Circle Maintenance

Read Matthew 18:15-20 in your Bible.

            Get your inner Western going; create a scene in your mind of a man and woman riding in a buckboard wagon drawn by a team of horses.  Both the man and woman are dressed in typical western apparel; he looks like a weather-beaten rancher and she is adorned in calico, wears a bonnet, and carries a parasol as defense against the harsh sun.

The day is fading as they head back to the ranch, having been in town all day.  The scene is tranquil except for the expressions on their faces.  The man’s face is drawn in angles; his brow knitted as if he contemplates something unpleasant on the horizon.  The woman is plainly angry and is seated at the extremity of the other end of the bench seat.

Her gaze shifts from the passing sagebrush to the horses pulling the wagon.  The dappled and brown horses are magnificent animals.  Strapped to the wagon’s tongue with their gleaming black harness, they work together in perfect, effortless grace.

As she considers the team, her face softens and she steals a glance at her husband.  He seems more preoccupied, less angry.  She notes again the cooperation between the animals and wonders why human beings can’t do the same.

The wife slides across the seat.  She is beautiful, for all the years they have been married, even though life, husband and marriage have not always been kind.  She shyly winds her hand around the crook of her husband’s elbow and catches his eye.  Smiling adoringly at him, she nods to the team and observes, “See how well they work together, darling.  Surely we could do as well.”

Her husband considered this for a moment then said, “’Spect we could too if we only had one tongue between us!”

Good news church!  In Christ we have only one tongue, only one mind, only one life to live!  Today we want to consider some wonderful advice Jesus has given on how we can live graciously together, pulling together as that team of horses did.  As a bonus, we will also claim the promises Jesus made to congregations who serve together in love and holiness, as He commanded.


What to do when the Circle of Fellowship is threatened. (vs. 15-17)

            Stage One: Keep the Circle SMALL. (Our priority is to keep the number of people involved as low as possible.)

The Big Subject in Jesus’ teaching was the Kingdom of God. In this passage He’s developing that teaching by showing us how the Kingdom is manifest in our daily lives, in our relationships.

Two caveats: Clearly, His concern is for the Church. Even so, these three principles could also be applied in virtually every other social context.  They are portable.

These are principles, not commands and certainly not laws. They are an elaboration of the command to love one another.

Now let’s develop the first principle.

Notice that it is the offended who take the initiative (“SINS AGAINST YOU”)and calls on the offender.  This does not prohibit the offender from starting the process, but Jesus offers an example that sets the ethical standard at the highest mark. Isn’t it our tendency to do the opposite?  To use justice or fairness as an excuse to put the responsibility for resolution on the back of the offender?

Our priority – in Jesus’ own words – is to “WIN HIM OVER.” (1CT 9:19-22; 1PR 3:14-15; JMS 5:19-20) Love must be the motive and restoration the aim for every confrontation. If our aim is to force an apology, obtain an agreement, place blame or anything else, we have already failed to meet Jesus’ standard.

“JUST BETWEEN THE TWO OF YOU” means to be intentional about the confrontation.  Keep it private, plan it for a time and place that gives you the best chance of success.


Stage Two: Keep the Circle INTACT. (Our priority is to restore all relationships.)

If you do the very best you could with the motive of love and the other person refuses reconciliation, then you can’t just drop it.  You must go on to stage two. The second principle is to involve others only when the other person leaves you no other option.

However, you can’t involve just anyone. These people are there to be WITNESSES to your second attempt to reconcile with the other person.  They are not there to team up with you. This is also a higher standard than what is typical to human nature.  We tend to “triangulate” and “enlist allies” when in a conflict.  We tend to gossip and backbite.  Keep in mind Jesus calls us to a higher standard.

Another aspect of human nature is to remember things differently.  We can be sincerely wrong or lying.  The WITNESSES will be available to substantiate what was said if a “he said/she said” situation develops.

This requirement is not just psychology; it is divine law; in DTY 19:15 God commanded that two witnesses be required to establish anything as fact.  And, though it is not stated here, it’s not unreasonable to think that the new parties in the expanded circle might also serve as mediators to help resolution. In any case, the idea is still to move toward resolution, to fix the relationship.

Stage Three: Keep the Circle HOLY. (Our priority is to safeguard the integrity and reputation of the church.)

Human nature and sin nature being what they are, there will always be someone unwilling to reconcile.  Jesus is teaching us that the Kingdom of God is manifest in the Church and in the face of an unwillingness to repent or reconcile, the holiness of the local church takes precedence.

