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“Doesn’t Matthew 18 require us to talk to someone personally?”

Christ, having cautioned his disciples not to give offence, comes next to direct them what they must do in case of offences given them; which may be understood either of personal injuries, and then these directions are intended for the preserving of the peace of the church; or of public scandals, and then they are intended for the preserving of the purity and beauty of the church. Let us consider it both ways.

Matthew Henry

It should be remembered, however, that this method is prescribed for private sins only. The offence given by public sins cannot be removed privately, but only by a public transaction. (b) Public sins make the sinner subject to disciplinary action by the consistory at once, without the formality of any preceding private admonitions, even if there is no formal accusation. By public sins are meant, not merely sins that are committed in public, but sins that give public and rather general offence. The consistory should not even wait until someone calls attention to such sins, but should take the initiative. It was no honor for the Corinthians that Paul had to call their attention to the scandal in their midst before they took action. I Cor. 5:1 ff.; nor was it an honor for the churches of Pergamus and Thyatira that they did not rebuke and exclude the heretical teachers from their midst. Rev. 2:14, 15, 20. In the case of public sins the consistory has no right to wait until someone brings formal charges; neither has it the right to demand of anyone who finally feels constrained to call attention to such sins that he admonish the sinner privately first. The matter of public sins can not be settled in private.

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology 600.

Matthew 18 addresses a specific situation where “thy brother shall trespass against thee.” It is a pattern for dealing with personal offences. It has nothing to do with how to handle someone who breaks a law of the civil government or a rule within a family or within an organization. . . . Matthew 18 should always be followed for personal offences, and its general principles applied whenever prudent in non-personal offences. It must not, however, be allowed to become something the Lord never intended it to become—a once-size-fits-all to be applied to every situation.

“Additional FAQ on Matthew 18”, Bob Jones University Student Life Division

While placing a child in the middle of the disciples, explaining the necessity of unencumbered child-like faith, and describing the Shepherd’s love for just one lost sheep, Jesus explains the believers’ interdependence. If Jesus loves us so much that He would risk life and limb to get us out of a snarl of our own making, surely we can risk cultural pretense to talk to each other one-on-one.

The biggest criticism regarding student life at Bob Jones University is the systemic muddling of Matthew 18. Check out their argument for yourself. Their explanation is that Matthew 18 is sure nice to follow, but it can’t be applied universally.

While Henry and Berkhof both distinguish between private and public sins, Berg distinguishes between personal and institutional. The shift is subtle but important. Personal sins can be public: a public figure caught in a sexual indiscretion is a sin against his wife but it is widely known. An institutional sin can be private: unwittingly printing too many documents at a time on the company printer is best addressed one-on-one even if it is an institutional “sin.”

12 thoughts on ““Doesn’t Matthew 18 require us to talk to someone personally?”

  1. “Furthermore, situations involving a group would become unnecessarily cumbersome. For example, if a student hears that some of his society brothers skipped Bible Conference services would he have to confront each one? Would he confront the person he heard it from and tell him to confront the person he heard it from, etc.? It would add another layer that would drag the situation out, would upset parents who don’t feel it is their child’s business to confront “rumors,” and would give the offenders time to get their stories together. Group situations are handled best by having a different staff member talk to each group member at the same time and then compare stories.”

    Regardless of the rather silly nature of the examples used, this portion is shocking. Since when is discipleship supposed to easy or convenient? Nothing else in fundyism is. What do we do with this?

  2. I don’t know, Justin, and actually this post published earlier than I anticipated. I wasn’t done chewing on this. Touché. Must be Providential.

    I’m still studying this out. Reading Calvin *and* Ryrie, believe it or not. 😉 But what astounds me is what I discovered this morning in I Timothy 5:

    17Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 19Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.

    Uh . . . wha? Were certain parties in my past completely unaware of this passage? I’m stunned. I mentioned it to Grant this morning over coffee. Grant, “Do you know that Paul tells Timothy to MAKE offences with elders public?” He said incredulously, “No, it does NOT!” And then we read the passage together.

    It really comes down institutional “saving face” and nothing more. And Paul says to avoid prejudice in enforcing these ecclesiastical rules.

    I look at the Presbyterian government and how open and deliberative it is. Their general assemblies are on live streaming video! Everything is done openly, thoroughly, and deliberatively. It’s so foreign to us.

    God help us all!

  3. Interesting. The most striking thing to me is that the act of correcting/disciplining “institutional sins” is exempted from the application of biblical principles while, on the flip side, the obedience to institutional rules is heavily spiritualized. Am I stretching this too much? This is all so sadly, wildly duplicitous.

