The Myth of Matthew 18: What the Bible Says and Doesn’t Say

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In Evangelical circles we’ve heard so much about Matthew 18, that you simply need to reference the chapter and many people know you are talking specifically about verses fifteen through seventeen. People talk about the “Matthew 18 Process” and ask others “have you done ‘Matthew 18?'” I have even heard people refer to others as a “Matthew 18 person” or not, depending on whether they “follow Matthew 18.”  There seems to be such an established idea about what this passage is about that no explanation is necessary.

At present there is a “Myth of Matthew 18.” A seemingly clear understanding exists regarding what this passage says and how it is applied. One variation goes roughly like this:

1) If you have any kind of conflict or disagreement with someone (including if you believe you have been significantly mistreated or abused by this person), you are only to go directly to that person by yourself and deal with it. You are not to talk to anyone else about the situation because that would be gossip. To get third party advice, counsel, or perspective would be a sin. This procedure especially applies when the person you are in conflict with is a leader over you in the church. It doesn’t matter how intimidating the person is or if you feel you have been repeatedly mistreated. That is a sign of your own personal weakness and unwillingness to follow biblical protocol.

2) If the person you talk to doesn’t agree that they did anything wrong, and if by this time they haven’t convinced you that they were right all along, you go up the chain of command in your church or organization and appeal to successively higher leaders. You continue to remain silent to anyone else about it except the direct chain of command over you and that individual.

3) Eventually you reach the top of the chain (whether it is an individual or a committee) who adjudicates a decision concerning who is right and wrong in the situation.

However, when I actually sat down and read Matthew 18:15-17, I was shocked by what it said and what it did not say. In the Evangelical tradition, we pride ourselves in preaching and teaching from the Bible and not “extra-biblical” revelation. Yet how much of the popular teaching on Matthew 18 actually comes from Matthew 18 itself? Let’s break it down phrase by phrase and see for ourselves:

If your brother or sister sins [against you]*

What it says: a brother or sister is someone of relatively equal status in the community. This is describing how to deal with peers.**

What it does not say: A leader, an elder, a pastor, or any other person of clearly superior rank.

Go and reprove them

What it says: reprove/correct/convict (from the Greek verb ἐλέγχω) the person who sinned. Tell them with no uncertainty that they sinned. There is no question as to whether the person sinned or not.

What it does not say: seek understanding or clarity about what the person did and find out whether they really did anything wrong. Discover that you were actually the one who was wrong.

[Reprove them] between you and that one alone

What it says: The adjective “alone” solely describes the meeting between the person who sinned and the one reproving. This “alone” is in contrast to the one or two witnesses that come along for the next meeting. The point is to not bring along the entire entourage which could potentially constitute a pressure group to intimidate the sinner.

What it doesn’t say: Only talk about the situation with the individual involved. Don’t talk to anyone else about what happened. Don’t ask your friends or family for advice into the situation. Anything else is gossiping and sin.

If that one listens you have gained your brother or sister

What it says: There is only one positive outcome of the meeting: the sinner repents for the sin they committed. They are like the straying sheep of Matthew 18:12-14, who has been brought back. Repentance precedes reconciliation.

What it doesn’t say: That another positive outcome would be if the one reproving listens to the so-called sinner and is won over to their side. That it is possible for reconciliation to happen without the repentance of the one reproved.

If that one does not listen, take along with you an additional one or two, in order that by the mouth of two or three witness, every matter might be established.

What it does say: A second meeting is held in which the sinner is once again urged to repent. This time two or three witnesses are present who are able to testify whether they repented or not.

What it doesn’t say: When the conflict isn’t resolved, one is to appeal successively up a chain of command until you reach the highest individual in a church or organization. The additional “one or two” are not leaders over the person who sinned.

And if that one does not listen to them, speak with the church, and if that one  does not listen to the church, let that one be to you like a Gentile or tax collector

What it says: If the sinner refuses to listen to two or three, then the last step before excommunication*** is for the entire church to confront him or her at once. They are given a third opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. If they do not repent then, they are excommunicated.

