Matthew 18:15-17 and the Role of the Witnesses
“Knock, knock” sounds on the door. An elder at a local congregation opens the door to find a member of the flock, who has privately confronted him about a matter known only to the elder and the member. The member starts, “I am back, and according to Matthew 18:15-17, I have brought 2 other members, who will witness this second meeting. If you again fail to listen to me, then maybe they can convince you! And, if you refuse to listen to them, then I'll take it before the whole church!” The elder looks over the shoulder of the member to find 2 of the member's closest friends looking angrily at him. “Come in”, he wisely says with a smile. “But, first, we need to talk about Matthew 18:15-17.”
Is this right? Does this exemplify the intended application of “two or three witnesses” of Matthew 18:15-17? In another article we have examined the misapplication of Matthew 18:15-17 in dealing with public sins. That misuse represented a failure to understand step 1 of Jesus’ process for dealing with private sins against another brother. In this article, we will examine another common misuse of this same passage as justification for bringing 2 or 3 friends as “witnesses”, who will only be able to testify concerning the second confrontation, not the original sin. Typically, these friends are present primarily as moral support for the one bringing an accusation. This represents a failure to understand step 2 in this same process. In this article, we will seek to understand the role of these witnesses in methodical detail, answer some insistent objections, and provide some verses for further guidance on related issues.
- Examining the Immediate Context
- Examining the Quoted Context
- Witnesses of a Private Sin?
- Playing Into Gossip and Slander
- Helping Irreconcilable Differences
- “Careful Inquiry”
- The Unplugged Hole?
- What About An “Intervention”?
Note: The following section provides a comprehensive analysis of the passage under question. Although one should never abandon the local context too quickly, if one is not accustomed to such tedious detail of observing the order and implication of words, it may be easier to skip to the next section, in which the Bible is used as a commentary for itself.
As before, let us begin by examining the passage under question:
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
As we noticed previously, first please observe that the passage addresses a sin against another brother. This does not pertain to a sin against the community, whether it is one or more churches. Assuming a given sin is committed against a brother, the first responsibility of the brother “sinned against” is to privately confront the brother caught in sin. However, if this first step fails, the second step is for the sinned-against brother to return with “one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’”. Clearly, these additional participants are to serve as witnesses, but in what capacity? What event are they intended to confirm? Are they to serve as witnesses to the original sin, which initiated this whole process? Or, are they present to observe a second confrontation and possibly testify of that failure to the whole church in step 3? To readily answer this question and identify the correct application, let us make a few key observations from the immediate context.
- Please notice a small detail: Bringing the “one or two more” results in there ultimately being “two or three witnesses”. Who is the other witness? It is the original brother, who is the victim and has been sinned against! By putting all 2 or 3 brethren - including the original sinned-against brother - into the same category of “witnesses”, Jesus implied that they all serve the same function and role as “witnesses”. If the “one or two more” did not see or witness the original sin, how can they serve as additional witness and in the same capacity as the sinned-against brother? The only thing they can affirm is that one brother denied the allegations of another brother, which may or may not be true. How is that helpful? This observation argues positively for the “one or two more” serving as “witnesses” of the original sin, just like the sinned-against brother.
- The “mouth of two or three witnesses“ is intended to “establish every word”. This eliminates the possibility that the “one or two more” were intended to serve only as sources of encouragement, persuasion, and conviction. Although that is clearly part of their intended role, it is not the only role. Therefore, those who bring “one or two more” to simply gain moral support in twisting the other brother's mental arm into submission are misusing this passage. The “witnesses” are not there to make the sinned-against brother sound more convincing through intimidation, pooling of many minds, or the multiplication of voices. They are present to offer factual, judicial testimony. If these “one or two more” cannot so testify, then they are unqualified to be present!
