A couple of years ago I met a woman who was new to our church. She introduced herself to me and let me know that she was becoming a member of the church in which my husband and I served at the time. I was thrilled to make her acquaintance and learn more about her. As a pastor’s wife and woman in ministry, I find that listening to people’s stories often helps build relationships within the context of Christian ministry.
In this particular instance, I learned that this woman had come to our church after experiencing a conflict in her previous church body. The conflict had caused her to label her former church as a “bad church” made up of “bad leaders” and “bad people.” She seemed to be painting in broad strokes, so in an effort to understand her perspective I asked several probing questions.
“What was the specific issue that grieved you?”
“Did you have an opportunity to express your concerns with the individuals who caused you harm?”
“Did you have a direct conversation with the individual that you were upset or frustrated with?”
In this particular instance, there was a relational conflict within the church, neither party sought resolution and one party ultimately left that community.
This conversation left me pondering, when it comes to conflict resolution and specifically accountability within the church body, how should we respond when we have an issue with someone, and likewise how, as Christ-followers, should we receive acts of accountability?
We Don’t Like to Be Held Accountable
Here’s the harsh reality of humanity: Humans (whether Christian or not) do not particularly relish being held accountable for their actions. I’ll be honest, not that I wasn’t being honest before, but I really hate accountability. Like, I hate it. It hurts, it wounds my pride. Accountability can just be the worst. Accountability rubs up against all of my perfectionistic and people-pleasing tendencies and says, “you’ve failed at something.” Or worse, “you are a failure.”
At least that’s how I respond to accountability in my flesh. It’s not Christ-like and it’s not cute.
In chapter 18 of Matthew, Jesus paints an almost grueling picture of what Christian accountability should actually look like. In church and ministry lingo we refer to what Jesus commands as a “Matthew 18 Moment.” Here is what Jesus says:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they 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 they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” —Matthew 18:15-17 NIV
Here’s the basic format for Christian accountability:
Go to the person and have a conversation, one-on-one.
If they won’t listen, take two and try again.
If they still won’t listen bring it up with the church community.
If they still won’t listen, treat them like a pagan!
Am I the only one who thinks that this list is harsh? Let me use the Message version for the sake of cultural clarity:
“If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” —Matthew 18:15-17
I have been a follower of Christ for years, but this text still rubs me the wrong way. I want to be a peacemaker, so isn’t it more conducive to peace to let things go and forge a path towards forgiveness?
As it turns out, no. There is actually a process that we must enter into in order to experience authentic healing and forgiveness. Merely saying “I forgive” without engaging in that process is a poor substitute for true forgiveness. A huge part of that process is in fact, accountability.
Accountability in Relationship
As Christ-followers we need to take Jesus’ words seriously. When he shares his blueprint for conflict resolution it must be because he knew full-well that even in Christ-centered relationships we’d experience conflict. I’m walking through a season of conflict in my own personal life right now, and it’s just the worst.
Nevertheless, as we walk through these “Matthew 18” moments it’s helpful to keep our perspective in check, especially when our emotions flare up and we begin painting in those broad strokes.
We must consider our relationship with the individual with whom we are in conflict and ask pertinent questions: Am I feeling wounded by this person because they’ve called out something in me that I don’t like or don’t believe is true? What are their motivations? Do I have a long-standing relationship with this individual? Do I truly believe that they are holding me accountable out of love or is it something else?
Considering the messenger just as much as the message they bring can ultimately help soften our hearts, break down walls and barriers, and lead us to repentance and reconciliation. I believe that the hardest part of all of this is pressing into the relationship and sticking it out when things get hard. We may want to run from the pain that conflict can create, however, if we can bravely forge through we might just end up experiencing true healing and the true forgiveness that our souls desperately need.
Indeed, we must strive to be at peace with all men, like Paul talks about in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
However, a true path to that peace does often come at the other end of difficult conversations, conflict, and accountability.
So, as we seek to enter into Christ-like accountability and conduct ourselves with a Christ-like manner we must be compelled to take these words from Matthew 5:21-24 to heart:
“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.
“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” —The Message Translation
Know that none of this feels good in the moment, but take hold of the belief that Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about. Take his words seriously and keep this in mind: If we belong to Christ in this life, we’re going to belong to Christ in eternity, so is it possible that there are things that we need to sort out with each other before we get there? This is just a thought for us all to wrestle with.