I’m just curious… a lot of people say “Matthew 18” or “according to Matthew 18” or some similar shorthand when pointing out how disputes are to be handled within the church. It’s a quick way of saying that disputes are supposed to be private affairs and not public ones, that any form of correction should be done in private first and if the person won’t listen then you escalate. As one of my old college professors used to say after outlining a traditional position he was about to challenge…
OOh, really — ?
Correcting Another Believer
If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
Huh. Doesn’t say anything about people whose doctrine isn’t “sound” or doesn’t jive with the way we see it. It’s talking about people who sin. Huh. Well, whaddaya know?
Let’s press the point — is having bad doctrine a sin? If it is, then the passage could apply… but if holding wrong beliefs is a sin, how do we know which beliefs are wrong? Which one of us has the exact and completely correct version of Christian doctrine — the kind that’s not a sin? Isn’t God perhaps willing to accept those of us who may not have everything figured out “perfectly” a little lattitude? Oh, sure — there are a few critical doctrines that if you aren’t on board, the consequences are dire… perhaps salvation itself is lost. But in such circumstances, God doesn’t damn you for your wrong belief, but your wrong practice. The matter of your belief is pretty much a moot point by then. Listen, James 2 says, “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.” Let’s suggest that if right doctrine is not going to save you, wrong doctrine (of itself) is not going to damn you.
Wow. Are you getting that? If holding some theological point that’s a little off is not a sin, then Matthew 18 is not a prescription for dealing with doctrinal error… and rather than “doctrinal error” we should probably say “doctrinal differences” instead since we shouldn’t be so arrogant as think our ideas or understandings are always right. I mentioned this yesterday, talking about the use of the term “heresy.” I suggest we also humbly save the phrase “doctrinal error” for those we might almost prepared to call a heretic… bearing in mind what I’ve already said on that subject.
Well, still in James 2, those who insist that proper doctrine is necessary to salvation are placing themselves under the burden of the entire law. If you want to go that route, you can go there without me… I can’t keep the whole law, and I can’t guarantee that every jot and tittle of my theology is perfect in every way, for I don’t know every detail. How could I? I only see the general shape of things, as through a glass, darkly. But that’s enough.
The lectionary readings for last week included 2 Kings 5, and I was fortunate enough to hear Calvin Seerveld exposit part of the passage briefly this past Sunday evening at St. Ben’s. The reading from 2 Kings 5 on the healing of Naaman was done chorally, with different participants around the room… and I was struck in particular by verses 17-19. I was pleased when nearing the end of his address, Seerveld moved from the Gospels into 2 Kings, and specifically to these verses (I wish I could give you Seerveld’s own translation) and highlighted the thing that had struck me from the whole passage, something I’d not really seen before, until the reading that evening.
You probably know the story of Naaman’s healing, so I’ll cut to the chase in the verses I mentioned. Basically, Naaman comes back to Elijah later in the narrative after humbling himself to dip in a foreign river, and proclaims that he’s only going to worship YHWH from now on. He even asks to take a mule-team-load of dirt back home with him to facilitate such YHWH-worship, so we know he’s serious. At the time, deities were believed to be territorial, so he needed Israelite dirt with him to ensure that YHWH would be there to worship when he stood on his little patch of Israeli soil. His theology is perhaps not as orthodox as we might demand today… but his heart was in the right place. For his part, Elisha had a bit of a history of demanding total obedience to the Law of God… and fairly ruthlessly so. Naaman continues his little rambling about his newfound commitment to YHWH, remembering just then a little problem he was bound to face. “Oh yes, and just one more thing…” he says, explaining how he goes into a foreign temple with his master to worship there, and would be needing to bow alongside his master in that temple. “May YHWH pardon me in this one thing,” he says, really asking Elisha a question despite the wording. And Elisha says, “Go in Shalom.”
Hold the phone.