What it doesn’t say: After going up the chain of command fails, one should take a final appeal up to a committee who will adjudicate the matter and decide who is wrong.

In summary, the text of Matthew 18:15-17 says nothing about:

-how one deals with leaders

-how one deals with conflict in general

-prohibiting receiving third-party counsel in challenging situations

-defining gossip

-appealing successively up a chain-of-command

-a process to adjudicate the validity of your claims

What I hope this shows, is much of the “Myth of Matthew 18,” does not actually come from the text of Matthew 18:15-17, but is a fanciful embellishment of the text. Matthew 18 is a process for extending three offers of repentance and forgiveness to an individual who clearly has committed a serious sin before excommunicating them from the community. It is NOT a catch-all process for handling any conflict, disagreement, or misunderstanding in the church. Does this mean one cannot glean helpful ideas or principles from this passage and apply them to other situations? Of course not. But it does mean to assert that this passage describes a biblical command regarding all these other forms of conflict is to ADD to what the Bible is saying. Unfortunately, regardless of whether they are intended this way or not, these additions to the text often function to protect people in power, despite their misuses of it, while isolating and debilitating the weak and vulnerable. Of all places, the Church should be one where the powerless and vulnerable are defended and fought for. We can move further in this direction by ceasing to invoke Matthew 18 in situations where it is inappropriate.

 

*The textual evidence for the phrase “against you” is fairly disputed, and is not found in the earliest manuscripts. It was likely not part of the original manuscripts, and thus removing Matthew 18 further from a kind of “conflict resolution” procedure.

**Some might say that since “we are all brothers and sisters in Christ,” that this passage would equally apply to peers and leaders. This may be the case. Or it may be an insertion of Pauline thought, or much later democratic/egalitarian thought. Regardless of any way we may all be “one in Christ,” the New Testament continues to teach that there are leaders and hierarchy within the Church. It would not be appropriate to immediately collapse this distinction. In terms of personhood, value, loving and caring for one another, we are all equal. In terms of the practical dimensions of church structure and functioning, there is a hierarchy (while of course hierarchy can be construed in many different ways that are not all strictly authoritarian). Matthew 18 would more clearly fall into the later category, so it seems appropriate to maintain a distinction between leaders and peers.

*** I admit the word “excommunication” is somewhat difficult. My use here denotes a specific and clear demarcation that one is not a full member of the community (let them be like a Gentile…), but does not imply any dimension of “shunning” which can be associated with (but is not inherent to) the word “excommunication.” Specifically in the Jewish context, the Gentiles were not “shunned.” The phenomenon of the “God-fearers” is an example of Gentiles who were  welcome to participate in synagogue worship, but were clearly not a part of the “Jewish” community in a strict sense.

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10 Responses to The Myth of Matthew 18: What the Bible Says and Doesn’t Say

  1. Rupert Whitebear says:

    I came to the same conclusions as the text (and you) after having to read Matthew 18 for guidance and forget the “myth”. It’s a wonderful method of conflict resolution in the context of two equals in a healthy fellowship of believers. It’s not about confronting false teachers who preside as theological dictators over their followers. For many people, like I used to be, trapped in large or small abusive religious organizations, Matthew 18 is not applicable in any way. I’ve had it used against me by people who clearly consider themselves my superiors while presiding over a mockery of everything God desires of a healthy fellowship. Thanks for this post; I hope it cuts through the confusion of so many people who need to stand up for what’s right and leave their current abusive church…or simply confront an equal in their healthy church. I have some further questions I’d like to ask you; if you have time, please reply to my email address.

  2. Richard says:

    Hello Rupert – thank you for your comments. I’m sorry you were in an unhealthy or damaging church environment for any period of time.

