Thursday, April 5, 2012

Principles Not Procedures: Understanding the Meaning of Matthew 18

Guest Post by Kevin D. Johnson

Originally published at Reformed
June 2008 and April 1, 2012

(emphasis added to original text by blog host)

No one doubts that Matthew 18 is a relevant passage in dealing with resolving offenses between brothers, but the procedure outlined in Matthew 18:15-17 is set in a very specific context that is often overlooked. In churches where spiritual abuse is occurring particularly at the hands of ministers and pastors who rule by fear, intimidation, and the inordinate and inappropriate use of Scripture–passages like this can become a very powerful weapon to accomplish and maintain abuse instead of legitimate repentance and reconciliation.

Much of the time, people find themselves caught in a web of spiritual abuse and don’t find out about what’s really going on until it is too late and much damage has already been done. By that time, families are divided. Husbands and wives in disagreement. Maybe even close to or already in separation or divorce. Children who don’t immediately understand the concerns of their parents and just want to see their friends at church again and never want to hear another word about what’s going on. Friends may even stare in disbelief at what you say and do in and out of this sort of abusive church world. Emotions and temperatures run high in an environment where the spiritual authorities in your life already have too much of a hold even after you break free from their grasp. All of this can lead to people being more impressionable than they might otherwise and it also lends itself to taking something like the above passage and allowing someone to outline and manipulate others based off a procedure rather than follow the higher principles that the procedure itself was designed to follow.

People caught up in this sort of spiritually abusive environment often have mixed feelings and may find it difficult to know who to believe when presented with clear evidence that their leaders lie and manipulate people–even when it happens right before their very eyes. It’s easy to look at something small and say, “Well, he wouldn’t really think of it that way, or he certainly didn’t mean it like that”. Or, “Maybe we’ve misunderstood him.” And on it goes. There comes a point however in almost every person who has found himself abused like this that he recognizes that this is a pattern and that unless something is done about it–it will never stop.

Sometimes efforts are made by well-meaning people trying to break out of a spiritually abusive mold to make their ministers conform to the Word of God in their practice and life and church members often don’t always go about it in a way which many people think it ought to be done. So the procedure goes…You have to confront the person privately first. If that doesn’t work, take some few with you and confront him again. If that doesn’t work–then and only then–take it to the church (and really you may generally be told that it shouldn’t ever get that far, will likely be unsuccessful, or that it’s really not your place as a believer to challenge those in authority over you). The tragedy is that if you don’t follow a procedure like this in many abusive church environments, you will be called on the carpet for disobeying our Lord’s words, acting against his ministers wrongly, and encouraging division in the covenant community.

As usual, however, there’s always more to the story and especially so than the one which abusive church leaders press before you. And, it can be quite the shocking thing to reach out to denominational officials only to be told that nothing really is wrong and this is likely just due to differences in opinion or your own overly concerned scruples in the matter. What many people fail to realize is that their abusive ministers likely received their understanding, practice of ministry, and even their corrupting abuses from others equally abusive and any notion of a real appeal in the church over and above an abusive session or consistory then becomes almost impossible. When you sit down and think about this for a couple of years or more it one day comes to you that men who press you on how to properly confront sin in your church are merely using these things to justify their own misdeeds much like the Pharisees of old took advantage of the differences in vows and other laws to give themselves an advantage in disobeying God’s Word and thinking they could get away with it.

We find out that a truly high view of the law of God is especially interested in the morality behind the law and not all the details presented to us in procedures and preferences. The moral law was the key to living God’s way even in the Old Covenant and that is no less true in our own days of the exercising of the New Covenant. It is this moral law that is written on our hearts and not the way in which men think we ought to exercise it. These moral principles take wisdom to exercise aright and it ought to tell us something that Jesus frequently criticized the wooden ways in which the Pharisees took the legitimate law of God and their traditions both to oppress others and to exercise their own undue privileges. It’s funny how certain wood is extremely bendable for certain purposes (like a minister’s preference about issues) and resolutely like oak in other instances (particularly where your obedience is concerned).

But, look how our Lord confronted these men who bore the marks of spiritual abuse in their own day.

Did he go privately first? Then take two or three? Then confront them in the temple or the synagogue? For that matter, did the prophets do likewise? The same prophets who these men who stood condemned by our Lord were the ones which were killed by their fathers. No. Our Lord called them out publicly. He laid their private deeds out for all to see in the open square of the day. When you realize how small of a world Israel at that time was (unlike our nation of some 300 million people) it was very obvious who he was speaking about and it is this very reason that the Pharisees and others put together plans to literally get rid of him. He exposed their wickedness for what it was. He made their insecurities and shortcomings plain. He said the things they never wanted said. He put light to the darkness. Effectively, he really did nothing less than name names. Interestingly enough, apostolic practice continued the prophetic tradition and followed our Lord in this when necessary.

But, the goal of the 18th chapter of Matthew concerning personal reconciliation of brothers is found in the context of Christian leadership. Both before and after the verses in question our Lord is talking to his disciples and to Peter. It has been noted by more than one that quite likely this passage about going to a brother privately and then taking two or more and then to the church is a process which is primarily concerned with dealing with sin in and among a circle of leadership that you are a part of since our Lord was talking to the would be leaders of the church as he outlined these things. These are the men who are to treat little children with the dignity they deserve granted to them by our Father in heaven, the ones who ought to be going after the one instead of the ninety-nine, and the ones who have received forgiveness at the hands of our Lord and should not forget that same graciousness when dealing with those under their charge who also owe them as well. That is the context of Matthew 18 and we find our Lord’s words about offenses in and among this context.

