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
-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.