  3. Rupert Whitebear says:

    Thanks for your reply. I heard from a friend you were a professor at IHOP, so I’m sorry you had to be in one, too 😉 I believe there’s no need to be sorry as God works and is even now working my years of involvement there for good, to understand what sound doctrine is and to follow Christ. I have a suspicion you wrote this post out of the persecution you received having to confront people and then suffering the backlash from all the others who said you “did it wrong”. If that’s true, keep up the good fight! If not, it’s still a solid piece of clear and simple Biblical exposition in context.

  4. BW says:

    Rupert and Richard, did you feel that leaders at IHOP abused their authority over you? Could you offer some context? Thanks! 🙂

  5. Julie says:

    I really like most of this, but what makes you sure that “let that one be to you like a Gentile or tax collector” means excommunication? I don’t know of any other such uses of the phrase, and the example of Christ doesn’t lead me to think that I shouldn’t talk to Gentiles or tax collectors. I think it’s much the opposite, that the unconfessing sinner becomes the recipient of extra grace.

  6. Richard says:

    Hey Bruce – long time no see! I hope you’re doing well! I can’t really delve into that subject here, as my post is about the interpretation of the biblical text. But if you want to hear from some other people who have written on the subject from their perspective, go here:

    http://thecosmiccathedral.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/what-rolling-stone-didnt-tell-you-about-tyler-deaton/

    http://thecosmiccathedral.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/babel-pentecost-and-the-house-of-prayer-my-time-at-ihop-kc/

  7. Richard says:

    Hey Julie – thanks for your comment! Check out the third asterisk for my use of the term “excommunication” and what I mean and don’t mean by it.

  8. Rupert Whitebear says:

    BW,

    I’ve never been treated in an abusive manner by IHOP leadership. During my time there, I didn’t have a personal relationship with anyone in high levels of leadership. However, I came to believe IHOP was founded upon false ideas of who God is and what He desires of His church. Here’s a simple example: none of the writers of the NT compare their personal relationship to Christ, or any other individual’s relationship to Christ, to the romantic relationship shared between two human lovers. A thought-provoking critique of many foundational doctrines of IHOP can be found in “Wandering Stars” by Keith Gibson.

    After coming to the conclusion that IHOP’s foundational doctrines were heretical, I began to see how IHOP’s origins, or the origins of Bickle’s ministry through its many stages in Kansas City, had serious problems. For example, Paul Cain was a practicing homosexual and alcoholic. When confronted, he didn’t repent and left. To me, that’s a pretty big theological problem, but it’s only a small piece of the whole quagmire that is the unofficial prophetic history of Bickle’s ministry in Kansas City.

    Finally, one can see that IHOP’s government is structured more like a totalitarian regime than a New Testament church. Bickle is accountable to no one and surrounded by “yes-men”. There is no true plurality of leadership among peers. Read this article with Bickle in mind: http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.4227407/k.9467/Abusive_Churches.htm

    I was just a pawn in Bickle’s ego-driven quest to make himself great in the Kingdom of God. I gave thousands and thousands of dollars to IHOP, spent hundreds of hours in the prayer room, and allowed myself to be deceived by false doctrine. In this sense, I consider myself to have been a victim of abuse.

    Richard, is there a place you can explain your personal beliefs about IHOP?

  9. brian says:

    When done it is a miracle people repent. It like time out, the length is their choice. The opprtunities for kindness bring conviction (hot coals) they will either get worse or better. If not done their blood is on our hands.

  10. kariander says:

    Thanks for this, Richard. I have been following some of your and Matthew Hartke’s blogs and posts lately and appreciate the way you both speak clearly about issues. I was at IHOP way back in 04/05 and my husband and I saw some of these issues around us then, so it clearly needs to be addressed. The other scripture that I feel goes hand in hand with Matt 18 is Matt 5: 23-24 – “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” It’s interesting that it puts the responsibility to put things right on the person who potentially has been the “wrong-doer”, not the one who feels he/she has been wronged. I personally, Christians in general and Christian organisation must take this seriously before we bring any gifts of praise, prayer, worship, offerings before God. We might be doing it in vain, if we don’t.

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