Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Matthew 18

Simpsons character holding a bible: "Marge, just about everything is a sin. You ever sat down and read this thing?" Image source.
Matthew 18:15-20
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them."
On its surface, this passage seems pretty straightforward. Somebody does something bad, but hopefully you don't have to make a big deal about it, just go talk to them and if they take responsibility, then the matter is resolved. Don't escalate it unless you have to.

So maybe, for example, somebody said something that was hurtful to you. Don't go around gossiping about how they're a terrible person, just go tell them. They're probably not a terrible person.

Seems reasonable. ... So far.

Two things I would like to point out:
  1. It seems that you and the person who sinned are equals. The passage uses the term "brother or sister."
  2. Some translations say "sins against you" rather than just "sins." Based on the rest of the passage, it seems like yeah, this would only make sense if it was some personal thing between the two of you. 
So the point is, if we were naive, we would just read this passage, think "that sounds reasonable" and move on.


Matthew 18 is a passage that's often used to silence criticism of the church. As if the only correct way to respond, in any situation where a Christian did something wrong, is to Matthew-18 them. Here are some examples that I've heard a lot of bloggers talk about:
  1. [trigger warning: abuse] A young girl in the church is sexually abused by a man in the church. Instead of turning him over to the police, the church leaders tell the girl that she has to go personally confront her abuser, Matthew-18-style. WTF? This can be traumatizing for a victim. Her own healing should come first, and being forced to see him again is not healing. (See this post by Boz Tchividjian. Or just go google "Matthew 18 and sexual abuse" and see how this passage gets used against victims.)
  2. Some famous pastor makes an offensive comment on twitter, and the feminist-progressive-Christian blogosphere goes into a frenzy. In the midst of all the blog posts written on why it is SO not okay to say things like that, you get some people quoting Matthew 18, trying to stop all the criticism. They say that Christians aren't allowed to publicly say anything bad about each other unless you've first gone and met with that person one-on-one to point out their sin.
(And another misuse of this passage, but not in the category of silencing criticism: Some random Christian decides that I have some sin in my personal life- for example, I'm living with my boyfriend- and they have to come to me and point it out. Geez, you think I didn't know people think that's a sin?)

For the two numbered examples there, I think the problem is the power difference. The person who's sinning has more power, so it's not realistic for the victim/random internet bystanders to go to them personally and point it out and expect that will fix things. Matthew 18 seems to just be talking about some minor personal conflict between equals.

So in summary, confront your fellow Christians/ other people [whichever you interpret this passage to mean] Matthew-18-style only if you're in a situation when it is reasonable to do so. Use your brain; none of this "well God said it and we have to obey even if it's hard and it doesn't make sense."

One more fun anecdote about Matthew 18:

So I remember reading an article about what a wife should do if her husband was sinning. The writer was coming from a complementarian perspective- doesn't the bible say "wives, submit to your husbands" and that means a wife can never directly confront her husband about something she thinks he's doing wrong?

No, says the author of that article. Because look, Matthew 18. Technically, the husband and wife are also "brother and sister in Christ", and therefore, the wife has the right to point out the husband's sin, Matthew-18-style, and the right to get other people involved if the husband doesn't listen.

So, you guys, if you've read my blog before, you know that I think such an interpretation is ridiculous. The bible is not a rulebook full of absolute statements and we have to logic them all out to determine exactly which situations each applies to, and after all that interpretation is done, obey the results even if they seem unreasonable, because "that's what God said."

To say "oh Peter said 'wives, submit to your husbands' so that sounds like it means you can't talk to him about his sin, but oh I found a loophole here in Matthew 18" is just a really bizarre way to read the bible.

I read the bible using the very biblical principles "love your neighbor as yourself" and "by their fruit you will know them." To say a wife can't tell her husband certain things- to say they can't have open and honest communication- is that going to bear good fruit? And to say a wife has to "submit" and her husband must be her "spiritual leader" or whatever- is that loving to women? Maybe back in the first century, that was the best way to do things, but not now. The world looks at the church and says we have a huge problem with sexism- the world is right. By their fruit you will know them.

Other odd bits in this passage:
  • So... what is this "treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector"? Does he mean you just treat them like an average random stranger in public? So... just general politeness but you're not going to have a close relationship? Or...? Does it come across as insulting to pagans and tax collectors?
  • Also this part about "if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven" is weird to me. I was always taught to "stand up for what's right, even if you're standing alone"- and now here's the idea that you need to at least find a second person who agrees with you in order for God to take you seriously. Also, just because two people pray for the same thing doesn't mean it will automatically happen. [source: personal experience] So... what's the deal?
So, readers, what are your thoughts? :)


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Jesus had some millstone-related things to say about that. (Matthew 18:1-14)

Next post: The Parable of the Ungrateful Servant is NOT COOL (Matthew 18:21-35)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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