Naaman is taking dirt to worship YHWH like any other territorial deity with a lower-case “g” and he’s also being so bold as to ask forgiveness for also turning up to worship in another temple because it’s kind of a job requirement, and his heart’s not going to be in it anyway. And Elisha the hard-nosed prophet says, “Go in Shalom.” You gotta know, Shalom is a pretty significant word. Naaman’s poor doctrine and unfortunate pagan context is not going to disrupt the Shalom of YHWH in his life.
Are you getting this? What do you think? Care to conclusify any further from what we’ve got here so far?
That’s funny I almost wrote a whole thing on the 2 Kings passage yesterday… The whole Naaman passage really shook my world when I first encountered it, but has since helped me in accepting others. And even if the Matthew 18 passage is used, the end result is to treat people like a pagan or tax-collector – and how did Jesus treat those people? He welcomed them, ate with them, and loved them. This is all a lot messier than we would like it to be.
It is a personal pet peeve of mine that Matthew 18 has been hijacked as a model of institutional church discipline and been used to justify much abuse within the church.
From my point of view, this passage describes a common-sense approach to reconciliation. In fact, I believe “sins against you” refers to a personal offense that may or may not be an ongoing “sin”. And I agree with Julie in that even if the attempts at reconciliation fail, we are to love our “enemy.”
Great points on latitude in doctrine and imperfect theology. Regarding the Driscoll issue, my final conclusion is that that it was incredibly dishonest of Mark to implicate the beliefs of these 3 men based upon the words and writings of other people. Those implications are now being spread throughout the church realm as if they were in fact the true beliefs of these men, when in fact, almost everything that Mark expounded upon cannot be directly attributed to Brian, Doug, or Rob.
Enjoyed the part about Naaman. Thank God our shalom isn’t dependent upon our own perfection!
Actually, I think that 1 Cor. 13:1 would be a far better standard to use in these circumstances than Matthew 18. We can’t hear the correction because it’s lost in the clanging gong, rather than being spoken in love … and you cannot (absolutely can not) speak in love in a public context like that. It must be done in private.
Sorry if I come off sounding absolutelist … I’m writing something with more depth and texture in my head and it’ll be up in my own space later today.
LOL … yeah … I saw that comic … and arguably that wouldn’t meet the standard either. ;-)
Interesting points. I think there are few things that can help us decide when it is and isn’t right to go to court.
First, I laud your example of working through a hard issue with another business. I think that sounds like exactly the right approach. But to me, I think 1 Cor 6 is speaking mostly about within a church (if not “the church”).
So, on your other points, I would suggest that some of your examples (such as abuse and the issue of paying women less) may be subject to criminal law as opposed to civil law. 1 Cor 6 speaks about lawsuits, i.e., civil law. If there are church elders/pastors/staff committing criminal offenses, then “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – don’t sue them, turn them in. I have never read in the Bible that lawbreakers – criminals – should be shielded from the law.
When it comes to lawsuits, however, I still DO think this is a pretty clear passage. For most vanilla “every day” cases (if there can be such things – perhaps real life always serves up problems of Jesuitical complexity), the right answer may ultimately to have the best revenge by taking one’s tithes, volunteer work and seats in the pews and going elsewhere and being happy. I am not saying church shop/swap whenever there’s a rankling disagreement, but if it gets to the point of suing, perhaps the better answer is departing.
My (least) favorite example on all of this remains churches and denominations suing each other over who owns a specific church building. At the end of the day, if it comes to that, we’re all very off in the weeds.
Does any of that make sense? I am trying to find my path on these thoughts as much as you and the others here.
Love, love, love this post! So often the Church gets caught up in black and white thinking, stamping out any room for grey in pursuit of nailing down every piece of doctrine. But as I see it, Jesus was nailed down to free us from such rigid doctrines. Should we test all things? Yes. Should we cast off everyone that comes to a different conclusions on the grey areas of faith? Absolutely not. Thanks for writing this. Feel free to stop by my blog, that often questions Christendom, anytime! :)
The first link is to the writing of a Southern Baptist seminary professor as posted on a missionary’s blog; the second is to a blog post I wrote after pondering what I’d read.
