidential talk of another; that the one listening may not put you to shame and the bad report by you can have no recall.” (Prov. 25:9, 10) How might the one listening put you to shame? Well, what if he asked you, “Have you tried Step One?” When you admit you have not, he might remind you that there are at least two sides to every issue, yours and the other person’s. And very often even a third side, the right side. “The one first in his legal case is righteous; his fellow comes in and certainly searches him through.” (Prov. 18:17) Jesus, of course, was referring to an unquestionable fault, an unmistakable sin. But is your evidence beyond question and your understanding of matters beyond searching out? What better way is there to determine this than a private hearing of the matter?
What if the situation were reversed? What if the other person feels you have wronged him? Would you not want to know about it so that the matter could be adjusted? This would give you the opportunity to search him out and be “settling matters quickly”? (Matt. 5:25) Would this not be better than to allow the grievance to hurt and fester until possibly the offended person publicized his grievance against you?
But what if Step One fails? Do you still feel you must try to gain your brother by pursuing the issue? So far, your differences have been kept strictly confidential, at least by you. What next?
“But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, in order that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter may be established.”—Matt. 18:16.
Why Take Along “One or Two More”?
Do you know one or two persons who might be mature and perhaps experienced in the kind of situation involved, and who might be objective and impartial toward both of you? If you do not, perhaps an elder in the congregation could recommend someone, even arrange the meeting for you.
But does this mean you are now at liberty to pour out your grievances or charges to whomever you approach? It does not. You simply state words to the effect, ‘I have a problem with So-and-So, and I’m afraid it affects his spiritual well-being. I have tried Step One and failed to win him over. Now I am asking for help in taking Step Two. I am asking for one or two persons to meet with us and hear both sides.’ No one should hear the details from either party until that meeting. That way no one will form a preconceived opinion or hear either of you say things behind each other’s back that you might not say to each other’s face.
Step Two is not a judicial committee hearing. It is simply a reinforced effort to gain your brother. Instead of trying alone you now have the help of one or two more. If your evidence is unshakable and your attitude is indeed to ‘gain your brother,’ you now have witnesses.
But what if Step Two fails? At least you have divulged matters only before persons Scripturally authorized to hear them. You are now supported by creditable witnesses that the offending party stands charged with a matter that could possibly merit his removal from fellowship with the congregation. But this involves a final
“If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation.”—Matt. 18:17.
How Do You “Speak to the Congregation”?
The congregation is represented by its body of elders. And in this case the congregation is represented by a judicial committee appointed either by themselves or by another proper authority. So now your problem is brought to the attention of the elders. How?
Do you ask for a hearing before the entire body of elders? Would that be necessary or practical? At this point you are not asking to be heard by any of them, at least not in the absence of the offending party. You are asking for a hearing before a designated judicial committee. You are simply notifying one or more elders that you have a problem with So-and-So, that you have tried Step One and Step Two. Now you are asking that Step Three be taken:
“If he [the offending party] does not listen even to the congregation [through its judicial committee], let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.”—Matt. 18:17.
Three times you have attempted to gain your brother. In each attempt you have proceeded in the proper way. Yet the facts of the case have not been divulged to anyone outside those Scripturally authorized to hear and decide. So far as you are concerned the matter has not become a topic of conversation in the congregation.
True, all differences may not be settled so that you can gain your brother, if he is not willing. But even though you felt obligated to pursue the hearing of the matter to whatever extent necessary, your motive was really one of peace. “If possible, as far as it depends upon you, be peaceable with all men.”—Rom. 12:18.
These principles for settling disputes that Jesus set forth are practical. They work. If such Christian principles were followed by everyone the world certainly would be a better place in which to live.