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Imagine that a Classis meeting would make a recommendation to two churches to approach a certain popular speaker and well-published author privately about an issue that they had raised in their credentials, as they had not applied the procedure of Matthew 18: 15-17. Imagine that the Classis would suggest that since they had not discussed the matter in private with this person prior to raising the issue in their credentials, they were essentially out of order. Would this Classis have been right in their recommendation?

D.A. Carson weighs in:

In his editorial for Themelios magazine [Vol. 36 no 1 (May 2011)] link [] D.A. Carson responds to the fact that he had written what he called a "restrained critique" of the emerging church movement, and was chided with "white hot" indignation for not having approached the persons named in his critique privately as per the text:

            15 “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. 16 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. 17 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. (ESV)

In his article, Carson distinguishes between a number of issues at hand.

A. The nature of a "private" sin against a specific person with whom one is in fellowship.

For instance, James and Jonas attend the same church. Unwittingly James makes a remark that Jonas considers to be bearing false witness. Jonas considers it a sin against him. Jonas goes to James and explains why the remark was hurtful and why it fell into the realm of bearing false witness. At this point James will either recognize the offense and apologize, or Jonas must escalate the matter in order to maintain the unity of the local Body of Christ.

B. The nature of a "public" sin against the wider Body of Christ.

For instance Claudius writes a so-called Gospel tract that has doctrinal errors in it that clearly contradict the historical Creeds of the Church. The errors are cleverly packaged to disarm the readers and to take people in the church away from "the faith once and for all delivered to the saints" or what Carson called "historical confessionalism." Claudius posts the tract in the public domain.

Cynthia who lives in another city reads the tract and discerns the errors. She attempts to understand as best as she can where Claudius is coming from, but even so, her critique is restrained but strongly worded. She publishes her material in the public domain.

Claudius is informed that Cynthia has published her critique and he is not happy with what she has written. He communicates with her and tells her that she has sinned against him by not having had the courtesy along the lines of Matthew 18 to write him first and to ask him exactly what he meant in his tract. She suggests that because the tract was in the public domain, and was an offence against the larger Body of Christ she felt that it was only correct to write a response in the same public arena as its presence would do damage to the Church at large. Claudius is not happy with her response.

*Cynthia had been reading John Calvin's comments which stated,

             “For if any man shall offend against the whole Church, Paul enjoins that he be publicly reproved, so that even elders shall not be spared; for it is in reference to them that he expressly enjoins Timothy, to rebuke them publicly in the presence of all, and thus to make them a general example to others, (1 Tim v. 20). And certainly it would be absurd that he who has committed a public offense, so that the disgrace of it is generally known, should be admonished by individuals; for, if a thousand persons are aware of it, he ought to receive a thousand admonitions. The distinction, therefore, which Christ expressly lays down, ought to be kept in mind, that no man may bring disgrace upon his brother by rashly, and without necessity, divulging secret offenses.”

C. A professor teaches borderline heretical beliefs in a classroom to a group of students who then use it in their public preaching.

This is a situation which Carson calls a public/private situation. That is to say, the students are being taught in the privacy of a classroom, and then they go out into the public arena and repeat the same teaching of professor "Rafiksma." In this case Carson suggests that it might be best for concerned pastors who are hearing the teaching of the professor's students to approach professor "Rafiksma" one on one. In this case Carson says that the courtesy to approach the professor is not a Matthew 18 issue, but more of a professional courtesy to ascertain directly what the professor was actually teaching.

Carson's concluding remarks:

After a helpful categorization of three "serious sins" namely major doctrinal error (e.g., 1 Tim 1:20), major moral failure (e.g. 1 Cor 5), and persistent and schismatic divisiveness (e.g., Titus 3:10) as well as three "positive" tests from 1 John, namely the truth test, the obedience test, and the love test, he concludes his short piece by a few comments on the scenario #2 above. He writes,

3) 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.

Some questions for reflection:

In our imaginary Classis situation, let us imagine that the two churches had raised an issue due to a public stance taken by the person in question. That is to say this was not a question of exposing for all the world to see, a private indiscretion done between Jonas and James, but more along the lines of something done in public along the lines of Claudius and Cynthia or along the lines of what Professor Rafiksma was doing.     

1. Is it possible that the recommendation of the imaginary Classis could have been more of an issue of giving common courtesy as per scenario #3 and not a Matthew 18 issue?

2. Is it possible that the recommendation of the imaginary Classis could have been what Carson called a "procedural sleight-of-hand and a wrong-headed appeal to Matthew 18" or hiding behind what others have called their Miranda rights?"

3. Is it possible that evoking the "Matthew 18" clause could effectively put a gag order on anyone who would make a public critique of public domain materials, or alternatively a place for a Classis to hide behind instead of making hard decisions about obvious public sins?

4. Carson also suggests that Titus 1:9 must be placed squarely beside Matthew 18. There he observes that  the godly church elder "must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it." Carson did not mention I Timothy 5: 19-20 which applies to church leaders who continue in sin: "Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear." How can these be held at the same time?

For further reading:

1. Ken Newberger, "Matthew 18:15-17: The Most Misapplied Passage on Church Conflict"

2. Benjamin T G. Mayes, " Does Matthew 18:15-16 apply to public sins?: the steps of admonition today and in Lutheran orthodoxy, " Logia, 15 no 2 (Eastertide 2006), 37-44 where Mayes suggests that few commentators except R.C. H. Lenski have differentiated between private and public sins. He quotes Lenski to say, "If one brother sinned against must take action as Jesus directs, then likewise must several, if the sin be against more, and the Church as such, if the sin be public from the start.” Mayes concludes his study on Lutheran history and says that "there is no precident"..."to apply Matthew 18:15-16 to public, manifest sins (44).

3. Brian Schwertley, "Conflict Resolution in the Church: A Study of Matthew 18:15ff"

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