How we treat enemies—and how we oughta.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 September

The “Matthew 18” principle—for when people sin against us.

Luke 6.27-36 KWL
27 “But I tell you listeners: Love your enemies. Do good to your haters.
28 Bless your cursers. Pray for your mistreaters.
29 To one who hits you on the jaw, submit all the more.
To one who takes your robe and tunic from you, don’t stop them.
30 Give to everyone who asks you. Don’t demand payback from those who take what’s yours.
31 Just as you want people doing for you, do likewise for them.
32 If you love your lovers, how’s this an act of grace from you?—sinners love their lovers.
33 When you benefact your benefactors, how’s this grace from you?—sinners do so themselves.
34 When you lend from one from whom you hope to receive back, how’s this grace from you?
Sinners lend to sinners so they can receive an equal payback.
35 In contrast: Love your enemies. Do good. Lend, never expecting payback.
Your reward will be great, and you’ll be the Most High’s children:
He’s kind to the ungrateful and evil.
36 Be compassionate like your Father is compassionate.”

These are not words your typical Christian follows. Much less any typical human: We believe in payback. Reciprocity. Karma. And that’s on our good days: More often we’re okay with a wholly overboard response. A life for an eye, a life for a tooth, a life for an insult. Kill their whole family for good measure, just to terrorize people into respecting us. Shock and awe.

We get this way towards fellow Christians too. First thing we do is justify not treating them as sisters and brothers in Christ: “Somebody who does that can’t be a real Christian. True Christians don’t act that way. They’re Christians in name only; they’re pagans who only think they’re saved.” Then we justify not forgiving them: “They’re just gonna do the evil again. They won’t learn their lesson. They have to suffer consequences. I have to make them suffer consequences.” Emphasis on the “suffer” part.

The average American usually picks one of six responses to enemies:

  1. Get them arrested, if possible.
  2. Sue them, if possible.
  3. Ruin their career, ruin their business, get them fired.
  4. Ruin their relationships: Turn their friends against them.
  5. Harass them and exact petty revenge.
  6. Shun them and stay away.

And of course there’s the criminal stuff… assuming they don’t find criminal ways to do the previous six things.

Obviously none of this behavior is Christian. By “Christian,” I mean Jesus actually came up with a procedure for his followers to go through when we get offended, insulted, or wronged. That’s what he expects us to follow. Always applies to fellow Christians.

Evangelicals like to call it “the Matthew 18 principle,” as if it’s the only thing Jesus teaches in that chapter. He also taught a lot about forgiveness, so maybe that should be what we mean by a “Matthew 18 principle.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

People correctly point out Jesus’s procedure applies to fellow Christians. So, they argue, we needn’t follow it when we’re dealing with pagans. When a non-Christian offends us, we can feel free to leave a burning bag of dog doo on their front porch: Jesus’s procedure doesn’t count.

Here’s the flaw in that reasoning: In the United States, four out of five of us consider ourselves Christian. Even if they’re really kinda pagan. Statistically we are dealing with a fellow Christian. Yeah, we might’ve tried the tack of rationalizing they’re not really, ’cause they don’t act Christian enough for us. (And we might not be acting Christian enough for them either.) But our duty is to answer evil with good. Love your enemies.

Any excuse for not doing so, is simply an attempt to get away with evil.

Initiating Jesus’s procedure.

Even if we actually are dealing with pagans, Jesus’s procedure can still be followed to a large degree. Angry Christians and pagans may refuse to participate, but that doesn’t matter: You follow Jesus. When in doubt, follow Jesus.

Goes like yea:

Matthew 18.15-20 KWL
15 “When your fellow Christian sins against you, go off and correct them—between you and them alone.
When they hear you, you gained back your fellow Christian.
16 When they won’t hear you, take one or two others with you again,
so ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word can stand.’ Dt 19.15
17 When they dismiss them, tell the church.
When they dismiss the church, to you they’re like a foreigner or taxman.
18 Amen, I promise you: Whenever you stop something on earth, it’ll be stopped in heaven.
Whenever you start something on earth, it’ll be started in heaven.
19 Amen again, I promise you: Whenever two of you agree upon something on earth—
on any act which you’ve asked about—my heavenly Father will make it happen,
20 for I’m in the middle of it whenever two or three have come together in my name.”

So let’s break it down.

1. Is this a sin? Most Christians never bother to ask ourelves whether the thing which really offended us actually counts as a sin.

