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When someone commits a wrong against another person, what is he supposed to do to make things right? Is seeking forgiveness from God sufficient, or do you first need to set things right with the other person? If the latter, what are you obligated to do -- apologize, make amends (what kinds), something else?

Does the answer depend on the type of damage done? For example, is gossip different from property damage, or injury?

Does the answer depend on who was wronged? Is the obligation to a fellow Christian different than one to a non-Christian?


I'm looking for a general Christian teaching on this subject. If there's a wide range of opinions on this, I'd like to know what the teachings are, and the Scriptural support for them.

I am not Christian and thus am not asking what I should do in this case. I know what is expected of me as a Jew if I have wronged somebody else, and I am curious about how that compares to what your religion teaches about what is expected of a Christian who wrongs another. I'm not asking about the other side of the case, the obligation to forgive.

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Dan O'Day provided this link to the Orthodox perspective in chat today. Thanks Dan! –  Monica Cellio Mar 15 '13 at 3:11
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This is one of those questions that should have a clear, easy answer, but when you ask "what do Christians believe about this" you will likely get a lot of different answers. I'm going to put a preface explaining why those answers vary, and then go into a purely Scriptural view, which is the view you will likely hear from the pulpit of any Church you visit.


Why the answers may vary.

In Christianity, there is a concept of being "free from the Law of Moses" through the perfect substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. The central theme of Christianity is that we can never be "good enough" to get to Heaven on our own, and that Jesus is the promised Christ - His sacrifice is what gets us to Heaven, not our own good works.

One of the questions that varying groups differ (and they differ wildly) is what, exactly it means to be free from the Law of Moses. There are other questions already on this site that explore that topic, but in a nutshell, there is debate over whether we are obligated to tithe, to refrain from certain things, to perform certain ceremonies, etc.

This applies to your question directly because some groups believe that we are under no obligation to obey the Old Testament commandments regarding this, and others will say we are. Some will tell you that the Law of Love dictates that we will meet or exceed the requirements of Mosaic Law, and some would accuse those people of Legalism.

That said...


One common teaching

The teaching with which I am the most familiar with comes from the mouth of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 5:20-24 (King James version)

20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

21 Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:

22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. 23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

This is commonly taught as doing whatever it takes to make it right. If you have sinned against someone, or even if that person thinks you have sinned against them, and you hadn't intended to, the priority is to reconcile and heal the relationship.

Per His words in verse 24. reconciliation with an offended person takes priority over worship. (How can we come to God with a clean heart, if we are carrying the stain of sin?)

Clarke's Commentary on the Bible expands on this:

Leave there thy gift before the altar - This is as much as to say, "Do not attempt to bring any offering to God while thou art in a spirit of enmity against any person; or hast any difference with thy neighbor, which thou hast not used thy diligence to get adjusted." It is our duty and interest, both to bring our gift, and offer it too; but God will not accept of any act of religious worship from us, while any enmity subsists in our hearts towards any soul of man; or while any subsists in our neighbor's heart towards us, which we have not used the proper means to remove. A religion, the very essence of which is love, cannot suffer at its altars a heart that is revengeful and uncharitable, or which does not use its utmost endeavors to revive love in the heart of another. The original word, δωρον, which we translate gift, is used by the rabbins in Hebrew letters דורון doron, which signifies not only a gift, but a sacrifice offered to God. See several proofs in Schoettgen.

The answer to most of your sub-questions are simple, if we take His words at face value:

Is seeking forgiveness from God sufficient, or do you first need to set things right with the other person?

We need to first make it right with the other person.

If the latter, what are you obligated to do -- apologize, make amends (what kinds), something else?

Whatever it takes to reconcile. This may be as simple as an honest confession of your sin to the other person, and a sincere apology, it may involve paying something back, it may mean doing something you really don't want to do (so long as that thing isn't sinful). You may have to apologize before the Church, or admit to peers/friends/families that you've done wrong.