- The ultimate purpose of the “one or two more” is to hopefully convert the sinning brother, so that he might “hear them”! Therefore, they also cannot be passive bystanders, who are present only to observe and record the result of this second confrontation. They are supposed to be active participants, moving the sinner toward repentance. This immediately eliminates the possibility that the additional brethren are present merely as witnesses for the possible benefit of step 3, “tell it to the church”. Therefore, those who bring “one or two more” to simply document one brother's reluctance to accept another brother's allegation, so the church can withdraw from him as part of steps 3 and 4, are also misusing this passage. If these “one or two more” do not have certain access to the facts of the original sin, then they are again unqualified to be present. If one brother simply asserts the facts to them, because they themselves do not know the truth of the matter, how can they possibly be persuasive in any honest and fair way?
- Lastly, please note the subtle ordering of step 2. These “one or two more” are to first help serve as the “mouth of two or three witnesses“. As part and purpose of this service, the sinning brother may hear them. It is only after the condition, “if he refuses to hear them”, that the church is to be then informed and then possibly take action. Since the witnessing, testimony, and persuading occurs before taking it to the church, the witnessing cannot be primarily associated with observing the results of the failed second confrontation to the church. It must be part of the persuasive attempt of step 2! This eliminates the possibility that the “one or two more” are present to serve as witnesses to the church of the second confrontation and possibly serve as lobbyists for the sinned-against brother to the sinning brother. If these “one or two more” are not present to serve as part of “the mouth of two or three witnesses”, so that the sinning brother might thereby be persuaded and “hear them”, they are again unqualified to be present.
Therefore, by the logical process of elimination, and by the positive support of the context, the only contextually consistent understanding of the role of the “one or two more” is that they were present to bring additional eye-witness testimony of the original sin. They were to add their voices to the voice of the sinned-against brother to bring additional, pure, just, reasonable, and honest persuasive power to bear on the sinning brother. At such time, if he refused to hear them, then in the best interest of the sinner and the church, the case needed to move to the most compelling earthly court, the local church itself. If we ever bring additional support for any other reason, we certainly do not have the support of Matthew 18:15-17; and depending on the situation, we may be violating other Bible passages!
As if the immediate context was not sufficient to answer our inquiry, let us please return to Matthew 18:15-17 and notice the verse that Jesus quoted, “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established”. This Old Testament quotation shows up more than once in the New Testament, but it comes originally from Deuteronomy 19:
One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established. If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, then both men in the controversy shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 19:15-19)
In this original context, the “witnesses” are clearly observers of the accused sin, not the confrontation or accusation of sin. Would Jesus have misquoted the passage, using it contrary to its original intent? I think not. Furthermore, wherever this verse is quoted and the phrase, “mouth of two or three witnesses“, is used, the witnesses brought under renewed application are always witnesses of the original event, not some sort of secondary, prejudicial event. Please see for yourself:
Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty. (Numbers 35:30)
“If there is found among you, within any of your gates which the LORD your God gives you, a man or a woman who has been wicked in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing His covenant, ... and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination has been committed in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones. Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall put away the evil from among you. If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgment or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the LORD your God chooses. And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment.” (Deuteronomy 17:2-9)
Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear. I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality. (I Timothy 5:19-21)
Anyone who has rejected Moses' law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. And again, "The LORD will judge His people." (Hebrews 10:28-30)
This will be the third time I am coming to you. “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established.“ I have told you before, and foretell as if I were present the second time, and now being absent I write to those who have sinned before, and to all the rest, that if I come again I will not spare since you seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you. (II Corinthians 13:1-3)
Throughout Scripture, the notion of a “witness” refers to a judicial role in which one gives testimony to a sin requiring judgment. They are never observers of just the allegation or accusation:
- I Kings 21:8-13 — Jezebel arranged for two “scoundrels” to bear false “witness” against Naboth, saying “Naboth has blasphemed God and the king!”, which resulted in Nabal’s stoning.
- Mark 14:55-64 - The chief priests and the council brought “false witnesses” against Jesus, but “their testimonies did not agree”. It was only after Jesus spoke that the high priest dismissed the need for witnesses, since they all heard Him speak what they presumed to be blasphemies. If witnesses only served to verify the allegation not the sin, then why did the council ever need false witnesses?