Sin’s defined as something which broke God’s commands in the Law, Ro 3.20 or knowing what good is and refusing to do it, Jm 4.17 or violating one’s conscience, Ro 14.23 or unrighteousness in general. 1Jn 5.17 But a lot of the time, what we’re really dealing with is someone who unthinkingly hurt people’s feelings. Not sinned. Trespassed against our personal space, which is something we’re ordered to forgive anyway. Mt 6.14-15 But paráptoma/“trespass” isn’t the same as amartáno/“sin,” no matter how the King James Version translates it. Mt 18.15 KJV If it makes us feel bad, ’tain’t necessarily a sin.

Sometimes we’re the ones being jerks, and someone rightly calls us on it. Maybe not kindly, but still: We’re wrong. And it feels bad, ’cause sometimes truth is difficult to hear. If we imagine ourselves gifted, brilliant, funny, or righteous, and someone informs us, “You’re actually kinda awful; stop doing that,” it feels horrible. (Especially when no one’s ever been honest with us before; they thought protecting our feelings was more important than truth.) Our self-defense mechanisms, like self-justification, kick in. We wanna hurt ’em back. But we’ve no right to be offended.

So I remind my fellow Christians, when we have to share difficult truths: Be as kind as possible. Don’t be surprised when people react poorly, ’cause truth hurts. It shouldn’t stop us from telling the truth. It’s always kinder to tell the truth, than to let a person live in delusion.

2. Is this a sin against us? The words “against you” in verse 15 don’t exist in copies of Matthew before the 300s. So you’re not gonna find them in every bible. (Like the Amplified, NASB, NET, and NIV.) Translations include it ’cause translators grew up hearing it that way, and heard many a preacher point out, “If it has nothing to do with you, stay out of it. Don’t be a busybody.”

And y’know, there’s something to this advice. If one person’s already forgiven the other, but we’re still offended, or we think vengeance justice still needs to be done, that’s our hangup. Stay out of it. If someone’s already dealing with the problem, namely the parties involved, particularly law enforcement or church leadership, stay out of it.

If we find out about it through gossip, we gotta shut that noise down. Gossip is a form of bearing false witness, Ex 20.16 ’cause the person with the gossip wasn’t there, and has nothing to personally testify. So it’s hearsay. Sin. And if someone’s trying to share gossip with us, and tempt us into becoming yet another false witness, that is our business, so we can feel free to start this procedure on ’em.

There are circumstances where we’ll need to get involved. Namely when we see a wrong being done, and nobody’s doing anything to fix it. People are sweeping stuff under the rug, or pretending nothing’s wrong. People are openly sinning, and nobody’s calling them on it. And in some cases they’re kinda pleased with themselves for tolerating this behavior, ’cause look how forgiving and open-minded they are! But frankly, some sins go too far.

1 Corinthians 5.1-2 KWL
1 It’s widely heard there’s inappropriate sexual activity among you,
such behavior not even found among pagans: Someone has his father’s woman.

2 You’re proud?—and not mourning instead,
because you might have to remove the one doing this act from your midst?

Yep, in ancient Corinth some guy was banging his stepmom. Yuck. (Not totally foreign to biblical history though. Ge 35.22, 2Sa 16.22 Still, yuck.) And everybody was staying out of it, though deep down they knew their duty was to tell this guy, “We love you, but we simply can’t have this.”

1 Corinthians 5.9-13 KWL
9 I wrote you in my previous letter to not get mixed up with inappropriate sexual activity.
10 I didn’t mean this world’s inappropriate sexual activity,
nor this world’s greedy people, thieves, nor idolaters: You have to go out to the world!
11 Now I write you: Don’t get mixed up with anyone who’s called a fellow Christian
when they’re into inappropriate sex, greed, idolatry, abusive talk, drunkenness, thievery.
No eating with such people.
12 What business do I have judging outsiders? But don’t you even judge those inside?
13 God will judge those on the outside. “Remove the evil person from you yourselves.” Dt 17.7

If this sounds too intolerant for you, I get that. We should be compassionate towards such people. But we can’t have them in our churches lest they corrupt weaker Christians. 1Co 5.6 Love them, share Jesus with them… but don’t be naïve. Their priority isn’t Jesus. It’s their flesh.

Having the discussion.

