Let me share a little secret as to why pastors sometimes choose not to resolve every conflict they might have with someone in a congregation.
Pastors have a limited amount of energy. They expend much of that energy – I’d guess a minimum of 50% – on the preparation and delivery of their weekly sermon … and that sermon is the most important thing they do all week.
Pastors also engage in staff management … board consultations … individual counseling … hospital visitation … special projects … social functions … conflict intervention … and an endless number of additional tasks.
And when pastors perform these tasks, they need to be at their best. One careless word on his part … one misinterpreted action … and his imperfections will be spread all over the church.
Whenever a pastor has to deal with someone who is angry/hurt/offended, that encounter robs him of precious energy for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Such encounters can deplete his energy and paralyze him emotionally, affecting the pastor’s ability to lead … pastor … and even preach.
Many years ago, I served on the staff of a church where the pastor was under assault. Being a sensitive man – as most pastors are – the criticisms devastated him.
He called me on the phone and told me that he was so distraught that he couldn’t focus clearly enough to study for his sermon … which was only three days away.
But pastors can’t allow themselves to come to church on Sundays with depleted energy. They have to be at their best, not just to please the Lord, but to inspire, encourage, and equip their congregations.
This little discussion leads me to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
Let me make five observations about this verse as it relates to pastors:
First, Jesus does not include or exclude spiritual leaders from His instructions.
Since the Lord wants His leaders to model submission and obedience in a local fellowship, I believe that these verses apply to pastors as well as regular churchgoers. Pastors are “brothers” … and pastors sometimes offend their “brothers,” too.
Second, Jesus envisions a situation where one of His followers is estranged from another follower.
The term “brother” implies a spiritual relationship … maybe even a close one. Jesus is talking here about interpersonal relationships inside the family of God. He is not talking about relationships with just anybody.
Maybe your brother (or sister) is so upset with you that they are ignoring you … avoiding you … talking negatively to others about you … or lambasting you to your face.
Whether they’re justified or not, “your brother” (or sister) is angry with you about something. There is a break in the relationship … and at least one of you knows it.
Third, Jesus implies that the offender knows what he or she did wrong.
Jesus says that while you’re in the very act of worship, you suddenly “remember that your brother has something against you.”
Do you know precisely why your brother is angry with you? My guess is that you do.
It’s something you did … or said … or something you didn’t do … or didn’t say.
However, when it comes to pastors, people are often angry with them without the pastor knowing why … and this is because most people are scared to death to confront their pastor about anything.
If a pastor discovers that someone in his church is upset with him, must a pastor drop everything, contact that person, and try to make things right?
Some would say yes. In fact, I have a book written by a former megachurch pastor who shares story after story about times that he sensed someone in the church was angry with him. In every instance, he went to them … he is a very sensitive man … and said, “Brother, I don’t know what I did to offend you, but I want to tell you I’m sorry and ask you to forgive me.”
This is where I part company with the broad interpretation of this passage.
If I’m a pastor, and I definitely know why someone is angry with me … and it’s negatively impacting our relationship … I believe that I have a biblical obligation to take the initiative, contact that person, and see if we can work things out.
But if someone is angry with me and I have no idea why, I don’t believe that I have an obligation to contact them. Instead, I believe that they have an obligation to contact me according to Matthew 18:15-17.
In other words, pastors need to take the initiative for specific, known offenses against their spiritual family members … but wait for others to take the initiative for general, unknown offenses.
Because of the nature of their calling, pastors lack the time and energy to “turn over too many rocks” in their congregations. For if they do, they will undoubtedly encounter venomous snakes and scorpions … and they’ll spend all their time tangling with them rather than watching the entire flock.
Fourth, Jesus emphasizes the importance of resolving interpersonal conflicts quickly.
When I was a kid, my brother and I sometimes got into fights. They never lasted long … and I usually won … but I didn’t always fight fair.
I’d hit him hard enough to end matters, and then immediately tell him, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
I wasn’t inwardly remorseful or repentant … just outwardly dutiful … and with my lousy attitude, my brother had every right not to forgive me.
In other words, some conflicts can be resolved too quickly.
But that’s not the case with most of us. We let conflicts drag on … damaging our relationships … poisoning our souls … and sometimes spreading to others.
So when Jesus’ followers are offended, He wants them to resolve matters as quickly as possible.
I once worked for a pastor who was feuding with the chairman of the deacons. Their feud was becoming known all over the church. It was getting ugly.
One Sunday morning … before communion … the pastor publicly told the congregation that he and the deacon chairman weren’t getting along, and publicly asked for his forgiveness. The chairman stood and forgave the pastor. (What other option did he have?)
My problem with that approach is that now scores of people knew about a conflict they didn’t need to know about … but they did see their pastor model Matthew 5:23-24 in action.
I’ve said it many times: if Christians would just apply Matthew 18:15 with a degree of urgency … as well as Matthew 5:23-24 … church splits would be reduced to almost zero.
Finally, Jesus never modeled these verses for us.
In Matthew 15, Jesus warned His disciples against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. In verse 12, “His disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
Jesus didn’t apologize for His sentiments. He didn’t feel convicted. He didn’t seek out His spiritual rivals and tell them, “Look, guys, I didn’t mean what I said” or “I could have said things better. I’m so sorry.”
No, He doubled down and told His followers, “Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14).
When I was a pastor, I once received a phone call from the son-in-law of a man whose memorial service I had conducted. The man reamed me out for preaching the gospel at his father-in-law’s service and demanded an apology. I refused and told the man I had every right to say whatever I wanted on my own turf … our church’s worship center.
I didn’t know the man. He wasn’t my brother. These verses don’t apply to such people … although “do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matthew 7:6) was more relevant to his situation.
But in Mark 3:20-35, Jesus’ mother and brothers were really worried about Him. They thought He was “out of his mind” and that He was so devoted to ministry that He wasn’t taking care of Himself.
When they “went to take charge of him,” Jesus didn’t apologize for upsetting them. Once again, He doubled down … refused to go back home with them … and said to the crowd surrounding Him, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus didn’t say … as that sensitive pastor did … “I don’t know what I did to offend you, but I want to tell you I’m sorry and ask you to forgive me.” No, Jesus ignored His mother and brothers … claimed His listeners as His spiritual family … and focused on the mission the Father had given Him to do.
I don’t pretend to understand completely all the ramifications of this passage. It’s been one that has troubled me over the years, and I’m not always sure how to apply it.
But I hope that my thoughts will cause you to think through not only the truths of these verses, but also their importance in your spiritual and relational worlds.