Christians in conflict - The use and abuse of Matthew 18
Updated: Jun 30, 2022
Conflict within churches is often handled badly or totally ignored, you don't tend to hear about when it is handled well. During the recent mess at the church I once helped lead but found myself silenced and pushed out of, a passage in Matthew 18 was referenced at various points, most notably on the night my removal from eldership was announced to the church.
Here is the passage:
“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
There is a lot of wisdom in bringing an issue you have with someone to their attention privately, it avoids shaming them and often averts further misunderstandings and complications. That said, did Jesus use this as a universal for all conflicts and relational issues within a church? It would seem that many church leaders teach that it does, using it as a procedure for how we should bring concerns to others and blaming people for not following the process if they don't follow it how they'd like. On the night my church was told about my being asked to stand down, a person who was meant to be holding the eldership accountable, referred to these verses as though they were a procedure that if followed, would have avoided all of the mess. Maybe it would have avoided some mess, especially around how I was treated, but it seemed more to be another example of its misuse rather than a helpful reference to scripture in a messy situation.
Many read this verse as if an offender is doing something against us and therefore the passage is a command to absorb the hurt and go and talk to them to resolve the situation. Part of this interpretation comes from late manuscripts and early translations from said manuscripts adding in 'against you' after 'if your brother or sister sins'. This 'against you' is missing from the earliest manuscripts (see Netbible note 21) which makes the context a more generic 'sin' issue - if your brother or sister is missing the mark in the behaviour expected of them, go and talk to them and help them change their course. Therefore, the passage isn't about personal conflict, or at least, that isn't specifically the focus.
Despite personal conflict not being the main focus, should it be used to help guide us in personal conflict? Sometimes. There are times when a person does sin against you and you still have the relationship with them to bring the issue to their attention one to one. If this is possible, then yes, do that, but it isn't a universal for every time you are hurt by someone else.
A big problem with the use of this passage is that it is brought up when issues of bullying and abuse or other unethical behaviours are brought to the attention of leaders. Did Jesus mean that a person who has raised an issue of being bullied or abused should go to their abuser, on their own, and bring the issue to them? No, I don't believe he did. I think this mostly because of how he treated people: see how he treats 'the sinful woman' in Luke 7 ('sinful' means she didn't follow the Torah in the way that was expected by the Pharisees and religious leaders), or Luke 8 where Jesus responds to a woman who would have been shunned by her community because of her bleeding, or Luke 13 and how he responds to those who were angry with him for healing a woman on the sabbath. There are other stories in the gospels and throughout the scriptures that protect and comfort those who are being abused, made vulnerable, or outcast by society, and shame those who have the power to help but do nothing. Jesus does not send these various people back to individuals or those in power to get them to have a little one-to-one chat and bring them to repentance. Instead, Jesus rebukes those in power or causing the harm on behalf of those who are being hurt or ostracised.
Ultimately, the use of Matthew 18 in relation to a universal command around personal conflict fails because of the rest of scripture. Jesus (as seen above), Paul (writing his letter filled with rebuke to Corinth simply on the testimony of Chloe), and others, fail to follow these verses in the ways that many Christian leaders teach. I believe it is more likely that Christian leaders have got it wrong rather than it being a contradiction in scripture.
If someone comes to the church leadership with evidence that they are being mistreated by someone else in the church, leadership should be very careful in how they reference Matthew 18.
The worst thing that could be done to someone who is experiencing abuse is to put the responsibility on them for either not following a correct 'procedure' (i.e. Victim Blaming) or by pushing them into a solo venture of trying to get repentance from the person hurting them. Anyone who has read anything about abuse or experienced abuse themselves will be able to say how that generally goes. All humans have a natural instinct to go on the defensive when accused. This can very quickly, and sometimes unintentionally, lead to further abuses through deflection, denial, making themselves out to be the real victim, and in so doing make the person who is hurt begin to question their hold on reality (see gaslighting and DARVO). If there is no accountability for the person doing the hurting when behaviours are brought to their attention by the victim, they will only hurt the victim more. The victim is then unable to follow the 'procedure' because they don't have any witnesses for 'step' two!
Interpretations of Matthew 18 as a universal command seem to not apply equally to leadership. In my experience the passage was used to put responsibility on the grieved party, rather than us leaders taking responsibility and being the ones that talked with the one 'in sin' privately. Would doing this have changed the outcome of the last few months? Quite possibly - it at least wouldn't have led to the use of solicitors by the church.
