Exceptions to Matthew 18?

On Matt. 18:15ff. See also first post on the “natural law” aspect.

Our Lord’s words are not such that we are allowed to trump them on the basis of alien principles. Yet we also sense that there are cases where other factors modify the application. It is not our place to define exceptions to the law of God, but reasoning from the law of God sometimes leads to application that on the surface looks like an exception.

As to the text itself, the phrase “against you” (eis se) in the received text of Mt. 18:15 would seem to limit the scope of the command to personal offenses. The phrase is not attested in the aleph (Sinaiticus) or B (Vaticanus), but is in the majority text, and it was evidently in the text used by Jerome. Aleph and B traditionally have carried a great deal of weight for those accepting the Westcott-Hort method, and so some doubt must be raised for those. My own view is that we should accept the phrase, but that it does not bear such semantic weight as to restrict the principle to personal offenses only. It applies to personal offenses; it does not follow that it only applies to such. As we argued in the previous essay, the implied scope of the instructions goes far beyond “church discipline,” and likewise, the genius of the instruction may go beyond the “against you” qualification. Our Lord often uses the part for the whole in His teaching. In any case, the phrase does not weigh in on the public vs. private distinction, since a personal offense could be public or private. Just as ethical reasoning may reveal qualifications in the public vs. private, it may also do so in respect to the personal vs. non-personal — the very distinction that someone might think was settled by the phrase eis se. This is the nature of laws that are stated simply; it is not a quibble. So the safest approach to take, I submit, is to start from the premise that Mt. 18 applies to all detected offenses, and then reason out from that how circumstances qualify.

So the question to ponder is, what circumstances modify the need to follow the three-stage approach of Mt. 18, i.e. when is one allowed to jump straight to level two (or even three)? Even putting it that way — which is very natural and common — betrays that the attitude is often, “when can I draw blood, wreak vengeance, get rid of this guy — without the disgusting need to talk and listen, and perhaps change my own view?” And this is indeed a wicked attitude that everyone should repent of when detected. Nevertheless, if that attitude has been dealt with, there still remain a few areas where the first stage should be bypassed. The rubrics that follow are launching points for reflections, not necessarily strict classes.

1. Where the breach cannot be healed in any case

The first category to consider would be offenses where repentance and restitution would still not be enough to remove the need for judicial action. We deduce this category as the simple negation of the purpose of stage 1. What I am thinking about is not the “unforgiveable sin,” but rather sins where a breach has been caused that as such changes the status quo ante. For example, where oaths were involved. The breaking of the oath could change the situation in a way that might not be reparable by repentance, such as

• a church officer that indicates disbelief of a point of the church’s Confession
• a church officer whose “flagitious” behavior would damage the reputation of the ministry if allowed to remain licensed (i.e. even after repentance)
• adultery
• cheating a business partner

Nevertheless, though process might have to continue regardless of the outcome of stage 1, it is hard to see that this obviates the wholesome benefit (to all involved) of doing stage 1. This would not necessarily involve the original party, if (for example) physical danger were involved. In such cases, the accuser would have the right to argue for the equity of bypassing stage 1.

A distinction must be made due to office. A pastor convicted in the criminal courts of, say, drunken driving — or known to be a drunkard even privately — could be de-frocked, but not excommunicated, without a Mt. 18 process, simply because the facts speak for themselves in proving unfit for office. These offenses are in the category the PCA book refers to as flagitious. However, it should also apply to a man discovered to be a heretic in violation of his ordination vows, even if now repentant. He has shown his oath to be worthless in the past, and repentance does not change that fact about him, as far as we can tell. Excommunication, however, could only follow if, after following the steps of Mt. 18, the man proved unrepentant.

2. Unavailability of the offender.

A spouse abandons the marriage and disappears, and there is sufficient evidence that this is not due to foul play, but rather intent.

Cases where the perp is simply unresponsive do not count as an example of this category. In these, the “first step” actually has been taken, it is simply trivially unproductive.

3. Where the ends are fulfilled more perfectly by skipping the first level.

There are cases where all the ends safe-guarded by Mt. 18 are best achieved by a quick public confrontation. An example that I witnessed should make this crystal clear. A presbyter (call him A) gained the floor in a Presbytery meeting and began deriding another Presbyter (call him B) in the most scurrilous way imaginable. After a few seconds of this, a third Presbyter (call him C) rose to rebuke A for such public calumny and demand that he stop. Instantly, A saw the error of what he was doing and apologized in a most contrite way. The air was cleared, the offense removed.

Now imagine if instead C had waited until he could “confront A privately,” asking him to repent and apologize. Then more damage would have ensued from the actual speech, and the air would have been poisoned for further business. Clearly, this is a case where C was fully justified in making a public rebuke “without following the steps of Mt. 18.”

But is this a simple ratification of the public/private distinction? I think not. Brother A was very glad to have been stopped by C’s immediate intervention — he would never have complained that his rights of Mt. 18 had been violated. Even if he had been recalcitrant, we can say that “the ideal A,” A if he were in his senses, would agree that the intervention was called for and gave him more, not less respect along the lines vouchsafed by Mt. 18.

