The Many Odd Uses and Abuses of Matthew 18

The Many Odd Uses and Abuses of Matthew 18

Matthew 18 is not speaking of abusers and oppressors. Jesus is speaking of “brothers,” not wolves. Would we ask Christ’s most tender and trodden upon lambs to go alone, and speak alone, with a predator before we can properly confront his sin?

A strange thing happens from time to time when speaking to someone about God’s sovereignty in man’s salvation. Your conversation partner refers to John 3:16, over and over again. “But it says ‘whosoever.’” It is as though this is the single verse that the whole theological enterprise hinges upon! If one could only overcome that lone verse, then perhaps, the discussion may continue.

While I am using a bit of playful hyperbole in the above illustration, a similar oddity happens when disagreements and conflict within the body of Christ arise—Matthew 18 seems to become the solitary text of scripture able to be discussed. It is as though the whole enterprise hinges upon that single verse!

I am of course overstating things for the sake of drawing out the point, but let us consider some of the many ways Matthew 18 gets overused or abused within the Christian community.

Note how the passage in question begins: “If your brother sins against you.” At the outset, we see what Jesus is regulating—what Jesus is speaking to—is personal offenses. A sin from one brother against another brother. In other words, personal grievances, person-to-person. There are many interactions in life, Christian-to-Christian, not governed by this passage, because interpersonal sin is not involved. And yet, seemingly every interpersonal interaction gets filtered through the lens of these verses. While we must never defend or excuse gossip, any whiff of disagreement mentioned to a third party, and you will likely hear the question: “yes, but have you followed Matthew 18?”

Secondly, we must note that the passage explicitly states “if your brother sins against you.” In this context, we are speaking of actual sin—clear violations of God’s law against a fellow brother, not mere disagreement. If every variation of opinion between brothers had to be adjudicated according to Matthew 18, what a litigious church we would become!

I recall in a public meeting of the church, where a public speech was made by a brother, and in response, I publicly disagreed with what was just said. Shortly after the meeting, I received an email from him stating that if I had such a disagreement with my brother’s position, I had to first confront him privately before mentioning it in a public setting. Laying aside the sheer impossibility of knowing my brother’s opinion prior to him stating it openly in the meeting, if this is what Matthew 18 means, that every point of disagreement must be privately dealt with first, our lives would be nothing but continual one-on-one disagreements.

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