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.