I fear that the church in these days, especially in the West, has become shallow in our understanding and practice of forgiveness. We sometimes confuse forgiveness with overlooking sins. And agape* love in the church family certainly covers over a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8) But the depth of forgiveness in the church family must be more than putting up with one another's faults and weaknesses. Nor is forgiveness the same as understanding. I have heard someone say, “Well, I can forgive him because I understand why he did that.” Real forgiveness does not demand understanding. It can come while you still hurt. Such forgiveness is the key to true reconciliation that releases the power of God in our midst.
In the years that I was pastoring churches I always used the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 as a guide for church discipline when someone had sinned against the whole body. I believe that is justified to some extent. But that is really not the context in which Jesus spoke those words. They begin, “If your brother sins against you.” Because of the importance of this passage I want to present it here in its entirety including verses 18-20. And I encourage you to read it slowly and thoughtfully before I begin to unpack some of it.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
First, notice the goal of reconciliation. When someone wrongs you, you are not to go to them as the judge pointing out how wrong they are. Your goal is to heal the relationship. From the start you need to have worked through your willingness to forgive, and restore the relationship, possibly deeper than it ever had been before.
This requires humility produced by the Holy Spirit through time spent agonizing in prayer for the person. And that humility extends to a willingness to sit down with a person before an outside party. When you bring in another party, or failing that, go before the entire church, you have to be open for them to see things you haven't seen in the issue. And you have to be humble enough to submit to their authority over you for the sake of reconciliation. This will require nothing short of the agape* love that God is developing in our lives and in the fellowship of the church.
And even the judgment of the church, is to be carried out in heartbroken agape*. While treating people as non-believers does not mean we have no more contact with them, it does mean that the whole purpose of the body of Christ is broken. And seems to be very serious. Jesus says rather forcefully here, “Whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in heaven.” He says identical words in John 20 where He breathes on his disciples the Holy Spirit.
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Finally we see the depth of agreeing together in prayer that can only come from forgiving from our very hearts. Peter comes to Jesus and asks how many times shall he keep on forgiving someone who has wronged him. Jesus tells the parable of the servant who has received great forgiveness, but won't forgive his fellow servant. And he concludes with verse 35.
“So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
*Agape is the ultimate love of God poured out in our lives. The fullest description of agape in 1 Corinthians 13.