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?