CONFLICT, CULTURE, AND CHRIST’S COMMAND: INTERPRETING MATTHEW 18:15–17 FOR INDIRECT-CONFLICT SETTINGS
Jerome Van Kuiken
Conflict. Some people thrive on it, but many of us prefer to avoid it. Yet conflict is inevitable—even among Christians. This is especially the case in cross-cultural settings, in which conflict easily arises because of misunderstanding.
In Matthew 18:15–17 (NIV), Jesus outlines a four-level process for addressing conflict between believers:
- “If your brother [or sister] sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”
- “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’”
- “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
- But “if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
This outline of conflict management seems straightforward enough. The trouble is that not every culture countenances such a direct approach to conflict resolution. While Westerners prize “plain dealing” or “straight shooting,” other cultures place such value on personal honor and social harmony that direct, face-to-face confrontation between offended and offender is unacceptable. These cultures have developed indirect methods of handling conflict so that individual and communal shame or “loss of face” is avoided as much as possible.
The challenge for Christians, then, is to navigate between Scripture and culture. This is no new dilemma, as the church has been discerning how to apply biblical teaching to fresh cultural scenarios ever since Peter, Paul, and the Jerusalem Council decided that Gentile believers didn’t need circumcision for salvation (Acts 10–11, 15). The interpretation and application of Scripture is called hermeneutics. In what follows, I’ll use the five-step method (with my own expansion at Step 4) from Scott Duvall and Daniel Hays’ popular hermeneutics textbook Grasping God’s Word. The goal, remember, is to faithfully apply Matthew 18:15–17 to cultures with indirect methods of conflict management. Let’s take this text through Duvall and Hays’ “interpretive journey”:
Step 1: “Their Town” (the world of the text) – Matthew’s Gospel addresses a situation in which Christianity is a fledgling, minority religion without established institutions. The “church” of verse 17 is neither a church building nor a large group of people. We should think of an intimate house church. It’s a peer group without laity-clergy distinctions. Also, these are believers steeped in Jewish culture, in which direct confrontation is acceptable (as we’ll see in Step 4 below).
Step 2: “The River” (the cultural and historical differences between us and the text) – In our world, Christianity is the largest religion, complete with church buildings, megachurches and highly-developed hierarchical institutions. As mentioned above, in the West direct confrontation is not only acceptable but normal, while elsewhere it is often unacceptable.
Step 3: “The Bridge” (the transcultural principles in the text) – Commentators identify the following overarching principles in Jesus’ instructions: first, “minimum exposure” so that the matter is settled as discreetly as possible; secondly, the purpose of the process is reconciliation, not punishment. Whatever accommodations we make to diverse cultures must stay true to these principles.
Step 4: “The Map” (the redemptive-historical context) – Here Duvall and Hays examine how a particular passage fits with the overall sweep of Scripture. Matthew 18:15–17 builds on the Law of Moses: first, Leviticus 19:17–18’s command to love one’s neighbors and rebuke them rather than secretly hating them, holding a grudge, or seeking revenge; secondly, the legal requirement of two or three witnesses for a case to go to trial (Deuteronomy 19:15). Yet Jesus goes well beyond the Old Testament legislation in pushing for reconciliation. The offender is given multiple chances to repent; the most extreme measure is disfellowshipping, not the death penalty (as in Moses’ Law); and there’s always hope for restoration upon repentance—as underscored by Jesus’ follow-up command to forgive “seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21–22).
The biblical context also gives us examples from both Testaments of indirect confrontation. For instance, when King Saul’s jealousy of David threatens their relationship, David asks Jonathan to serve as his intercessor (1 Samuel 20). Later Absalom reconciles with his father David via go-betweens (2 Samuel 14). Christ stands in as the ultimate Mediator between God and sinners (1 Timothy 2:5–6; the book of Hebrews). Paul acts as arbiter between the runaway slave Onesimus and his master Philemon, and the letter to Philemon is itself a masterpiece of indirectness as Paul employs artful persuasion and insinuation rather than direct orders. There’s a sharp contrast between Paul’s approach with Philemon and his direct, public rebukes of Peter and the Galatians (Galatians 2:11–14; 3:1). As former missionary Duane Elmer concludes, the direct confrontation taught in Matthew 18 is one biblical approach but not the only one.
We may take Duvall and Hays’ redemptive-historical step further than they do. Redemptive history doesn’t stop with Scripture but carries on through church history, so it’s wise to see how a biblical passage has been understood and applied across time and space. Church tradition mustn’t trump Scripture, but it can provide insight. Ulrich Luz notes that Jesus’ instructions have been followed most literally by communities that closely approximate Matthew’s own: “small, manageable congregations” like pre-Constantinian house churches, medieval monasteries, Anabaptist assemblies and Pietist discipleship groups. Where the church becomes large and entangled with the state, Matthew 18’s procedure has been adapted: private sins are handled through confession to a priest or minister, while public sins are punished by the state. Both of these are forms of indirect confrontation since clergy or the government rather than just the offender and offended party are involved.
Step 5: “Our Town” (application to our situation) – How may the transcultural principles of Matthew 18 apply in an indirect-confrontation culture? First, the principle of “minimum exposure” applies in a direct-confrontation culture by including only the offended and the offender at first to avoid needlessly shaming the offender and involving more community members than necessary. But in an indirect-confrontation culture, for the offender to be addressed directly by the offended will produce unnecessary shame that can be avoided by indirect means like bringing in a mediator. In such a culture, a go-between may be deemed a necessary figure for settling a conflict peacefully. This ties in with the second transcultural principle: if the goal is reconciliation, then the means to achieve that goal may be adapted to best meet it, provided that the means are righteous.
In closing, I have presented a case that Scripture and its use throughout church history include flexibility to allow for the indirect approach to conflict resolution that is the norm in many non-Western cultures.
Maybe the hermeneutical method or conclusion that I’ve recommended disagrees with yours, dear reader.
If so, Scripture tells us how to settle our conflict.
 Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993). I thank former Wesleyan missionary Dr. Mike Fullingim for alerting me to Elmer’s work.
 J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2012).
 Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8–20 (trans. James E. Crouch; Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 457; Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 619; R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 691.
 France, Gospel of Matthew, 692; Wilkins, Matthew, 628, respectively.
 Luz, Matthew 8–20, 457.