Matthew 18 as Natural Law

Matt. 18:15-17

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

This episode is so well-known in our circles that it often referred to synecdochally simply as “applying Matthew 18” without further specification. Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the text that expositors brush over too quickly, applying Christian hermeneutical reflexes that too quickly move to a conclusion, even when the conclusion is valid. That is, some richness is lost when the movement is too quick.

At stage 2, one takes “one or two others” in obedience to the law which is cited (Deut. 19:15), namely “that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word/matter is established.” From this, we see the genius of brevity in our Lord’s words as recorded by the apostles. There is much that follows from what is said, and which he therefore does not need to spell out. Part of the wisdom of the Law is in pondering it, in drawing out its conclusions for ourselves.

By mentioning the need for witnesses, and doing so in the very act of citing an OT law, it is clear that the “third stage” is one of formal juridical process; it is not some license to spread an evil report “now that I have checked off steps one and two.” Furthermore (and in consequence), just having two witnesses does not clinch the case against the offender if it goes to stage 3. The witnesses are witnesses to the confrontation itself, not necessarily to the sinful deed being rebuked. The witnesses described in this passage establish the single point that an attempt was made to resolve the matter privately.  It may be that they can witness only to the facts surrounding the confrontation — what the subject was, what sin was isolated, what the accused’s response was. The alleged offense itself, if disputed, would still have to be proved as a separate matter (itself requiring “two or three witnesses”).

What is interesting is that the function of the witnesses in Mt. 18 shows that the “charge” is not the first point of interest, but rather that a method of restoration was followed. That is, the concern of the Word of God is not in the first place that offenses should be dealt with juridically, along with a means to do so veridically; rather, the concern in the first place is that a way of life is pursued in which correction of faults can take place without any judicial intervention at all. The sphere in which this is done should be as small as possible. How different this is from the “outing” phenomenon we see in our modern society, where great delight is taken at “exposing” someone’s deep dark sin, perhaps to the loss of his job or ruined reputation. How different it is also from the “informant” modus operandi invented by the totalitarian state of the twentieth century, and now practiced routinely by “the democracies.” Perhaps a fault could even be found along these lines with how the Inquisition was sometimes carried out — though much more could be said in favor of the Inquisition that for our Nanny tattle-tale state.

Hence we see that the law of God has an organic and (if I may say so reverently) very human character. It is not simply a set of abstract principles plus a court which, if everything is functioning correctly, will set straight every violation. Many would-be offenses will turn out to be based on a misunderstanding or ignorance that can be remedied before seeing the light of day. Many will be corrected privately. Many will be covered by love, others will never come to public light because the injured party refuses to do his duty of confrontation. In a sense the victim’s own vice of pride or ungodly fear opens up a sphere of non-culpability for the perp as far as public justice. This does not let the offender off the hook ultimately, but in a sense it does as to the social fabric, for the victim has duties also.

Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. Lev. 19:17.

Our translation speaks at stage three of “telling it to the church.” As already mentioned, this does not give license to wag the tongue during the coffee hour, but refers to a disciplined juridical process. However, we should also note that the word translated church (ekklesia) is translated ‘church’ only proleptically, and in our Lord’s mouth would have had a more general sense. The “church” as we know it from our ecclesiology did not exist in that form during His earthly life. Probably, ecclesia is the Greek word chosen by Matthew to translate the Hebrew kahal or its Aramaic cognate, meaning “the summoned, the called out” or the synagogue. This is further ratified in that the punch line — treat the unrepentant offender as if he were a goy (ethnikos) or tax-collector — both center the discourse in a jewish context, not the Christian church. In the older administration, no sharp distinction was made between “brother” in the metaphorical, spiritual sense, and “brother” as fellow tribesman. The two concepts, more sharply distinguished in the new administration, overlay one another in the old. Doubtless our Lord intended the principle described in “Matthew 18” to apply in a specific sense to the constitution of the ekklesia qua church to be established in the future — hence the “binding” in verse 18 —, but the setting and terminology used to describe the principle is cut wholly from old administrative (Hebrew) cloth. Note that “brother” in the sense of kinsman according to the flesh does not completely disappear in the new administration either.