There is nothing in the passage that says that this is how a layman must approach a pastor or session in confronting sin. Wisdom should tell you that the deck is already stacked against you and to think this is the way to proceed in every case is to go well beyond what the basic outline of Matthew 18 proposes. Nor is there anything here in this 18th chapter as to how a person must confront their leadership at all with sin. It may very well be that the wisest thing to do in that type of situation is to leave as quietly as possible and not utter a word to the leadership or others that you have issues with what they have done.

To the extent that elders are faithfully teaching the Bible, you are to do as they say but as our Lord said, “do not do what they do” (Matthew 23:2). Do not think that you must follow a set of procedures that they demand to be followed while ignoring the greater principles involved in handling these things. Not everyone is called to be an Elijah, Nathan, or Jeremiah that works to bring down the corrupt leadership in the church or state today and it may be best for your family to graciously and quietly remove yourself from their abusive tendencies. On the other hand, it may very well be that God is calling you to take a stand against them and if so again the question is not how because God will help you with those details and things will likely progress naturally. The question is, “What is the right and just way to make sure the moral principles of the law of God and His grace for His people is uttermost in our concerns?”. In short, what is the wise way to proceed as our Lord leads you?

Astoundingly difficult to answer in a blog post. But the one thing you must keep in mind is that the Holy Spirit is within you and He will guide you. Lies and manipulation can have no power when you abandon the fear that corrupt elders project and have confidence that your understanding of the matter really is right. Think of our Lord’s words in Psalm 119 and consider its relevance to what I’ve outlined above:
121 I have done justice and righteousness; Do not leave me to my oppressors.
122 Be surety for Thy servant for good; Do not let the arrogant oppress me.
123 My eyes fail with longing for Thy salvation, And for Thy righteous word.
124 Deal with Thy servant according to Thy lovingkindness, And teach me Thy statutes.
125 I am Thy servant; give me understanding, That I may know Thy testimonies.
126 It is time for the LORD to act, For they have broken Thy law.
127 Therefore I love Thy commandments Above gold, yes, above fine gold.
128 Therefore I esteem right all Thy precepts concerning everything, I hate every false way.
129 Thy testimonies are wonderful; Therefore my soul observes them.
130 The unfolding of Thy words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple.
131 I opened my mouth wide and panted, For I longed for Thy commandments.
132 Turn to me and be gracious to me, After Thy manner with those who love Thy name.
133 Establish my footsteps in Thy word, And do not let any iniquity have dominion over me.
134 Redeem me from the oppression of man, That I may keep Thy precepts.
135 Make Thy face shine upon Thy servant, And teach me Thy statutes.
136 My eyes shed streams of water, Because they do not keep Thy law.
137 Righteous art Thou, O LORD, And upright are Thy judgments.
138 Thou hast commanded Thy testimonies in righteousness And exceeding faithfulness.
139 My zeal has consumed me, Because my adversaries have forgotten Thy words.
140 Thy word is very pure, Therefore Thy servant loves it.
141 I am small and despised, Yet I do not forget Thy precepts.
142 Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, And Thy law is truth.
143 Trouble and anguish have come upon me; Yet Thy commandments are my delight.
144 Thy testimonies are righteous forever; Give me understanding that I may live.
145 I cried with all my heart; answer me, O LORD! I will observe Thy statutes.
146 I cried to Thee; save me, And I shall keep Thy testimonies.
147 I rise before dawn and cry for help; I wait for Thy words.
148 My eyes anticipate the night watches, That I may meditate on Thy word.
149 Hear my voice according to Thy lovingkindness; Revive me, O LORD, according to Thine ordinances.
150 Those who follow after wickedness draw near; They are far from Thy law.
151 Thou art near, O LORD, And all Thy commandments are truth.
152 Of old I have known from Thy testimonies, That Thou hast founded them forever.
153 Look upon my affliction and rescue me, For I do not forget Thy law.
154 Plead my cause and redeem me; Revive me according to Thy word.
155 Salvation is far from the wicked, For they do not seek Thy statutes.
156 Great are Thy mercies, O LORD; Revive me according to Thine ordinances.
157 Many are my persecutors and my adversaries, Yet I do not turn aside from Thy testimonies.
158 I behold the treacherous and loathe them, Because they do not keep Thy word.
159 Consider how I love Thy precepts; Revive me, O LORD, according to Thy lovingkindness.
160 The sum of Thy word is truth, And every one of Thy righteous ordinances is everlasting.
161 Princes persecute me without cause, But my heart stands in awe of Thy words.
162 I rejoice at Thy word, As one who finds great spoil.
163 I hate and despise falsehood, But I love Thy law.
164 Seven times a day I praise Thee, Because of Thy righteous ordinances.
165 Those who love Thy law have great peace, And nothing causes them to stumble.
166 I hope for Thy salvation, O LORD, And do Thy commandments.
167 My soul keeps Thy testimonies, And I love them exceedingly.
168 I keep Thy precepts and Thy testimonies, For all my ways are before Thee.
169 Let my cry come before Thee, O LORD; Give me understanding according to Thy word.
170 Let my supplication come before Thee; Deliver me according to Thy word.
171 Let my lips utter praise, For Thou dost teach me Thy statutes.
172 Let my tongue sing of Thy word, For all Thy commandments are righteousness.
173 Let Thy hand be ready to help me, For I have chosen Thy precepts.
174 I long for Thy salvation, O LORD, And Thy law is my delight.
175 Let my soul live that it may praise Thee, And let Thine ordinances help me.
176 I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Thy servant, For I do not forget Thy commandments.
Psalm 119:121-176