“A brother offended is harder to win than a strong city,
And contentions are like the bars of a castle.” – Proverbs 18:19*
Young’s Literal Translation reads this way:
“A brother transgressed against is as a strong city, And contentions as the bar of
I believe the majority of biblical translations, including the two above, convey the spirit of the original text faithfully. And I am willing to bet that most reasonable believers would refrain from offending someone if they knew it hindered their access to the gospel in some way. So, whether or not someone has a legitimate reason to feel as if they have been wronged is not the most important purpose of this verse and it is not the purpose of this article. Instead, from this verse I get the impression that sometimes a brother or sister will be (or will feel) sincerely wronged in some way. As a result, a resolution or reconciliation will be difficult to attain. You can call it whatever you like but for our purposes I will simply call it a grudge. And again, we are overlooking the situation of an unjustified grudge (if there is such a thing). What I would like to focus on is the toxicity of such a situation in the body of Christ.
Have you ever had a close relationship with someone that just stopped one day? Maybe you know someone who has gone through this. If we tried, I am sure we could identify some good reasons why this might happen. The first thing that comes to my mind is death. Most of us will lose loved ones during our lifetime and our love for them is no less significant today than the day they left us. There is no doubt that the relationship has been radically altered, at least for a time. And, even then, the Bible leads us to believe that in many cases it will never be fully restored back to its former state because the spiritual world differs from this one in many ways.
Sometimes, we have close friends or family members who move away and this can understandably cause a sharp interruption in the relationship. It is no longer as convenient to call them up on a weekday and go have dinner with them. The point is this; it is unnatural for a close and healthy relationship to end so abruptly barring extreme circumstances. Even death will not cause our feelings toward someone to immediately disappear and usually they never will. But the circumstance we just read about in Proverbs 18:19 can be so extreme that it can, in fact, produce effects more tragic than death insomuch that however close you may have once been to your brother, access to him is effectively cut off like being on the outside of a castle.
Moreover, if there is any hope that the relationship should be restored by some means, it will be more difficult to achieve than besieging a strong city! Brothers and sisters, this is not as much an encouraging thought as it is a sobering one. In Christ, our relationships with one another, when guided by Biblical teachings, are designed to transcend many types of conflicts we see in the world around us, but we know as human beings that conflict is inevitable. Two passages come to mind when I think about our responsibilities toward one another. Proverbs 27:17 is one where it says, “As iron sharpens iron, So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” And also James 5:19-20 which says, “19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
From these passages it is clear to me that healthy and helpful relationships in the church are essential not only with Christ but also with each other. And the two passages you just read are impossible to carry out if there is a contention hindering your relationship with a brother or sister. This is why I would compare it to the death of a loved one. One day, everything could be going swimmingly and the next day something happens that causes a deep rift to form in the relationship. Maybe it is just a silly misunderstanding or maybe sin has taken place. But, whether or not the division is legitimate is an entirely separate issue. The problem is that the division is there now! This great divide between you and your brother or sister has not only hindered communication, which is what happens when someone close to you dies, but worse than death it also has placed bad feelings in the heart and who will be able to close that gaping hole?
