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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

1710 C.R. 121, Hesperus, CO. 81326




In [THE PATH TO RECONCILIATION] we looked briefly at God's process for our dealing with conflict. We reached the point where Sam, who had seen me sin, had come to speak to me and I did not listen. That is, Sam did Matt. 18:15.

The next step is Matt. 18:16. In the New American Standard, it is written as:

"But if he does not listen, take one or two more with you so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed."

The first question should be: who should these people be? In selecting the witnesses, Sam might consider:

1. Are there eye witnesses, for, if so, they should come;

2. Are there people whom Sam knows and respects and whom he has reason to believe I will listen to because I also respect them;

3. Does Sam see me having a pattern of sin -- such as alcoholism -- because he may want to bring someone whom he knows has conquered that particular problem.

Sam should, I believe, avoid people who have some authority over me at this stage (employer; pastor; elder). It is the way of man to get defensive when those with authority appear at the doorstep. We see them coming in power (rather than love) to judge and condemn, and so may well close down our hearts to hearing.

But these people must be selected with prayer. Ask God to call to your mind the names of the people He wants in the process; don't be surprise if He answers you very specifically.

And they need to be people familiar with the Scriptures -- not necessarily able to quote with references, but to whom the Word is very alive in their hearts for they have treasured it up.

They are people who will likely, because brought to the process by God's Spirit rather than merely the request of man, also bring to the process gifts and life experiences which will prove to be important in the ministry of the truth. Their gifts will be added to one another to complement, particularly if they will spend time together in prayer and seeking the Lord so they are in unity of spirit.

And -- and this is very important -- in asking these people to come, Sam must not gossip. All he needs to say is: "I have a conflict with Bill, have spoken to him, but he will not listen. Will you come with me to listen to us speak to each other, and then to speak to us?"

We now turn to the real issue: how do these witnesses function? If they are judges/arbitrators, then we have a worldly process no matter how much we cover it in prayer. Now we turn to a critical issue. I find most people think in terms of a "witness to a past event," and thus they can "confirm the facts". While such a person might well participate in these proceedings, they are not what is being described in the passage.

Years ago a friend of mine, also in the ministry of reconciliation, called me to ask what Matt. 18:16 said; so I quoted it to him. He then asked me what the witnesses were to do; I said, "confirm the facts". He said, rather emphatically, "no, and hung up. Well that drove me to a concordance.

I found that an analysis of the Greek words in Matt. 18:16 provides a direct answer: the "witnesses" are to histemi the rhema. That means we need to look up those two words.

Other instances of histemi in the New Testament include:

"But Peter, taking his stand (histemi) with the eleven, raised his voice and said:" -- Acts 2:14

"Put on the full armor of God that you may be able to stand firm (histemi) against the schemes of the Devil. * * * Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, stand firm (histemi). Stand firm (histemi), therefore, having * *." -- Eph. 6:11-14.

Histemi is used 157 times in the New Testament. Other than being translated as "stood" and "standing" (81 times), 53 of the remaining times carry the idea of a "public witness with boldness".

So, we see that the witnesses are given a proclaiming role. What they are to proclaim is rhema. What is rhema?

The word is used 73 times in the New Testament. Vine's Expository Dictionary says this: "'Rhema' denotes 'that which is spoken, what is uttered in speech or writing;' * * * The significance of 'rhema' (as distinct from 'logos' [another Greek word translated in the N.T. as "word"]) is exemplified in the injunction to take 'the sword of the Spirit, which is the word (rhema) of God' (Eph. 6:17); here the reference is not to the whole Bible as such, but to the individual Scripture which the Spirit brings to our remembrance for use in time of need, * * *."

Other interesting usages of rhema in the New Testament include:

"Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word (rhema) which shall proceed out of the mouth of God." -- Matt. 4:4.

"If you do not believe the writings of Moses, how then will you believe My words (rhema)?" -- Jn. 5:47

"It is the Spirit Who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words (rhema) which I have spoken to you are spirit and life." -- Jn. 6:23.

"And if anyone hears my words (rhema) and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who rejects Me and does not receive My word (rhema) has One Who judges him -- the word (logos) I spoke is what will judge him at the last day." -- Jn. 12:47-48.

"Go your way, stand (histemi) and speak to the people in the temple the whole word (rhema) of life." -- Acts 5:20.

It would seem the role of the witnesses is to proclaim to both Sam and I the "whole word of life" which we need to hear for our lives at the moment; to confront us with our sins and call us to confession and forgiveness before God and man. That is, a call to repentance and the doing of those acts of justice which God will bring to the knowledge of humble, contrite, and repentant hearts.

Please note: to give someone God's word for a moment in life is not to order them to do something. It does not say, "You must pay Sam $10,000." It merely points out where the person has fallen short of the glory of God and ought to get right with God so that the Holy Spirit, Who has become grieved, may become liberated to give guidance on what to do in repentance.

Thus the role of the witness is not, at first, one of confirming the facts of dispute -- to judge or arbitrate. Nor are the witnesses mediators, negotiators, or even peace-makers as we so often conceive. [See Peacemaking: A Misnomer] They are rather the "sowers of seeds, the fruit of which, in repentant hearts, becomes right behavior" (Jas. 3:18).

