How Do You Settle Differences?
A clumsy movement—and the third in a row of five china elephants fell from the mantel. The piece will have to be restored. Otherwise, the harmony of the entire set will be lost. However, the process is delicate, and you do not feel qualified. You will have to seek advice or even ask a specialist to do the work.
HARMONY between spiritual brothers and sisters is much more precious than mere ornaments. The psalmist appropriately sang: “Look! How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) Settling a difference with a fellow Christian can sometimes be a delicate matter. Moreover, some do not go about this in the right way. Often the “restoration” is unnecessarily painful or is not very sound, leaving unsightly telltale marks.
Some Christians unnecessarily seek to involve appointed elders in matters that they could handle themselves. This may be so because they are not sure what to do. “Many of our brothers don’t know how to apply Bible counsel to settle their differences,” commented one brother experienced in giving Bible counsel. “Very often,” he continued, “they do not follow Jesus’ way of doing things.” So, what did Jesus actually say about how a Christian should settle differences with his brother? Why is it vital to become well acquainted with this counsel and to learn how to apply it?
“If, then, you are bringing your gift to the altar and you there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, and go away; first make your peace with your brother, and then, when you have come back, offer up your gift.”—Matthew 5:23, 24.
When Jesus spoke those words, the Jews customarily offered sacrifices, or presented gifts, at the temple altar in Jerusalem. If a Jew had wronged a fellow Israelite, the offender could offer up a whole burnt offering or a sin offering. The example related by Jesus comes at the most critical point. When the person is at the altar and is about to offer up his gift to God, he recalls that his brother has something against him. Yes, the Israelite needed to understand that reconciling with his brother should take precedence over performing such a religious duty.
Although such offerings were a requirement of the Mosaic Law, they in themselves did not have the greatest value in God’s eyes. The prophet Samuel said to unfaithful King Saul: “Does Jehovah have as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of Jehovah? Look! To obey is better than a sacrifice, to pay attention than the fat of rams.”—1 Samuel 15:22.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeated this order of priority and showed his disciples that they must settle their differences before making their offerings. Today, the offerings required of Christians are of a spiritual nature—“a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips which make public declaration to his name.” (Hebrews 13:15) Nevertheless, the principle remains valid. The apostle John similarly shows that it would be in vain for someone to claim to love God if he hates his brother.—1 John 4:20, 21.
Interestingly, the person who remembers that his brother has something against him is to take the first step. The humility that he thus manifests will probably produce good results. Likely, a person who has been offended will not refuse to cooperate with someone who comes to him acknowledging his own faults. The Mosaic Law stipulated that anything taken wrongfully had to be restored completely and an additional fifth had to be added to it. (Leviticus 6:5) Restoring peaceful, harmonious relations will similarly be made easier if the offender shows his desire to go further than what is required, in the strictest sense of the word, to repair any damage he may have caused.
However, attempts to restore peaceful relations are not always successful. The book of Proverbs reminds us that it is difficult to settle differences with someone who finds it hard to respond. Proverbs 18:19 says: “A brother who is transgressed against is more than a strong town; and there are contentions that are like the bar of a dwelling tower.” Another translation reads: “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: And their contentions are like the bars of a castle.” (The Englishman’s Bible) Eventually, however, sincere and humble efforts are likely to succeed in the case of fellow believers who desire to please God. But where gross sin is alleged, the counsel of Jesus recorded in Matthew chapter 18 needs to be applied.
Settling Serious Differences
“Moreover, 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. 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. If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.”—Matthew 18:15-17.
What if a Jew (or later, a Christian) encountered serious difficulties with a fellow worshiper of Jehovah? The one who thought that he had been sinned against was to take the first step. He was to discuss matters with the offender in private. By not trying to muster support for his side of the picture, he would surely be more likely to gain his brother, especially if there had been only a misunderstanding that could be cleared up quickly. Everything would be settled more easily if those directly involved were the only ones who knew about the matter.
