Misusing Matthew 18
Updated: Sep 12
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. ~ Matthew 18:15-17
“Have you talked with the person directly?”
Well-intentioned friends and mentors often ask this when someone, broken by an experience of abuse, turns to them for help.
I want to make it clear:
It is a misuse of Matthew 18 to use this Scripture to silence someone who is crying out for help by trying to bring his or her abuse to light.
Look at Matthew 18. Matthew 18 – the whole chapter – speaks of God’s tenderness for those who believe in Him.
It speaks of God’s seriousness about sin.
It speaks of God’s commitment to find those who have wandered away.
It speaks of God’s requirement that we forgive those who have sinned against us, because God has forgiven us an unpayable debt.
In this context, in the middle of Matthew 18, the Scripture gives a pattern for attempting reconciliation and welcoming repentance, themes that Matthew 18 highlights throughout.
Here is the pattern:
Go in person and point out the person’s fault, an opportunity for their repentance.
Take one or two others along and speak to the person again, another opportunity for their repentance.
Tell it to the church, another opportunity for repentance.
Consider your relationship with the person to be no longer that of a brother or sister, still an opportunity for repentance.
Matthew 18 does not suggest that sin remain hidden.
It does not suggest that we minimize sin.
It does not suggest that we overlook sin.
Matthew 18 is unflinching about this.
The Scripture carries the process through until the person repents – or is viewed as outside of the church family and in need of being found by God.
It is a misuse of Matthew 18 to use this Scripture to silence someone.
But isn’t it good to approach the person privately first?
When two peers – brothers and sisters in Christ – experience sin, one against another, and when they are able to talk together, when repentance and forgiveness take place, it is a beautiful and powerful instance of the Gospel in action.
Doesn’t the Scripture require that we approach the person privately first?
No, I do not think it does.
A woman is being abused by her husband. Her pastors tell her to go back and talk with him (or to go back to him and submit), even though the repeated abuse has already taken him and her far past the first step in Matthew 18:15-17.
An employee is abused directly by a supervisor. Human resources tells the employee to talk directly to the supervisor. The power differential is a recipe for aggravated abuse and retaliation. The delay is a recipe for image management and concealment or destruction of evidence.
A public figure engages in spiritual abuse, over and over again, in public. People in a position outside of the center of power recognize it. When they share their story, they are slammed for violating Matthew 18, even though the sin was public, egregious, and repeated.
These are not made-up examples. There are many more.
Read Matthew 18 (the whole chapter) several times. Focus on Matthew 18:15-17 in the context of the entire chapter. What does Jesus emphasize in Matthew 18? What does Jesus emphasize in Matthew 18:15-17? What do you see?
Have people come to you for help with an abusive situation? What have your core values been in serving people in this situation? Are there any blind spots that you see and would like to explore further?
Have you gone to leaders for help due to abuse? How did they respond? How do you wish that they had responded?
Know that God cares about you.
If you are experiencing abuse now, find a safe person to help you take next steps toward safety, and then healing.
The Enhearten team is available to hear your experience and help. Please feel free to reach out to us through my email at email@example.com.
About: Jenny Switkes is a pastor, mathematics professor, and missionary who is passionate about Jesus and loves the bivocational life that God has given her. She loves helping apostolic leaders clarify their calling and take next steps to live their call.
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