Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Reflection on Matthew 18:15-20

The gospel reading for this past Sunday, Matthew 18:15-20, is special because it is one of only two places where Jesus actually mentions the church (the other is Peter’s confession in Matthew 16).This paragraph appears to be divided into two parts. Part one, vv. 15-17, is often referred to as the justification for the practice of church discipline. It is a three step process detailing how members of the Christian community are to hold each other accountable to the life of holiness and righteous that Jesus calls us to. It begins with first singly confronting a brother or sister in sin, progresses through a group intervention, and ends with a pronouncement before the church, proclaiming that the one in sin is to be as a pagan or tax collector to the church, i.e. to be as one who is outside the community of faith. However uncomfortable I am with this practice, its uniqueness within the gospels makes it stand out.

This passage has been referred to as “The Rule of Christ” for centuries, and has been used as the basis for significant portions of the confessions of faith since the Protestant Reformation. The Belgric Confession (1561) says that the process of church discipline is one of the three markers of the true church, along with “the pure preaching of the gospel” and “the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them;” likewise, the Westminster Confession (one of the most influential statements of faith in modern times, written in 1647) devotes an entire chapter (chapter 30) to the question of church discipline. Rather than being an instrument of punishment for bad behavior, Christians for centuries have recognized that church discipline is a tool of reconciliation, designed to use the influence of the community to restore and repair broken relationships with God and fellow Christians.

Why does Jesus place this very heavy responsibility on the church’s collective shoulders? Despite our individualistic tendencies, the church is not a collection of individuals, but it is one community. Just as there are three persons of the Trinity, but one God; so there are many members of the church, but only one body. Paul makes this argument over and over again. Church is primarily a communal experience. And in the community, what one person does affects the rest of the community. In other words, the sins of one person hurts the entire church.

God apparently sees his people collectively, as well as individually. One person cannot act sinfully with impunity. God is concerned not only with individual salvation, which is where we tend to place our focus, but on the purity of the church. Ephesians 5:26-27 (which appears in the midst of a passage talking about the importance of mutual submission in the church) says that Christ died not only to save individuals, but to have a pure church, holy and blameless, and if that is to happen then we must be concerned as a church with holding each other accountable for living holy and righteous lives.

Part two of the passage, vv. 18-20, is concerned with the business of binding and loosing, a phrase which occurs in both Matthew 16 and 18 (the only two passages in the gospels which mention the church). What does this binding and loosing mean?

As I see it, there are two possibilities. The first, and least likely, is that it refers to the authority of the church to forgive and retain sin. (The church has been given this authority, but it is better established by John 20:22-23 and James 5:13-16.) The most likely meaning of binding and loosing has to do with the practice of determining the application of scriptural commandments for contemporary situations. In other words, final authority rests with the community to identify which behaviors constitute sin and which therefore require repentance. This is consistent with Matthew's understanding of the Great Commission (28:20). In order to fulfill the mission entrusted to us, the church must be able to discern what obedience Jesus’ commands look like, and those entering into discipleship must accept the church’s authority in determining what it means to follow Jesus.

As a church, we instinctively put this grave responsibility into practice. For example, though slavery was once a tolerated if not accepted practice in the church, the church in its wisdom has determined, based on the authority that is granted it by Christ, that slavery is a sinful practice which cannot characterize anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus. Another example comes right here from Cahaba Valley. Though many would say that the Bible clearly prohibits women from holding an eldership role or authoritative teaching role in the church, we have decided, based on everything we understand about God, the equality we all share in Christ, the first century context, our modern context, and good interpretive principles, that there should be no restrictions placed on women and that they should have equal participation with men in the life, worship, and leadership of the church.

Matthew 18:15-20, with its accountability process and weighty authority to bind and loose, can seem to be a heavy burden. However, if we see it for what it is, it does not have to be a passage which elicits a groan every time it is mentioned. If we view it as a passage which encourages mutual submission, patterned after Jesus’ submission to his own father’s will, that seeks to keep the church pure and holy; and if we view it as a passage which grants the church broad authority to negotiate the difficult path of discerning what it looks like to be the church which belongs to Christ in a pluralistic society, then it can become a powerful exercise of grace and love, two ideas which I know we can all get behind.

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