- Acts 6:9-14 - The “Synagogue of the Freedmen” brought false witnesses against Stephen. These witnesses gave testimony not to any delivering of allegations, rather they testified to the supposed sin, saying “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God”.
Based on the consistency of both the local and global context, why would anyone insist that the “two or three witnesses” are to verify the rejection of an allegation contrary to every other usage in Scripture?
In harmonizing the immediate context, the remote context, and the previous article, one may recall that Matthew 18:15-17 is not forbidding the immediate, public address of public sins (for proof, see Galatians 2:11-14). The passage applies to sins against an individual, not the community or public (“sin against you”, singular). Therefore, the question may naturally arise, “How can there be any additional witnesses of a sin committed privately, not publicly?” This is a good question and a fair objection based on the immediate context. Furthermore, its argument may be even reinforced by observing that the “sin against you” might be further explained in the context as “his fault between you and him alone”. Do these phrases eliminate the possibility of additional witnesses to the original sin? Does this indicate that no one else was present beside the sinner and the sinned-against brother?
In short, no, the phrase, “between you and him alone”, strictly refers to the manner in which the sinned-against brother confronts his offender, not the original sin (“go and tell him his fault between you and him alone”). This can be shown in at least two ways. First, please consider the parallelism of the three steps:
- “go and tell him his fault between you and him alone ... if he will not hear ...”
- “take with you one or two more ... if he refuses to hear them ...”
- “tell it to the church ... if he refuses even to hear the church ...”
Each step dictates the same action of confrontation, correction, and reproval. But, each step differs in who attends the confrontation. The first step is between the sinner and the sinned-against brother. The second step expands the audience and persuasive burden by bringing in the “one or two more ... witnesses”. The third step ultimately includes the entire congregation, escalating the process to its climax! Just as including one or two more describes the attendes of step two, and just as including the entire church describe the attendees of step three, so does the phrase, “between you and him alone”, describe who attends the confrontation of step one. Furthermore, please consider the alternative. If the phrase, “between you and him alone” applied to the sin, then the attendees of the first meeting would be unmodified and unclear, which would again destroy the parallelism.
Second, the New King James Version (NKJV) translation that is used above is most unfortunate on this point. Literally translated, the Greek would be something like:
... depart [and] reprove him between you and him alone ...
There is no words for “his fault” to possibly serve as the recipient of the modifying phrase, “between you and him alone”. In other words, this prepositional phrase can only possibly refer to the confrontation (“go and tell”). The KJV and NKJV translators most likely added the noun, “his fault” to strengthen the otherwise bland verb, “tell”, which is supposed to have the strength of convince, convict, reprove, rebuke, etc. (see, Friberg, Thayer, Barclay Newman, Gingrich, et al; and compare to, New American Standard and Leedy’s New Testament Greek Diagrams). Regardless of their reason, there is no noun to be modified by the questionable prepositional phrase; therefore, grammatically, the phrase, “between you and him alone”, can only modify the verbs referring to the first confrontation (“go and tell”, or “depart and reprove”), not the original sin. Therefore, the objection that the sin refers only to private sins without possible witnesses fails again, because it overlooks the grammatical constraints.
So, how do we conceptually reconcile that this “private” sin has witnesses? Just because a sin has a few witnesses, it does not mean that it is necessarily “public”. (Let us not establish a false dilemma with only two possible extreme explanations. May there not be a middle ground?) A sin may be still considered private, if the matter is contained to a private audience. The primary distinction that has been made between private and public sins is that it is impossible to identify those who know of a public matter. Word has escaped, and now no one knows who told who. This is the dividing line between public and private sins, which identifies the need for public or private confession. (Please do not get hung on the terminology. The significant distinction is the requirements for adequate resolution, not the naming convention.) For example, one brother may have gossiped about me to two other brothers, which would constitute a sin against me. If one of them informs me, I can then confront the erring brother alone. If he denies the fact of what he said, then I can bring the witnesses, who will confirm that fact. However, if the same brother slandered me in a public forum (such as Facebook, chat room, magazine, pulpit, etc.), then it is no longer possible for the erring brother to privately resolve the matter. In such a case, public confession would have to be offered. Therefore, knowledge of a sin may be sufficiently contained, so that it has “one or two” witnesses, and yet the sin may not be so widely known as to require a public confession. Similar examples could be multiplied to demonstrate ample arena for reasonable, consistent application of sins being both private and having “one or two more ... witnesses”.
