Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Wrested Scriptures (3) - "tell it to the church"

Matthew 18:15-17 is quoted so often as a 'formula' for dealing with disputes between brethren that it's quite common to refer simply to 'Matthew 18' and most people know at once that it is this 3 or 4 step process that is being referred to. If someone says the church or an individual should "apply Matthew 18" then it is understood that a suggestion is being made to follow these steps.
"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."
Unfortunately, Jesus' words here are often quoted without their immediate context and consequently sometimes given a meaning contrary to their original intention. The preceeding verses are about rescuing lost sheep and acting with humility towards others. Jesus dramatically emphasised the importance of avoiding any action that might cause a brother to sin. These verses under consideration are followed in Matthew's account with a saying that we should forgive our brother, not seven times but "seventy times seven" (v. 22), and a parable about how our forgiveness should be generous, abundant and overflowing.

Yet this saying has often been used in a way which is far from gracious or forgiving. It is sometimes applied as a strict legal process ending in the offender being cut off from fellowship. I've seen the 'process' applied over a period of days. Here is an example based on real-life:

Step 1: A brother (or sister) has been rumoured to have committed some offence (or to hold some unorthodox opinion). An email is sent to them to ask if the rumour is true. ("If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.")

Step 2: It seems from the reply to the email that the alleged offender is denying the allegation (contrary to the information received from "a reliable source"), but there's something about the response which makes the enquirer suspicious that they are hiding something. A second email is sent, but this time a third party is copied in on the email. ("But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' ")

Step 3: The accused person becomes agitated that they weren't believed, or because rumours are being spread about them, and possibly because a third person has now become involved. They send off a quick response which is probably angrier in its tone than it might have been had they first slept on it. This just confirms in the mind of the enquirer that something is wrong. They forward the email on to the Arranging Brethren of the ecclesia. ("If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.")

Step 4: The Arranging Brethren discuss it at their monthly meeting, which just happened to be that evening, and agree that something needs to be done. A letter is sent to the offender before the week is out telling him that they want him to attend a special Arranging Brethren's meeting on the following Tuesday to answer the charges. In the meantime, because of the seriousness of the allegations, they advise that the brother has been suspended from all ecclesial duties.

Step 5: The accused brother takes offence at this heavy-handed approach and says he refuses to meet the Arranging Brethren until his accusers come to him face-to-face "in the spirit of Matthew 18". The Recorder sends urgent emails to all the Arranging Brethren, informing them of this development and of the brother's intransigence and his refusing to accept their authority. He's actually worse than they originally thought! They agree that "Matthew 18 has already been applied" (through the sending of two emails) and that as they have now reached the last step they have no alternative but to reluctantly withdraw fellowship ("if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.")

That might sound exaggerated but this example is based on real-life incidents. Is this what Jesus meant by forgiving your brother seventy times seven? Is this what He meant about going after a lost sheep? Or humbling yourself like a child? Or suffering personal loss in order to avoid causing a brother to sin? All these things are in Matthew 18, so whatever we do with these few verses we must interpret and apply them in this context.

The first thing we must do is to put this 'process' back in its context and take note of the words which immediately follow.
"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."
We should carefully note that these words are about "agreeing" and "coming together". Jesus hasn't changed the subject - this is actually the conclusion to the 'process' that He has just described. The whole object of the 3 or 4 steps in dealing with a brother who sins is to "win your brother over" (v. 15), to "agree" (v. 19) and to "come together" (v. 20). The climax comes in Jesus own asurance that if brethren follow these steps to resolve their differences and to be reconciled ("come together") it is because He is present and has been at the heart of the process of reconciliation.

This teaching is about forgiveness and reconciliation. It's obvious that the example above misses the point completely. So what is Jesus saying?

First, if a brother sins then go to him privately, face-to-face, and in a non-confrontational way and do whatever you personally can to help him get back on track.

If that fails, draw on the experiences of other mature Christians and use them as helpful resources.

If that doesn't help, then use the entire collective wisdom of the whole community of God's people ("the church" didn't exist as an institution at the time, so Jesus is either referring to the local synagogue [but then why not say "the synagogue"?] or, more likely, He is using a word from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible which means the community of God's people). In other words, get as much help as you can, draw on anyone you need to, get the whole community involved if necessary.

Finally, if that fails (and I imagine that that last step would take a very long time), then "treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector". What did Jesus mean by that? Was He suggesting that the offender should be treated with contempt and avoided at all costs? How did Jesus treat "pagans and tax collectors"?
  • He called them to be disciples (Matt 9:9)
  • He ate with them (Matt 9:10-11) and it shocked the religious leaders that he "fellowshipped" with such people
  • He was their friend (Matt 11:19)
  • He promised that they would go into the Kingdom ahead of the religious leaders (Matt 21:32)
The Synoptic Gospels all emphasise the special place the pagans, tax collectors and sinners occupied in the ministry and affections of Jesus. Can Matthew 18:17 be saying the exact opposite? Unlikely! I think what Jesus is saying is that we never give up in working for agreement or reconciliation. We forgive again and again and again ("seventy times seven"), maintaining a relationship with a brother who has sinned, and treat him as someone in need.

I really feel it's important that Christadelphians who have used these verses in Matthew 18 as part of their "disfellowship process" should re-look at them very seriously. I was recently astounded to see this teaching quoted to support a case for ecclesias standing together "collectively" in order to isolate another ecclesia which wasn't conforming. The minutes of a "Combined Meeting of the Arranging Brothers of 12 South-East Queensland Ecclesias" (on 18th June 2007) noted a recommendation that "all ecclesias should move forward collectively and not individually in the spirit of Matt 18" in order to put pressure on the ecclesia being discussed. Where on earth did they get the idea that to "move forward collectively and not individually" was the "spirit of Matt 18"?! It seems they have missed the point of Jesus' teaching completely!