On Feeling (And Being) Heard

Should we confront someone even if we don’t think they’ll listen to us?

Chris Hutchison on January 10, 2023

Matthew 18:15-20 presumes a fair bit of openness between the people of God in a local church. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matt 18:15). These instructions are counter-cultural to many church environments I’ve been a part of, where it seemed common for an offended person to talk to almost everybody else rather than the actual person who had wronged them.

This is particularly true when the dispute includes the church leadership. Despite Paul’s command not to “admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim 5:19, cf. Matt 18:16), many church-goers apparently feel very free to broadcast their leaders’ supposed shortcomings far and wide, with little impulse to actually talk to those leaders themselves first.

How do people find their way around such clear biblical mandates? The most common excuse I’ve heard for not having a Matthew 18:15 conversation is that the offended person didn’t think the offender will listen to them. This excuse can take many forms:

  • “I really didn’t think that I’d be heard.”
  • “That person just doesn’t listen to people.”
  • “Last time I tried to talk to them, I didn’t feel heard.”
  • “I didn’t think the conversation would go anywhere.”

Sound familiar at all? If so, how should we respond to this? Here’s four reflections on this apparent Matthew 18 loop-hole:


1. Being understood is not a prerequisite for obedience

Matthew 18:15 doesn’t say, “Go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone, but only if you think he’ll listen to you.” Whether we think the other person will listen should have nothing to do with whether we’ll obey Jesus or not. Why would we think that, just because the first conversation will be unsuccessful, we’re allowed to skip the process entirely?

Ironically, verse 16 and following contain a number of follow-up steps which describe what actions to take in the event that the offender doesn’t listen—and none of them involve not having that first conversation. Jesus expects us to obey Him, regardless of what we think the outcome might be.


2. “Feeling heard” may not be the same as being heard

Apparently, “heard” is a feeling—at least given how some people talk. Phrases like “I really felt heard,” or, “I didn’t feel heard” give the impression that our emotions are a reliable guide to the effectiveness of a conversation.

Sadly, some take it even further. In my experience, some people only “feel heard” if the other person agrees with them. When they have a problem with someone else in their church, or particularly their church leadership, they don’t come with a humble attitude that seeks understanding and clarification. It doesn’t occur to them that perhaps they have misunderstood, or even that they could be in the wrong. They come to deliver a verdict, and any attempt to help them see things from a different perspective will be interpreted as “not feeling heard.”

Once again, Matthew 18 puts us back on track with its careful checks and balances. The involvement of the body of Christ, first as one or two witnesses (v. 16), and then as the entire church (v. 17), prevents one person from acting as judge, jury, and executioner. Submitting to the Matthew 18 process requires each party to accept that they might not know, see, or understand everything perfectly.

“Love…does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor 13:4-5). And once we get that, we should have no problem with the fact that some people will hear us just perfectly—and still disagree with us.

I’m pretty sure Moses didn’t “feel heard” (at least in the modern sense) when he was dialoguing with God in Exodus 3-4. For every objection he offered for why he shouldn’t go to Egypt, the Lord had a powerful response. No doubt, the Lord did hear Moses—but that didn’t change the fact that Moses was still wrong.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we shouldn’t be careful listeners (James 1:19). Often, it’s wise to help people know that we’ve really heard them before we respond. But it’s just as important to recognize that our emotions are an unreliable guide to reality, especially when we think we’ve been wronged and are feeling defensive. We need the humility to accept that “feeling heard” may not always be the same as actually being heard.


3. Sometimes, people don’t listen—but we’d better make sure

Sadly, there are cases where someone cannot truly be reasoned with. I’ve known some people like this. Through a deadly combination of insecurity and pride, it is literally impossible to help them see anything from any perspective other than their own. But—and here’s the important part—I didn’t come to this conclusion from a cool distance. I got there through many painful attempts at biblical, Matthew 18 conflict resolution.

Could we all agree that you shouldn’t accuse someone of “not listening” until you’ve actually talked to them and given them a chance to, you know, listen? And that this should probably be done multiple times before writing them off as “someone who doesn’t listen”?

Nevertheless, even when repeatedly approached in the most humble, gentle way, there will be people who still won’t listen. And there will be situations where Matthew 18:15-20 simply can’t be followed in a straightforward manner. For example, you might be dealing with someone outside of your local church. Or, perhaps the unreasonable person is a key leader in your church, and their abuse of power prevents a biblical charge from being brought forward even if it does come from two or three witnesses (1 Tim 5:19).

There may be even more extreme situations where spiritual abuse has reached a fever pitch and, for the sake of literal safety, someone needs to withdraw from a situation without any dialogue. (If you lived in North Korea, you wouldn’t have a sit-down with the government before trying to escape across the border, and sadly, North Korea is not an exaggerated metaphor for some dictatorial church environments.)

And yet, in all but the most extreme of these situations, it’s probably still the best plan of action to at least try to follow the Matthew 18 pattern as close as you can for as far as you can. We shouldn’t be in a rush to write someone off (1 Cor 13:7). We don’t want to assume the worst. We should long for restored relationship more than personal vindication.


4. A personal story

Shortly before I turned 20, I left a church I had been attending. It had its fair share of issues, many of them relating to the pastor and his family. I sought outside council, and was encouraged, on the basis of Matthew 18:15, to sit down with him to express my concerns.

I decided not to. Truthfully, I was intimidated by the prospect of such a conversation, but at the time I dressed it up in different language: “How could I follow Matthew 18 if the person I’m confronting is the pastor himself? It won’t work.” I didn’t think he’d listen, so I didn’t even try. Instead, I just left, and then—after I was gone—wrote a letter to the board detailing my criticisms.

My complaints were not all wrong. But they weren’t all right, either. By delivering a letter after my decision to leave was finalized, I closed myself off to the possibility of any push-back, questions, or even just clarification. I was happy to evaluate the church, but it had not occurred to me that my struggles with the church may have revealed areas in which I needed to be evaluated by them. Pride tends to blind you to those possiblities.

So I basically threw a grenade over my shoulder while walking out of the room. Because not all of my criticisms were wrong, they resonated. Two key leaders left the church shortly afterwards, with several others joining them. That church, small to begin with, was never the same.

It was a few years later when I came to realize that not all of my criticisms had been valid. Not only that, my entire approach had been wrong, driven more by cowardice than a commitment to Scripture. I did my best to follow up with the people involved and ask for forgiveness, but much damage had been done.

In the years since, I’ve had to have many Matthew 18:15 conversations. In every last one of them, I’ve come away learning something I didn’t know before. As I’ve led with questions instead of accusations, I’ve often realized how incorrect my initial perception of the situation actually was. I’ve had to say sorry more than once when I had previously assumed I was in the right.

I haven’t done this perfectly, and still have a lot to learn. I look forward to the journey, and am thankful for the patience of those who walk it with me.

May the Lord give each of us the humility to approach His word with faith and obedience, and each other with patient love, as we seek to walk “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3).

Chris Hutchison
Chris Hutchison is the lead pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Nipawin, SK. Have any feedback or questions about what you've read here? Send him an email at .

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