Given that the sin requiring the process of Matthew 18:15-17 can ultimately result in withdrawal of the congregation from the sinner, we should expect that some protection should be extended to the alleged sinner. The “mouth of two or three witnesses”, who “establish every word”, provides just such protection. The same protection is afforded all elders of local congregations (I Timothy 5:19-20). But, imagine the alternative for a moment. What if anyone could assert that he had been privately wronged, gather two or three friends to observe the allegation, and then proceed to an even more public forum without any form of confirmation of the original sin? Imagine the turmoil, upheaval, and damage that could be easily caused by one vindictive brother? Do we not have another word for this process? When one brother informs his friends of a private wrong, previously unknown to them and otherwise unknowable by them, and then they gang up on the supposed sinner possibly even in a public forum, is that not tale-bearing, gossipping, and sowing discord?
The Lord noted the danger of judgments formed by single witnesses, when He provided at least four witnesses for Jesus’ divine origin and condemned the witness of just one:
“If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true. You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Yet I do not receive testimony from man, but I say these things that you may be saved. He was the burning and shining lamp, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light. But I have a greater witness than John’s; for the works which the Father has given Me to finish — the very works that I do — bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me. And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form. But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life. I do not receive honor from men. But I know you, that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God? Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you — Moses, in whom you trust. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” (John 5:31-47)
If even Jesus Himself provided additional witness beside His own, why would we expect requirement of any less from lesser beings?
Indeed, it is very easy to find support from our friends. Furthermore, it is easy for one person to spin a tale that will convince even a wise judge:
The first one to plead his cause seems right, Until his neighbor comes and examines him. (Proverbs 18:17)
He who answers a matter before he hears it, It is folly and shame to him. (Proverbs 18:13)
When a person divulges his mistreatment to his friends, understandably and naturally, his friends immediately take his side. We are simply prejudiced toward our friends, because we trust them. However, there is a great “folly and shame” in accepting our friend’s version without serious questioning, even cross-examination. With access to only one side of the facts, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to know the truth with any certainty. How would you feel if a companion accused you of perceived wrong, which you did not do, and brought his or her two closest friends to convince you, before dragging you before the church? Would you feel that you had been treated fairly? Would you feel you had a fair opportunity to clear your name? How would you feel if your first and only real opportunity you had to clear your name was before a prejudiced congregation?
The words of a talebearer are like tasty trifles, And they go down into the inmost body. (Proverbs 18:8)
Gossip continues and is prevalent because people like it! The talebearer gains certain sympathy, support, and respect, while the listener’s curiosity is satisfied. But, even worse, the prejudicial effects of suspicion can linger even after the accused is vindicated. Let us observe the wisdom of Scripture, be careful in our reception of accusations, and not participate in gossip under the misguided guise of following Matthew 18:15-17.
Having established the meaning of the text from both the local and the global context, and having rejected the alternative based on the disastrous consequences of its consistent application, let us now turn our attention to answering some objections. Imagine two friends or two brethren fall into contention with each other. They repeatedly try to resolve their differences, but they always fail. Can they not get help? If Matthew 18:15-17 is not providing a process of escalating and resolving unwitnessed offenses between brethren, then how can such brethren get help? Are they not permitted to bring outside help into the discussions?
