With the Shai Linne “False Teachers” controversy earlier this year and the Strange Fire Conference around the corner, Matthew 18:15-17 has become a popular topic of discussion among friends. It says:
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.
This year’s question, then, is this: Are Christians obligated to pursue a private confrontation before voicing their concerns on a public stage because of Matthew 18?
If you asked me ten years ago, I would have answered, “Most definitely!” Five years ago, I might have shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” Today, I’m not convinced. Here are three considerations.
Is the matter a private/local one?
Matthew 18 implies small scale involvement because the degrees of confrontation escalate until the matter is brought before the church. The sin mentioned begins in private. Discipline is initiated on an individual level, moves to a few people, and is eventually made public when the church is called to action. To assume Matthew 18 addresses large scale public issues that affect the body of Christ through persuasive influences, is to inject a canister of inflated air into the text.
Does applying Matthew 18 even make sense for the situation?
Why would anyone feel obligated to initiate the first step of the Matthew 18 process and not see it through to completion? Each step builds on the other until a resolution is achieved, be it either repentance or exile. If my favorite preacher fell off a theological cliff in his latest book, am I really in a position to address the man privately, return with a friend, and eventually drag him before a local church for resolution? That’s foolish! Depending on the offense of his heresy, I might message him privately before addressing his public material publicly… but not because Matthew 18 requires me to do so.
Do we have biblical precedence for public warnings and rebuke?
In 2 Timothy 4:14-15, Paul wrote:
Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message.
It is not likely that Paul wrote a private letter to Alexander (or moved through the steps of Matthew 18) before dropping his name into Scripture. Almost two thousand years later… we are still reading about how Alexander the coppersmith was an enemy of the gospel. Hymenaeus and Philetus are also called out by name in verses 16-18 of chapter 2 in the same letter. Matthew 23 contains an array of even stronger public rebukes by Jesus Himself.
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If Matthew 18 does not apply to certain situations, does that mean we should throw all prudential wisdom and discernment out the window? Obviously not!
1 Peter 4:8 says:
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.
Likewise, 2 Timothy 2:23-26 states:
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
Paul is not suggesting that we should ignore our opponents or invite them to wipe their feet on the gospel. Rather, he is providing practical spiritual instruction for handling such scenarios with integrity. We should be builders, not destroyers, and never lose sight of the goal: seeing Christ exulted and the church built up in the grace and knowledge of His gospel. Matthew 18 should not be used as an excuse to condemn those who call church influences into account. Likewise, its lack of application should not be used as an excuse for cavalier recklessness. Let’s pursue that which is profitable, not petty.
D.A. Carson wrote an excellent article on this issue two years ago. His three considerations are exceptional and better than mine. Late in the article, he says:
One might of course argue that it is the part of prudential wisdom to write to authors before you criticize them in your own publication. I can think of situations where that may or may not be a good idea. But such reasoning forms no part of the argument of Matthew 18.
But the concluding paragraph does a really good job of calling it like it is:
There is a flavor of play-acting righteousness, of disproportionate indignation, behind the current round of “Gotcha!” games. If Person B charges Person A, who has written a book arguing for a revisionist understanding of the Bible, with serious error and possibly with heresy, it is no part of wisdom to “Tut-tut” the narrow-mindedness of Person B and smile condescendingly and dismissively over such judgmentalism. That may play well among those who think the greatest virtue in the world is tolerance, but surely it cannot be the honorable path for a Christian. Genuine heresy is a damnable thing, a horrible thing. It dishonors God and leads people astray. It misrepresents the gospel and entices people to believe untrue things and to act in reprehensible ways. Of course, Person B may be entirely mistaken. Perhaps the charge Person B is making is entirely misguided, even perverse. In that case, one should demonstrate the fact, not hide behind a procedural matter. And where Person B is advancing serious biblical argumentation, it should be evaluated, not dismissed with a procedural sleight-of-hand and a wrong-headed appeal to Matthew 18.
Well put, Dr. Carson! Let’s not be so dismissive or quick to call ‘foul’ when concern for public material is voiced publicly.