When it comes to conflict, many of us in the church run straight to Matthew 18, as though what follows in verses 15-17 is our textbook for resolving all conflicts in a godly way.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”
When someone has wronged you, you might be asked, “Well, did you follow Matthew 18? If so, you’ve done all you can do, and you have to let it go.”
But how does this all work in an Internet-driven world? How does this work when the perceived wrong is done by a whole church, or an influential pastor, or an entire denomination? How does this work when the “sin” is not something done to you directly, but something you worry mars the witness of Christ?
I don’t intend to answer each of these questions exhaustively, but I have wondered if keeping a few things in mind about Matthew 18:15-17 might frame the way we approach these conflicts and disagreements.
1. Matthew 18 should never be invoked in the case of abuse and/or major power differentials. A woman who has been harmed by an intimate partner should never be counseled to approach the intimate partner directly and confront the wrong being done.
2. Context, context, context. Immediately prior to this passage from Matthew 18, Jesus teaches the parable of the lost sheep. Immediately following this passage, Jesus teaches that forgiveness is something we do 77 times, and not just 7 times. The counsel of Matthew 18 with regards to church conflict and disagreement should always lead us to pursue reconciliation rather than “rightness.” The goal is not to be proved right, but to see restoration in a broken relationship.
3. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.” I wonder if we’d view this verse differently if we paused to remember how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. I wonder how this verse sounded to Matthew (also named Levi), the former-tax-collector-turned-Gospel-writer. If we paused to consider that one of the main accusations hurled at Jesus was that he was way too friendly and loving to Gentiles and tax collectors, perhaps we’d stop viewing this verse as the “and now you don’t have to talk to unrepentant sinners” clause of the Bible.
4. The Internet attempts to make everything our personal business. You only need to do a quick Google search to find the latest pastoral indiscretion, the latest controversy over a church across the country that has changed its policies, the latest movement in a denomination that has sparked an uproar. Is confronting these pastors, churches, and denominations really what Jesus was advocating for in his discourse on how to handle it when someone has sinned against you? Is publicly shaming these churches and leaders something we do with reconciliation and restoration in mind? I would contend that it does not need to be Christian Internet’s job to bring down every pastor, every church, every denomination that does not view things according to our ways. Yes, abuse needs to be spoken out against. No, we don’t need to make the leadership of every other church under the sun our personal business.
5. Convicting people of sin is a work of the Holy Spirit. Particularly in Jesus’ upper room discourse in the Gospel of John (John 13-16, and Jesus’ priestly prayer in John 17), the work of the Holy Spirit is explored. The Spirit “proves the world wrong about sin,” sometimes translated “convicts the world of sin” (16:9). The Spirit “proves the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment”(16:8). And, Jesus promised, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (16:13). We need to be very careful when reading Matthew 18 not to insert ourselves into the role of the judge. Our goal in coming to someone who has sinned against us needs to be restoration, not judgment.
6. God’s holiness does not depend on our ability to defend it. Matthew 18 does not begin, “If someone has made a claim that tarnishes God’s reputation…” We are not the defenders of God’s purity and holiness, as though in our fallenness we are capable of doing anything to protect God at all. We need to be exceedingly careful before proclaiming ourselves to be defenders of the purity of the Gospel, and we certainly can’t use Matthew 18 as justification for our defense of purity and holiness. Matthew 18 provides a guideline for dealing with sin that wounds in the life of the Christian and in the life of the church. If our God’s holiness depends on our ability to defend it, perhaps what we are actually defending is not God at all, but rather our prejudices, biases, and worldview.
The widespread reach of the Internet has made it difficult to know where to draw the line when it comes to holding each other accountable. Do we confront a friend over what has been posted on Facebook? Do we write scathing blog posts about what a church across the country is doing? Is every wrong in every church something that needs to become my personal business?
Sometimes I wonder if Inigo Montoya would listen to the way we bat around Matthew 18 as our reason for calling people out online and say, “You keep quoting that verse. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
It’s hard, and I don’t pretend to get it right all of the time. But, I think we need to use caution before hoisting Matthew 18:15-17 high as justification for our actions when we blast our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially via a public platform. What if rather than viewing the steps in Matthew 18 as progressive steps that lead to casting someone out of our fellowship, we viewed each as a call to be increasingly loving, increasingly humble, and increasingly teachable as we do the tough stuff of life as a body of Christ?
If we did that, perhaps it’d be the end of all the vitriol and tribalism that has begun to grow deep roots. Perhaps we’d start to live like Christ.