Friday, April 13, 2012

Postulating Matthew 18 as Love for Sinners that is Balanced with Respect for the Destructive Nature of Sin

I received an email from a kind and gentle pastor past week who wrote to me about the use of Matthew 18 as a model for church discipline. The passage does talk about sin, and as he put it, the offended person doesn't necessarily need to take the offense all the way through the process, requiring that a matter be taken before the congregation. The passage does present a model for confronting another believer about sin over which they do not repent, and if a church leader needs to confront one of their parishioners, this is certainly a good model which lays out principles for doing that. As Pastor Johnson noted, however, he sees it as more of a matter of principles as opposed to a formal procedure.

I think that the subtle difference between using it in the right way and using it in the wrong way have to do with the focus for its use. Is it used because of loving concern for a sinner, pleading for them because of the harm of sin, or is it used primarily to punish sin like the Pharisees did?

I also heard this same question from another well-educated reader whom I greatly respect:
Thinking about Matthew 18, I just realized something that I have never considered. I'd like to know your thoughts on this.

I have always heard of Matt 18:15-17 as referring to church discipline – i.e., the proper steps to follow in order to remove someone who refuses to repent from church membership, as in Paul's command to the Corinthians to
"Expel the wicked person from among you" (1 Cor 5:13). I suppose this is because the third step in the process, after having first gone to the person on-on-one, then with a witness or two, is to "tell it to the church."

If the person refuses to listen to the church, the final step is to
"let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector." The usual interpretation I've heard of this is that the church is then to remove the offender from membership, thereby saying to the person and to the world that he is not to be considered a fellow believer unless he repents.

Some churches are more heavy-handed in their approach to church discipline than others. Grace-minded Christians usually consider the overall intent as redemptive in nature -- the goal of removing someone from membership is not just to keep the church "pure", but it is done in the hope of bringing about repentance in, and ultimately restoration of, the offender.

I agree with the concept of church discipline for this purpose in general, although I think we tend to approach it from too much of an institutional mindset rather than a relational and organic one. We treat it as if we were kicking someone out of a club, when we should see it more like a family who is setting boundaries in their relationships with a fellow family member who is engaging in self-destructive behaviors.

But what I am really starting to wonder if the Matthew passage has anything to do with church discipline at all. I looked at the Greek for the passage, and I was struck by the fact that the phrase
"let him be to you" (esto soi) is singular rather than plural. That is, it doesn't say "let him be to you (plural, the church collectively), like a heathen and a tax collector" but it says "let him be to you (singular, the one who was sinned against) like a heathen and a tax collector."

Thus, it seems to be describing this pattern:
  1. Someone sins against me personally.
  2. I go talk to him about it individually. If he repents, great, we're cool. If he doesn't,
  3. I take a person or two with me (presumably people we both know) and talk to him again. If he repents, great; if not,
  4. I tell the church about it (presumably to hold him accountable, possibly to warn others, hopefully so the person will repent). If he repents, great; if not,
  5. I (individually, not necessarily the church collectively) alter my behavior toward the person and relate to them as I would someone I did not trust, i.e., heathen (a person who doesn’t share my beliefs and moral values) and as a tax collector (a selfish person with no ethics)
It sounds like this is saying, in essence, if someone sins against me personally, and if I can't get them to repent of it, I am simply not to trust them like I would a believer who has not sinned against me or one who has repented of their sin. It doesn't say anything here about how the rest of the church is to respond to such a person.

While there are passages that deal with the concept of church discipline (particularly 1 Cor 5), this passage doesn't appear to be one of them. In fact, it seems pretty obvious that Paul wasn't following Matt 18 in his approach to the church disciple he called for in 1 Cor 5, as he condemned the man's public sin in a public way and called for a public response, with no possibility of first going to the person individually, since Paul was writing from another location.

In short, I am starting to think that it is an error to use Matt 18 as a pattern for church discipline, or as a reference to anything other than how an individual should handle a personal offense.

What are my thoughts?  My first one is that I'm glad that I don't have to discern all this all by myself, and the second is that I'm glad that I'm not a pastor or elder!  It calls for so much wisdom, and the ramifications of actions on behalf of the Church are profound, especially when handled improperly and without love.

