Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Biblical Procedure for Church Discipline?

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

From time to time we come across believers referring to this famous passage in Matthew as the “biblical procedure for church discipline”.

An Inexplicable Departure from Normal Procedure

One example: William MacDonald is an excellent commentator on the scriptures, and one on whom I regularly rely. The following is in no way intended as a critique of his exposition elsewhere, or of his views on the church generally. I continue to have the utmost respect for his work and recommend it heartily.

However, Mr. MacDonald reads the Matthew passage excerpted above as a set of instructions about ecclesiastical discipline in the Church Age. He understands the Lord’s command to mean something along the lines of Explain your disagreement to your local church.*

In introducing local manifestations of the future Body of Christ into this Matthew passage, Mr. MacDonald is inexplicably (and, for him, most unusually) departing from a fundamental principle of Bible interpretation, which is to ask ourselves how the Lord’s original audience would have heard and understood the words in question. Moreover, in introducing 1 Corinthians 5 to further explain the Matthew passage, he seems to me to be comparing apples and oranges.

So then, is church excommunication really what the Lord Jesus had in mind in the Matthew passage? Is this really the same process as the apostle Paul prescribes in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13? And if not, what exactly was the Lord talking about in Matthew? Let’s look a little deeper.

The Meaning of “Church”

In the 1 Corinthians passage, there is no dispute about the context in which judgment takes place. In the Matthew passage, however, the use of the word ekklēsia leads more than a few expositors — Mr. MacDonald is far from alone — to conclude that the Lord was anticipating local congregations of Christians and preparing his disciples for how they would operate.

What makes this interpretation difficult to swallow is that the Christian ekklēsia as we know it did not yet exist. Christ had promised to build it two chapters earlier, but it would not come into being until after his death. When the Lord spoke these words, ekklēsia was not a Greek theological term; it referred to public assemblies or gatherings.

G. W. Kirby observed that ekklēsia is used in the Greek Old Testament for the assemblies of Israel when they “gathered before the Lord for religious purposes.” Moulton & Milligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek Testament says ekklēsia referred to “any public assembly of citizens summoned by a herald. It is the LXX term for the community of Israel.” Strong’s Concordance refers to “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place.” Several hundred years before Christ, Thucydides uses ekklēsia to refer to an assembly of the people convened at the public place of council for the purpose of deliberating. And Luke uses the expression in Acts to refer to both a riot and a lawful public gathering.

Considering that the word ekklēsia appears on only one other occasion in the gospels, it is far more likely that the Lord was using it in this much more general sense than that he was referring to the coming Christian church.

Tell It to the Judge?

It is also quite impossible the Lord was instructing his disciples to bring an offender of this sort into the Roman criminal justice system, before a Jewish religious council or even before a lesser Jewish civil court. All these institutions would certainly have fallen under the umbrella of ekklēsia in the technical sense, but the term was used much more broadly in first century Greek. Moreover, when a case was taken into a formal venue of this sort, a judge or ruling body would be obliged to pronounce on it with binding authority, a danger the Lord warned about earlier in Matthew: judges might well hand the losing party over to guards, and guards to prisons.

That is not the case here at all. In Matthew 18 the Lord actually considers the possibility that the offender might refuse to listen to the ekklēsia. Evidently the courtroom situation is not what the Lord had in mind.

Further, earlier in his gospel Matthew quotes the Lord on the subject of civil magistrates and courts. If Jesus meant for his followers to attempt to resolve personal disputes through these institutions (a practice he strongly advised against), he would surely have referred to them in similar terminology.

It seems, then, that the word ekklēsia is being used here neither in its later theological sense nor in its formal, official sense.

Inside Baseball

Consider this as well: if the Lord was really telling his disciples to take their disputes to a future church, then either he was talking right past them to those who would read Matthew’s gospel nearly three decades later (I consider this sort of “inside baseball” exceedingly unlikely), or else he had already privately given his disciples a great deal more information about the coming church than we find anywhere else in the gospels (remember, this is well prior to the Upper Room discourse). This too seems improbable given Paul’s references to the church as a “mystery” given to him by revelation and which “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”

When we consider the great difficulty with which even the apostles were brought to accept the inclusion of the Gentiles, as chronicled in Acts, and the fact that all their instincts from the very beginning were to try to live out their new understanding of the scriptures under the umbrella of Judaism and in its temple courts, it is exceedingly hard to believe the Lord had given them any kind of detailed teaching about what his church would be like or how different it would be from the institutions with which they were familiar. To the extent that he may have done so, it is evident they missed his meaning.