3. Discuss it privately. Like Jesus said, we keep this just between us and the sinner. Nobody else needs to be brought in. Nobody needs to be embarrassed or humiliated. Sometimes the sin was unintentional, and they’ll be really quick to repent, ’cause they had no idea. Keep it private.

Plenty of Christians leap right over this step—and all the other steps—and go straight to public disclosure. They bring it up in church business meetings. They post it on social media. They go to the press. They start a petition. They have no intention of establishing or restoring a relationship: They wanna hurt someone. They wanna turn public opinion agains their enemies and destroy them. (They don’t think about how if the enemy’s innocent, it’ll backfire, and rightly so.)

And hey, rounding up a posse is the American way. Sometimes I’ve been invited to join a posse, and go confront someone with a crowd. I always refuse: They’re not following Jesus. Nor, for that matter, are they usually following their workplace handbook, school handbook, local laws, or whatever. (Which is also my defense when I’m confronted by a posse: “I admit I might be in the wrong, but there’s a procedure for dealing with this, and you’re not following it. Let’s back up and do this right.” Tends to work.)

Speaking of workplace procedure: When people are familiar enough with it, that’s the route they tend to follow. But it’s been defined by Human Resources and state law, not Jesus. So what it looks like among Christians is they go straight to the pastor, ’cause supposedly Pastor’s the boss. Happens to me all the time: Someone gets offended by me, so they tell on me to the pastor, and leave it to him to reprimand me.

For some of my pastors, they don’t bother to follow Jesus’s procedure either. They do as they do in their day job: Get another person in the church leadership so they can have a witness, then have a sit-down with me to discuss the complaints about me. I’ve had to remind these pastors—more than once!—that Jesus outlines a different procedure. But they tended to shrug it off: “Well, we’re here now. Let’s deal with this.” And we deal with it, ’cause we’re all adults, and humble, and gracious, and nearly all these complaints are petty. But we still didn’t follow Jesus.

So let’s follow Jesus.

That means a one-on-one conversation. Figure out how formal the meeting oughta be. Or if it’s not a serious sin, just grab ’em in the hallway—“Do you have a second?”—and correct ’em quickly and gently. Just that simple.

If you’re worried about how they’ll respond, have that private conversation in a somewhat public place. Like a coffeehouse, restaurant, or park. Somewhere with security cameras. If things go south, then you’ll have witnesses.

4. If a crime was committed, this cannot stay just between us and them. I need to bring this up now, ’cause it’s a major mistake, and failing, among Christians. We find out a crime has been done; we tell the repentant criminal, “I forgive you,” and figure that’s as far as it goes.


Roman Catholic priests have sealed confessionals. But I’m not Catholic. I’m actually a mandated reporter in my day job: If I find out certain crimes have been committed, I gotta tell the police. And much as I respect the way Catholics handle confession—way better than we Protestants do it—I feel this is one of those areas where they botch things. When somebody sins against God, we can easily forgive that. When they sin against the state, we’re wholly out of our jurisdiction.

If a fellow Christian committed a crime, and we know if it, the courts consider that covering up for the crime. Or being an accessory to the crime. Makes us just as liable for the crime. Rightly so. Too many churches figure they can handle serious crimes in-house. As a result thieves and rapists and child molesters go free, and usually commit the same crimes all over again. And their victims get no justice.

I’ve known of Christians who forgave a thief, but threatened to turn him in lest he make restitution. That’s another crime: That’s blackmail. That’s not forgiveness; that’s being a vigilante.

Now, if someone steals from you, that’s one thing. You can forgive theft, and not press charges. You can work out a personal plan of restitution, and be more generous than the courts. I should point out though: If someone’s robbed you, quite often they’ve robbed others, and all you’ve done is delayed their capture a little. You’re not helping as much as you think you are.

Crimes aren’t necessarily ours to forgive. So won’t be naïve. When we find out a crime has been committed, we immediately end the conversation, and go tell the police. Not “I’m gonna call the cops,” nor “Turn yourself in before I talk to them”—thus giving them a reason to run, or murder us before we talk to anyone. What they’ve done is out of our hands, so hand it off as quickly as possible, and step away.

But let’s go back to assuming this sin isn’t a criminal act.

5. If our enemy repents, stop. Once your enemy repents and apologizes, the matter should be closed. Period.

The purpose of Jesus’s procedure isn’t to get restitution. It’s to “gain back” your enemy, get a sinner to stop sinning, and restore that person’s relationship with God, plus your relationship with them. You need to forgive them and move on. For your benefit. Not so much them. You need to love your enemies.

