The Proper Use of Matthew 18:15-20
By Stephen F. Staten
This article is the first in a series called The Six Legacy Decisions for Faith-Based Organizations, whereby a challenge is given at the conclusion of each editorial.
15 “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. 16 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.’ 17 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. 18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (NIV)
My first experience with the use of Matthew 18:15-20 was a real game-changer for a small congregation west of Chicago of about 120 members. In late 1982, after being a Christian for a little over a year, our small Midwest flock had just sent many of its stronger members to start a new church in Chicago. Within the previous year there had been a number of leadership changes. It was common knowledge that in the three or four previous years the congregation had endured two splits. I had witnessed a power struggle that ended when an antagonist was caught in adultery. The unsettled congregation had become weak and the remaining staff and interns were not always on the same page as the two or three elders. And it looked like another split or breakoff could occur.
A staff member - we’ll call him “Jack” - and leader of the younger part of the congregation, a charismatic young Christian we’ll call “Abe,” were involved in some sort of conflict or struggle of ideals. Both seemed overly worked up and spoke poorly of each other. Many of the younger members were aligned on one side of the dispute, although I no longer remember the original issue. But it seemed like something was about to blow as younger members felt the pressure to side with Jack or Abe.
I had witnessed Jack tag quite a few people with the term “prideful,” especially when they disagreed with him, resulting in growing resentment. “William,” another witness to the offenses and the overall dynamics, discussed this matter with me. We decided to approach both ends of the rift, beginning with Jack. William and I obtained advice from the elders to make sure we were interpreting the Matthew provision from Jesus properly. Then I scheduled the appointment with Jack that would be led by me with William as a fellow “witness” to the behavior (vs. 16). The elders asked all of us, including Jack, if they could be there as witnesses to the process. They were probably concerned because Jack played a significant role in the congregation. It seemed a bit odd but all agreed that the elders could be witnesses of the process. And they would be silent until the very end.
Following prayer, William and I mentioned numerous events where we heard Jack labeling others prideful. And we thought that there are occasions where there is a good kind of pride as well as a place to defend oneself without being tagged as “prideful.” Jack looked very stern as if he felt betrayed by us, as if William and I did not have his back. But he listened. We let him know that we wanted to be a resource to end the feud and would also be talking to the people on the other side of the rift about their behavior, and that we cared for everyone, including him. At some point he softened and agreed. Then Jack said, “I am the one who has been prideful,” which broke the ice. William and I weren’t sure how to end the meeting so an elder spoke up and said he had seen the same issue with Jack and thanked him for responding well. There was some light humor and warm words and the elders closed the meeting smoothly.
William and I then addressed Abe who suddenly moved out of state. The feud was over; there was no longer a choice of sides. Over the following year, before I moved away, the dynamics vastly improved. Forevermore I have been grateful for the process provided by Jesus that aids Christians in resolution, reconciliation and discipline.
But some strange things happened over the next few decades where I could tell that people used the passage in Matthew differently than intended by the author (at least in my mind). But before we go into what went wrong, lets look at the passage that stands in the background of the original hearers.
15 One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. 16 If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, 17 the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. 18 The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, 19 then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. 20 The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. (NIV)
This judicial process that Moses established is considered an early baseline for modern court systems. Clearly, there was a high bar for what constitutes a witness and serious repercussions for being a false witness. At least two confirmed witnesses of a crime or an offense were needed to make something binding, according to Moses. While Jesus did not elaborate on witnesses per se, he did refer to this passage and recast it for further purposes. As Christians we follow Jesus’ principles for solving problems, not necessarily the teachings of Moses; but it would be a mistake to lose the context of Jesus’ teachings.
The Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as the fulfiller of the law, the only one who could authoritatively expound on its ultimate meaning (Matthew 5:17-20). In his Sermon on the Mount he did not support the bare minimal requirements of the Law that some religious people preferred. On the contrary, Jesus revolutionized the Law of Moses (Matthew 5:21-48). Whereas the Law addressed restrictions on killing, Jesus repudiated hating. The Law addressed adultery, yet Jesus denounced lust. The law allowed for hating of our enemies, but Jesus called for loving our enemies. Similarly, Jesus transformed Moses’ judicial formula for greater use—winning a brother over from sin and reconciling relationships rather than winning a dispute. Thus far, most people agree with this interpretation.
A problem I have seen develop has to do with what constitutes a witness. Many churches, regardless of the theological flavor, have somehow lowered the bar from being a witness to the original offense to being a witness of the allegation process, merely a participant in the confrontation. That is surprising for two reasons. First, Jesus actually quoted Moses’ stipulation that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses,” and readers are clear on how Deuteronomy used the term witness. Secondly, it is inconceivable that Jesus would endorse a practice that frequently hurts people (taking sides without evidence). Prior to the approach that Jesus recommends, he warned about things that cause people to stumble (Matthew 18:6-9). Allegations without proper testimonial process are frequently near the center of the storm within churches experiencing conflict.