At this point, it is in the nature of this world to relinquish that former bond and move on. But in order to survive, the church cannot function as the world does. While it might be difficult to restore a broken relationship, like tearing through the walls of castle, it is possible. One way to make all of this less painful for the church is through avoiding such circumstances in the first place. One example that is often cited when talking about division among the saints is the contention between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36-41:
“Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” 37 Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. 39 Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”
|"Pair of Apostles in Dispute", Luca Signorelli (1450-1523)|
We are missing some information in this incident that might seem like very important information for us to have. For example, who held the right opinion in this contention? We are never actually told. Now, some could argue that Paul was in the right because John Mark had left them in Pamphylia and “had not gone with them to the work.” Admittedly, I tend to think this gives Paul the upper-hand in the dispute. Not to mention that he and Silas were “commended by the brethren” while Barnabas and John Mark were not. But, we do not know the exact reason why John Mark chose to leave them previously. All we know is that this contention was great enough to cause the men to part ways and it is doubtful that this separation had no effect on the work of spreading the gospel. It is likely that it did in ways we can only guess at because division is rarely an encouragement to the church. Yes, when it is for matters of false teaching, for example, it is necessary to distance yourselves from certain people:
“If anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:13-14
But to do this and say that it does not affect the rest of the body is a bit misguided in my opinion. To the contrary, it is always a painful experience. What I am left wondering is how did Paul and Barnabas feel after they had gone their separate ways? Were they relieved of the burden while saying ‘Good riddance!’ or was there disappointment and discouragement? What would have happened had this division never taken place? Would the evangelists have been better off had they never split up? We will never know for sure, but are the saints not more effective when they are at peace with one another rather than in contention with one another? The verse in 2 Thessalonians 3:15 goes on to say:
“Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”
Could this be one way to bring down those walls that are formed after a brother or sister has been wronged? An admonishment is a rebuke, a reprimand, or simple advice and it may be painful, but the potential gain is far better than the potential loss which could last for an eternity. In the world, it very well might be better to move on with life and consider that relationship over. This does not necessarily mean that it will be forever, but it is not our call to make. This is the teaching that Jesus gave his disciples when He told them to “shake off the dust from [their] feet” when they were rejected by the cities they went into (Matthew 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5).
When you are dealing with souls that vehemently refuse to know Christ through their words or deeds, how much of a relationship could we hope to have? If Christ is not there why are you? Do you know something He does not? “14Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?” – 2 Corinthians 6:14 But, when we are talking about like-minded souls of godly faith, we are talking about fellow heirs to God’s kingdom (Romans 8:16-17; Ephesians 3:1-7) and they are certainly worth fighting for, even if there is stubbornness on one end. Again, the key is to avoid that place beforehand because we have been told how hard it is to win that brother back.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant teaches readers how to treat those sins that have been committed against them because of how God treats our sins against Him. And in the passage directly before that parable we are taught how to prepare the way for that sinner to ask for forgiveness:
15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” – Matthew 18:15-17
Jesus was speaking directly to His closest disciples here but we can safely apply this to the entire church since the church is directly mentioned. Notice in this passage how precedence is given to discretion. Hopefully, if and when any of us find ourselves in this situation there is a good chance that most of our fellow believers will never know about it. This is God’s most desirable method of handling the issue. Let it only be between those involved if at all possible. This is such an important teaching that cannot be overstated because of what often happens instead and which undermines this teaching. Oftentimes, if we have an issue with a brother or sister we do not go and address them in private, we go and tell someone else first because maybe this other person will have advice for us or maybe we need them to agree with us first so we can feel better about ourselves. Jesus says do not do that! At least, not at first. Go and try to settle the matter with the offending party directly before you do anything else.
|© Hände der Freundschaft im Duisburger Rathausbogen by User: Alice Chodura / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0|
If you do this and the matter is still not resolved then take one or two more believers. These numbers are also very important. Just one or two is enough. Your job is to not make someone feel as if they are outnumbered and cornered. Be patient like the Father is with us. And if, after these two attempts, no gains have been made then (and only then) does Jesus say you are obliged to bring it before the entire church. I would imagine that by the time it reached the attention of the church this would be enough to turn most people away from their sin or, at the very least, give them a cause for serious self-reflection. But, Jesus said that even that may not be enough for some. If so, treat them like “a heathen and a tax-collector.” In other words like a pagan and a brother who was in the pay of pagan occupiers. A traitor. It is a strong sentence but God would not have commanded this unless a sinning brother refused to resolve a contention against another who was offended and was already willing to resolve it. This is how we are to prepare the ground for a brother or sister who may or may not know they have wronged us and it demonstrates harmlessly that forgiveness and resolution are possible.
This notion of maintaining peace in the body is so important, in fact, that all of the epistles address peace either in their opening or in their closing with the exception of only two epistles, James and 1 John. Paul opens all of his epistles with this kind of phrase: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Let us continue to strive for that peace!
*All Bible passages are taken from the New King James Version.