There may be cases where the other offended party will not accept any offer of reconciliation, at which case, we can only do our best. God knows our hearts and minds better than we can, and He knows both your mind and that of the person who holds something against you.

Does the answer depend on who was wronged? Is the obligation to a fellow Christian different than one to a non-Christian?

No. Absolutely not. The obligation to a fellow Christian is no more or less than to a non-Christian.

I've taken the liberty of finding a few teachings on the subject:

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Thank you for this thorough answer! I had not realized that reconciliation was even more important than worship. –  Monica Cellio Mar 14 '13 at 2:13
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I think the principle in the idea that reconciliation being more important than worship deals with the idea that you can follow rigid guidelines but never have the kind of love we are supposed to have. Agape love, selfless love, which God has for us is the highest form of love. Reconciliation is a reflection of that love. Our attitude toward each other is a reflection of how in-line with God our thoughts and heart are. If we're conformed to God, our love of others will show it. Anyone can blindly follow rituals and rules. It takes a heart of love to place others ahead of ourselves. –  David Stratton Mar 14 '13 at 3:12
    
I'd be surprised if it's that much different from the Jewish view. Has a similar question been asked over on judaism.stackexchange.com? –  David Stratton Mar 14 '13 at 3:14
    
Surprisingly, we don't seem to have this question, though we have many that are related. The Wikipedia article on teshuva has a list of the mandatory steps at the beginning; we require you to acknowledge, regret, confess, ask for forgiveness, make amends, strive to do better (you actually have to change yourself), ask God for atonement. The sign that you've really changed is being put in the same situation and not behaving the same way (but that's for God and you, not the person you wronged who you should have long since approached). –  Monica Cellio Mar 15 '13 at 20:53
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The first principle is that we should recognize the way we treat our neighbor is evidence of our feelings towards God. Therefore we should try and do what we can to obtain forgiveness from our neighbor before boasting about our religious virtues:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24, NIV)

The next principle is to recognize that even when you try to seek peace with your neighbor, it will not always be granted. In deed, your neighbor who is offended might be the greater offender. He who is angry without proper cause stands on the same level with the murderer (1 John 3:15). The main issue then is to remember sin is ultimately against God and his laws, not against man. Therefore although we seek restitution with men, sometime obtaining it, afterwards our confession is only to God who does grant full pardon if confessed by faith. This principle is well displayed in David's confession of murder and adultery. What did David finally say about his sin?

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight (Psalms 51:4, ESV)

With respect to the messy matter of 'restitution' to those truly offended by a sin, the law prescribing restitution plus 5% ( Number Ch 5:5) is certainly a good principle arguably upheld the command to love our neighbor.

However in practice there are some variables to consider that makes the application complex. If trying to set things straight with an offended person over a criminal offense and they do forgive and also agree their is no point in confessing to the police, should you still try and 'make it right' with the law? The answer is not necessarily clear. If you did the crime years ago and can't find the person offended, what can you do? If the attempt to seek amends further hurts the offended, what to do? For example should a husband come home every day and try to recall anyone he may have briefly lusted over and apologize? Would this help the marriage or hurt his wife?

The particular situation calls for wisdom. Confession in itself is not a virtue but the desire to restore a harm committed is. For serious matters we should be careful to seek restitution but also careful not to let an overly sensitive conscience ruin a life over something that can't be really amended for, no matter how hard one might try the outcome might only bring further harm.

Conclusion: Ensuring we daily forgive others as we confess our own sins (Luke 11:4) and letting love cover a multitude of daily sins between each other (1 Peter 4:8) is an even greater principle rising higher than the legal elements of the equation. However among a family when someone is harmed seeking restitution is an important part of continuing in family relations. This applies to the family in the church and the family of humanity in the site of God.

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The usual text for reconciliation is found in Matthew 181:

If your brother sins against you, 
   go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. 
   If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 
   But if he does not listen, 
       take one or two others along with you, 
       that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.            
       If he refuses to listen to them, 
          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. 