As the seed is sown, several things may happen.

(1) It may fall upon the road, and be trampled, or eaten by the birds. The conflict remains.

(2) It may fall on rocky soil, spring up, but wither at first heat. Maybe the witnesses left too early. Maybe they needed to continue with the parties, watering with additional word, or actions of peace. (Lk. 24:28-30)

(3) It may fall in the weeds, and get choked out. It may be that we needed to sacrificially bear a burden which would remove the weeds and allow growth. Here again, the witnesses may need to spend time doing peace.

(4) It may fall on good ground in the heart of one. They will then do that justice which the Lord asks of them (not what witnesses tell them or even suggest to them, but witnesses might confirm that such acts are just). Note, God made peace within the one party, not the witnesses.

(5) It may fall upon good ground in both hearts. If so they will come back together in a shared humility before the Lord, and they will determine what to do with the conflict. One thing they might do with the conflict would be to ask someone to tell them what to do -- arbitrate -- while they get on with important matters, like playing golf together). Note, God resolved the conflict (mediated), not the witnesses.

(6) It may fall and lay dormant for years, and later produce fruit which the witnesses never see.

In (1), (2), (3), and (4), the witnesses may shake the dust, or tell it to the church. In (4) and (5), witnesses applaud; in others, they weep. In all instances, God receives glory, because someone did what He desired -- witness or parties.

Nor is this a swooping in, blasting someone with their sin, and then waiting for repentance. Experience shows me that there is often a "teachable spirit" that is present before repentance. So long as that teachable spirit is present, the witnesses should walk the person and water the soil with words of truth, hope, encouragement, etc. Weep with those who weep; display love; do acts of peace. (See the example of Christ in Luke 24:28-31, where there were "hearts burning within" while He was teaching.)

Instead, the witnesses must listen closely to what the parties are saying to each other.

Second, they ask questions to clarify what is being said.

Third, they ask questions to determine if each party really comprehends what the other party is saying -- to make sure true communication and understanding of thoughts and feelings is taking place.

Fourth, they spend time by themselves, talking about what they have just seen, trying to come into agreement about what each party needs to hear (call this a caucus).

After the caucus, they return to one of the parties. At this time, they present to this party where they see this party has failed to honor God (which is why knowledge of Scripture is an important trait of witnesses). It may be in actions or inactions which brought about the conflict. Or it may be acts or inactions since the conflict began which have aggravated the conflict. It may be matters of anger, bitterness, gossip, slander, or judgment, etc.

The witnesses are sowing seeds of truth into the lives of the people in conflict. These truths work into the soil of the heart to bring repentance, confession, and the doing of acts of justice where that is needed to make any wrongs right. Or the words bring confrontation concerning love, or call for forgiveness, release, and inner peace where that is needed. Of course, any party may choose to remain blind and deaf, ignore the words and prompting of God, and stay in prison to the conflict.

But for the one who hears the truths and responds, the conflict becomes truly "resolved" by their inner peace. If both parties respond, they come back together in a shared time of confession and forgiveness. This is true reconciliation. From the vantage point of reconciled people, they will then be able to determine what to do with the visible conflict (resolution). Notice that they do not negotiate, no one other than God conciliates, and they do not mediate or arbitrate.

Witnesses must avoid delivering rhema in a, "THUS SAYETH THE LORD," manner. Witnesses can miss-hear, miss-read, expand or contract concepts just as easily as anyone. But this ability to goof is one reason to use a multitude of witnesses (2 or more) working together, in prayer, that they be united in whatever it is that they believe the Lord wants conveyed to the parties. [See Confusion in Counseling]

Note also that rhema is not something ex-cathedra -- it is not some "word of knowledge" or "prophetic utterance" and, if a paraphrase of Scripture, must be supportable by Scripture.

Now it may be that, having spoken truth, there is a reconciliation in the Spirit, but there is no sense of the parties as to what to do to actually end the conflict. They sense that a decision is needed. In that situation, the parties might well turn to the witnesses and ask them to make a judgment in the nature of I Cor. 6:5. Then what we think of as arbitration is appropriate. However, if covered by prayer, and led by God;s Spirit, the actual decision of the witnesses is not likely to look much like a judgment of man!

Well, Sam has brought the one or two who have listened to Sam and I speak. They have delivered the rhema. But I still do not listen -- I am hardened of heart by my sin. Since we are on The Path To Reconciliation, we must continue.

But note these warnings: if you attempt, when one is unable to acknowledge their sin, to deal with specifics of the conflict -- as a mediator/negotiator might do -- you risk enabling that person to appear justified in their own eyes: "I did steps 1, 2, and 3; look at what a good person I am." You may even block the work which the Holy Spirit is doing in seeking to bring them to conviction of their sin. Beware!

Also, the witnesses should be careful not to rebuke one in the presence of the other, for the one rebuked may become overly defensive having their sin uncovered in the presence of their adversary, and the other person may become haughty having not been rebuked.

Particularly be careful because the next step is given to us in Scripture -- and it is not, "then mediate, negotiate, or arbitrate the conflict". The next step is Sam and the witnesses approach leaders of my church and tell "it" to them -- Matt. 18:17.

For that, see [The Church in Matt. 18:17].