My two cents, from my normal covenant context, would see “sin” as breaking covenant…which is much broader than we normally think. It is to fail to look out for your brother’s best interest–which speaks to self-interest at the expense of one to whom we owe a debt of justice and mercy in humble spirit before God (so, Micah 6:8).
The form that this covenant breaking takes can be anything–all the things that have been mentioned! “Bad” doctrine can be at issue when it leads me to fail to love God and other properly.
The bottom line is that we must first own up to the offence–because otherwise we break covenant ourselves! If a brother/sister breaks covenant with me and I don’t bring it to their attention with a mind toward reconciliation…but instead talk with someone else about it (gossip) or harbor anger or bitterness in my heart, then I have compounded the sin and what a mess it becomes! Instead of functioning as an ambassador of reconciliation, I have been ensnared in the sin myself…we’ve heard Paul speak of this on a number of occasions! Pride does, in fact, come before the fall…especially when it is pride mascarading as humility (false humility, that is). It is the “lording it over” rather than the mutual submission that comes into play so subtly.
I am humbled. You bring up good points.
OTOH, I am gratified that you get my point, i.e., we always think that the power structure is in “the church”, i.e., the formal body, having the power, being able to shun and discipline us. But in reality WE ARE THE CHURCH, are we not? And as such, WE have the power to shun and discipline, ultimately by not showing up, by having an Exodus from the CLB. The ultimate discipline for abuse is to withhold attendance and funds from the abusers. Without us, they have NO POWER. Only God has power.
Per the shameful/shaming thing – perhaps we’ve lost the true power of shame. If we really knew shame, then perhaps Paul’s admonition would bring us back to the right track, as presumably it did for the Corinthians (or else the epistle would not be considered canonical). I wonder if our surrender to litigation because “that’s the way our society just is” simply is like a fish not being able to see the water it swims and breathes in, any more than we can see the air. But does not Paul call us to see that very thing, and realize it doesn’t have to be?
God’s peace and blessings,
This has been a very interesting conversation. I wish I could have gotten into it earlier. The personal reconciliation aspect of Matthew 18 is so very important, and yet it is usually overlooked in the great shadow of “Church Discipline”. All of the commands in Matthew 18 are singular – they are directed only at the person who was sinned against. This is the person who should approach his brother, who should take a few with him, who should tell the ekklesia, and who should treat the “sinner” as a pagan and tax collector. This is difficult to see in English because we use the same subject/verb for 2nd person singular and plural. Jesus does not instruct the ekklesia in this situation. The instruction is given to the individual.
I have been on the receiving end of false accusations of heresy from denominational leaders. Had Matthew 18 been followed (instead of jumping straight to sending lies up the denominational ladder), our church would still be in its former denominaiton, and relationships developed over 20 years would not have been seriously harmed by a man who started a series of lies, and did not have the integrity to repent. Of course, as expected the corporate structure worked to save itself, and we got burned.
I have seen that the basic principles of this passage are indeed necessary to follow – not by the letter of the law, but by the spirit. To break this model places accusers in the position of not having sufficient information, and yet passing judgment. To break the principles negates the relational model of the kingdom, and allows us to justify a corporate model based in bottom lines, and convenience – but the kingdom of God is not convenient.
In respect to heresy, of course the issue is unique – but the principle in Matthew 18 does show us that what is private should dealt with privately first, and what is public can be dealt with publicly (i.e. Peter getting taken to task by Paul over not eating with the Gentiles.) In doctrine a full understanding of what a person means is critical as well – especially in a day when we are adapting our communications to reach people. It can too easily be assumed that new words, new lines of reasoning are a change in belief, when they may simple be a new way of saying the same old thing. and of course…too much to say about heresy and doctrine…I’ll stop here. ;-)