Exegetes and commentaries land on both sides of the “witness to the offense” or “witness to the allegation” conclusion. This paper focuses on the fruit of each position. The long-term consequences of each stance on “what constitutes a witness” will settle the debate. One theory does not have precautions against triangulation (roping someone into a confrontation), blindsiding with unsubstantiated accusation, and circling the wagons. The other follows the Golden Rule—“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
It is a fact that conflict consultants consider Matthew 18 to be one of the most abused passages behind church conflicts. In fact, in every place I have done conflict work, a flashpoint has involved a few pre-disposed brothers confronting someone without the necessary balance of testimony. These witnesses to the allegation often become part of the problem because they have formed a narrative before a formal meeting, decided who or what was right in advance, and have already established the outcome if the accused doesn’t come around to their way of thinking.
Are we more likely to ensure healthier outcomes with a process that may possibly lead to public discipline when we use the definition of a witness proposed by Moses or the one commonly practiced today? The game we want to win is the winning over of our brothers and sisters. It starts by going to that person directly and having a discussion “just between the two of you” (vs. 15). It is the loving thing to do.
I will describe just three disguised reality-based examples that have been mistakenly described as a Matthew 18 process and then I will close with a positive example of what happens when we reset our church cultures to win over our brothers properly.
1. Leader Robert is exasperated with member Mark and considers him “in sin,” but undecided about whether it is pride, independence, or weak commitment. Robert informs fellow leaders John and Dave with his concerns and they approach Mark for a meeting to confront him. The meeting begins with a prayer, which contains the heavy overtures about sin and repentance.
2. Ann suspects her husband Aaron is in sin on business trips but she is not sure. Years ago Aaron went to a strip club with coworkers and shortly thereafter confessed it to his wife and friends. So Ann asks their friends Richard and Jason to get involved in Aaron’s life. They confront him using past sins, and he defends himself. They step up the attack and call him deceitful, prompting further defensiveness, which they call sin. Richard and Jason leave the appointment thinking they are witnesses and might have to bring this before the church.
3. Sue is a women’s ministry leader and is in a bad spot emotionally and in her personal life. One of her teen children was behaving badly. The other leaders don’t know how to approach her because of her anger and occasional outbursts at her peers and youth workers. The husband is also temperamental and not much help. A few try, like Kerri, Jane, Tracy and others, as a means to help her out, but it is unpleasant. Suddenly the one who perseveres is Tracy, an older Youth Worker nearly Sue’s age. But Sue turns against Tracy, leveling a myriad of intangible and improvable false charges such as “If you would have called my daughter more often she would be doing better.” After weeks pass by, Tracy becomes exasperated and begins to vigorously defend herself. Then Kerri and Jane decide to call this a 50/50 disunity problem between Sue and Tracy and inform the elders of their view. The elders moderate a meeting of Sue against Tracy. The elders decide on a public discipline for both Sue and Tracy. When Tracy asks leaders “What was my sin?” she is told “We see you as being very distressed, which must mean you are in sin for it takes two to tango. So we have to bring this before the church.” Tracy’s husband speaks up, “You misread her behaviors. Tracy was dodging bullets and you didn’t even look into to the matter.”
None of these examples demonstrate what Jesus intended. None of the people running point on the processes utilized impartial inquiry into the matter. It is no surprise that many mishaps similar to these events occur and go awry in the Christian church. It is my impression that many branches of Christendom have succumbed to this form of church conflict malpractice. Simply said, the game-changing practice of Matthew 18:15-20 is not often followed. They skip the step of gathering real witnesses or evidence and proceed with an uninformed agenda. Let’s look at the outcomes.
First Story. Robert has spread his jaded views to his accomplices John and Dave of a blindsiding of Mark, even without meaning to hurt him. Perhaps Mark was struggling and in need of encouragement, or spiritually distracted and in need of mentoring, or wandering and in need of correction. But this prescriptive approach was wrong for the following reasons: 1) It did not include witnesses of an offense, 2) John and Dave did not hear from Mark independently (Proverbs 18:17), and, 3) the so-called witnesses provoked a worse outcome by leading with Robert’s negative angle on Mark.
Second Story. Just because Ann suspects Aaron doesn’t mean she knows something or that something impure occurred. Ann, Jason and Richard have all projected a past behavior on the present without having the evidence. And Jason and Richard are not witnesses of anything except for bad reaction to a gang up approach. Bad initial reactions to bad approaches are not disciplinable. If they are then we are all in trouble.
Third Story. Kerri and Jane appear to have acted cowardly. There was certainly enough testimony to lovingly confront or even discipline Sue but she was intimidating and they were afraid of her. There was none against Tracy. But the elders used the convenient dodge “it takes two to tango” to help Sue save a little bit of face using Tracy as a pawn. And it wasn’t the first time the elders punted the problem. Tracy and her husband pursued a ministry job elsewhere.
Neither the words of Moses or Jesus were followed in these fictionalized stories. Sometimes the problem is fear or cowardice, sometimes it is favoritism, and sometimes it is a lack of competence. The one way to stop these painful experiences is to take a stand and embrace the game-changing words of Jesus as they were originally meant.
