Church discipline is all about bullying people who don’t conform. There–I said it.
A New Verb
Some pastors know how to turn Matthew 18 into a verb. For example, one minister I know said, “We had a couple in our church who were living together outside of marriage, so I Matthew eighteened them.” He meant that he was bringing someone under church discipline. He didn’t realize how much it revealed about his own nature and that of his church.
If you’ve never been part of a congregation that employs church discipline to keep people in line, let me give you a picture of what it looks like. The aforementioned minister saw sin in the lives of other people and believed it his duty to stamp it out. He used a few verses from Matthew 18 to justify his intrusion into the lives of his parishioners. He believed his meddling was justified as long as he observed a certain process from scripture. In the end, the transgressing couple would have a choice—either mend their ways or give up their membership in his congregation.
Matthew 18 has become a verb in many circles. When you hear about someone being “Matthew eighteened,” you cringe because you know how embarrassing it can be. The phrase “Matthew eighteen” is code for “church discipline,” even though the chapter is about much more than that. So, what’s all the fuss about? What did Jesus really mean? In verses 15 through 17 NIV, Jesus says:
“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.
There are four important things to note in these verses:
- Many manuscripts include the phrase, “against you.” In other words, this scripture should not be used every time you see sin in someone else’s life. Jesus was giving his recommendation for handling arbitration with someone who has sinned against you personally. He was not giving you license to confront someone who doesn’t measure up to your standard of righteousness.
- The ideal way to do this is one on one. Jesus wasn’t recommending that you make your personal problems public. If it’s a private problem, keep it private, as much as possible.
- The purpose of taking a second person along in case they don’t listen to you the first time is not so that you can gang up on the “sinner.” When Jesus says the matter should be established between two or three witnesses, he means that an extra person should go along to act as a witness to the conversation—not to function as a witness against the person. In other words, if you think it’s going to be contentious, or possibly even violent, bring along another person so the one you are addressing doesn’t get so hot-headed. The purpose of the witness is to keep everyone on an even keel.
- Jesus suggested taking it to the church only as an alternative to taking the matter to court. He didn’t want his followers to give themselves a black eye in the public arena. Besides, why should those who don’t share the same values arbitrate between two arguing Christians? It’s better to handle it internally and save the church’s reputation (Paul also addressed this in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11).
A Bullying Tactic
In Matthew 18, Jesus is not talking about the church poking its nose into everyone’s business, threatening to kick them out if they don’t fall in line. He is talking about settling disputes peaceably. The church uses the notion of “Matthew eighteening” as a bullying tactic to enforce its will on its members. If you find your church leaders employing this terrorist strategy, it’s better to get out before they kick you out. You will find yourself free from oppressive authoritarian rule that has no right to dominate you anyway. And if a church leader wants you to participate in “Matthew eighteening” someone, be careful that you aren’t becoming a pawn in a tactic of spiritual bullying and manipulation.
Next time… “Church Discipline (Part Two): God’s Morality Police”