It’s Hard to E-mail Your Way Through Matthew 18

By Jim Dalrymple

It has been said, “Wherever two or more are gathered, there will be conflict.” In today’s digital world, conflict speaks a new language. Yet text tapped out on a screen comes with limitations and liabilities.

Let’s face it—e-mails do not convey vocal inflection, and text messages do not allow for body language. It is too easy to fire off e-mails like cannonballs from a ship. All too often such exchanges between two people also bring others into the battle. In my experience with conflict, it is hard to e-mail your way through Matthew 18.

In Matthew 18:15-20, the concept of gathering—not sending messages from a distance—drives the process of restoration set forth by Jesus. I find strength in this. In fact, Jesus promises to gather with us in times of conflict. He said, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (v. 20). This was not a promise referring to moments of corporate prayer or singing, although the omnipresent God is there too—regardless of the number of people gathered. Instead, Jesus was reminding us of his presence in the midst of confrontation.

In this text, Jesus promises to be with us when relationships are at stake and sin is being confronted. It would be healthy to become as aware of Christ’s presence in the midst of conflict as we are during times of Communion or corporate worship. Jesus knew there would be confrontation and conflict. Therefore, he wanted to remind and reassure his disciples of his presence during such times.

How many leadership meetings, back-hallway conversations, and Sunday lunch chats would be different if we were to acknowledge his presence in the midst of the conversation? The truth is, Jesus is present and he teaches that gathering with him in times like these is essential to resolving the issues we face. In my opinion, “gathering” is an essential principle of Matthew 18:15-20.

So let me list some of the practical benefits of practicing the “gathering” that Jesus taught in Matthew 18.


Let Me Hear Your Face

Nonverbal communication helps all parties more adequately interpret the words spoken. We instinctively observe the effects our words are having. We instantly detect whether our words have wounded, confused, offended, encouraged, or angered those with whom we are speaking. In many cases, these nonverbal clues help steer our tone and words as the conversation unfolds. So let me ask, why would we entertain conflict without this vital communication tool? (Unless, of course, our agenda is merely to wound or vent.) If we truly seek understanding and restoration, why wouldn’t we want the opportunity to soften our approach at the first glance of remorse or brokenness? Why wouldn’t we want someone to hear the tone in our voice and see the pain on our face? When it comes to interpersonal conflict and confrontation, I would much prefer to be able to “hear” someone’s face.


Let Me Speak by Listening

Face-to-face listening communicates that we care about and value others. Genuinely listening speaks volumes to the people with whom we come into conflict.

The truth is, it is difficult to convey that we are listening via written communication, and it’s challenging to determine whether our messages have been understood. I can’t tell you how many evenings with family have been tainted by repeatedly checking my e-mail, waiting for a conflict to finally come to a reasonable resolution. I have even placed my e-mail icon in a folder on my phone that reads, “peace in him.” We must grow in our desire to communicate value by having a willingness to sit down and listen together.


Let Me Speak Your Language

Since Babel, languages have served to both divide and bond groups of people. We share common ground with those who speak our language. In the same way, I find it helpful to begin to resolve disagreements by first verbalizing common goals or shared values. Whether it is a shared concern, tradition, or faith, we must seek to find a common thread that binds our purposes together in a conversation.

Such dialogue best take place in person. Beginning a confrontation with heads nodding in agreement is not a bad start toward finding a shared resolution. If the common ground is Christ’s lordship, then beginning a conversation with prayer can have a profound impact on the hearts and tone of the dialogue that will follow.


 Let Me Speak My Heart

Jesus teaches us in Matthew 18 that restoration, and not retribution or retaliation, must be the purpose of our dialogue with one another. Look at the context of Matthew 18:15-20 and you will notice this teaching sits between a parable of a sheep that has gone astray and questions Peter asks about how often we ought to forgive. These are the streams that flow in and out of our text. We must ask if they are the streams that flow in and out of our heart.

It may sound old-fashioned, but in my opinion restoration best takes place in person. There is just something about a hug, a handshake, and laughter that can’t take place through an e-mail, no matter how many smiley faces and exclamation points we include.

Sadly, Jesus informs us that confrontation, even when best-intentioned, will not always result in immediate reconciliation. In times such as these, Jesus instructs us to gently and strategically expand the situation to those who must be involved in the confrontation—incredible wisdom for our age of online posts and distribution lists. Even then, Jesus counsels that there will be times when no agreement will be made and a relational break will occur. Yet, even in the brokenness, Jesus reminds us of his presence among us.

In the end, as Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation, we must face confrontation equipped with the best tools to reach a God-honoring resolution. For this very reason, our staff and leadership at First Christian Church has made a covenant agreeing that we will choose to “gather” in times of conflict rather than hiding behind our technology. This has been a healthy strategic decision that I feel has honored Christ and led toward a greater level of maturity and unity within our leadership core.

We have all come to agree that it’s hard to e-mail your way through Matthew 18.


Jim Dalrymple serves as senior minister with First Christian Church, Monticello, Illinois.

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