However, the first step might not suffice. To deal with that situation, Jesus said: “Take along . . . one or two more.” These could very well be firsthand witnesses. Perhaps they had heard one of the individuals slander the other, or maybe those taken along had been witnesses to a written agreement about which the two parties now disagree. On the other hand, those taken along could become witnesses when any elements, such as written or oral testimonies, are developed to establish the reason for the problem. Here again, only the smallest number possible—“one or two more”—should know about the matter. This would prevent things from getting worse if the matter was only a misunderstanding.
What motives should the offended person have? Should he try to humiliate his fellow Christian and want him to grovel? In view of Jesus’ counsel, Christians should not be quick to condemn their brothers. If the transgressor recognizes his fault, apologizes, and tries to rectify matters, the one sinned against will have ‘gained his brother.’—Matthew 18:15.
If the matter could not be settled, it was to be taken to the congregation. Initially, this meant the elders of the Jews but later, the elders of the Christian congregation. The unrepentant wrongdoer may have to be expelled from the congregation. That is what is meant by considering him “just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector,” individuals from whom the Jews kept their distance. This serious measure could not be taken by any Christian individually. The appointed elders, who represent the congregation, are the only ones authorized to take such action.—Compare 1 Corinthians 5:13.
The possibility of an unrepentant wrongdoer being disfellowshipped shows that Matthew 18:15-17 does not pertain to minor differences. Jesus was referring to serious offenses, yet of the type that might be settled between just the two individuals concerned. For example, the offense might be slander, seriously affecting the victim’s reputation. Or it might pertain to financial matters, for succeeding verses contain Jesus’ illustration of the merciless slave who had been forgiven a great debt. (Matthew 18:23-35) A loan not repaid in the allotted time might be just a passing difficulty that could easily be resolved between the two individuals. But it could become a serious sin, namely, theft, if the borrower obstinately refused to repay what was owed.
Other sins cannot be settled simply between two Christians. Under the Mosaic Law, serious sins were to be reported. (Leviticus 5:1; Proverbs 29:24) Similarly, gross sins involving the purity of the congregation have to be reported to Christian elders.
However, most cases of friction between Christians do not come under this procedure.
Could You Just Forgive?
Right after Jesus explained how to settle serious differences, he taught another important lesson. We read: “Then Peter came up and said to him: ‘Lord, how many times is my brother to sin against me and am I to forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him: ‘I say to you, not, Up to seven times, but, Up to seventy-seven times.’” (Matthew 18:21, 22) On another occasion Jesus told his disciples to forgive “seven times a day.” (Luke 17:3, 4) Clearly, then, Christ’s followers are called upon to settle differences by freely forgiving one another.
This is an area that needs considerable effort. “Some brothers simply don’t know how to forgive,” said the individual quoted at the outset. He added: “They seem surprised when someone explains that they can choose to forgive, first and foremost in order to preserve the peace in the Christian congregation.”
The apostle Paul wrote: “Continue putting up with one another and forgiving one another freely if anyone has a cause for complaint against another. Even as Jehovah freely forgave you, so do you also.” (Colossians 3:13) Before going to a brother who may have offended us, therefore, it would be good to ponder the following questions: Is the offense worth speaking to him about? Is it really impossible for me to let bygones be bygones in the true spirit of Christianity? If I were in his place, would I not want to be forgiven? And if I choose not to forgive, can I expect God to answer my prayers and forgive me? (Matthew 6:12, 14, 15) Such questions may well help us to be forgiving.
As Christians, one of our important responsibilities is to preserve peace in the congregation of Jehovah’s people. Therefore, let us put Jesus’ counsel into practice. This will help us to forgive freely. Such a forgiving spirit will contribute to the brotherly love that is the identifying mark of Jesus’ disciples.—John 13:34, 35.
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Christians can settle their differences by following Jesus’ counsel