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Matthew 18:15-20 is one of the most helpful passages in the Bible when it comes to dealing with disputes and differences between members of the same local church. It does not, however, apply in absolutely every situation that arises in the Christian life. Here are 5 scenarios in which it would be inappropriate to appeal to the process outlined in Matthew 18:

1. Engaging with ideas in the Public Square

This comes up a lot. A Christian writer or blogger will post something that appears to cross a line of orthodoxy or good taste and another Christian writer or blogger will rebuke and rebut them publicly. The first writer will protest that, “it would have been nice if you had called me first and had spoken to me directly as outlined in Matthew 18”.

It may have been nice but it certainly is not required by anything written in Matthew 18.

Matthew 18 is far more specific and narrow than is often recognized. The passage begins with these words:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matthew 18:15 ESV)

The guidelines in Matthew 18 have to do with personal grievances between two individuals in the same church. They have nothing to do with the ethics and etiquette of online discourse. If any idea is put forward in the public square via an article, social media post, blog, book or published sermon then it is part of the corporate conversation. People can and should respond to it. They should do so kindly, respectfully, charitably and honestly, but they can and should respond – particularly if the ideas expressed do in fact cross lines of orthodoxy or decency. (For a few more thoughts on respectful on-line engagement see here).

The Bible does seem to suggest that leaders, teachers and influencers should expect to be held to a higher standard of judgment than the average person in the pew; James the brother of Jesus says:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1 ESV)

James says clearly that if you teach you will be judged with greater strictness. Matthew 18 is not your bar. You will be held accountable to a higher standard. And if you fail to meet that standard, you should expect to be called out publicly. Paul tells Timothy to rebuke elders and teachers that are crossing lines and dealing in foolishness and novelty. He says:

As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (1 Timothy 5:20 ESV)

As always, we must also remember everything else the Bible says about engaging in disputation. It is easy to get addicted to polemics. It is easy to think yourself a theological watchdog. It is easy to become puffed up with arrogance and self-deceit. It is easy to lose track of your personal or pastoral priorities.

True.

But.

It is appropriate to engage with on-line influences and teachers and it is not necessary to follow the protocols outlined in Matthew 18. Those protocols have to do with personal grievances within a local congregation and therefore, obviously, do not apply in this particular situation.

2. Dealing with public, known sin by a member of your church

As stated above, Matthew 18 deals with how to handle personal grievances within the same local church. If a brother or sister in the church owes you money for a job that you did for them 3 months ago, go and speak to them about it directly. If they pay you the agreed upon sum, then you have won your brother. If they refuse to pay you the agreed upon sum then you need to take it to the next level.

That’s what Matthew 18 is for.

It is not for cases of public, known sin by a member of your church.

If a member of your church is committing adultery and is living with his mistress and you happen to know about that because you live in the house across the street then you have an obligation to report that to your board of elders. You are not required to speak to the erring individual privately; in fact in many cases, it may be inappropriate or unsafe for you to do so.

This is precisely what we see happening in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul refers to a report that he has received about a man engaging in known, public sin within the congregation. He says:

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:1–2 ESV)

Note the complete absence of process.

Paul doesn’t say: “Why didn’t the person who brought this report go and speak to the individual in question?” It was unnecessary. The sin was public and it was known. Paul implies that people in the church knew about it and were proud of the fact that they had done nothing about it. They thought themselves quite gracious and progressive. Paul told them to excommunicate the man immediately.

For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 5:3–5 ESV)

There is no need for a Matthew 18 style step by step process when a public sin has reached this stage of intentionality and scandal. Once a man has moved in with a woman not his wife he is “sinning with a high hand” and is in need of immediate, public discipline. If he repents, truly, by all means, receive him back, but in the meantime, hand him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. And let him by no means appeal to Matthew 18 as a delaying tactic.

3. Dealing with public, declared heresy by a member of your church

Much the same can and should be said with respect to public, declared heresy by a member of your local church. If a member of your church is posting articles or blogs in the public square espousing clearly heretical positions (see Michael Haykin’s helpful definition here) that should immediately be referred to your Board of Elders. It is not necessary for you to speak to the individual privately. He has not sinned against you he has sinned against Christ and is placing the reputation of Christ and the reputation of your church at jeopardy within the community.

