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Matthew 18 in a Shrinking World

Shrinking WorldI suppose it will not surprise you to learn that I maintain a list of future topics I hope to write about on this blog. Near the top of that list is one I titled simply, “Matthew 18 and the Internet.” That is an issue near and dear to me. Let me explain.

Through my years of blogging (I’m coming up on 8 years of it now) I’ve often written critiques of books and even some people or the things they’ve done or the words they’ve said. In many ways this blog simply reflects the thinking I’ve done about issues that arise within the church. I do not really know what I think or what I believe until I write about it, and I tend to share my thinking through the blog. And when I write about people or their books, it is nearly inevitable that someone sends me an email or leaves a comment saying, “Did you follow the procedure laid out in Matthew 18?” This is sometimes a kind suggestion and sometimes a harsh rebuke. But either way, it almost always seems to come. This was true when I wrote critical reviews of 90 Minutes in Heaven and The Shack. It was true when I shared some concerns about men whose ministry I respect. In each case, people suggested that I ought to follow Matthew 18 and speak to the men themselves before publicly critiquing them.

The Internet has made the Christian world much smaller, allowing more Christians to have a voice that extends across the globe. And with this new ability to communicate comes new questions about how we are to deal with conflict, how we are to deal with questions and concerns. Matthew 18 is a text most of us know well, and one we quickly turn to when grappling with such issues.

In the most recent edition of Themelios, a theological journal, D.A. Carson addresses what he calls abuse of Matthew 18. Because Themelios is not standard reading for most of us, I thought I’d share some of Carson’s perspectives on this issue. I found it very helpful and feel that it offers a lot of biblical wisdom.

Carson forms his arguments around 3 points: the context, the offense and the motives.

The Context

Whatever the sin is that is in Jesus’ mind as he speaks the words of Matthew 18:15-17, what is clear is that it takes place in the context of a local church—a local gathering of believers. If we are going to extend this passage to a much wider context, such as a book that has been widely distributed and a blogger who has written a review of it, the text will need to support this. I believe we have a lot of trouble allowing an honest and accurate reading of Matthew 18 to extend so far. It seems clear that the sin of Matthew 18 is a private and quiet kind of sin, the kind that only a very few people have noticed. Perhaps you have spoken to a friend and heard from him that he is cheating on his taxes. You would then be following Jesus’ teaching to follow the pattern he laid out. As Carson says, “The impression one derives from reading Matt 18 is that the sin in question is not, at first, publicly noticed (unlike the publication of a foolish but influential book). It is relatively private, noticed by one or two believers, yet serious enough to be brought to the attention of the church if the offender refuses to turn away from it.”

When the sin is far more public, we can turn to other passages of Scripture, such as Titus 1, where we are commanded to publicly rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine. The process outlined in Matthew 18 does not apply to all situations.

When we seek to apply Matthew 18, we will need to understand that it pertains to the local church. Of course there may be wisdom in seeking to communicate with a person privately before doing so publicly. But this would be outside of Matthew 18, not in obedience to it.

The Offense

The sin of Matthew 18 is a sin that is excommunicable—a sin that is so serious that the proper response, if that sin is not repented of, will be to excommunicate the offender. This means that if the person does not repent, he should be put out of the church and regarded as an unbeliever. Carson points out that the New Testament offers three categories of sins that are this serious: major doctrinal error (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:20), major moral failure (e.g. 1 Cor 5), and persistent and schismatic divisiveness (e.g. Titus 3:10). Whatever the offense of Matthew 18, it must fit into one of these categories.

The situation is also one in which it must be possible to excommunicate the offender. Again, this points us to the local church. There must be some kind of organization or structure that would allow the person to be excommunicated. Therefore, when I reviewed Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity and said that it showed that McLaren is proving that he is not a Christian, I was not bound by Matthew 18 because there was no sense in which the process could escalate to a point in which he could be excommunicated.

To quote Carson, “The sin must be serious enough to warrant excommunication, and the organizational situation is such that the local church can take decisive action that actually means something. Where one or the other of these two senses does not apply, neither does Matthew 18.”

The Motives

As his third point, Carson points out that the appeals to Matthew 18 may in some cases be a form of play-acting, a form of self-righteousness. False appeals to Matthew 18 may point to a kind of tolerance for sin that fits well with a post-modern ethos, but is patently anti-biblical. “Genuine heresy is a damnable thing, a horrible thing. It dishonors God and leads people astray. It misrepresents the gospel and entices people to believe untrue things and to act in reprehensible ways.” And this means that we must be able to evaluate what a person says and does in light of the Bible without having to deal with false appeals to Matthew 18. In such cases Matthew 18 can paralyze a biblical process of rooting out what is false, what is abhorrent to God.