March 30

Matthew 18 Part 1: The Gold Standard

Matthew 18:15-17 has been the gold standard for settling disputes between individuals in the church.  In fact, it has been upheld as the ONLY way to settle personal disputes and has become a prime feature in cases of accusations of abuse.  But I think it warrants another look both at original meaning and how it is typically applied. 

Setting the Stage

Verse 15 sets the stage.  A brother has sinned.  The veracity of this claim is not in question; the guilt is asserted by Jesus.  A second brother is aware of this sin.  Depending on the source of the translation*, it could be that the first brother sinned against the second brother, or that the second brother has observed or in some way gained knowledge of the sin of the first brother.**  Either way, the first brother’s soul is in danger; he is estranged from his brother, and potentially from the church and the Lord.  The second brother is on a mission which may include one or both of the following goals: to rescue his brother from sin and restore him to the Lord and to the church; to restore the relationship between the two brothers.

Step 1.  Go To Your Brother

Note that in this scenario, the interaction is between two brothers, i.e. between two equals.  The second brother begins by going to the first brother for the purpose of “tell(ing) him his fault.”  The Greek word which is translated “tell him his fault” here, is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as reprove, rebuke, convince or convict.  So again, we see the assumption that the accusation of sin is true; the problem is in bringing the first brother to acknowledge and repent of his sin and to be restored to spiritual, and possibly relational, health.  If the second brother succeeds in this mission, he has “gained his brother.”  The idea is that he has earned or is rewarded with something.  That something is the restoration of his brother’s soul to the Lord and the repair of a broken friendship.

Step 2.  Take One or Two Others With You

But what if the first brother does not respond favorably to the entreaties of the second brother?  All is not lost.  The second brother must enlist the help of one or two others to go to the first brother again.  The second brother has tried to protect the reputation of the first brother by going to him privately.  But now the circle of knowledge must be broadened, although still limited.  Even if it is the case that the first brother’s sin is directly against the second brother, the second brother is bearing the burden of protecting his offender’s dignity and reputation.

What is the purpose of the additional witness(es)?  The practice could refer to Old Testament law.  Deuteronomy 17 protects a person from being put to death based on the testimony of only one witness.  Deuteronomy 19 says that a single witness is not sufficient to convict a person of any sin or wrongdoing.  These precautions are necessary to protect anyone from false and unsupported accusations motivated by revenge.  No one should be able to leverage institutional power in service of a personal grudge without due process. 

But in Deuteronomy, the witnesses are there to present evidence to the court, not to aid in confronting the guilty.  In Deuteronomy, the setting is public.  In Matthew 18, the setting is still private.  Those references in Deuteronomy seem to imply that others—or at least one other—have knowledge of the accused brother’s sin.  However, that condition is not explicitly stipulated in Matthew 18, and that is a crucial issue in accusations of sexual abuse, which by nature typically occur in secret, without witnesses. 

If there are other brothers who are aware of the sin of the first brother, they also have the responsibility to confront him about his sin.  Perhaps they have been afraid to do so.  Perhaps the second brother is the one whose love and courage are powerful enough to motivate him to address the sin.  Almost everyone with the motive of loving confrontation finds it a daunting, distasteful task.  Only a hard heart enjoys pointing out the sin of another.  Only clear-eyed love—first for God, and then for the brother—can overcome the temptation to leave it alone.  This is a decision point in the pursuit of both the peace and the purity of the church.

To what are the witnesses attesting?  Whether the sin of the first brother is known to only one or to more than one other has bearing on the process.  What if the sin of the first brother occurred in private interaction with the second brother?  If no one else was privy to the interaction, does that mean the second brother cannot pursue the issue past an individual appeal?  That option seems contrary to the overall intention and trajectory of the passage. 

Is it possible that the others come as witnesses, not to the sin of the first brother, but to the confrontation presented by the second brother and the reaction of the first brother?  Did the second brother speak with love and humility?  Did the first brother deny the charge, admit to the charge, repent of the charge, or defy the call to repentance? 

These witnesses could also provide an objective view for the second brother in case he doubts his discernment.  We are all prone to self-doubt when undertaking something outside of our comfort zone and are wise to solicit other viewpoints.

At any rate, following the instructions of Jesus, the second brother takes with him one or two other witnesses to confront the sinning brother.  Perhaps he is still not convinced and convicted.  He has refused to soften or bend after two entreaties.  The second brother has done all he could to protect the reputation of his brother.  This Scripture suggests that there is a time to stop the appeals, to stop bearing the burden of your brother’s sin alone, and to stop protecting the reputation of the first brother.  In other words, it gives us guidelines for setting boundaries.

Step 3.  Tell It To the Church

So now comes the final step, “tell it to the church.”  The second brother goes to the church to reveal the sin of the first brother and his unsuccessful attempts to win him back, and we come to a pivotal question:  what does it mean to “tell it to the church”?  I have never been completely at ease with the explanation that “the church” in Matthew 18:17 really means “the elders of the church.”  Most of the uses of the Greek word translated “the church” in the New Testament are referring to the assembly of believers, usually in a particular area, and the leaders are mentioned as distinct from the assembled believers, rather than as proxies for the whole church (see Acts 15:4, 22).