These emails both prompted me to think about the term “church discipline” itself, one that has become a highly loaded term for me personally. I come from a background in my adult life wherein Matthew 18 was used as a purely punitive measure, though as a child growing up, I observed others using the principles differently.  It might classify as discipline, but I didn't think of it as such.  In writing about the abuse of these three little verses, I may have given a lopsided view of their meaning. They do give us principles or what we might think of as tools that we can use for dealing with both sin and offenses, teaching us to deal assertively with people. If you have a conflict with someone, take the high road and go directly to them, especially before you go to others to gossip under the guise of talking in order to feel justified and righteous. People tend to avoid the unpleasant experience of the personal confrontation by avoiding confrontation altogether, but this Scripture prompts us to go to the source to deal with it in a way that is fair to the person in sin and the person who is concerned for them.

The letter of what is written lays down these principles, and the spirit of what is written is one of sober contrition, undergirded by love. I think that to get the letter of it right, you must have the correct spirit of it also.

Going Soft on Sin? God forbid!

Some may take this view as a demonstration of what some of my fellow Christians call my personal “antinomianism” (literally, “against the law”) believing that by showing compassion to those who sin, that I reject righteous living and moral law by not balancing grace with personal responsibility. Some also say that because I associate with sinful people who are not evangelical Believers and do not shun them, I do not resist sin. Considering that so much has been said here on this blog about showing compassion to others in their sinfulness to draw them to repentance through kindness, I wanted to add a word of balance. As imperfect beings, I think it's unreasonable to demand perfection of ourselves and others, but we should aim to live up to the standard of perfection, too.

We are called to be holy and are held up to a standard of the holiness of Jesus, and the Apostle Paul states that this working out of these matters is a process of fear and trembling. Sinning is a sober matter. When we sin as believers, I think of it as showing a lack of attentiveness to what Jesus did for us. We should want to honor Him by “hitting the mark” out of love, honor, and holy respect for Him, and “missing the mark” (the literal translation of sin) could almost be seen as a disrespect for what Jesus did for us. In our humanity, we take a cavalier attitude to what Jesus did for us, and we tread on Him. Something I find precious in the liturgical church setting which speaks of this respect for Christ's sacrifice is the act of the pastor during the Eucharist when he finishes the communion wine. My parents always joked that this was because the priests were drunks and didn't want to waste good wine, but it is necessary in the ritual as a show of respect for the Blood of Jesus. Symbolically, not a drop of it is ever wasted and never falls to the ground as something that is ineffective, so the minister partakes of the excess.

I also think of the idea of the fear of the Lord. I once heard a college professor explain the fear of the Lord in this way. She said that she thought of the analogy of what it would be like if you actually had the opportunity to sit down with Jesus to eat a meal. You would dress the table in fine linen and prepare the best food, and you would want all to be perfect, all possible because of the gifts and resources that God supplies to you.. If during the dinner, you spilled the red, red, wine on that pristine, immaculate, fine linen tablecloth, how would you feel? I think that my desire to be perfect, in a meal and in an evening of perfection would crush my heart if I ruined it. I would also be undone in my embarrassment, as it would be one of the last things that I would want to see happen or that I would want to do. She said that this is what she thought of when she thinks of the “fear of the Lord.” The consequences of “missing the mark” are not condemnation, but they are a show of our humanity when we most want to offer God perfection. Getting to that place is a life-long process that we never complete in this life.

In wrestling with a particular sin of my own, I really had to learn how to view the dangers of that particular sin. Right brained creature that I am, I needed a picture in my head to help me really commit to overcome this sin which actually still comes quite easily to me. I chose to view that sin as something as deadly to me as a rattlesnake. I actually liked the analogy, as a rattlesnake gives you a warning to allow you a chance to respond – resisting sin which will then flee. Snakes hate direct confrontation and will seek to slither away instead, save when they are ready to overcome their prey. I found the “Don't Tread On Me symbolism helpful also, because it spoke to me to respect the power of sin, one to be resisted. Reticence to sin not only speaks to my relationship with God, but it is also the ultimate toxin, a truly deadly thing. Even from the beginning of the Book of Genesis, sin requires death. I have heard some ministers speculate that God have dressed Adam and Eve – not in tanned skins – but in fresh and bloody skins of the animals that died in their stead to cover their sin of disobedience. Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin (Hebrews 9:22).

An Example of the Spirit of Matthew 18:15-17 in Context

I attended a very small church as I was growing up, and everyone knew one another pretty well. I couldn't have been more than eight years old, and I suspect that I was even younger as I watched our pastor deal with a really problematic sin in one of our members. I don't know the details about how things unfolded, and if I did, I don't know that I would remember what happened when. In fact, I probably went for decades without thinking about it, and at one point, forgot all about it.

