text: Matthew 18:15-20
sermon by the Rev. Matt Kennedy
Last week we spoke about about two behavioral patterns that keep people from dealing with issues face to face. The first, the false peace pattern, happens when you don't say anything to someone who has sinned against you or who's caught up in a sin. The second pattern, the war pattern, takes place when rather than speaking to the one who's sinned, you speak to everyone else. Both patterns facilitate the death of a church. The first lets corruption grow unhindered. The second actually makes the corruption worse by actively spreading it through gossip and slander.
A church doesn't go from faithful to unfaithful, from holy to unholy in a moment. Corruption starts small and grows slow. But if it's unchecked it inevitably spreads. Jesus likens unchecked wickedness to leaven. You put just a pinch of leaven into a loaf of bread and what happens? It spreads to the whole loaf. Paul likens it to gangrene. It starts small, grows slow, but sooner or later, if unchecked, spreads to the whole body and the body dies.
This is why the first step in the three step process that Jesus provides in Matthew 18 starts small, on the personal and relational level; with the sins we commit against each other, the sins we commit outside the public eye; the sins known only to a few.
Now you've got to use common sense. You don't have to take someone aside for every little thing. Here are some things to consider before following Matt 18:15.
First If someone sins against you and you can truly forgive as you've been forgiven and be at peace, then don't take this first step. “Love” Peter says, “covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8) But f you find resentment, anger, un-forgiveness growing in your heart, follow Matthew 18:15. If you start gossiping or backbiting, follow Matthew 18:15.
Second, if your brother or sister falls into a sin that does not affect you directly, ask yourself: Is this sin habitual or was it a one time thing? Is this something the person is aware of and working on or not? Is this sin something that, if it were to be known by the wider body or by those in the world would undercut the ability of the church to proclaim the gospel? Is this something that has the potential to cause significant harm to this person's relationship with God, his family, other people in the church?
If, after all of these considerations you decide that something needs to be said then, as Jesus says, take the person aside privately and have a talk.
I'm going to give you two suggestions about how to do this because you don't want to go in like a bull in a china shop. You could make the situation a lot worse than it already is.
1. Don't go in assuming that just because you're offended that you are right to be offended. It may be that you've misunderstood. It may be that you're being too sensitive. It may be that you have issues in an area that make you more prone to take offense than you should be. It may be that the person has sinned against you without any intention of doing so. What does Paul say that our attitude toward other Christians ought always to be? How are we to view our brothers and sisters: “In humility, always consider others better than yourself.” (Phil 2:3) So you don' go in with accusations. You go in assuming the best, assuming that you've misunderstood, assuming that you've misjudged.
2. The discussion should be marked by I statements, questions, and observations. Instead of “You lied when you said this...” try saying, “When you said this, I may have misunderstood, but it doesn't sound to me like you were honest. Was I hearing you correctly?” Instead of: “You need to stop treating me like I'm stupid” try, “When you do that, or say this, It makes me feel like you think I'm stupid, do you? Are you intending that?” Instead of “You're a greedy jerk” try, “It seems to me that you've acted in an ungenerous way. I observed you do this.” Using I statements and asking questions allows the other person to consider your words without feeling like they need to defend themselves. It sets up an environment that allows for discussion rather than argument. If the person doesn't think he's under attack he might apologize or offer an explanation that shows that you've misunderstood or misheard. In other words, approaching someone this way opens the door from the very beginning for repentance and reconciliation—and look back down at your text, verse 15. What is the hoped-for result of the process? That your brother “listens to you” because if your brother listens, you've gained your brother. Reconciliation and repentance is the aim. So you don't go in guns blazing, you go in humbly, with gentleness and respect.
But what happens when you hit a brick wall? Either the person refuses to meet with you or, he does meet with you but doesn't agree that he's sinned in general or is sinning against you. And you're not buying his explanation. Verse 16. “But if he does not listen,” Jesus says, “take one or two others along with you that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
Jesus is citing Deuteronomy 19:15 which says “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense... A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Jesus cites that law here because the process is on verge of becoming a public or church-wide process that may result in public discipline, possibly excommunication, and a church cannot and must not take that sort of step on the basis of one person's impressions and accusations. This second step brings in people with objective, neutral minds and hearts who can weigh the matter without prejudice.
