The Many Odd Uses and Abuses of Matthew 18
A strange thing happens from time to time when speaking to someone about God’s sovereignty in man’s salvation. Your conversation partner refers to John 3:16, over and over again. “But it says ‘whosoever.’” It is as though this is the single verse that the whole theological enterprise hinges upon! If one could only overcome that lone verse, then perhaps, the discussion may continue.
While I am using a bit of playful hyperbole in the above illustration, a similar oddity happens when disagreements and conflict within the body of Christ arise—Matthew 18 seems to become the solitary text of scripture able to be discussed. It is as though the whole enterprise hinges upon that single verse!
I am of course overstating things for the sake of drawing out the point, but let us consider some of the many ways Matthew 18 gets overused or abused within the Christian community.
- Note how the passage in question begins: “If your brother sins against you”. At the outset, we see what Jesus is regulating—what Jesus is speaking to—is personal offenses. A sin from one brother against another brother. In other words, personal grievances, person-to-person. There are many interactions in life, Christian-to-Christian, not governed by this passage, because interpersonal sin is not involved. And yet, seemingly every interpersonal interaction gets filtered through the lens of these verses. While we must never defend or excuse gossip, any whiff of disagreement mentioned to a third party, and you will likely hear the question: “yes, but have you followed Matthew 18?”
- Secondly, we must note that the passage explicitly states “if your brother sins against you”. In this context, we are speaking of actual sin—clear violations of God’s law against a fellow brother, not mere disagreement. If every variation of opinion between brothers had to be adjudicated according to Matthew 18, what a litigious church we would become!
I recall in a public meeting of the church, where a public speech was made by a brother, and in response, I publicly disagreed with what was just said. Shortly after the meeting, I received an email from him stating that if I had such a disagreement with my brother’s position, I had to first confront him privately before mentioning it in a public setting. Laying aside the sheer impossibility of knowing my brother’s opinion prior to him stating it openly in the meeting, if this is what Matthew 18 means, that every point of disagreement must be privately dealt with first, our lives would be nothing but continual one-on-one disagreements.
- The next point to note is that Christ is speaking of fellow believers: “If your brother sins against you”. He is not discussing in this passage how we are to relate to the world, or else the Apostle Paul’s dictum would come to mind: “I am not at all speaking of the world…since then you would need to go out of the world.” (1 Cor 5:10) If the Bible was calling us to confront unbelievers on every one of their sins, we would very much want to go out of the world! Instead, Jesus is speaking to interpersonal sin between fellow Christians.
- Next, Jesus speaks in increasing concentric circles in the passage. The sin is private between two parties, so it is first to be dealt with privately (Matt 18:15). Then, if it can’t be resolved privately, we are to increase the circle to a second tier by taking another with us, and less-privately confront (Matt 18:16). If the private matter cannot be resolved with one or two others, church authority is to be involved (Matt 18:17). Notice the assumption: this is a private matter, and therefore, we are to keep it as discrete as possible in seeking resolution.
Jesus is not addressing public sins or scandalous matters that the whole church would already be aware of. If that were the case, gross and explicit sins would then be drug into secrecy, to be resolved in secret. May it never be! And yet, sadly, it often is. The church frequently colludes to protect the group, and scandalous sin is quickly covered up and dealt with secretly.
Yet Jesus clearly has private and personal matters in mind in this context, not known and obvious sins, already in the open for all to see. Such scandalous or public sins must be addressed openly, that the whole church may see and fear (cf. 1 Cor 5:1-5). After all, we are a city on a hill, a light to the world (Matt 5:14)—may we ever act like it.
- In a similar manner, Jesus addresses public persons publicly. Recall his scathing condemnation of Herod (Luke 13:32), or his many public “woes” (i.e. “curses”) pronounced upon the pharisees (cf. Matt 23:13-39). We can almost hear the modern Christian retort: “Yes, Jesus, but did you confront all of them privately first?!”
Matthew 18 obviously is not dealing with matters of mass communication (e.g. academic publications, public posts, etc.) or persons of notoriety in their public dealings—or else Jesus would be condemning his own interactions with such figures. While believers must conduct themselves carefully, respectfully, speaking truth to our neighbor, and only that which is fitting of building others up—the 9th Commandment and Matthew 18 does not mean we cannot respond to public writings publicly.
This list could go on and on, speaking of how each new offense does not “reboot” the Matthew 18 process (or else one could keep on sinning afresh in order to derail any escalation of the steps), but allow one final and needed corrective:
- Matthew 18 is not speaking of abusers and oppressors. Jesus is speaking of “brothers”, not wolves. Would we ask Christ’s most tender and trodden upon lambs to go alone, and speak alone, with her predator before we can properly confront his sin?! Again, may it never be! And yet once again, sadly, it has often been so.
Even Old Testament case law has provision for “confronting one’s abuser” merely by “crying out” against him. In Deuteronomy 22:23-27, God permits the abuser to be stoned to death on the basis of the woman merely “crying out” for him to stop. In essence, this is sufficient to satisfy the “Matthew 18 process”, if I may be permitted to speak anachronistically about Deuteronomy for a moment. No further confrontation or escalation is necessary. An oppressor is dealt with as he ought—and not as an alleged “brother”.
While there are many ins-and-outs of proper interpersonal confrontation and disagreement, and time would fail us to delve into further considerations, might I commend to you a recent Gentle Reformation piece on making sure we keep communication between brothers as close and personal as possible as a means of concluding our present meditations.
May the Lord Jesus give us wisdom to rightly divide his word, and avoid any and all oddities and abuses of his precious truth.