First, the solution may be to try again without any outside intervention. Notice Paul’s command:
I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. (Philippians 4:2)
These Christians were expected to work together toward becoming “of the same mind in the Lord”. Maybe they had given up too easily? Too often, people become frustrated with each other, and they give up discussions before ever actually voicing the underlying objections and concerns. Frequently, strenuous, determined, earnest effort is required from all involved parties to get to the real root of a disagreement. Often people need to try again but be more honest, transparent, optimistic, clear, and forthright in their conversation. However, in other cases people have already “tried again”, and at least one party judges that repeated conversations would be pointless. In such cases, outside help is required, as it may have been even for Euodia and Syntyche:
And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life. (Philippians 4:3).
This presents a second option of getting outside help. But, what is the nature of this outside helper? What qualifications should he or she have, if any?
In the early church, some Christians at Corinth were turning to the courts of the land to address personal grievances against each other. Please notice Paul’s resolution:
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? ... If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren?(I Corinthians 6:1-5)
Clearly, “judges” or arbiters among the saints were authorized and expected. However, please notice the key distinction between this pattern and the misuse of Matthew 18:15-17: This third party served the role of “judge”, not witness! The judge was not a prejudiced friend, but rather he would be a qualified arbiter, mediator, and advocate, who is a “wise man among you” and therefore respected, esteemed, and accepted by both sides. Please note that this person is not necessarily “wise according to the flesh” (I Corinthians 1:18-31), rather he would have proven true, spiritual wisdom. Furthermore, he would be one, who could “lay his hand on us both” (Job 9:33). If a man is not deemed a wise Christian by both sides, then he is unqualified to help that specific grievance, and such a person must be sought. Furthermore, if a person is the beneficiary of one side more than the other, then the “gift” at least violates the perception of objectivity, if not subtly shifting it in reality (Proverbs 18:16; 19:6; 21:14; Ecclesiastes 7:7), rendering such a person unqualified of common respect as an impartial judge. Ideally, a local evangelist (as was possibly Timothy, the presumable “true companion” of Philippians 4:2-3), an elder (based on his qualifications alone, I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), or possibly even an elder’s wife (based on her qualifications and the situation, I Timothy 3:11; 2:11-14) would be well suited for this task of mediation, arbitration, and judgment.
Although the passage speaks of “a wise man among you ... even one”, this should not be understood as limiting the number of “judges”, who may be used to help. Paul’s language manifests incredulousness that the Corinthians could not even find one wise man among them. Even one would have been sufficient to prohibit going before unqualified earthly courts. However, Paul offered no specific instruction to indicate that they were to generally use only one such “judge”; therefore, given the generality of the instruction, multiple arbiters could be used. As way of corroboration, the Old Testament referenced multiple “judges” (Deuteronomy 19:15-19).
Beside the above qualifications, what is expected of one serving as a “judge” to help resolve personal differences? Although the work of such a judge may be new to some people’s understanding of the New Covenant, it is not a concept foreign to Scripture:
“If there is found among you, within any of your gates which the LORD your God gives you, a man or a woman who has been wicked in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing His covenant, ... and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently. (Deuteronomy 17:2-9)
“If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, then both men in the controversy shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. And the judges shall make careful inquiry ... (Deuteronomy 19:16-18)
Anyone who serves as a “judge” to help quarrelling brethren must be willing to “make careful inquiry” and to “inquire diligently”. He must serve as more than a rubber stamp, who simply formalizes what one party alleges. This requires cross-examination of both sides (Proverbs 18:13, 17). The judge’s ultimate responsibility is to determine the truth and assess a just requirement of both, which grants a significant amount of authority and responsibility to the one who would so serve. However, his authority is limited by the willingness of the plaintiffs to submit to his judgment, because Paul charged the Corinthians with failure to seek the wisdom of a judge among them (I Corinthians 6:4-8)! He did not chastise the qualified judges for permitting other saints to evade his judgment, thereby defining and limiting the scope of his authority.