Let me be clear. There is nothing inappropriate, with or without Matthew 18, for a few brothers to sit down and help a brother who is struggling. In fact, there are many variations that work. As long as an approach includes overall willingness, no hidden agendas, great listening and longsuffering then such meetings are bound to have a positive influence on a fellow sinner. What I am saying is that it is not a Matthew 18:15-20 process unless there are witnesses or its equivalence, which is evidence.
Every disciple of Christ knows of passages that the religious world has gotten wrong because they have been accustomed to hearing or seeing them modeled in a particular way for so long. That’s largely how the Sinner’s Prayer has become the norm of evangelicalism. None of us are immune to normalizing a wrong belief or falling into groupthink about a biblical position or practice. But I have run into trouble convincing smart friends to think differently about this matter because it seems that the majority of church leaders have been so acclimated by training and example that “Matthew 18” is the catch phrase used to describe a few Christians pulling a sinner aside. The idea of a collective sidebar, if pulled off respectfully, is not an issue. But calling it Matthew 18 without sufficient testimony, a clear and balanced picture, is troubling. Whenever this mismanagement happens there are two different narratives that go out into the church—the one who is disciplined and the one from the discipliners, which will be difficult to trust. And it leads to losses of membership, morale, and trust. I hope to convince my reader that witnesses to behavior provoked within a process is not the same as being a witness to the original offense.
A Positive Example: City Resolution
I have another positive game changer story with Matthew 18:15-18, which also included Matthew 5:23-26, another game-changing verse. In 2005 my wife and I were serving our large metropolitan congregation in the suburbs. The city ministry of about 440 members was in a crisis so significant that the city staff had no longer been able to meet all together for months. We took this assignment and moved. The first year was painful, resulting in a few resignations but no real change. It turned out that the real problems were conflicts that went back over ten years.
I did a survey and concluded that we had about two dozen unresolved conflicts, a few feuding groups where people would cluster and not sit near others at church, and behaviors so bad that it is unpleasant to even write about. So I solicited support from the elders and small group leaders to do a “master reset” based on the mentioned passages in Matthew’s Gospel. Over a period of about two months, I pieced together an inclusive narrative from dozens of interviews that gained wide agreement on lessons learned from previous chapters of the ministry’s history. Then we presented seven patterns of fault where various parts of the church body owned their role in the problems, beginning with leaders. And we discussed how we would collectively take it higher using Jesus’ words. Race was a part of the story, so it was a bit delicate. Then I called for an affirmation of a covenant based on a dual responsibility between the assumed offender and offended, to approach one another for resolution. Every member was to make their position clear by informing leadership of their intent. Formal agreement to follow Jesus’ words was now a requirement for membership.
Meanwhile I formed a mediation group of nine trusted and wise members who had backgrounds in human resources, business disputes, or mediation. Church members involved in a dispute could agree upon three of their peers from that group to resolve or arbitrate their issues.
As it turned out, about seventy members decided not to affirm the agreement. We informed them that they were cherished by the church and would always be welcome back upon simple affirmation. The results were surprising because our actual attendance did not decrease. Even our contribution did not go down. But our twenty-three unresolved conflicts went down to three. Soon we had just one, then we had none.
I will summarize how we resolved the problems, which were business disputes where the law, written and oral agreements were factors, and grievances existed over broken promises and money. The disputants were asked to agree on three people from the group of nine who would facilitate the resolution process. My wife and I oversaw the process of the meetings and would use Matthew 18:15-18 and 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 and various Proverbs as a framework. We were mindful of both the relationship and the disputed issues and asked the parties to come with a written statement on the issues and their ultimate desires. Situations where unbiased witnesses were available to provide concurrent testimonies were much easier to drive towards a resolution using Matthew 18.
And conflicts without witnesses were decided by agreed arbitration—a ruling based on experience and spiritual wisdom of the arbitrators (1 Corinthians 5:5). In those cases and in subsequent disputes we would see them resolved in one to three meetings. The last dispute required us to have the offender to turn themselves into a federal commission because laws were broken and we were out of our depths.
Over time over a fourth of those who did not originally affirm our covenant, but watched our progress, eventually affirmed. The storm was over and the formerly unmanageable ministry seemed unstuck and members were much more trusting of leadership. Once again, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 and 18 were the game changer. Why gamble with shortcuts such as heavy-handedness when you can change the game by a proven process rooted in the teachings of Moses, but re-envisioned so that both the helper and the sinner could win.
When we ignore problems, we lose later down the road. When we are jumpy and use quick fixes, we risk losing right away. When we follow both the process and heart of the Scriptures, the game has changed, allowing many more to win.
Game Changer Challenge
Only practice or endorse multiparty approaches for confronting an alleged offender that you would approve when a fault is alleged against yourself, your closest friends or family members that are based on the love for God and your fellow man.
* * *
The next installment is titled The Page Turner: The First Implementation of ‘the Jethro Principle’ (Exodus 18:17-27)