  4. Well, according to a male boss of a certain department at BJU that I used to work in, the Matthew 18 principle is further explained in verses 21-35…in the parable of the unforgiving servant. (We were told this in a staff/student meeting). In the parable, boss said, the servants go directly to the master to “tell on” the unforgiving servant. SO, that means that BJ students are supposed to go to the boss and tell on others–GAs or other students–without confronting first. Of course, the boss was quick to add that if anyone ever had a problem with him they should go to him directly, since he parallels “the master” in the parable, I guess.

    Ummm….yeah. I think I will stick with Matthew Henry and Berkhof. 🙂

  5. I now understand why this unfinished post got providentially published. I really couldn’t wrap my brain around this without everybody’s help! Thanks!!

    What’s also interesting is how *legal* the metaphors are –talk about “Miranda” and “crime.” Jim Berg describes himself as a “campus policeman–passing out fines and prison sentences.” So it does fit. And it’s revealing. . . .

  6. Well, do you think based on Matthew 18, that you should talk to Jim Berg about this personally, rather than blogging about it for all to read? It seems like his name comes up a lot. Honestly, maybe it would be good to talk to him. Sometimes we don’t think about how divisive our blogging is in the body of Christ.

  7. Hi Amy!

    First of all, you’re assuming that we didn’t talk to Jim Berg personally. We did. Twice. Once in July, 2005 and November, 2006.

    Secondly, if you read my Ebenezer series, you’ll get the whole story on all the interactions and meetings and conversations. There will be more coming in that regard. It’s the standard reaction in fundamentalism that you either put up or shut up. That is not Scriptural, but it does preserve the veneer. Again, read more around here, and you’ll get a fuller picture.

    Thirdly, read I Timothy 5 as I posted earlier. Paul is very specific about how those in leadership need to be addressed in front of the whole Body.

    Fourthly, error is error. It’s not divisive in the least to let the sun shine on it and show it for what it is. It’s divisive to ignore it.

  8. I completely agree with Camille on her last post. To me, if a group of men (or women, depending on the denom) are sinning–weilding their authority in an sinful manner–the light of day does indeed need to shine upon the sin they are perpetuating.

    I do believe there is an order to everything–but sometimes, the truth of what actually occurred needs to happen. It just does, because sin left in darkness continues to grow and infect the Body of Christ–making Satan extremely happy indeed.

  9. Let’s deconstruct this some more. This is fun. 🙂 I’ve always known that it didn’t feel right, and it’s comforting to build that unease up into a solidly supported structure.

    I’ve been trying to remember if the handbook required students to turn in other students/GAs for violations, and I’m thinking that it did. At the very least, I know that the handbook said that if you got caught knowing about a rule-breaker and didn’t report it, you were considered guilty of breaking the same rule. Back to the criminal metaphors, it’s conspiracy after the fact.

    As an institution that is supposed to be founded on the Bible, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that they have some responsibility to make sure that their rules have some kind of hook into a spiritual requirement? Kind of the way that Congress can’t pass a law without a Constitutional hook. So what Scriptures do we turn to to figure out if we’re required to snitch? Do I actually have a spiritual responsibility to turn in someone who broke a man-made rule? Does BJU have a spiritual right to require snitching from their student body?

  10. Isn’t that exactly what the Pharisees and the Judaizers did, Monica? Tried to get a Scriptural “hook.” I totally understand the “natural” impulse to do that (like Congress and the Constitution), but the deliberative sphere should not be a model for the ecclesiastical (although the ecclesiastical has been the model for the deliberative).

    I don’t know where snitching can be extracted as biblical. I’m trying to think.

    Another clue to the problem in all this is that the assumption is always that all error is assumed to be part of the “rank and file.” This coincides with the idea that servant leadership in Berg’s system is that you serve those above you and lead those below you. It persists in everything — from his counsel to dorm life.

  11. Yeah, you’re totally right on the tie in to the Pharisees and Judaizers. I’m just saying that *if* they are going to claim a spiritual basis for their operating procedures, doesn’t it make sense that they would have to have some kind of Biblical hook? I mean, I think that the answer is to decouple the two (the spiritual and the institutional), but if they’re going to twine them together, shouldn’t the hook be a necessary part of that?

    I just don’t think the blanket “you must obey your authorities!” is sufficient basis for making adherence to arbitrary standards a spiritual measuring stick. If I remember correctly, the crowning argument for why students should obey the rules no matter what was the pledge they made us sign at enrollment, promising to obey the rules. That was the trump card–no matter how unreasonable the rule was, we had promised, so we were screwed. That’s not just, and people that set themselves up as spiritual authorities surely have some responsibility to make sure that they’re not setting up unreasonable standards for compliance!

    And you’re right on point saying that the error was always assumed to be in the ranks of those below. That would explain both the tattling (the rank and file can’t be trusted to fix things on their own) and the lack of open, honest discussion (the rank and file might introduce or even be swayed by error).

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