What I want to suggest is that these considerations point to the idea that the principles of human interaction known as “Matthew 18” are not merely a “checklist” for “properly following church discipline,” but are an exposition for living humanly in society in general. In other words, there is a “natural law” aspect to Matthew 18, or perhaps better said: an agrarian aspect. It applies to the Rotary Club, your apartment building, and the office just as much as within the church.

The clincher for this is the impossibility of the contrary. For, once appraised of the Matthew 18 principle, who could possibly gainsay it? Who could possibly say, “no, it is better for the just ordering of the club/society to sneak behind people’s back and report them to the officers/authorities directly”?

I have tried, albeit very imperfectly, to apply this at the workplace and living place. I am thinking of an incident at the workplace where I privately admonished an older man for some unacceptable behavior. At first, he was outraged that I would dare confront him — for we live in a feminized culture of public smiley-faces and deeply-concealed resentments. Then, when I simply reminded him that I could have gone directly to the bosses, but wanted to work it out privately instead, his demeanor changed instantly to gratitude.

And what sane person could but?

The principle taught by our Lord would apply even if there were no such thing as “church discipline,” and thus its full scope and inner beauty should be mastered prior to the specific application to church discipline.

Any society — whether an apartment complex, a workplace, a town, a club — would take on a wholly different character if the Matt. 18 principle were introduced. There would be more confrontation and consequently more love (Lev. 19:17); and consequently, less need for imposition of authority. There would be a dynamism, a social fabric.

It is almost as if obeying the Lord’s instructions would lead to greater richness of human life. What a thought!

There are some circumstances where the three-stage method must be modified, and looking at these will be the subject of a followup post.

Coffin on Confessionalism

This is an essay in The Practical Calvinist (festschrift to Clair Davis, detailed info at end). It was written in connection with a discussion in the PCA, in which body Dr. Coffin is a pastor. At issue is how strictly subscription is to be interpreted. Coffin sets out to defend a (relatively) strict view of subscription as a logical deduction from the raison d’être of having a confession:

The heart of what I hope to show is this: that the justification for having a confession ought logically to determine the manner of subsription to that confession. (p. 331)

Rather than first summarizing Coffin’s arguments, then returning to a critique, for the sake of brevity I will jump right in to my criticism under three headings. Explaining the criticism will entail a summary of his positive exposition, and so we can kill two birds with one stone.

1. Which comes first, unity or confession?

Coffin argues that a confession is the basis for unity; I affirm in contrast that unity must precede confession.

Coffin cites American Presbyterian authorities from the nineteenth century to make his case. However, these citations are not as clear-cut as he makes out. The quote from the 1824 GA lists some attributes of its Confession, but does not exactly state that this is the very basis of its constitution (with a small ‘c’) as such. The same is true of the Assembly’s 1805 statement (pp. 334f.) and that of A. A. Hodge quoted on page 334. Samuel Miller’s reference to “the importance of Creeds and Confessions for maintaining the unity and purity of the visible Church” (citation on p. 330, emphasis added by Coffin), is equally supportive of my counter-thesis if the emphasis is instead put on the word maintaining. Alone Miller’s quote on p. 333 comes close to Coffin’s agenda in the phrase “for the purpose of ascertaining how far those who wish to unite in church fellowship are really agreed” (p. 333).

Now if confession is taken in a very broad sense, we can indeed say that confession precedes being incorporated into the church. This happens to each individual at baptism; and undoubtedly baptism was always premised upon a certain confession of the neophyte. Even the founding members and officers of the church — the original twelve apostles — can be said to have been established in that position by confession. I am thinking specifically of Peter’s confession in Matt. 16:16-19. Peter’s spontaneous confession is taken by our Lord as the very thing that constituted him/them as the constitutive foundation of the church, building on Himself as the chief cornerstone.