Step two, like step one, requires common sense. Your mother and brother and uncle cannot be the three witnesses. In fact, unless the leadership of the church is directly involved in the conflict, the two or three should probably be elected or appointed leaders because the witnesses need to have the trust of the wider body and they need to be accountable to the wider body.
But not just any two or three elders and pastors will do. The two or three need to have the capacity to listen impartially and wisely and make suggestions with compassion and love. Some are leaders more capable of that than others. In Galatians 6:1, Paul says, “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” The ultimate aim of this second step is not discipline, the aim remains “gaining your brother”. You do not want to go to step three. You want repentance and reconciliation. So the witnesses in this second step should be recognized leaders who are known to be mature in their faith, humble and able to come along side and help people see where they may need to repent and make amends.
For this second step to work, the participants, especially the offended person or the one making the accusation, must be open to the possibility that he or she has made a mistake. It may be that you're the one in the wrong. It may be that you've misunderstood or taken offense too easily or jumped to the wrong conclusion but are too hurt or feel too insulted to see it. If you're not open to that possibility then there's no use going forward and you probably shouldn't. This step like the first, must be approached with humility, gentleness and respect, considering others, again as better than yourself.
Now what happens when the two or three witnesses recognize that a sin has been or is being committed but the one in the wrong still refuses to repent? Then the process moves into the public arena. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church...” The word used for church in verse 17 is ekklesia, it means “the assembly”. To “tell it to the church” in Jesus day would have meant to bring a matter before the representatives of the assembly, the Sanhedrin. There's no way to know exactly how to apply this third step within a contemporary congregation. The closest equivalent to the Sanhedrin in an Anglican congregation would be the vestry, minus relatives and close friends of the people involved.
I don't think that something like this is to be decided by some democratic act of the the entire congregation. That is not how this was done in Jesus' day and democratic justice is often, assemblies, even in church, can easily turn into lynch mobs. At the same time this third step , in most cases, not all, needs to be out in the open, not in private, the church as a whole must know and see that things are being done fairly and justly because this third step may end in excommunication. And that's everyone's business.
The aim of this third step, like the first two is repentance and reconciliation. The question before the assembly is: have the two or three witnesses correctly assessed the situation. There's still the possibility at this point that everyone has gotten it wrong and the person is innocent. But if not, the question becomes: is the person willing to acknowledge his or her sin, commit to turning away from it and get help? If the answer to that question is yes, then the person is embraced, forgiven, and fellowship is restored. If the answer is no, then the consequences come into play: “if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (17) Now, how did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors? He loved them. He called them to repent, but he loved them. The same is true here. To treat a person as a pagan or tax collector is not to be mean or hateful. It's to recognize that in clinging to his sin rather than repenting, he has in effect, renounced his baptism, stepped back into the pagan world. So long then that he is in open defiant rebellion he is not in communion with Christ or his body and should not receive or take communion. Can he come to church. Sure. Can we hang out with him, that depends on whether doing so would communicate acceptance of the person's sin.
There is, in the end, only one sin that leads to excommunication: un-repentance. And that makes sense if, as Paul says, corruption or wickedness spreads like an infectious disease and the church is truly a hospital for sinners. A hospital is open to anyone however sick who is willing to admit that he is sick and receive the medicine.
But if someone with an infectious disease, refuses to accept his diagnosis, refuses to receive treatment and insists on going about the hallways from room to room, then not only the infected patient but every patient in the entire hospital is in grave danger.
The same is true for the church. Wickedness, unfaithfulness, or corruption, if unchecked by repentance or discipline spreads to the whole body and so for the sake of the body and for the sake of the member caught up in a sin, Jesus has given his church this process. I pray we use it wisely, compassionately, justly and rarely.