Matthew 18.21-22 KWL
21 Simon Peter came and told Jesus, “Master, how often will my fellow Christian sin against me,
and I’ll have to forgive them? As much as sevenfold?”
22 Jesus told him, “I don’t say ‘as much as sevenfold.’
Instead as much as seven seventyfolds.”

Another “Matthew 18 principle” is that of forgiving fellow Christians till we lose count. Jesus doesn’t mean we should only forgive people 490 times, but that 491st time cut ’em off. Only a petty, bitter, unforgiving person keeps count like that. God doesn’t keep count; neither should we.

Jesus followed up this lesson with the Ungrateful Debtor story: A king forgave his slave a million-dollar loan, and the slave (who shoulda paid this forgiveness forward) turned round and tossed his own creditor into debtors’ prison. The outraged king rescinded his forgiveness and likewise tossed his slave into debtors’ prison… with a little extra torture added. Jesus added the Father will do likewise to unforgiving Christians. Mt 18.23-35

God forgives us everything. We have no business holding our smaller grudges. Yeah, sometimes we Christians are truly awful to one another. Sometimes nothing we do will ever make restitution for our crimes against one another. Some things can’t be taken back. That’s why we have to forgive one another. Otherwise we can’t move forward.

You realize the Ungrateful Debtor story means God may take back his own forgiveness. Mt 18.35 Does this mean unforgiving Christians go to hell? Well think of it this way: Forgiveness is one of the Holy Spirit’s fruit, a product of a relationship with God. No fruit usually means no such relationship—so those grudging, vengeful, unforgiving Christians you know might not actually be Christians. They may claim to be, but their fruit says otherwise.

So if you simply can’t accept an apology—if you demand your enemy compensate you, pay fines, make some public declaration of repentance, or perform public acts of penance—you’re not the courts. You’ve gone wrong.

Now yes, the Holy Spirit might demand they do something in compensation. But that’s not your business; that’s between them and the Spirit. Our only job is to forgive. Then drop it.

Escalating the discussion.

6. If our enemy won’t repent, now involve others. Some people don’t wanna hear it. Don’t think they’re wrong. Don’t think it’s any of your business. Won’t stop doing as they’re doing.

Now, Jesus instructs, “take one or two others with you again.” Mt 18.16 KWL Not a crowd; this still isn’t a posse. This is just a few people so you can have confirmation that your enemy isn’t playing ball.

Christians constantly misinterpret the “two or three witnesses” idea, and think this means their witnesses. In other words, friends of ours, automatically on our side, helping us accuse our enemy. That’s not at all what Jesus means. In the bible, witnesses are impartial. They’re not accusers. They’re our judges.

See, we think we’re in the right. Of course. But it’s always possible we’re not. The witnesses aren’t there to be biased, and dogpile on our enemies. They’re there to see whether we’re right, or our enemies are right, or whether we’re both kinda right, or whether we’re both wrong. Whether the whole thing is a stupid misunderstanding, blown out of proportion, and neither of us are expressing ourselves properly.

Witnesses are outside input. There may be a really good reason why our enemy won’t budge… and it may be because we need to budge. Witnesses are there to help mediate this.

But if our enemy isn’t willing to hear out the witnesses, these become witnesses against them. (And if we aren’t willing to heed our own witnesses, they become witnesses against us.) If the dispute is still at an impasse, we move on to the next step.

7. If others are no help, now involve the church. Here’s the point where you go public. Or semi-public, anyway: You’re involving “the church”—your community.

Again, notice six whole steps should’ve taken place before we got to this point. And how often Christians tend to skip these steps completely, and start drafting petitoins.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Jesus’s procedure is based on the assumption our church has some degree of authority over both us and our enemies. That may not necessarily be true. That’s why step 7 has four sub-steps, A through D.

7A. When our enemy has no church. If our enemy’s a pagan, or is one of those Christians who doesn’t go to church, we have few options. Often we just gotta jump to step 8.

For unchurched Christians, their “church” (so to speak, or so they claim) consists of all their Christian friends. We could try to work within that system, find the Christians who exert the most spiritual authority in our enemy’s life, and ask ’em to be a corrective to that person. But good luck with all that: Most of the reason they avoid church is precisely to avoid any accountability structure. Talking to their unchurched or pagan friends is like asking a bunch of heroin addicts to stage an intervention.

