The heavy-handed application of Matthew 18:15-20 leaves a trail of pain, broken relationships, and human carnage among God’s people. Controlling authoritarians use Matthew 18 to silence dissenting speech, prophetic criticism, and to label people as trouble makers–sources of contamination in the assembly that must be purged.
Speech is articulated thought. Articulated thought calls to action. Action shapes reality. Whoever controls speech, controls reality. Tinpot dictators learn this in Tyranny 101 class! Misguided church leaders often use Matthew 18 as a speech/thought-control template. They can manipulate a group of individuals and thus control and shape a community’s experiential reality: a reality that too often accrues to the material, social, or psychological benefit of the church leadership. Dissent or disagreement is viewed as disloyalty to the group, denomination, or an individual leader. Fear motivates those leaders to suppress the thought and the individual behind it and to formally remove the individual from communal life. This includes forbidding all forms of social or human contact with the shunned one and their family. This often has devastating effect on children and their relational networks as they simply do not understand what is occurring.
This is an unfortunate and illegitimate understanding and application. It betrays the Spirit of Christ, even while professing and attempting fidelity to the text. Let’s briefly examine this passage paying attention to its culture and context, and try to distill some legitimate application.
Leading up to this point (Matthew 18:1-14), Christ has expressed His identification with “little children” and what it will take to inherit eternal life. He talks about “offending” these same little ones. At 18:6 He shifts and talks about interpersonal “trespasses”—offenses— literally: scandals. Petty interpersonal offenses and “hurt feelings” are not included. Neither is disagreeing with your pastor.” Note: There is not a shred of indication in this passage that Matthew 18 is a biblically mandatory protocol for doctrinal disputes. The context is interpersonal conflict involving behaviors between individuals, not enforcement of denominational or group doctrinal distinctives. He is talking about behaviors of a scandalous nature between individuals that would breach the community shalom: corporate well-being. Disagreeing with someone is not scandalous behavior. Matthew 18 does not apply in a formal way in those kind of circumstances.
The cultural backdrop for trespass and “aught against” was the Mosaic Law. How do we know we are dealing with Mosaic law moral/criminal/civil offenses and not minor psychological hurts? Matthew 5 must be included in our understanding of this passage as it somewhat mirrors Matthew 18.
At Matthew 5:22 Jesus refers to being called before the “council.” That was the Jewish Sanhedrin–the elders who adjudicated issues of the Mosaic Law. Verse 25 uses the words: adversary, officer, judge, and prison. These are all legal terms. We are dealing in these passages with civil/criminal trespasses in a Mosaic context. You do not go to court/jail for “insensitivities” toward another believer in the community! No Jew would be brought before the Sanhedrin for divergent doctrinal views short of blasphemy, as in the case of Christ. The very idea would have been incomprehensible to a Jew. The context is the disruption of community due to actual, objective loss in a legal sense. In our culture the closest equivalence would be civil or criminal offenses, not petty local church squabbles.
Take Witnesses (Another legal phrase).
If a first attempt at peacemaking has been unsuccessful, involve others in the community. This was a very Jewish/Semitic practice. The law said there was to be no “ruling” without the presence of two or three witnesses. It does not mean taking two or three shills with you who are on your side, to beat the other person down until they agree with you. In emotionally escalated situations of interpersonal conflict that do not involve scandalous behaviors of a legal sort, is there wisdom in bringing other parties to bear witness to what is said and done, and to bring extra points of view and hopefully keep things from escalating out of control? Yes, there is. The point is, Matthew 18 is not a “biblical mandate” in such cases.
Two or Three Agreeing . . .
This is not a make-a-wish prayer formula for three people in a circle singing praise songs and reveling in some spiritual phenomenon of the Lord’s “presence.” Rather, the peace of the community is so important to Christ that He makes this promise (my expanded translation):
“Wherever two are three of you are concerned about the unity of the community, where you had to make “judgment in a case,” and you are in agreement on it, I will stand behind your judgment. Concerning the maintenance of the unity of the community, just ask, it will be done for you.
The passage has nothing to do with a warm feeling in a church meeting from “the presence of the Lord.” It is about Jesus’s manifest presence among the community when it engages in the hard work of maintaining peace and going the extra mile to resolve conflicts.