However, the situation is subtly yet crucially different when defining dogma in the form of a Creed or Confession. Historically, leaving the American situation out of the picture for the moment, creeds and confessions were instruments of an already-established church giving definition of their credo in response to a crisis. This can be seen in the ecumenical creeds, and in the formation of the Augsburg Confession during the Reformation. The Swiss and Dutch churches wrested their independence from Rome in which they continued as a national church prior to articulating their new basis by adoption of symbols. The same is clearly seen in the adoption of the WCF by the Church of Scotland.

It is interesting that the Westminster Assembly was called into existence with an objective similar to Dr. Coffin’s thesis, namely, to serve as the basis of a constitution of the church “new” by virtue of uniting the three branches — English, Irish, and Scottish. This could be seen, perhaps, as the sole historical example that partially would ratify Coffin’s thesis — and it failed. The sought-for unification that was the whole goal of the Assembly failed to materialize.

Only in the American experience can we see some plausibility to Coffin’s model. Even here, however, this process only began some hundred years after the original colonies — which were compact and more in line with the previous experience of Christendom — had been diluted and dispersed by multi-confessional immigration and mingling.

The uniqueness of the post-colonial American situation can be summarized as that which occurs when there is non-cohesive immigration in the absence of a national ecclesiastical settlement. So the discussion in this context needs to be enlarged to ask whether the American situation is to serve as a “scarecrow to the nations” (as Dabney said in another context), or whether it is the stuff of a chapter on ecclesiology where the “exception proves the rule.” But in either case, our understanding of the holy catholic church will be truncated and distorted if we take the idiosyncracies of America as a foundational starting point.

2. The legitimate ways that an officer may depart from strict subscription

Perhaps my rubric is not worded in the best way, for the elbow-room Coffin carves out is intended, I think, more to define than weaken what is entailed by the adjective “strict.” But the devil is in the details, and a couple points need to be made.

Three classes of possibly-acceptable deviation are outlined, and what I want to note first is that Coffin only mentions the need for presbytery examination of the first two. First is the word/proposition distinction. In this case, “he must declare his judgement to the presbytery, so that the body receiving his pledge can confirm or disconfirm his judgement” (p 343). Second is the essential vs possible way to interpret the words. “The court must judge whether that professed sense is in essential agreement with the Standards, or in fact an exception of substance” (p. 344). The third is the original sense vs. current understanding. Notably, Coffin does not repeat his stricture of Presbyterial examination in this case. Perhaps this was just a slip. But it cannot be assumed in such a systematic and thorough thinker as Coffin that such a gap is unintentional. It is a serious issue that should be corrected.

In addition, the examples given in the third category are uneven in a way that could lead to the very subversion Coffin is trying to prevent. We have, on the one hand, whether “light of nature” should be taken qua the scholastic or vantillian understanding, whether “covenant” is “contract,” and whether “bodies” of the resurrection are understood in a “formal, or some other non-material, sense.” But interleaved with these kinds of issue are (i) whether “post-industrial necessities of modern society” qualify the Sabbath prohibitions, and (ii) the interpretion of “days” of Creation. This mingling is quite unfortunate, since the items in the latter category have been controversial and controverted in recent history in the PCA, and will probably continue to be for some time. This almost seems to give license to those taking the modern positions on these issues to skate through without even mentioning them. And this would be a serious mistake. Far better would be to require mention and examination of all departures from the historical sense, with the understanding that some items would be virtually rubber-stamped, while others might lead to more discussion.

3. Uniformity enforced by complaint and appeal only?

This point flies past rather briefly, but it can serve as the occasion to make another important point in connection to confessionalism. He says

Thus by the wholesome procedures of appeal and complaint, used with restraint and modesty, the Church defines and refines the boundaries of the language of her Confession through judgment in particular cases. (p. 348)

As such, this is true enough, but there is an important lacuna as stated. Namely, each wider judicatory should review the minutes of the judicatories in its jurisdiction, offering correction when needed; and this task should be taken very seriously as the ordinary means by which confessional uniformity is enforced. This is positive and regular; complaints and appeals are negative and desultory — and might not even occur when they ought, if the cognizant parties nod.