The matter concerned our Sunday School Superintendent whom I saw every Sunday morning, standing in the basement of the old church after we joined together as a group to sing and pray before scurrying off to our individual kids' classes. I loved this sweet man who was there every week, and I saw that he had real joy in his heart and love for God. I remember on one of my birthdays, he was the one who gave me a little gift, and I felt so honored as he lead the singing of our Assemblies of God version of “Happy Birthday.” (“...Every day of the year, may you find Jesus near...”) I knew that the man meant it. He was very sanguine and engaging, and I found him to be very genuine.

Apparently, he had a problem with alcohol, and I believe that everyone in our small congregation knew of his history. He may have given a testimony about it when he became a believer. At some point, he fell back into drinking, and the church (primarily the pastor) did all that he could to encourage him to be sober.  I don't know whether he came to church drunk at some point or exactly what happened. I remember my mom explaining when I asked what had happened to him, long after I first missed seeing him in the back of the gathering area in the basement on Sunday mornings. She told me with sorrow about his terrible problem with drinking that he had not overcome, and I had the impression that everyone was very patient with him. I know that they did not require that he leave the care of the church, but I suspect that he was not permitted to remain in that post he held.

What I do remember vividly is the experience of watching my pastor weeping with him. Our pastor was very involved with individuals, and he would talk with children and parents about the problems they faced, pulling them out of Sunday School to talk with them in the pastor's study. I saw the pastor meet with this man, and I saw them both weep together many times. I remember seeing my pastor weep for the first time at the altar with this man, a memorable moment. The only other adult male that I'd seen cry up until that point was my godfather who wept at his daughter's funeral. I remember thinking that this was a kind of death – the death of high expectation as it collapsed into disappointment for this fine man who struggled so – a man we all loved. We were all wounded.

Setting the Bar for Matthew 18:15-17

When I think of Matthew 18, I think of this Sunday School superintendent whom we all loved. In Christ, we are all members of one another, and his struggles were our struggles as a Body. We shared them, and we were concerned for his soul and his well being. I never understood that the church or the pastor understood that they were trying to eradicate sin in order to keep the church pure or because they were offended because of his behavior. It was a tragic thing. I cannot get the image of my weeping, loving pastor out of my head. He set a high standard in my mind for all who would follow. About a decade later, I saw the same kind of caring love when confronting sin in the person of my mentor, Michael Hanks. He was tough on conduct, but he confronted sin in humility and in love. I think that both these men looked past the error in others and could see the best in the person – that they could see and appreciate and believe in the goodness of promise in others, even when those people couldn't see it for themselves. Love hopes and believes good things about people, and love covers those sins. It doesn't mean that the sins are ignored, but these men dealt with sin in a spirit of love that I've seen in few other Christian leaders.

We can't wink at sin, and we should treat it soberly – like a poison that brings forth death. We cannot allow mercy to come in before justice has done its work, otherwise we will never give due honor to what is right and true, and we will become calloused to truth and justice. But once justice has been established in love, looking past the wrong to see the possibility of goodness in others that comes about through and in Christ, then the kiss of mercy can bring comfort and restoration. We can't forgo one to get to the other, just because the process of justice can be painful and difficult because we don't want to hurt one another.

Can Matthew 18 be a guide for how to discipline someone? I still bristle at the term in that context, but perhaps that is semantics. I guess that the subtle difference I see is that the most important thing in the process should be love and concern for the brother who is in sin and resists repentance, not one of “setting everyone straight” in a spirit of cold discipline. Many talk of being “Matthew 18'ed” and of being called before their church leaders in a process that is adversarial. When approached as a legal process, the eradication of sin becomes more important that the heart and well-being of the person who is in serious error and whose eternal soul is threatened. 

What is the focus? The soul of a beloved friend or the “purity” of the church? Both are important, but what does this passage really speak about in context? My examples taught me that it was a process of drawing a loved one away from peril. I don't see much of that kind of love anymore. I haven't seen it done well in almost thirty years. I hope to see that kind of love lived out again, and I have faith that I will.

Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently:
Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.
1 Peter 1:22-23

More to come about the “publican,”
forgiveness, reconciliation,
and Peacemaker Ministries.