A Mandatory Protocol?
Some think Matthew 18 is a mandatory protocol that must be followed to adjudicate all local church conflicts. If that is the case, and it is to be rigidly and legalistically applied, Paul apparently “failed Matthew 18” because he received a second-hand report from those of Chloe’s house (1 Cor. 1:11) concerning the behavior of people in the congregation in Corinth. If there is a mortal sin in many “Matthew 18” disciplinary environments, it is alleged gossip and not following all the “steps” of Matthew 18 to address a problem in a local church. Well, apparently Paul did not understand Matthew 18–at least not the way we commonly interpret it.
Paul did not “go to the source” by talking directly to the offenders and let them give “their side of the story,” and then take witnesses with him for stage two, and then bring it before the whole congregation for stage three of Matthew 18! He simply believed people talking about other people, and acted on it! Not only did he not go to the source, but he wrote a letter which would have been read in public, based on what he heard in a second-hand report: a clear-cut violation of Matthew 18 according to typical applications!
Treat Them as Unbelievers (Tax collectors and Gentiles)
Beyond the technicalities of the text, I think God is a realist when it comes to human beings and their interactions with each other. Brad Jersak has wisely understood the passage as such in this way:
“I suspect ‘treating them as unbelievers’ is NOT so much about exclusion or shunning or excommunication. I believe Jesus is teaching us to set healthy and compassionate boundaries in our relationships and releasing us to move on from intractable situations or irreconcilable relationships (rather than obsessing with fixing what we can’t repair).
In today’s context, in our own various models of ekklesia, Matthew 18 models for us Christ’s personal humility and call to love one another, it’s not about bringing the muscle—it’s about dialing down the energy. And that means everyone needs to leave the bludgeon at home.”
I agree with Brad.
For us, “treating like tax collectors and Gentiles” means: have no contact, turn them over to satan, or worse–condemn them to hell. In their world, the spirit of Matthew 18 was not a ban on all contact, but rather about maintaining social boundary markers regarding Mosaic uncleanness, particularly in table fellowship. Table fellowship was a huge ethical deal in their world that is not so much so in ours. Some rabbis taught that to eat with a Gentile was a capital offense crime worse than murder!
Well, Jesus is our pattern in all things—the same Jesus of Matthew 18.
How did He treat tax collectors and Gentiles? By extending grace, forgiveness, and table fellowship to them. He ate with them. He didn’t blackball them. This is one of the accusations against Jesus: He eats with sinners. It is critical that we keep this in mind when someone tries to implement Matthew 18.
Perhaps human realities dictate that close communion with another person is neither possible, nor relationally wise–for whatever legal, spiritual, or interpersonal reasons. It is bound to happen. It does not mean we treat people like moral contaminants. Rather Matthew 18 presents the extenuating lengths we must go to in order to bring peace and restitution. Toward the end of Matthew 18 we know Peter understood the implications of what I am proposing: “Lord, how often do I have to forgive?” (Matthew. 18:22). The implication is one of incredulity. We know the answer. We just don’t like the answer. It is easier to label and scapegoat someone as the cause of problems than to forgive them perpetually.
Matthew 18 is a less-than-ideal necessity to maintain appropriate boundaries to assure the well-being of individuals and peace in the community when all other long-suffering and forgiving attempts have failed because of human weakness. It is not a mandatory judicial protocol for every circumstance of conflict in community life. Some issues do not require Matthew 18. We just need to forgive, and move on.
One thing is certain: Matthew 18 does not apply to the systemic abuse of people by ecclesial leaders. Systemic abuse and corruption are to be exposed: shouted from the housetops by any one, at any time.
 For a fuller treatment of this topic see: The Rescue of Matthew 18 available at Amazon.com in softcover and Kindle format.
Copyright 2019, Dr. Stephen R. Crosby, www.stevecrosby.org. This ministry is sustained by the freewill offerings of those believe in the message of a radical grace in a new covenant understanding. If this article has been a blessing to you, would you prayerfully consider making a contribution through our Paypal button to help? Stephanos Ministries is NOT a 501-c-3 corporation Click here to understand why. Thank you and God bless you