Friday, April 6, 2012

More on the Misunderstanding and Misapplication of Matthew 18: An Excuse to Draw Church Members Into the Star Chamber

 A review and further exploration of this modest passage of three verses Scripture.
Dealing with a Sinning Brother

“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.  But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’  And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.  Matthew 18:15-17

Johnson on Restoration

In the previous post, Pastor Kevin Johnson points out the proper uses and intent of the Matthew 18:15-17 passage as well as aspects of its misapplication and abuse. His first observation notes that the passage can be used as a weapon to intimidate and control. He notes the problems that clergy can pose when they insert themselves into the process of conflict resolution among members, an abusive practice that insinuates that clergy do need to police rank and file members of a religious community which the Bible likens to a family. But he also redirects us to note the loving mercy that the passage conveys as a way of reestablishing communication and relationship in a close and caring community of worship and faith.

He closes with Psalm 119 that highlights God's loving kindness with us, a disposition that we should be inclined to show to others, especially those with whom we share faith. This merciful disposition does not forgo or dismiss justice in the process, but repeats and affirms the message of the virtue of justice and righteousness. The passage also distinguishes this merciful attitude from the wickedness and oppression of men who oppose God's loving disposition towards His own.

Johnson makes salient points that I've heard echoed in the writings of others on the subject of the abuse and misuse of Matthew 18.

Jon Zens on Priestcraft

In a similar, concise commentary entitled When Has Authority Gone Too Far, Jon Zens points out some different specifics about the same observations made by Johnson. Zens notes that artificial hierarchies have been created in the Church and withnn some formal church governments which separate believers from leadership and create a sense of superiority among them. The New Covenant does not support this kind of distinction of power but affirms the priesthood of all believers, denying if not repudiating an authoritarian government within the church. I appreciate Zens' ability to elucidate these types of matters concerning the abuse of authority.

He notes a particular flaw in the teachings of Jay Adams concerning the process of Matthew 18 wherein Adams adds an additional process into what I will call a model for addressing serious sin into what appears clearly in the Bible passage. Concerning the third attempt to confront someone who has sinned against a member of his religious community, Adams declares that religious leaders should intervene as opposed to the whole community of members. Rather than approaching a person in sin that you hope to persuade and win repentance with kindness and goodness in a non-threatening manner by presenting the matter to one's peers along with you, Adams believes that religious leaders should be employed instead if not in place of the whole community.
Zens' footnote: Jay Adams, Ready to Restore (Pres. & Ref., 1981), 3-4, states that "laymen may counsel at the second level... but not at the third... At the third level, the officers, representing the whole church, forgive or excommunicate using the keys for binding and loosing."
Aside from the fact that this practice is not clearly spelled out in Scripture and makes no such mention of religious leaders at any point in the whole progression, it seems reasonable that employing authority figures adds an additional threat and potential fear of embarrassment and shame into the process. What is meant to be a gentle process of friends pleading lovingly for their friend to repent of sin that harms them and harms others, the process automatically becomes a measure of discipline. Even when the person in sin resists repentance, the passage of Scripture does not mention taking anything before the religious leaders. I find their mandatory addition to be punitive, making the repentance and reconciliation process a matter of discipline, and it implies a sense of permanence and commitment to a long-term consequence of formality. I believe that if Jesus meant for those in sin to be brought before councils within synagogues, just as he mentions a similar process of abuse in Matthew Chapter 5, He could certainly also have clearly defined a similar process in this passage. But He didn't.

I'm put in mind of wedding ceremonies where a vow is taken before the friends and family of the bride and group, not as a measure of discipline but so those closest to the couple can help support their good behavior and their commitment to one another. The process is one of support, love, and affirmation in optimism and care, not a process which gives the witnesses there a liberty to police the couple or to interfere in the marriage. If those witnesses have concerns for their loved ones, they are encouraged to admonish the couple to reaffirm and protect their love. They are not there for punitive purposes. Likewise, I find the Matthew 18 passage to be similar if not identical to this Christian tradition of family and love.
Sidebar: I also bear a weight of concern over this instruction, for Jay Adams is the creator of the system of “nouthetic counseling,” a concept of Christian counseling that views emotional and mental problems as rooted in some sin or willful resistance of God's grace. As a clinical nurse who deals with so many people afflicted with post traumatic stress as a consequence of spiritual and other types of abuse, and as someone who can appreciate the physical cause of many mental health problems and illnesses, I don't have a very high opinion of nouthetic counseling (a term which derives from the Greek word for “admonishment”). Certainly, if someone has a problem with sin which creates other difficulties and problems as sin does, then such counsel is warranted. But I find that in problems with abuse, nouthetic counseling revictimizes real victims who quite often do nothing to warrant the harm done to them. So it deeply troubles me that Adams adds another layer of potential harm to broken people and to victims in addition to the inadequacies that I already note within his system of counsel. In certain cases, it seems to actually facilitate abuse, specifically spiritual abuse. (What if the corruption rests with those leaders who can apparently circumvent the role of the whole community?)

I also find it curious that Adams does not appear to have any formal,peer reviewed training in mental health, mental disorders or physical health, yet he has established a program which rivals and replaces mental health counseling. His fields of study and training include Divinity, Arts in Classics, Sacred Theology, and Speech (which I am inclined to think, as a terminal degree without prior training in clinical speech pathology, must be a program in rhetoric or homiletics). Again, as a clinical based and trained nurse, I find this all a bit disconcerting. Concerning matters of sin, I'm sure that nouthetic material can be helpful, but in terms of clinical disease and the physical and mental aspects of both physical disorders with mental health effects and neurophysiologic disorders, I have great concerns about the efficacy if not safety of nouthetic counsel.

D.A. Carson on Suppression of Academic and Doctrinal Criticism

Another aspect of the abuse of the Matthew 18 passage that Johnson notes concerns the Christian's responsibility to speak out against injustice, naming names and holding abusive religious leaders accountable for their loveless actions. Johnson rightfully declares the manner in which Jesus challenged and confronted the Pharisees of His day. In a similar fashion, D.A. Carson also notes the duty of believers to address doctrinal concerns publicly and how Matthew 18 can be used to unfairly silence legitimate, academic and pastoral criticism of doctrine. His Editorial On Abusing Matthew 18 appears on the Gospel Coalition website. (Considering my own history with critics who are affiliated with the Gospel Coalition, I find Carson's fine editorial to be a bit ironic.)

Carson concisely makes three points in his post which I endeavor to summarize faithfully, though his short blog entry deserves a thorough reading:
  1. The scope of the passage is limited to affairs within a local group and does not apply to people who are not connected through established relationships of love and trust, based on what is specifically written in the original text.
  2. The sin in question should be of such a magnitude that it warrants excommunication if the person fails to respond to pleas for their repentance. Subsequently, it must also be possible for the discourse to actually result in excommunication. (Therefore, if a person is not an active part of the same body of believers who worship together or if the person is not part of some working relationship with a group that actually has the power to shun them, the passage cannot apply.)
  3. The passage should not be used to advance a “gotcha” game wherein one scholar uses the passage to engage in what he describes as something I would call a petty exchange. (He uses the terms “narrow-mindedness,” “condescendingly,” “dismissively,” and “judgmentalism.”) Furthermore he notes that the passage should not be used to suppress legitimate discourse concerning doctrinal error and disagreement. He affirms, as Kevin Johnson did, that our Christian tradition requires us to debate, defend, and advocate orthodoxy.

The next two posts will more specifically explore
Scripture pertaining to the duty to defend victims, to seek justice and care for them,
and what process the Christian should undertake to accomplish those tasks.