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Matthew 18 and Spiritual Abuse

August 30, 2014

(Cross-posted from Wordgazer’s Words)

I have been asked a few times over the last several months to do a blog post on Matthew 18:15-17, where Jesus teaches about what to do if a member of a Christian group is committing wrongs that are harmful enough that they cannot be overlooked.  Here’s the text, from the 2011 NIV:

“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.

The context of this verse is as part of one of Jesus’ large teaching units in the gospel of Matthew.  He is here teaching about interpersonal relationships within the  “kingdom of heaven” [verse 1], which will include all who trust and follow Jesus.  He starts by stating that the greatest in the kingdom is as a little child, which, as I described in another blog post, meant letting go of earthly status and hierarchy. Then He goes on to warn against “despising” any of these “little ones– those who believe in Me.”  In other words, those who believe in Jesus should voluntarily become lowly and without status, like children (“little ones”), and their resulting vulnerability must not be taken advantage of or used to harm them. (For an excellent study of the whole chapter, see the Christian Resource Institute’s study by Roger Hahn.)  He then talks about how valuable these “little ones” are to the Father, and how He will seek them if they stray.

It is at this point that verses 15-17 occur: just after the discussion of stumbling blocks put in the way of the “little ones.”  The Christian group as a whole can choose to remove anyone who is causing grievous harm to one or more members of the group.  Jesus speaks in terms of “brothers and sisters” to indicate equality of status in the group.  He does not envisage the church as a hierarchy where leaders alone assume the power to excommunicate; an action as drastic as that should be done by the consensus of the whole group.

The rest of the teaching is about interpersonal forgiveness when brothers and sisters sin against one another.  Jesus speaks of the need to forgive “up to seventy times seven” times, and tells a parable whose point is that, since God has forgiven us so much, we ought also to forgive one another.  Taking this section together with verses 15-17 leads me to conclude that Jesus is differentiating between forgiveness (personal letting go of animosity) and reconciliation (restoring relationships).   To forgive someone up to seventy-times-seven times is one thing; to have them “listen to you” so that you have “won them over” is another.   The possibility of excommunication means that relationship is not to be restored when the person who has harmed you is unrepentant and unwilling to change– even after being confronted with witnesses to the harm that was done.

The principles of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:15-17 are sound.  A group should have the power to disassociate itself from people who are causing serious harm to one or more members, and a graduated-step process seems the most appropriate way to deal with such people.  The problem is that these verses are so often misused, particularly by people in power to enable themselves to stay in power.  Here are some examples from around the blogosphere:

From Under Much Grace:

In many spiritually abusive groups, Matthew chapter 18, verses 15-19 is used like a static formula which is misapplied to manipulate and control others. Many misapply it as something appropriate for minor offenses instead of overt sin, as the consequences of the process can result in excommunication from that local church. A person can be offended by someone’s behavior, but it may not necessarily constitute a sin, particularly not one that carries such heavy consequences. In aberrant Christian groups, the passage is used to rid the group of “problem,” nonconformist members (who are not sinning) and becomes a means by which clergy can micromanage if not threaten church members. (It is used to manipulate and control behavior.)

Among very litigious groups, the process is used to declare people non-Christian or never legitimate Christians so that they can be at liberty to violate a directive of the Apostle Paul who forbids Christians to sue other Christians, as it is found in a letter he wrote to the Church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). This practice of threatening to “de-Christianize” other professing Christians is actually common among those who follow patriarchy. This type of abuse of the passage has become popular enough that the saying that a person has been “Matthew Eighteened” has become somewhat commonplace among some Protestant Evangelical groups.

From Debra Bouey at Crossword Articles:

When Biblical apologists comment publicly on . . . aberrant, sometimes heretical, teachings, the principals involved, and their supporters, quickly and repeatedly raise the “Matthew 18 Argument”, contending that the “brother” [or, as the case may be, “sister”] should have been approached privately, “according to Matthew 18”.

From ResolveChurchConflict.com:

Jesus’s words here were not intended and should not be used as a general model for all conflict resolution. . . Matthew 18 instructs the church on how to deal with sin on an interpersonal level that is serious enough to remove an unrepentant member from fellowship. . .  Matthew 18 is not applicable for solving differences of opinion and other kinds of problems.

From Slacktivist:

99 percent of the time, this is the way this passage is used and abused — as a cudgel to beat truth-tellers back into silence. How dare you expose my wrong-doing? Jesus commanded you to come to me privately, so that we could work this out just between the two of us. . .