This situation was technically “non-personal,” since C was not being slandered, B was. But this is not a relevant distinction here. All the same principles would be operative if B had been the one to rise and protest.

The merits of the case are such that it would indeed have been wrong for the brothers to defer intervention on the grounds of a rigid interpretation of Mt. 18 — contrary to the well-intended but here erroneous advice given in the OPC Book of Discipline, III.5:

Even in the case of public offenses, it is not wrong to seek reconciliation in terms of Mt. 18:15-17 or Mt. 5:21-26 or Gal 6:1.

It would have been wrong for the brothers to have held their peace during the public calumny in order to “to seek reconciliation with A in private.” But even so, their error would be compounded further if, having remained passive during the commission of the offense, they then skipped the first step after all, and proceeded directly to “bringing charges” against A on the grounds of its public nature. Then, absolutely none of the aims of church discipline would have been achieved — neither the restoration of the brother, nor the honor of Christ’s name, nor the peace and purity of the church.

From this one example, we can see that there are many layers in the application of the law of God. A cookbook approach will never do!

4. Things “Seen in Public” ?

We can also easily imagine cases that are “public” where it not only would “not be wrong to seek reconciliation” at level one, but positively wrong not to do so. Imagine what we would think of a brother given a ride to Presbytery, who said not a word “because it was a public offense,” and forthright proceeded to bring charges against the brother that gave him a ride, for speeding. Yes, the offense was “public” in that many people saw it, or could have. This would betray a pugilistic spirit far, far from the intent of our Lord’s teaching.

So the issue is clearly not public vs private, at least in a simple, neat way.

5. Cases of Public Harm

Consider where real harm is being done to a body politic. Say, giving national secrets to an enemy nation. Suppose you witness a coworker doing just that, and he is a Christian in your Presbytery. Should you follow Mt. 18, or bring a charge against him directly?

The question of reporting to the authorities is intertwined. Here, there is urgency both to stop the leaking, but also to bring the perpetrator to justice as it is a crime such that restitution cannot be given. The harm is done and must be punished. Moreover, it is probably necessary for the very possibility of bringing about justice to use secrecy, lest suspicion of detection lead to his going underground. Probably, then, the authorities would need to be notified without prior confrontation. Yet even here, the “Matt. 18 approach” could begin after the arrest is made, through prison visitation, in hopes of rescuing the brother’s soul. After the arrest is made, there is no further advantage to proceeding directly to a church trial, unless circumstances prevented obedience to the first stages — for example, if the authorities did not permit visitation, and if time is of the essence for re-establishing the peace and purity of the church. Think, for example, if the perp were actually a minister.

Perhaps there is something unique about the civil domain that would not apply directly to the church sphere. What would an analogous case look like?

We need to find analogues to the elements that made the example in the civil realm jump out. It needs to be something where “the damage is done and cannot be remedied by private action.” The only examples I can think of here are actions that should be against the civil law, but are not: say, running a porno site. But here again, what is the advantage to anyone of jumping to ecclesiastical process without Mt. 18? Defrocking is granted. But beyond that, is the question. What if the perp immediately took the site down and agreed to submit to counseling? The youth are no longer being corrupted, his soul is being dealt with, so what is left? Perhaps the church needs to make the statement, “not this, not here.” Maybe some kind of process is deemed necessary to make this public statement. It still could take place in parallel with Mt. 18. Perhaps we have found an instance to make sense of the OPC rule that process can take place even though “it is not wrong to seek reconciliation in terms of Mt. 18:15-17” — while adding that it is wrong not to seek to do so.

6. Where “Time is of the Essence” ?

One notion that can hardly be applied is that “time is of the essence.” For, Mt. 18 need not take a long time. Upon discovery that A is doing the porno site, B calls him up and rebukes him (after asking if it is true, presenting the evidence if necessary and so forth). A shuns the rebuke. An hour later, B shows up with C and D at A’s door and they rebuke him a second time. A turns a deaf ear. The next day, Session convenes a pro re nata meeting and charges are perfected.

Of course, if the situation drags on for a year without either Mt. 18 or any other action, then one can hardly claim either time being of the essence, nor the public nature. Consistency is one indicator of a good heart.


From these several examples, we can develop some heuristics for when the Mt. 18 procedure can be bypassed.

• when the act is in flagrante and further damage can be stopped
• when following Mt. 18 is impossible by time or space
• when the brother himself, if in his right mind, would agree that the immediate public intervention was the best solution. In other words, the Golden Rule applies here as well.
• cases of defrocking

In all cases, the accuser should be able to give a reason why the state of affairs is better with the public remedy than the private one: he has the burden of proof. No cliché category like “public” will suffice. If it is simply laziness or cowardice, that will hardly do. Negatively, if a great deal of time has elapsed during which the accuser was aware of the “crime,” then he has some explaining to do as to why no effort was made during that elapsed time. Why is it suddenly, a year later let us say, so urgent that he has to cut to the chase?

Note how such reasoning is quite different than how a bureaucrat with his codebook “reasons.”

This is the nature of ethical reasoning.

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.