Coffin’s theory could easily incorporate this aspect, but I submit it is not merely a quibble to bring it up: it goes to the heart of a practical ecclesiology that mirrors the essential features of the holy catholic church.

We should extend this observation also to the matter of exceptions, by urging that all exceptions and quibbles to the standards allowed by Presbytery in the examination of a candidate should be clearly noted in the minutes for review by the wider church.
As an additional application of this principle, I would urge the church to consider this remedy. A book should be published and updated from time to time listing, under the name of every single pastor or teaching elder, all the exceptions allowed to him by his presbytery. Especially in an age when (oxymoronically) exceptions are the rule rather than the exception, it would be useful to the health of the church if we could discover what each man stands for, and not simply rest in the knowledge that at one time in the past some fellow-elders decided they were not fatal.

Coffin, David F., Jr. (2002) The Justification of Confessions and the Logic of Confessional Subscription. In Lillback, Peter A. (Ed.), The Practical Calvinist: An Introduction to the Presbyterian & Reformed Heritage, In Honor Dr. D. Clair Davis on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday etc. (pp. 329-355) Fearn, UK: Christian Focus Publications.

Brief Intermission: Tribute to Greg Bahnsen

A brief side-bar is needed in this autobiographical sketch of life-changing books. Spanning the interval 1983-1993, no single book stands out, but that was the period of my association with my dear friend and mentor Greg Bahnsen. Though I am avoiding mentioning names in this bookish auto-biography, his needs to be mentioned as the greatest single personal influence on my life in adulthood.

In view of that, it will perhaps be thought odd that I do not count any of his books as life-changing. Indeed, I found many of his books pedantic, even annoying. We had opposite tendencies at the aesthetic level. It is hard for me to imagine anyone becoming a Theonomist through reading Theonomy or its sequels. Then again, he may have felt the same way. Theonomy was actually a comparatively small part of his life, less in fact (by way of negation) than for many of his vitriolic opponents.

One of his teachings that drove deeply into my soul was the ramified implications of Matt. 18. Beyond the obvious three-fold “method” taught there for correcting offenses, Greg taught that even if you have a legitimate grievance, if the way you got to this point was via gossip, slander, tale-bearing, or prevarication, then you had to first go back and fix those errors before “continuing.” The putative grievance had to be left on the table until those errors were dealt with properly. Often, it turned out that the grievance all but vanished by the time those steps were taken — or at least, could be covered in love. What this taught me was that Matt. 18 is not some bureaucratic “manual of discipline,” but something much deeper: an insight into what it means to be human, and to be a human with integrity. The requirements of privacy and caution are not just little nuisances, but go to the heart of the matter. I have continued to develop this theme and hope to write on it anon.

Twice I turned against him. Both times, God gave me the heart to seek reconciliation, and Greg was gracious in a way that was itself life-changing. When I came to him the second time, I was moved to the core by his statement that the whole purpose of his ministry for the previous ten years may well have been, in God’s providence, just to set the stage for that moment. And afterwards, my offenses were never mentioned or remembered.

I will not try to summarize all the many ways he changed my life. That has come out before and will continue to do so. In summary, I will simply say he was a man of a great heart. Indeed, in the divine comedy, the literal heart ailment that killed him well before the age of 50 can be taken as a metaphor for his life. Like our Lord, he can be said to have died of a broken heart.

Ten or twelve life-changing books: #4

4. 1976 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Throughout the grinding of our souls in the gears of the great Nighttime Institution, when our souls are pulverized and our flesh hangs down in tatters like a beggar’s rags, we suffer too much and are too immersed in our own pain to rivet with penetrating and far-seeing gaze those pale night executioners who torture us. A surfeit of inner grief floods our eyes. Otherwise what historians of our torturers we would be! (Vol 1, chap 4).

I can remember how passages like this made my hair Continue reading