12 March 2012

regard them as tax-collectors

In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus teaches on how the community of his followers are to handle the issue of internal conflict and unrepentant persons.  Seldom have I seen three verses used as the foundation of supposed church conduct as much as I have been encountered with this.  This hasn't been widespread in my Christian experience, so I know that it is pocketed to certain parts of the subculture.  But, for many people, this has become a prime example of giving far too much weight upon three verses while ignoring the whole tenor of Jesus' teaching.

However, I believe that there is a way to take these three verses (there is not a whole lot said on this particular issue, mind you) and keep them in proper check with the remainder of Scripture that will certainly keep those who wish to misuse three trees at the expense of the forest at bay.

First, it is to understand Jesus' context.  He is speaking about those who are confronted with their sinful behavior and who refuse to repent - beginning with individual interpersonal conflict and moving in concentric circles to the whole community.  But, have we sought to remember that the larger context into which Matthew places this teaching (18:1-35) is humility and forgiveness?  There is much more to how I am acting as a humble follower of Christ than there is on how I can "win" the excommunication of someone who has wronged me.

Second, it is to understand what Jesus is teaching when we treat a person as a "pagan or tax collector."  I have a close friend who once questioned the official teachings of his church (since as a young believer he could not find in Scripture that which was being taught in his congregation), who has been forever deemed reprobate and is essentially shunned from those who remain.  Let us be clear, there is no such command or teaching in Scripture that would call for such behavior.  Again, when we are in conflict we like the part where Jesus says to kick 'em out at tax-collectors, but we aren't so keen on the multitude of passages where Jesus intentionally went to be with the tax-collectors and sinners (often at the expense of his 'religious credibility') for the purpose of being the doctor to those who were sick.

Perhaps our best next-step in studying Matthew 18:15-17 is to look at 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, where dissociation of the community is present, but so also is the clear instruction, "Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer."  Or, what about the restoration that comes from such tough love as Paul speaks about in 2 Corinthians 2?

In the end, I will not make an effort to deny that there is disfellowship as a member of the Christian community present in Jesus' teaching.  But such action is drastic and it is purposeful.  Those who wish to use these three verses as a way to "win" over another believer, to gain for themselves power and prominence in a community, or to divide the unity of the body are themselves out of step with Jesus' repeated command to love one another and to work for the edification of all believers.  Let us remember that just a few verses prior to this is his warning against those who will cause his little children to stumble.

I am so tired of hearing "Matthew 18!  Matthew 18!" and forgetting that love, not a procedure, is central to discipleship.  Love will move in all things to build up the body of believers.

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