In most polity structures there is a shared responsibility for stewarding the truth of the Gospel within the congregation. The church as a whole is responsible for the teaching that they sit under. The Apostle John tells one of his churches to refuse to give support and hospitality to teachers who leave behind the orthodox teaching of Christ:

“Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” (2 John 1:9–11 ESV)

If a church supports/pays/endorses a teacher who is espousing novel and heretical doctrines, they will be held accountable for that. Thus the congregation as a whole has a role to play in the preservation of orthodox doctrine within the congregation. Nevertheless, it is quite clear, that once you have a reliable and orthodox leadership, it is their responsibility to correct and rebuke theological error in the church. Paul sent Titus to Crete in order to appoint elders and he told him what an elder/pastor ought to be able and prepared to do:

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:9 ESV)

That’s why you have elders. It is their job to rebuke people in their church who are contradicting the trustworthy Word of the Gospel.

So let them do it.

If you are worried about what a fellow member is posting, writing and blogging then refer that to your board of elders. You are not required to do all the research and work necessary to turn that erring brother or sister back towards the truth. That is the job that has been assigned to the elders.

Matthew 18 – as helpful as that passage is with respect to personal grievances – does not outline the process of correcting and rebuking theological error within the church.

4. Mediating disputes within a church staff over resources or volunteers

Matthew 18 has to do with mediating interpersonal disputes within the membership of a local congregation – it does not supply a model or method for managing the staff of the church. Most churches are working with a limited number of resources that have to be carefully portioned out between a variety of competing interests. The Youth Group wants a bus to go to Laser Quest, the Seniors’ want a bus to go to Niagara Falls, the Women’s Ministry wants a bus to go to a conference and the Men’s Ministry wants a bus to go camping – but what if there isn’t enough money in the “Bus Budget” to facilitate all those demands?

That’s what a Senior Pastor or a Staff Supervisor is for.

In a larger church with highly motivated staff who deeply believe in the vision it is inevitable that conflicts will arise over resources. It is not necessary and it is not advisable for the staff to attempt to resolve these matters individually and privately as per the first step proscribed in Matthew 18.

This is not a question of sin it is a question of scarcity.

The whole reason you have a Staff Supervisor is so that decisions can be made on the basis of priority, fairness, protocol, policy and need – rather than on the basis of seniority, charisma or strength of personality.

When staff members attempt to mediate these sorts of conflicts on their own, generally speaking, the most forceful person tends to get what they want. This leads to less effective ministry and less motivated leadership later on.

Matthew 18 does speak into how personal grievances ought to be handled between staff members, but it has nothing to do with how disputes over policy or resources should be mediated.

5. Bringing charges against an elder or pastor for sexual misconduct

Matthew 18 addresses personal grievances between members of the same church – it does not address how grievances should be handled between members and the leadership. As cited previously, the leaders of a the church are held to a higher standard:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1 ESV)

Because leaders can often become the targets of malicious slander and false accusation the Bible does commend that a certain standard of evidence be maintained:

Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (1 Timothy 5:19 ESV)

Nevertheless, if a charge is deemed credible it is to be handled by the Board of Elders with appropriate dispatch and severity.

As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (1 Timothy 5:20 ESV)

If a member of the church has been sexually harassed or propositioned by an elder or pastor it would be unwise, unsafe and unnecessary for him or her to discuss that matter privately and directly with that person as per the protocols of Matthew 18. That would lead to further risk and is not required due to the uniqueness of the relationship in question. A pastor is not “a fellow member” in that sense. Nor is an elder. A pastor or an elder is a leader and therefore operates under a higher standard and according to a difference protocol.

All concerns about the behavior of a pastor or elder in a church should go directly to the Board of Elders. If the incident in question is of a criminal nature then it should simultaneously be referred to the police. If the pastor or elder knows his Bible then he will not make appeal to Matthew 18. He will supply evidence of his innocence or he will comply with all processes of inquiry proscribed by the Board and submit to whatever legal processes may be involved as well. His chief concern will be for the glory of Christ and for the safety and well being of his people.

Matthew 18 is a gift to the church.

Properly used it will eliminate a great deal of gossip and will save the pastors and elders from becoming involved in a number of personal disputes that can and should be dealt with privately and directly between individuals. Where God’s people are humble, contrite and in submission to the Word most such disputes should be relatively easy to resolve. If the protocols are followed carefully only the most complicated situations and only the most persistent wrong doers should come to the attention of the Board of Elders.

Matthew 18 can be a great help in the life of a local congregation; but of course, it does not apply in every situation.

There are many situations that require a wider appeal to the wisdom and authority of Holy Scripture. A good church will have many tools in the toolbox and many different processes and protocols to guide them through the complex variety of challenges and conflicts that arise in the life of an active and vibrant congregation. May God grant us wisdom to know which of these tools to call upon in each and every situation.

SDG,

Pastor Paul Carter


To listen to Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.

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