Thursday, March 26, 2015

Rescuing the use of Matthew 18

In recent weeks, events like the opening of the GRACE report about sexual abuse at Bob Jones University have made me aware of an interesting approach to Matthew 18 made by GRACE and others; that this reconciliation process only applies to minor, personal matters between individuals in the church.  Now I'm amenable to the motivation--who wants to force the 90 pound victim to confront her (his) 250 pound assailant alone?--but simply speaking, there is a lot of trouble with this approach.  For starters, the passage simply says "if your brother sins against you"--it doesn't tell us what sins might, or might not, be included. 

Couple that with Romans 13 (which indicates a significant role for kings in justice) and 1 Corinthians 6 (which indicates that believers in Corinth weren't supposed to go to law at all), and we have a recipe for confusion if we view this through modern eyes, where we have a large and fairly adequate civil and criminal justice system.   So let's try to look at these passages through "ancient eyes". 

A good place to start with Romans 13 and 1 Cor. 6 is to remember that only Roman citizens had access to the courts.  So when 1 Corinthians 6 was read for the first time, the minority who were wealthy citizens (probably some of the deacons and elders) were singled out.  The majority--slaves and poor--would have seen Romans 13 as an example of what could be done to them more than what could be done for them, the King's authority more than a promise of justice for them.

Hence, 1 Corinthians 6 might also read rich people, don't use the courts to abuse your poorer brothers; James 2:6 says this as well.  Today, we see this a lot in civil and family law, where people use false accusations and the civil courts to stomp the less fortunate into submission.  Thankfully in criminal law, the accuser at least must persuade an independent prosecutor that charges ought to be filed!

In this light, the application of Matthew 18 is very broad--it was the only recourse that most people had.  And we are left, again, with the question of whether we force that 90 pound victim to face her 250 pound offender alone.  Should we then abandon Matthew 18?

As repulsive as the picture we've discussed is, keep in mind that if we abandon Biblical process, we then will either exonerate the guilty or blame the innocent for one reason; criminal law is not necessarily God's law.  Plus, Matthew 18 works as much for reconciliation as it does for excommunication--it's a spiritual tool not given to the government.  How do we then rescue it?

First, remember that the first meeting where the accused was aware of his sin is when the assault(s) occurred.  Hence it looks like we ought to proceed directly to Matthew 18:16, where other witnesses would be involved.

Along the same lines, Scripture enjoins men to stand in for their wives and children, and even for widows and orphans, while pronouncing a curse against those who pervert justice.  So in that light, we ought to argue that any vulnerable accuser ought to be represented when confronting the one who has abused her--by parents, husband, or other responsible person capable of handling the situation.

That then leaves a very simple question; when does a church bring in civil authorities in the Matthew 18 process?  I'll present some thoughts soon.

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