—Matthew 18:15-17 (ESV)2

Initially, it might seem like this is addressing the opposite question: "What do Christians do when someone wrongs them?" But there's a little bit of psychology behind it: we hardly ever know we've wronged someone until we are confronted. In addition, there's hardly ever an innocent party. Usually, when one person wrongs another, both sides have made missteps along the way. Before trying to make things right, you gotta know what has gone wrong. The only way to do that is to start up the dialogue between the two parties.

The real problem, when it comes to your question, is that this passage seems to be in the context of "church discipline". In other words, it only applies to your "brothers in Christ"3. It sure doesn't make sense to drag a non-Christian to you church in order to pull them through a process they have no reason to follow or care about.4 None of the "escalation" steps make sense, unless both sides can agree on a set of authorities with which to submit.

The first step seems pretty universal, however, so what does Jesus add to the conversation?

It's the principle of the thing

Generally people think of the last line ("let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector") to be equivalent to excommunication. That may be, but Jesus' hearers might very well have linked it to one of Jesus' other sayings:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.—Matthew 5:43-48 (ESV)

In other words, the principle is to try to reconcile with a fellow Christian, but if you can't get through to them, love them anyway. This isn't just thinking nice thoughts about a person. Rather, there's lots of practical advice in Matthew 5-7 such as going the extra mile, being submissive to those who take advantage of you, and so on. It seems like the Christian obligation to non-believers is greater than to believers, if anything.

You see, Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven was coming. Unlike any other kingdom, God's Kingdom belongs to those who bear His image, not just people from one ethnic group or culture. Jesus' reconciliation agenda is far more than bringing a temporary peace between nations and people. It's a reconciliation of shalom between God and His creation, which means there can be no limit to how far Christians must go to right a wrong. So a personal apology might be enough. Or it might mean going a lot further.5

We can't reconcile...

Now you might be thinking, "If Christianity is supposed to be about uniting people under the banner of God, why is the church so divided?" It's a question I myself struggle with. Further, why can't we resolve the tension in the Middle East? Why have Christians been at the forefront of bigotry at times? Why is there no statistical difference in divorce rate among Christians and non-Christians in the United States? Well, there are many reasons, but ultimately we fail because we can't truly enact reconciliation. Only God can.

We put our hope in Jesus—we have none other.


Footnotes:

  1. In some Christian circles, the chapter has become a trope. As in:

    Joe: You'll never believe what Elizabeth said to me the other day!

    Mary: Is this a Matthew 18 thing?

    Joe: Nah. It isn't anything sinful or whatever.

    (I'll leave it up to you to decide if Joe and Mary are guilty of gossip or not.)

  2. The indentation is my own invention. It's essentially a scripted processes. Amazingly, people still manage to screw it up.

  3. Or sisters. The Greek is masculine, but I can't think of anyone who claims that it applies to men only. Perhaps a better translation (as suggested by the NET Bible) is "fellow believer".

  4. From personal experience, it's also a waste of time to follow the process very far with someone from a different congregation. Usually they won't be interested in your local church's discipline.

  5. When researching the Christian view of reconciliation, I found this wonderful comic [PDF] about the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and the Montgomery bus boycott.

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Thanks for this answer. It does sound like it covers the other side (what the wronged person should do) more than the one I asked, though I can see how they're intertwined. So according to Matthew, once the wronged person has made the other aware of the problem ("go and tell him"), what is the other supposed to do? Loving the person he wronged seems kind of tangential -- or maybe I'm just not understanding? –  Monica Cellio Mar 15 '13 at 18:34
    
@Monica Cellio: This is like my third draft, so I'm clearly struggling to express myself. ;) I have some ideas about how to be more clear, but I suspect it won't happen before the weekend. –  Jon Ericson Mar 15 '13 at 18:52
    
Oh, sorry! I look forward to your update whenever you have time for it. I understand how busy you are. (Or if I don't, it's even worse than what I understand. :-) ) –  Monica Cellio Mar 15 '13 at 18:55
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