Let’s Talk Publicly About Matthew 18

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(H/T (cup)cake_eater, Flickr)

My last year at Yale I was able to take Systematic Theology with Miroslav Volf.

It goes without saying that there are many things I will always remember from that class, but one that especially stuck out to me was the time Prof. Volf shared his least favorite verse in the Bible.

To be honest, the cynic in me was excepting to witness the cynic in Prof. Volf. I figured he would rattle off a string of cliché/misunderstood passages like Jeremiah 29:11 or that maybe he’d go old school and rant about the prayer of Jabez.

But he didn’t.

Being the great theologian he is, he took the issue seriously.

So what was Miroslav Volf’s least favorite verse in the Bible?

Romans 9:22.

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction?

By least favorite, he didn’t mean he just doesn’t like that verse, so he dismisses it out of hand. He doesn’t like Romans 9:22 because as a confessing Christian he has to deal with it no matter how loathsome he may be to do so or how clearly it seems to stand in stark contradiction to the gospel because, well, it’s in the Bible. So, he must wrestle with it.

His honesty got me to thinking about what my least favorite verse in the Bible might be.

Romans 9:22 would certainly be near the top of my list too, but Matthew 18:15-17 wouldn’t be too far behind.

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; 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.

Obviously, Matthew 18 isn’t nearly as jarring as Romans 9.

Unlike Romans 9, what frustrates me so much about Matthew 18 isn’t what’s written on the page.

It’s how often this passage is used to shame and silence people in the church.

At least that’s the case on the internet.

As soon as someone writes an article, posts a blog, or shares something on social media that is critical of, well, just about anything or anyone in the church, someone shows up and starts quoting Matthew 18, asking if that blogger or journalist or whoever has first privately confronted the person they are publicly criticizing.

Because obviously, folks like Joel Osteen, Mark Driscoll, and Pat Robertson are just a phone call away. So, how dare you not at least send them a text?!

Now, in my experience, the Matthew 18 pharisees come in three different breeds, though the species do intermingle.

The first breed tends to be comprised of fundamentalists. They see what they believe is a clear rule to be followed and expect others to follow it the same way they do. This mindset lays the foundation for the other two breeds of Matthew 18 pharisees, but the main concern here is that a perceived biblical law has been broken.

The second breed seems to be primarily concerned with public appearance, which is usually veiled in calls for unity. You often hear these folks attempt to shame their brothers and sisters with one-liners like, “What will the world think?”. The thought being that if non-Christians see Christians arguing with each other, then the curtain will be pulled back, non-Christians will suddenly realize Christians are not perfect people in perfect unity with one another, and then they’ll reject Jesus forever. These folks tend to be incredibly uncomfortable with confrontation and view criticism essentially as a sin.

The third and final breed of Matthew 18 pharisees is by far the most problematic. These folks recognize the true power of the passage and use it to silence anyone and everyone who poses a perceived threat to themselves, a religious leader they follow, or the organization they lead. Though they will sometimes wander out into the wilds of Internetland, these folks like to do their Matthew 18 dirty work in the form of non-disclosure agreements and other legal documents they force their members to sign in hopes of keeping their embarrassing secrets secret. Ultimately, these folks love Matthew 18 because it allows them to maintain their carefully cultivated public image by at least giving them the illusion – and sometimes the reality – that they control what is said about them and by whom.

Curiously, all of these groups have at least one thing in common – they’re all far less dogmatic about most of Jesus’ other instructions like his call to sell everything we have, put away the sword, or gouge out our eyes if they cause us to sin.

I think there’s a simple reason for that. Those sorts of calls force us to relinquish control. While, at least on the surface, Matthew 18 appears to offer us the opportunity to control and manipulate others to do as we see fit.

You see, no matter the breed of Matthew 18 pharisee, the underlying problem with each is the same. Regardless of motives or intent, the end result is that Matthew 18 becomes a weapon to silence criticism, shame those that speak up, avoid difficult conversations, and ultimately suppress the truth.

In the case of the first two groups, Matthew 18 is perhaps used more innocently or at least with less nefarious intent. But no matter our reason for clobbering other Christians – whether it be in the name of unity, public relations, or legalism – shaming others into silence rarely does anything other than breathe new life into sin by keeping it hidden away in the dark.

Now, like Miroslav Volf and Romans 9, no matter how frustrated I with Matthew 18, as a Christian I can’t simply chop it out of the Bible and be done with it. However, I think it is in need of serious reexamination, especially in such an interconnected world where privacy is increasingly becoming a relic of a bygone era.

The first thing I think we need to remember is that Jesus was a critic.

He criticized Pharisees.

And Sadducees.

And Teachers of the Law.

And the rich.

And the pious.

And even his own disciples.

I know it may sound strange to hear, but Jesus was a critic. That’s what prophets do. They speak out against injustice and sin. I think our problem today, along with a profound uncomfortableness with confrontation, is that we conflate cynicism with criticism. They are not the same. Cynicism stems from a place of bitterness and contempt for others. It has little if any interest in things becoming better. Criticism, at least the sort of prophetic criticisms Jesus made, is born from a desire to see things change and a hope that the world and the people in it can be better.

The church needs prophetic critics.

Secondly, if the dirty laundry of God’s people was meant to be kept hidden away in the dark, we wouldn’t have the Bible. It is, if nothing else, the story of screwed up people who constantly fail and fall flat on their face. If God inspired the writing of such stories to bring those failings into the light for all to see and learn from, then we cannot possibly read Matthew 18 as a call to keep every problem in the church hidden away behind closed doors.

Our claim to be a biblical people will only maintain its integrity so long as we maintain transparency in the church.

Third, we need to recognize that in Matthew 18 Jesus is talking about personal conflict, not public debates or public actions intended for public consumption. If he meant the latter, then his confrontations with the Pharisees and Sadducee would make him a massive hypocrite.

Public claims and public actions should always be confronted publicly. Otherwise, the only voice speaking will be that of the oppressor, the abuser, and the false teacher.

Fourth, in the celebrity age that we live in it is simply absurd to expect a personal conversation to occur between any random individual and a public figure. It’s not going to happen for obvious reasons.

The only purpose, then, in challenging critics to have a private conversation with a public figure that they can’t possibly get into meaningful contact with is to silence the critic.

Finally, as Jesus said, private disputes should typically be addressed privately. I’m not debating that at all. I think we definitely have a tendency to bring things that should be kept between injured parties out into the open, not for transparency sake, but rather to humiliate our opponent, win others to our side, or to further some personal cause.

Therefore, at the end of the day, when it comes to passages like Matthew 18 what we need is a dose of common sense.

Because sometimes those private transgressions do need to become public.

Some private conflicts must be brought into the light or else perpetrators will quickly realize they can continue to exploit a system more interested in public appearances than justice. It is this sort of abuse of Matthew 18, or at least the mentality it often engenders, that has led to a wide range of tragedies in the church. From the Catholic priest abuse scandal to the downfall of Mark Driscoll to the never-ending stories of pastors arrested for seemingly every crime imaginable we have only to read the news to witness the terrible consequences that come about when Matthew 18 is used as blueprint for covering up sin.

Yes, we need to be careful not to become cynics casting stones with no hope for a better world.

And, yes, we should handle private matters privately when nothing criminal or abusive has occurred.

However, we also need to remember that public criticism and public accountability are important practices.

And neither is a sin.

For if they were, then Jesus would be the chief of sinners.