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.