I failed as a leader at the early stages of the mess, even prior to it, to raise concerns I had with the person in question privately. I fortunately had the opportunity to discuss these concerns with the person and also apologise to them for not doing it sooner before leaving the church.
At the later stages of the mess, neither the person quoting the passage to the church, nor the elders before standing me down, felt the need to follow Jesus' advice and tell me privately what I had supposedly been doing wrong. No witnesses were brought to me regarding my 'sins'. My fellow elders skipped the speak privately and the bring witnesses parts and jumped straight to 'tell the church'.
Inconsistency around the use of Matthew 18 isn't limited to my experience and is common across various church expressions and denominations. Googling 'Abuse of Matthew 18' will bring up a whole host of examples including a book on rescuing the passage (I haven't read it so am not endorsing it, just noting its existence!).
So what is Matthew 18 saying? In its context it is telling believers to look out for one another. Notice the verses prior are about being like children in the way that we approach God in our innocence and humility, not seeking to be above others in status and power. It tells us to be careful in how we live and what we teach so that we don't cause others to lose their standing with God. Those in power and leadership have a massive responsibility before God with regards to how they treat others, how they live, not just what they teach. As we get closer to the verses discussed we have a parable of how a good shepherd will search for the 1 lost sheep, leaving the 99, and rejoicing when the lost sheep is brought into the fold.
It is in this context that verses 15-17 are written. When we see a brother or sister in sin, that is wandering away from doing what is right and good before God, we should seek to care for them and help them come back to the proverbial flock. The flock should be where the sheep is safest, we assume it is, but unfortunately many 'sheep' are leaving the flock because it is full of wolves. Leaders must not, but often do, confuse themselves with the shepherd of the parable and their particular church with 'the flock'. Just because a Christian is leaving a particular congregation, does not automatically mean they are the lost sheep of the parable nor are they automatically 'in sin'.
The passage is about walking with fellow believers and helping them know who God is first and foremost, pointing them to how he calls us to live, but it is not about keeping people under our control. Don't shame another publicly but bring things to their attention quietly first, seek unity within the body of Christ as far as is possible. At this point it should also be noted that Jesus gives instruction on judging earlier in Matthew's gospel (yes, Christians are allowed to judge...):
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye." Matthew 7:1-5
Be careful when bringing correction to a brother or sister, be humble, and be certain you are aware of your faults before stepping in. This will help you be gentle and kind rather than assuming you are that person's saviour.
The involvement of witnesses, if things continue to go wrong, means that you can talk about the issue with others. Matthew 18 is regularly used to silence people and stop them talking to anyone else, however accessing witnesses requires you to talk to others and see if they agree with what you are seeing or they can tell you if you got something wrong. This has to be done carefully as it can quickly fall into the category of slander or gossip, but the presence of using witnesses in Matthew 18 (a practice carried over from Jewish law) shows that it is possible. Don't be shamed into silence by the misuse of labels like 'gossip' and 'slander'. The church, not just individuals but especially leaders, should be responsible in exposing poor behaviour privately first, with witnesses second, and with the church if there is no change. Yes Matthew 18 should be used to expose abuse, but often it is used to blame the victim for not doing things 'correctly' rather than to support them in holding Christians to account.
Reading further into Matthew 18 you will see a parable about how a servant who has his debt forgiven fails to forgive the debt of another and ends up being jailed due to his failure to treat another in the way he was treated. Forgiveness is a vital part of the Christian faith and absorbing 'debts' or trespasses against us is part of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. This is important, however, forgiveness does not require us to put ourselves into positions where we can be harmed again, and Matthew 18:15-17 are not verses that requires that of us either. For more on forgiveness and restoration, see my post here.
In conclusion then, Christians should be authentic and vulnerable in that who they are and how they live is visible to all. As scripture puts it, Christians should 'walk in the light'. Christians, as Matthew 18 says, should help fellow Christians do the same. Any use of scripture that forces people to walk in darkness, be silenced, or allows sin to be covered up, is spiritually abusive. 1 John 1:5-9 summarises and concludes this well:
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse by Dr Lisa Oakley & Justin Humphreys
Redeeming Power by Diane Langberg