Continuing to answer objections and questions, it is indeed possible that one brother may escape earthly consequences for mistreating another brother. If there are not enough witnesses, and if a wise judge is unable to discern the truth and “administer justice” (I Kings 3:16-28), then there is no earthly court extended to Christians for further examination. In matters of personal differences, Christians are not permitted to seek retribution in political courts (I Corinthians 6:1-8), and without “two or three witnesses”, who can “establish every word”, there is no authority to proceed with bringing the matter before the whole church. In such cases, the true victim must “suffer defraud”. (Please note that I Corinthians 6:1-8 deals with personal matters, not legal or criminal matters. Its prohibition is limited by its context. If a Christian violates civil law, then he is still subject to it and its punishment, and no Christian has the right to hinder its God-given duty to reckon, Romans 13:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22.)
How do we accept that a guilty person may escape earthly consequence? How can we avoid fixating on an unaccounted wrong? How can the innocent move forward? First, we must recognize that this is not a new problem, neither is it a problem unique to us. There are many wrongs in this life that go unpunished here:
All this I have seen, and applied my heart to every work that is done under the sun: There is a time in which one man rules over another to his own hurt. ... Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. Though a sinner does evil a hundred times, and his days are prolonged, yet I surely know that it will be well with those who fear God, who fear before Him. But it will not be well with the wicked; nor will he prolong his days, which are as a shadow, because he does not fear before God. There is a vanity which occurs on earth, that there are just men to whom it happens according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 8:9-14)
There is an evil I have seen under the sun, As an error proceeding from the ruler: Folly is set in great dignity, While the rich sit in a lowly place. I have seen servants on horses, While princes walk on the ground like servants. (Ecclesiastes 10:5-7)
How did Solomon reconcile this ongoing injustice with a just God?
Moreover I saw under the sun: In the place of judgment, Wickedness was there; And in the place of righteousness, Iniquity was there. I said in my heart, “God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.” (Ecclesiastes 3:16-17)
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man's all. For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
We must simply accept that God sees all, and He will make all wrongs right, if not here, then on that last day. Part of the way we accept this test of faith is through prayer:
Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. (I Peter 5:6-9)
We do not suffer alone. The problems we experience are shared with other Christians (see also I Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man”). But, second, even if our suffering was unique among all men, we still have God! He cares for us! And, therefore, we can bow our knees in prayer, asking Him to see and act, and trust that He will do the right thing in the right time. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right” (Genesis 18:25)?
It may be that like David we have to wander in the wilderness for years, pursued by a jealous enemy, and kept from our rightful place. If that be the case, then let us have the same attitude as David, who would not presume to take what was promised him. Rather, David let God fulfill His promises in His time. Furthermore, when David encountered his enemy, he plead for Saul’s repentance (I Samuel 24:8-11, 16-22), refused to punish him (I Samuel 24:1-7, 11-15), and contented himself with the prayer and the warning, “The Lord judge between you and me” (I Samuel 24:12-15). Twice Saul was delivered into his hand, and twice David deferred judgment to the Lord (I Samuel 26:5-26)! May we ever be so humble, patient, and trusting.
And, what should be the tone of such a prayer? Do we seek the Lord’s execution of justice to avenge our wrong, or do we seek the execution of justice to awake and restore those who are wrong (II Timothy 2:24-26)?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
If we are unwilling to love and pray for our enemy, how will we ever be qualified to “restore” him in light of Galatians 6:1-4; I John 4:20-21; Exodus 23:4-5 and according to Matthew 18:15-17?
Many sins are highly addictive and extremely devastating. In such cases, it seems the only way to shake a person free from his or her pattern of abuse may be for multiple people to confront the sinner as part of a group “intervention”. This practice has become so prevalent, and it is so dramatic, that a long-running reality television show was created around fostering and documenting these intervention meetings. Although this is an extreme example, it does serve to raise the question, “Can multiple people confront a brother in sin, and if so, how are these group ‘interventions’ different than Matthew 18:15-17?”
