I work in a Christian ministry where the supervisor frequently appeals to Matthew 18 and encourages subordinates to come to his office to discuss concerns. Rarely does anyone take him up on his offer, because they are fearful for their jobs or of negative treatment. Needless to say, this situation can be further complicated if the superior is male and the subordinate is female. How does Matthew 18 apply where there’s a power differential between parties?
Today, workplace complaints are big business. I know this because it is my business. As a labor attorney, I help companies respond to employee complaints. And the venues for complaining are myriad: human resources, confidential hotlines, union shop stewards, specialized government agencies, or private attorneys.
One venue is easy to overlook: speaking directly with the person in charge. Of course, some leaders are uninterested, or even abusive. And some serious problems demand immediate escalation. But generally, the best way to resolve routine workplace disputes is to raise them with a supervisor, in the field, as they arise. Once outside parties are involved—especially attorneys—expense and delay often hijack what could have been a simple fix.
So I am thankful your supervisor is interested in the input of his workers. An open-door policy makes good business sense. I am also thankful that your supervisor wants to apply biblical principles, such as Matthew 18:15–20, to the workplace. But you’re right to point out that the passage does not directly address the relationship between supervisor and subordinate. Let’s take a closer look.
Christian Love in a Sinful World
Like all admonitions from Scripture, Matthew 18 must be applied with wisdom, in a manner appropriate to the particular circumstances. That passage is not aimed at workplace challenges specifically, but at something more significant, and of eternal value—the relationship between Christian brothers and sisters in a local church community. Nonetheless, we can still find guidance for handling difficult situations between believers who happen to work together, especially at a Christian ministry.
Generally, the best way to resolve routine workplace disputes is to raise them with a supervisor, in the field, as they arise.
Christians bear the mark of Christ by loving each other well, as Jesus loved us (John 13:34–35). But the reality is that we still sin (1 John 1:10). We are grumpy. We do things that are annoying, selfish even. We grow angry and use words that bite. Sometimes—and this is a real danger for Christians in leadership—we make foolish and ugly choices that harm people who depend on us. Our sin breaks fellowship with God and each other.
Thankfully, God knows our weaknesses and tells us how to handle conflict due to sin. The first step is to carefully evaluate whether we are the one at fault. Perhaps there is a big fat log sticking out of our eye, impairing our vision (Matt. 7:4–5). If we have wronged someone, our obligation is to confess to God and each other immediately (1 John 2:9; James 5:16). We must also show our repentance by making things right, to the extent possible (Luke 19:8).
But what if the other person—in this case, your boss—is truly in the wrong?
Cover or Confront
At that point, Christians have two choices. The first choice is to cover over the sin in love (1 Pet. 4:8; Prov. 10:12). Sometimes an offense is minor, inadvertent, a one-off. Escalating such incidents does not benefit anyone. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we should overlook and forget such sins.
Yet other offenses are more serious. Fellowship between Christians, as well as the offender’s fellowship with Christ, may be threatened. In such cases, covering over the sin would not be loving at all. These are the sins we address directly, also in love (Eph. 4:15; Gal. 6:1; James 5:19).
Neither choice is easy. When we cover over someone’s sins, we intentionally set irritation aside, sacrificing personal comfort. But confronting sin can be even more difficult. It requires courage to speak the truth, gently, with no guarantee of how the offender will respond.
When we cover over someone’s sins, we intentionally set irritation aside, sacrificing personal comfort.
Scripture is clear these are the only two options for addressing the sin of a fellow believer. God does not permit us, for example, to stew in resentment (1 Cor. 13:5) or to vent our frustration in gossip (Eph. 4:29, 31). The Matthew 18 discipline, in particular, is designed to minimize gossip and false accusations (Matt. 18:16).
Matthew 18 in the Office
I do not know the nature of the problem that is bothering you and your colleagues. But let’s say your supervisor has acted in some way that you cannot in good conscience ignore.
According to Matthew 18, you should first confront him privately. (Again, we are drawing principles, not prescriptions, since this isn’t a church context.) If your supervisor is a man and you are a woman, I encourage you to use ordinary discretion—meet during business hours, with others in the general area, preferably in an office with windows, or outside. If he doesn’t listen, try again with one or two other Christians. If he still doesn’t listen, talk to the elders of your local church. They will be able to provide guidance on whether further Christian resolution is possible.
As you have noted, speaking directly to your supervisor is intimidating, due to the power imbalance. Yet Matthew 18 does not contain exceptions for a poor person harmed by a rich person, an official harmed by a subject, or even a slave harmed by a master. We are equal in Christ (Gal. 3:28), and equally responsible for handling our disputes in a godly manner. Whether the believing offender responds in a godly manner or chooses to retaliate is his responsibility.
Let’s say your supervisor shows stubborn unrepentance, despite your pleas and the efforts of the church. At that point, you can consider your secular options for complaint. Depending on the gravity of the situation, it may be necessary to involve a government agency or find an attorney. On the other hand, it’s also possible that you uncover new information through Matthew 18 that helps you better understand your supervisor’s perspective, allowing you to cover over the offense after all.
Regardless of how your supervisor responds, the time and effort you spend using Matthew 18 is not wasted. Christians must try to resolve disputes as Christians, whenever possible, for the sake of our witness (1 Cor. 6:1–8).