From the Biblical Seminary Theology Blog:

Does this passage require that abuse victims forego reporting abuse to the authorities and to make a private confrontation of the perpetrator? Sadly, I have heard stories where not only were victims chastised for reporting abuse, but then made to go to the perpetrator and confess their sin of not following Matthew 18.

From Rachel Held Evans’ Interview with Boz Tchividjian:

[T]his passage is used as a justification for 1) not reporting abuse disclosures to the civil authorities and 2) convincing sexual abuse victims to privately confront their perpetrators. Needless to say, this misinterpretation of Matthew 18 is hugely destructive on a number of fronts.

It’s very important not to lift verses like Matthew 18:15-17 out of their historical context– how they were meant to be understood and applied in their original setting, to their original audience. Jesus’ words were meant to be understood in terms of a small counter-cultural group within an indifferent or even hostile surrounding culture.  Such a group had a much greater need to police its own members for things which today are crimes which should be handled by civil authorities.  Jesus also was not envisioning a church where power was concentrated in the hands of one or two people who would then be in a position to abuse their authority.  Neither was He setting forth some universal principle for conflict resolution to be applied in a blanket manner to all situations.  As Boz Tchividjian says later in the above-linked interview:

Matthew 18 is important for local church life, because Jesus commands us there how to deal with sin. But it is not the only passage in which Jesus tells us how to deal with sin. It must be properly synthesized with others that address the same subject directly and/or indirectly. It is critical to remember that all passages are regulated and interpreted by the balance of Scripture. . . [For instance,] on Romans 13, Jesus tells us through the Apostle Paul that believers are to be subject to the civil authorities.

I don’t think that even in the early days when the civil authorities were mostly hostile, would the church have required a sexual abuse victim to privately confront a perpetrator.  1 Corinthians 5:1 seems to indicate a situation like this, where the man who “had his father’s wife” appeared to be held solely responsible and the congregation was instructed to remove him from the fellowship.  Women had far less agency then than they have today in any event– but there appears to have been no idea in Paul’s mind that the woman should follow a Matthew 18 private confrontation.

In the authoritarian, spiritually abusive group I was part of in my earlier Christian life, the problem was not so much crimes that should have been handled by civil authorities, but the fact that confronting a leader with his sin would lead directly to leader-led discipline against the person who dared to complain.  Trying to discuss a wrong privately with an authoritarian leader is impossible– it will immediately be turned around to be construed as your sin, not his.  As the above Slacktivist quote states, Matthew 18 thus becomes a way to keep the rank-and-file members from speaking out.

And of course, authoritarian leaders often also use Matthew 18 as if simply disagreeing with them– about anything at all– were sin.  And then once a person has been excommunicated using the Matthew 18 process, they can be treated as enemies and prosecuted or sued accordingly (as the above Under Much Grace article notes).

Finally, a person who speaks out publicly against spiritually abusive doctrines can be accused of not handling it biblically, by taking the disagreement to the person privately first. This has a way of simply shutting down all discussion.  But Jesus and the apostles themselves were actually quite vocal about publicly refuting doctrines and teachings they disagreed with.  Matthew 18 is not about doctrinal differences.

Other passages show situations which were not “Matthew 18” events.  In Acts 15:39 Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement” without handling it according to Jesus’ Matthew 18 teaching, because His teaching simply did not apply to disagreements about who to travel with!  And when Paul found Peter, a fellow church leader, involved in public hypocrisy, Paul also rebuked him publicly (Galatians 2:11-14).  Paul doesn’t seem to have expected any of the Gentiles who were being ostracized at the table, to confront Peter privately.  Jesus’ Matthew 18 teachings apparently didn’t apply there, either– possibly because Peter’s sin was not harmful enough that he needed to be asked to leave.  Or possibly because Peter’s actions were in front of everybody, and so his correction needed to also be in front of everybody.  Or perhaps because Peter was an apostle, and Paul thought it best for another apostle to confront him.  Or all three.

It’s never a good idea to isolate one set of verses from the rest of scripture and follow them slavishly as if they were universally applicable in every situation.  Particularly in ways that violate the good which the passage intended, and do harm the passage never contemplated.

In any event, Christians, and especially Christian leaders, need to be careful about using passages of scripture to their own advantage at the expense of others.  This is against every principle that Jesus taught– and it’s what most of His rebukes of the scribes and Pharisees were about.

A Bible used as a weapon against other human beings, is always a Bible misused.

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