Our aim is still restoration, but now our method changes from confrontation to discipline.  Our priority shifts; the personal relationship becomes secondary and the church relationships primary.

Separation from the offender is NOT the means of discipline Jesus offers. The third attempt at reconciliation is the final one.  This is public; within the circle of the church.  If repentance and restoration is still resisted, the offender’s status within the church must change.

We’re trying to accomplish 2 things. One, discipline the offender.  Whenever and however the commands to love and be holy are violated, we must attempt to reconcile.  Hardness of heart may make that impossible. Two, preserve the holy character and public reputation of the local church.  Merely winking at sin is not biblical (RMS 16:17; 2TS 3:14).

This is not discipline until death, but until repentance and restoration.  Jesus said to “TREAT HIM AS YOU WOULD A PAGAN AND A TAX COLLECTOR.” Recall Jesus’ attitude toward pagans and tax collectors.  He did not cast them out in the manner of the Pharisees, but welcomed them in His company to hear the word of the Kingdom and repent.  Jesus said He “CAME TO SEEK AND TO SAVE THAT WHICH WAS LOST.”

So this passage does not justify making outcasts of these people, but it does justify not allowing them to be leaders in the church.  When they clearly act in contrary motives, they should be removed from leadership and membership, but not necessarily fellowship.

Sometimes even more extreme situations require a more extreme response.  But Jesus sets before us a principle of measured response that is designed to reach out to the offender and restore him to full fellowship.

What is possible when the Circle is intact. (vs. 18-20)

Jesus gave us 3 promises to motivate us to do this hard work.

            Exercising the POWER of the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a mountain of interpretation made over this verse; the intended meaning of these words. Let me make it easy.  Jesus is promising the church that lives in love that they will be given the power of heaven to do His will on earth. Whatever “BINDING and LOOSING” literally means, it shows a correlation between the will of God and His people.

One of the most disconcerting parts of church life can be the feeling of powerlessness; that we’re not making a difference.  Jesus is promising we can; if we’re not exercising power, whose fault do you suppose it is?
Powerful PRAYER in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the same promise made in different terms.  It explains the method by which we deploy the power that had been promised in verse 18. There are no divine limitations on the promise; “ANYTHING YOU ASK FOR, IT WILL BE DONE IN HEAVEN.”  God comes to us without limits. But there is a condition and it is commonality; “IF TWO OF YOU ON EARTH AGREE.”

This reflects back on the 2 witnesses in v. 16; God’s legal requirement to make anything legal. Again, this is not a legalism, but a symbol of community based on love and holiness.

Experiencing the PRESENCE of the Lord Jesus Christ.

One of the last things Jesus said was one of the most important; “I WILL BE WITH YOU ALWAYS.” The promise is, again, unlimited on the divine end; anytime, anywhere, Jesus will be with us.

But there is also a condition and it is still creating a faithful community; “WHERE TWO OR THREE COME TOGETHER IN MY NAME.” The presence of the Christ i/t grace by which the power becomes available.  His is the name in which we pray to occasion these powerful experiences of the Kingdom of God breaking into everyday life.

          “’Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’ is a popular Christian hymn written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon with music by Charles H. Gabriel. The song is often recorded unattributed and, because of its age, has lapsed into the public domain. Most of the chorus appears in the later songs “Can the circle be Unbroken?” and “Daddy Sang Bass“.

I was surprised to learn that “two versions of the hymn are featured in the soundtrack for the 2013 video game BioShock Infinite: a traditional choir version and an award winning acoustic version. The song won ‘the Best Song in a Game’ award during the VGX 2013. An episode of Pretty Little Liars was titled after the hymn and featured the song within the episode. The song also appeared in the film Iron Jawed Angels. In 2012, a Belgian film called The Broken Circle Breakdown used the song on its soundtrack. The band featured in the film, “The Broken Circle Breakdown Band” is currently (2014) touring Europe with their versions of American folk tunes.”  <Retrieved from Wikipedia on 1 March 2014.>

Why the interest in a hundred year-old hymn?  Why are these secular creators of game and film hanging their musical hat on sentiments that are more often ridiculed in our “politically correct” culture?  Various explanations are possible, but I believe it’s because secular culture fails to feed our soul.  It is inadequate for divine relationship and not much better at supplying meaningful and positive human relationships either.  We long for transcendence, for spirituality, for God.  Keeping the circle intact is best achieved through the spiritual direction and the Spirit-filled life that Jesus offers us.  I invite you to receive and practice this life.


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