Moreover, the second brother does not come to the church asking for mediation or adjudication.  He comes to expose sin and to gain more help in bringing his brother to repentance.  The presumption of Jesus in this passage is that the church will accept the testimony of the second brother and his fellow witness(es), and join in the effort to rescue the first brother.  If this third and final effort at rescue fails to turn the first brother’s heart to repentance, then he is to be treated as a Gentile (an outsider) or a tax collector (a betrayer and thus an enemy).  He is no longer an insider, a brother, a part of the church.

I think this interpretation also fits the context of the passage.  The passage follows a progression of how to deal with sin in various circumstances.  Earlier in Matthew 18, Jesus condemns those in the world who put stumbling blocks in the way of vulnerable believers.  He goes on to admonish his disciples to ruthlessly cut out their own sin.  He speaks of the great trouble his Father will take to find and rescue a lost sheep.  The next link in the chain is how to follow their Father’s heart and example in finding and rescuing their lost brother.

A Parallel Passage

This passage in Matthew 18 finds a parallel in Galatians 5 and 6 where Paul warns the church about sin from the outside—legalists, Judaizers—before proceeding to call them out for sin from within—fleshly attitudes which are producing selfish fights among them. He itemizes the sins of the flesh and contrasts them with their opposites, the fruit of the Spirit, and admonishes the brothers and sisters to walk by the Spirit.  However, being a realist, Paul recognizes that some will fall into sin, so he moves on to instructions about what to do in that case.

Compare the instructions in the two passages:  "Now if your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have gained your brother”  (Mat 18:15) and “Brothers [and sisters,] even if a person is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual are to restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness; [each one] looking to yourself, so that you are not tempted as well” (Galatians 6:1).  The situation and intent seem to be very much the same—discrete, humble confrontation with the purpose of restoring the brother to Christ and the church.

A Contrasting Passage

In contrast, we have a passage in I Corinthians 6:1-8 which deals quite clearly with a dispute between Christians who have taken each other to court, and Paul is not happy.  In this case there is a call for mediation from within the church.  As in Matthew 18, the parties are equals—neighbors.  Paul says, “Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints?” (6:1)  He reminds the church that as those who will one day rule the earth and judge angels, at least some of them should have the wisdom to mediate personal disputes.  This passage may give warrant for the church to act as a court to settle interpersonal conflict.

These instructions in I Corinthians take us back to Deuteronomy 17:2-13 and the judicial process God set up for Israel.  Someone has found out, even by hearsay, that another Israelite is worshiping an idol.  God commands his people to investigate that situation thoroughly.  Perpetration of this crime constitutes breaking the covenant and is punishable by death.  However, the death penalty may not be exacted on the basis of hearsay or of only one witness.  We can infer that people must be interviewed, evidence must be collected.  Only if sufficient evidence and witnesses are identified can the execution be carried out.

Additionally, there are specific requirements for the manner in which the execution is handled.  The accusers must be the first to cast the stones of execution.  This requirement should give pause to anyone who considers making an accusation.  Am I sure enough about this accusation that I am willing to put someone to death by my own hand?  That is a stark reality to face.  Talk is cheap.  What am I willing to do to back up my talk?  Can I look the one I have accused in the face before initiating his execution?

After the accusers cast the first stones, the rest of the congregation must join in the stoning.  We cannot shuttle the dirty jobs off onto the few.  We are part of a body.  The body must act in unison.  Everyone must pay close attention to the facts and the process, to own it as their own.  The intent of this act is to burn the fear of God into the consciences of the people.  The same process and purpose is echoed in I Timothy 5:12, “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful [of sinning.]” 

The initial process is carried out by the leaders of the city “in the city gates.”  If the case is beyond their ability to adjudicate, they are to take the matter up the ladder, so to speak, “up to the place the Lord your God chooses,” (17:8) to be decided by the Levitical priests and the judge.  Their verdict is to be carried out to the letter upon the pain of death.  The purity of the church is to be protected.

The process labelled “Matthew 18” often morphs into more of the I Corinthians 6 model once the initial steps of a one-on-one confrontation and taking one or two others have been accomplished.  I think this a significant distinction to make in terms of application.  Words matter.  Clear thinking matters.  Integrity in application matters.

To conclude this section, here are the significant points I have tried to draw out in the Matthew 18 process.  1) This is a process involving two equals.  2) The guilt of the first party is not in question but is already established.  3) The goal is the rescue and reconciliation of the first brother, not settling a quarrel between the two brothers.  4) The motivation is mercy, not selfishness.  5) The church as a whole gathers around to help the second brother accomplish his mission.  6) There are other passages which speak more directly to the issue of quarrels between members of the church.

In Part Two we will consider how Matthew 18 has been misapplied, twisted, and weaponized in cases of accusations of clergy abuse. 

*Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include the phrase “against you.”

** One possible indicator that the sin in question has been committed against the second brother is the next passage.  After hearing this discourse, Peter seems to be contemplating the cost of accepting the confession and repentance of the sinning brother and forgiving him.  Perhaps he has in mind someone who has wronged him and asked for forgiveness many times over, and Jesus places on him (and on us) the requirement to forgive an unlimited number of times based on the frequency and magnitude of the forgiveness we have received. 


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