Brotherly disputes

Imagine this scenario. Peter and family have just moved to a house with some big lawns, leaving behind their large vegetable plots. John lends him his sit-on grass mower, but it is returned damaged and won’t operate when John next tries to use it. What should he now do, besides getting it mended? Say nothing to Peter, but secretly warn other church members not to lend Peter any of their valuable equipment? Certainly not! Jesus plainly taught: ‘go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone’ (see Matthew 18:15-20). He also underlined the main issue as listening: ‘If he listens to you, you have …’ won the dispute? No, ‘you have gained your brother.’ 

‘But [what] if he does not listen’? Then ‘take one or two others along’ as witnesses. Not witnesses to the damage, but to the dialogue – by listening to both sides. Already elsewhere in Scripture are God’s guidelines for such jury-member witnesses. If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame’ because ‘[t]he one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him’ (Proverbs 18:13, 17).

A fair hearing

A fair hearing is required. This advice was already enshrined in law by Moses:

‘I charged your judges … “Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother … You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgement is God’s”’. And ‘the Lord your God is … the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribes’ (Deuteronomy 1:16-17; 10:17).

Nicodemus spoke up in a debate among ‘the chief priests and Pharisees’ who were prejudging Jesus in his absence. As ‘one of them’, he ‘said to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”’ (John 7:40-52).

A word of wisdom

Ecclesiastes 7:14-18 adds yet another dimension for all involved in a dispute, whether as defendant, prosecution, or judge and jury: ‘Be not overly righteous [here the adjective refers to the rightness of anyone’s cause], and do not make yourself too wise [compare Romans 12:3, ‘think with sober judgement’]. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this [as in verse Ecclesiastes 7:17], and from that [in verse Ecclesiastes 7:16] withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.’  In some instances it is best not to press an issue, especially when it is one person’s memory of events against another’s and no eyewitnesses were present to corroborate. Putting the matter into God’s hands is the wise and safe way forward. He has ways and means of bringing closure, maybe through some similar future incident.


If Peter ‘refuses to listen’ to the jury, John must ‘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 [an outsider needing the gospel]. The church will be listened to in heaven by the church’s Head.

* The final issue was no longer the damaged mower but Peter’s refusal to listen.

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