In Summary

In summary then, the most logical inference is that the Lord is not making an obscure and all-but-unique reference to some future fellowship of believers to instruct his disciples how they ought to behave in that new context. What seems far more plausible is that the Lord’s disciples understood him to be saying that a man who fails to amend his position when approached by an accuser bringing multiple witnesses should be tried in the court of public opinion. Jesus is speaking of an informal “jury” to which his Jewish listeners could appeal, if necessary, right at the time he spoke these words, not thirty years later when these words reached the ears of the churches more generally.

Apples and Oranges Examined

Let’s also observe several other points of distinction between the Matthew and Corinthians passages:
  1. Personal Offenses vs. Public Testimony. In Matthew, the sin is “against you”, where the “you” is second person singular. It is not a sin against a third party in which one might elect to intervene. It is not a matter of public testimony. Others may not even realize a problem has occurred unless the offended party tells them. (This is implicit in the original instruction to attempt to resolve the issue “between you and him alone”.) This is a personal offense. It might be a disagreement over property, failure to keep a covenant, a dispute over repayment of a loan, or an argument between families that has gotten out of hand. Contrast this with the offense in 1 Corinthians 5, which involves a third party and a type of sexual behavior so wicked even pagans would not tolerate it.
  2. Differences in Procedure. Matthew describes a four-step escalation process. 1 Corinthians goes straight to corporate judgment: “[D]eliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” Procedurally, there is no real point of comparison between the two passages.
  3. Judaism vs. Church. Here is a major difficulty for Mr. MacDonald’s interpretation of the passage: if this Matthew scenario was really intended to be played out in the church which the Lord was one day to build, why include a line like “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”? This racial baggage is so familiar to readers of the gospels that it may slide right by us, but it is not insignificant to our understanding of the intended meaning of ekklēsia in this context. In his post-resurrection revelations to Peter and Paul, the Lord would explicitly set aside all such nationalistic thinking within his church, but its unabashed presence here reinforces the Jewishness of the Matthew situation. The spirit of the statement is quite at odds with the entire ethos of the church, in which the middle wall of partition is broken down, and Jew and Gentile alike approach God apart from the Law. So then, if the Matthew passage really anticipates Christ’s coming church, why does it absolutely fail to acknowledge the most basic principles upon which that church is constituted? My conclusion: it doesn’t.
  4. Personal vs. Corporate Again. The expression “let him be to you” does not refer to the offender’s relationship with the larger group passing judgment. The Greek pronoun soi is in 2nd person dative singular form. In other words, an offended party did not personally get to decide an offender’s relationship to other followers of Jesus by putting him through this process. In the end, if the Matthew 18 four-step process failed to produce its desired result, it was only the original offended party who was to treat the offender differently, not the ekklēsia in question or the offended party’s designated witnesses. This is in sharp contrast to the “full church” procedure of 1 Corinthians 5. It is true that plural pronouns come up later in this same passage (“if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven”), but they are definitely not present in verse 17. A man who was offended, followed the Matthew 18 procedure, and failed to achieve the desired outcome was the only person given license to shun the alleged offender.
Okay, well ... what then?

I do not have anything negative to say about William MacDonald personally. His knowledge of scripture and lifetime of dedication to God’s word and his people absolutely dwarf my own. That said, I believe his comments on Matthew 18 in his Believers Bible Commentary are not really on point. The passage does not deal with church discipline, and bears almost no relationship to the situation laid out by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5.

Now, you may or may not agree with my conclusions. But having gone to some lengths to strip a passage of its frequently-assumed church context, it might be wise for me to give some thought to how we may make the best possible use of it. Ecclesiastical discipline in the Church Age is not the Lord’s subject in Matthew; all the same, Christians who disagree with one another may indeed find help in this passage during times of conflict. I am not trying to pry the passage out of Christian hands; rather, I am hoping that by looking at what the Lord was really saying, we may approach it more carefully and apply the principles we find there a little more judiciously.

I will try to get into that subject a little more in Tuesday’s post.

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* I have even come across Christian wives insisting Matthew 18 authorizes them to take disagreements with their husbands to be adjudicated by their pastors. Leaving aside the question of whether that is ever the best way to handle an internal family dispute, such a scenario is nothing remotely like the situation the Lord Jesus was describing.

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