Justice and Matthew 18

One of the common problems that arises among Christians who are committed to resolving conflicts (as possible) the way the Bible says to do it is the problem of thinking that Matthew 18 is an all-purpose text toward that end. It is thought that whenever disagreement of a substantial nature arises it is necessary to work through the problems by going through the steps of Matthew 18. But Matthew 18 is describing one situation in which the biblical principles apply, but is not itself the universal method.

“Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:15-20).

Notice first the particulars here. If your brother sins against you. The principles of two and three witnesses apply in all situations where the facts are disputed, but the process here is particularly geared to a private dispute. When Peter compromised at Antioch, and withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentiles, did Paul have to follow “Matt. 18” before he confronted him publicly? No, the sin was not against Paul, but against the whole church. The sin was not committed in private, but rather in public. The facts in this situation were not disputed, but rather the dispute was over the meaning of the facts.

Let us say that a well-known Christian leader writes a book denying the Trinity. He is published by a well-known Christian publishing house. I write a review of the book, taking him to task. Invariably, someone is going to contact me and ask if I “followed Matt. 18” first. The answer is no. Now it is possible that this kind of thing will have attempts at private resolution behind the scenes, but since the offense is public, it has to be addressed, at some level, somehow, in public.

Now this means that I need to sure of my facts. If I accuse him of heterodoxy on the Trinity, and I do so because of my ignorance of certain things taught by the Cappadocian fathers, then in shooting from the hip in this way, I have wronged him. But I have not wronged him because I didn’t follow the Matt. 18 process. I have wronged him because I got it wrong — I misinterpreted what he was publicly doing or saying. But if I interpret it correctly, and the offense was against the Church, not me, publicly done, not privately, then a public correction is certainly in order.

Bringing this to a point of application, which has been a point of discussion on this blog recently, when people without accountability undertake to make accusations about an incident that happened thirteen years ago that they did not witness, and they do so on the basis of accounts that they did not read carefully, the Matt. 18 process does not apply. Neither does the Paul and Peter scenario from Antioch apply. What applies would be more like the trouble-makers following Paul around, telling people that he says yes, yes, and no, no. Can’t trust anything he says. The Church has always had such “catchers-at-words.” They must be answered to the extent that their questions raise pastoral problems. But they do not have be answered because their questions deserve answers.

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