7B. When our enemy’s in a different church. Clearly our enemies doesn’t see our churches as any kind of valid authority. They have their own churches. Getting our churches involved isn’t gonna do any good; we gotta involve their churches. Gotta involve them from the beginning: Back at step 6, when we brought in witnesses, we need to use witnesses from their congregation. Not ours.

Yes, this has risks. Our enemy’s congregation is gonna be a little biased in our enemy’s favor—“Who’s this person? What’s their angle?”—and may even think we’re the enemy. Some churches even have formal policies in place, where they stay out of squabbles between Christians of other churches. But if we can convince ’em our cause is right, it’ll strongly work in our favor.

So if things ever get to step 7, the church level, it’ll be our enemy’s church dealing with our enemy. Not our church. Really, not even us; step 7 is kinda out of our hands. But that’s fine.

7C. When our enemy’s in, but not a member of, your church. Here we may have a problem.

Many Christians aren’t members of their churches. They consider themselves attendees, regulars, “visitors” who’ve been visiting for years, but they never officially joined. Like unchurched Christians, it’s so they can avoid accountability. They don’t want the church to have any power to tell ’em what to do.

So if our church’s usual procedure is some sort of disciplinary measure, act of repentance, or any such thing: They’re not gonna have the power to make our enemy do any of those things. In free countries, churches can’t legally make anyone do anything: Every church activity is voluntary. If our enemy feels like ignoring the church, member or not, they usually can.

Hence step 8, but we’re still not there yet.

7D. When our enemy’s a member of our church. Assuming we are too, the church leadership can usually deal with matters appropriately: They can require them to repent. Or require us to repent. Or both. Or work out compromises. Or all sorts of things.

Of course if our enemy doesn’t care what the church says, we’re off to step 8 anyway.

9. If our enemy defies the church, they’re out. “When they dismiss the church, they’re to you like a foreigner or taxman.” Mt 18.17 KWL

So declared Jesus. And yes, we Christians are called to love foreigners and taxmen. Jesus ate with taxmen, and his apostles ate with gentiles. But Jesus was talking about the way Judeans and Galileans treated these people: Like outcasts.

’Cause that’s precisely what they’re to be. Cast out. The technical term is excommunication. It sounds way worse than it actually is, ’cause most people assume if you’ve been excommunicated, it means you’re going to hell. No it doesn’t. That’s up to God, not the church.

But if the church is truly following God, Jesus pointed out he’d totally back their decisions. That’s why I quoted verses 18-20. Shall I quote them again? Sure.

Matthew 18.18-20 KWL
18 “Amen, I promise you: Whenever you stop something on earth, it’ll be stopped in heaven.
Whenever you start something on earth, it’ll be started in heaven.
19 Amen again, I promise you: Whenever two of you agree upon something on earth—
on any act which you’ve asked about—my heavenly Father will make it happen,
20 for I’m in the middle of it whenever two or three have come together in my name.”

If there’s a fruitless Christian who has no interest in repenting, no interest in following Jesus, kinda actually quit Jesus, they’re not just out of the church: They quit God’s kingdom. Yikes.

But the fact is, there are plenty of churches who suck at following Jesus, who excommunicate people without having all the facts, or boot ’em for political or legalistic reasons. Jesus’ll back a church which is truly following him; the others he’s gonna spit out of his mouth. Rv 3.16 Their excommunications are actually a blessing.

Hoping for the best.

Hopefully our conflicts will never go past step 5: Our enemy repents, our relationship is restored, and we’re good. That’s Jesus’s hope too.

But sometimes people are stubborn, and things actually do go all the way. And I remind you, the goal of excommunication is never to send people to hell. The church isn’t in the condemnation business! We’re meant to share the good news—that God’s kingdom has come near, so repent and believe the gospel, Mk 1.15 and live in harmony and good fruit like Jesus wants.

Sometimes it works. People leave the churches, realize they were wrong, repent, and come back. Sometimes not: People leave and never have anything to do with church, nor Jesus, again.

And in our multi-denominational society, some of ’em easily find another church. One which knows nothing of their sin. Some which’ll even do as Corinth did, and tolerate it. It’s far too easy to do nowadays. That’s why smart churches do background checks of their leaders.

Well, there’s Jesus’s procedure. It’s not a pleasant idea of course. Having to deal with unrepentant sinners never is. But it’s how Christians should behave… despite everything our vengeance-focused culture encourages us to do.