This Sunday the Gospel text is Matthew 18:15-20, a classic text in discussions of church discipline, and the first of two weeks the Revised Common Lectionary will spend in Matthew 18.
Though I seem constitutionally incapable of writing a genuinely short meditation, I’ll try to confine myself to a few observations on this text, especially in light of the ways it contrasts with common interpretations of it.
Matthew 18:15-20 and Church Discipline
This text gets talked about a lot when Christians consider church discipline. Sometimes that’s a formal affair, as in the Reformed Tradition where church discipline has a long and prominent history.
But also, the text comes up in the less formal conversations of independent evangelicals. Their the denominations may provide no formal procedures of church discipline, but Christians still find themselves feeling the need to deal with each other’s perceived misbehaviors.
And then someone suggests that they follow “the Matthew 18 process.”
The “Matthew 18 Process”
This is the one text where Jesus seems to lay out a very specific process for church discipline. And it does seem straightforward:
- 1. You spot the sin.
- 2. You talk to the offender.
- 2a. The sinner repents. Happy ending. Or…
- 2b. The sinner refuses. Go to step 3.
- 3. Take two or three witnesses and confront the sinner again.
- 3a. The sinner repents. Happy ending. Or…
- 3b. The sinner still refuses. Go to step 4.
- 4. Haul the belligerent sinner in front of the whole church for a public confrontation.
- 4a. The sinner repents. Happy ending. Or…
- 4b. The sinner still refuses. Go to step 5.
- 5. Exercise Discipline, i.e.,
- 5a. Cast the sinner into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, or …
- 5b. At least shun the rotten miscreant.
I would like to suggest that the above, though tidy, actually misconstrues Jesus’ instruction.
Notice in particular how the passage begins:
If another member of the church sins against you…
Matthew 18:15 NRSV
This translation says “another member of the church, but of course the Greek said “your brother.” The NRSV is being a bit more broad minded, assuming that the offender might also be a sister. They avoid other cumbersome possibilities and interpret Jesus as speaking of any member of the Christian family.
More importantly, notice that the NRSV, along with the KJV, the Message, and numerous other translations, says this is about when someone sins “against YOU.”
Not all translations include this phrase (see the NIV and NASB for instance). That’s because not all the Greek Manuscripts include the phrase. There is a textual variant.
Translators have to decide which variants are most likely to reflect the original text. Clearly there is a difference of opinion on this one.
However, just for today let’s take the view of the KJV, the NRSV, and the Message. Jesus, it seems, is not talking about anyone caught sinning in any way at any time. He’s telling you what you can do when you have been personally harmed.
In passing I’ll mention that the 1599 Geneva Bible included the “against thee” (with the footnote “If his offence be such, that thou only knowest thy brother’s offence.”)
Still, a couple generations earlier, in Calvin’s time, the expectation was clear that neighbors were expected to be on the lookout for neighbors who sinned, and turn them in to the church elders. (That’s part of why Reformed church discipline isn’t remembered all that fondly.)
I’d favor confining Jesus’ instruction here to cases where we’ve been harmed personally. He encourages us to take courage, speak up, and confront the one who has harmed us.
Two further notes:
First, obviously there are cases where the offense is extreme and personal confrontation would put the victim in danger. One has to use discretion. Sometime the offense is better reported to the police — and doing so doesn’t make the victim a bad Christian.
Second, and on a totally different topic, notice please that Jesus refers to people “sinning” against each other. Remember the modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer saying “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people object to this, saying that sin is only something we do against God, not something we do against each other. Jesus clearly disagrees.
“A Gentile and a tax collector”
There is, I have long believed, a deep misunderstanding about the end point of this process. I said, tongue in cheek, that if the accused sinner doesn’t repent, he or she is to be cast into the outer darkness with all the related weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus did, from time to time, use those words, especially at the end of a parable. But, in Matthew 18:15-20, that is not what he says should happen at the unsuccessful conclusion of a case of church discipline.
Here’s the actual text:
…and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church,
let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Matthew 18:17 NRSV
Historically Christian communities have leaned toward the “cast into the outer darkness” conclusion.
- In Geneva if not being allowed to receive the Lord’s Supper was not sufficient to bring repentance, sometimes the sinner had to leave town.
- Anabaptists were famous for a kind of shunning known as the “ban.”
But really, since this is Jesus saying to treat someone like “a Gentile and a tax collector,” we ought to stop and ponder how Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors.
- Jesus welcomed and cared for Gentiles.
- Jesus welcomed tax collectors, eating at their homes — like Zacchaeus in the image at the top of this post. (Sometimes he made them apostles.)
So what is Jesus saying we should do to people who won’t repent, even when publicly confronted about their offenses?
He is saying we should love them. We should welcome them and bless them.
The process makes clear that they are not living by the standards of the community. Here, in Jesus’ ministry, as “Gentiles” they would be acknowledged to be “not Jews” or “not Israel.”
But they are not to be condemned, or otherwise cast into the outer darkness.
Temptations of Power
Jesus says a couple other things here that we tend to take in troubling directions. He goes on to reiterate to all the promise made to Peter after his confession:
…whatever you bind on earth
will be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth
will be loosed in heaven.
Matthew 18:18 NRSV
And then he concludes (for this week’s reading, at least) with a promise we frequently relate to prayer:
…if two of you agree on earth
about anything you ask,
it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.
Matthew 18:19 NRSV
These statements pique our curiosity because they seem to promise so much. They seem to put so much power into our hands.
- If only we could figure out what it means to bind and loose stuff, maybe we could get direct action in heaven.
- If only we could find a technique to fully and perfectly agree about what we are asking for, maybe we could guarantee our prayers got answered.
Personally, I think that these are among Jesus’ odder sayings. They seemed important to him — he repeated them in a number of contexts. But it has never really been clear what we should make of them in daily Christian living.
And I will say, those who try to read them as personal universal promises find themselves both overwrought and in a bad place spiritually. We human beings don’t deal well with power. We are in trouble when we try to make the Christian life about having power, using God’s power for our own purposes.
If we think Jesus was making a deal which obliged almighty God to do our will, we pretty much have the whole ballgame backwards.
“I am there”
Better to focus on the wonderful, and eminently clear, promise at the end.
For where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am there among them.
Matthew 18:20 NRSV
That’s what we need in the life of faith: We need the presence of Jesus.
That’s what we need from community as well: We need to know that when we draw close to each other because we belong to him, Jesus is really there.
Not that the presence of Jesus solves all the problems.
- People still sin against us.
- We still need to be brave and confront each other about the harm we’ve endured.
- People who get confronted for their sins still, often, don’t repent. (Read the news. There’s a lot about this one going on right now.)
But we still need to gather in his name. We still need to seek his presence. We need to keep forgiving, keep following, keep loving, keep serving.
What power we get in the Christian life needs to be used, together, to love our neighbors.
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