Elsewhere, the Scriptures provide fairly broad authority to restore a brother lost in sin:
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1 NKJV)
Brethren, even if a man be overtaken in any trespass, ye who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1 ASV)
First, this passage addresses saints overcome by sin in general. It is not limited to the more specific case of one brother sinning against another in the presence of witnesses, as does Matthew 18:15-17, which certainly fits within the broad confines of this text. Second, please note that this passage opens the door to multiple people trying to restore this erring brother, because it uses the plural “ye” instead of the singular “thou”. Therefore, in this general case, multiple people are instructed to confront this person. The details of this confrontation (or confrontations) are left unspecified and are therefore subject to the judgment of those involved and principles outlined by other passages. Depending on how widespread a sin is known and how well the sinner understands his own sin and the relevant Scriptures, an intervention may be the most expedient option. However, that does not mean the truths we have studied thus far should be dismissed based on the generality of this passage alone.
In intervention styled confrontations, the sin is either generally known or readily admitted. Herein lies at least one key distinction between these interventions and the small group confrontation of Matthew 18:15-17. There is no need for “two or three witnesses” to confirm the sin. The situation has already escalated beyond that point. In these cases, the facts are not under dispute. Only the significance, urgency, or moral implication of the facts are being disputed. In such cases, every effort is being made to restore the wayward saint before public withdrawal is employed, which may be imminent.
Great care would be required in selecting the attendees of such meetings. As more people are invovled, the easier it becomes for group confrontations to “go sideways” and produce terrible results. Therefore, those attending should first be stronger Christians (“you who are spiritual”, Galatians 6:1), who are capable of “considering themselves lest they also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1, I Corinthians 6:1-5). Also, as more people are informed of a matter, the easier it becomes for the sinning brother to feel betrayed, and the more likely gossip will have occurred on the part of those seeking restoration. Therefore, those attending should secondly be those already informed, ideally “witnesses” as explained above, or those with a need to know, such as parents, elders, spouses, and other family with a responsibility to know and respond (Hebrews 13:17). Again, attendance should be limited to small groups to prevent an unnecessary emotional response in the accused over a sense of undue exposure. Let us be careful that we do not use the broad authority of Galatians 6:1 to sidestep the wisdom of Matthew 18:15-17; I Corinthians 9:19-27; and I Corinthians 10:23-24, “lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow ... lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices” (II Corinthians 2:7, 11 NKJV).
The role of “one or two more” in step 2 of Matthew 18:15-17 was to serve as additional confirmation of the original sin, so that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established”. Furthermore, in such capacity they lend persuasive testimony toward rebuking and restoring the erring brother. If they cannot lend factual testimony toward the original sin, then they are unqualified to be present. One should never use Matthew 18:15-17 to bring his prejudiced and otherwise unknowing friends to help twist his brother’s arm. This is pure gossip, and it can lead to unjustified division and strife among brethren. According to I Corinthians 6:1-8, outside help should generally be introduced, when both are willing to submit to a commonly recognized judge and mediator, a “wise man among you”. In such a case, the obligation of the judge is to “make diligent inquiry”, determine the facts, and render an equitable judgment. There is no authority for one escalating a personal matter before the church without “two or three witnesses”, and such personal matters (not civil) are always prohibited from being brought before earthly courts. If a private matter does not have sufficient witness, and if there is no wise mediator in the church who is able to discern the truth, then the victim has no choice but to drop the matter and leave it with God in prayer. Even then, the prayer should seek the salvation of the sinner, not personal vindication. There may be other situations to consider, but we should not confuse them with the circumstances and process provided in Matthew 18:15-17, if they do not fit the qualifications of the passage’s immediate and remote context.
If actions previously justified by Matthew 18:15-17 are technically authorized by other passages, such as I Corinthians 6:1-5 or Galatians 6:1, does the concern of this article reduce to inadvertently using the wrong passage to reach the right action? No, by using the wrong passage as a general pattern for most, if not all, confrontations of sin, we embrace the following dangers:
- If a meeting with multiple “witnesses” is required before addressing public error in teaching or public sins against the church, any false doctrine may continue to “spread like cancer” and any sin may continue to “leaven the whole lump”, as “sentence ... is not executed speedily” (II Timothy 2:16-17; I Corinthians 5:6; Ecclesiastes 8:10-11).
- If unqualified “witnesses” are brought into a confrontation, then according to the Lord’s wisdom, they will not be as effective in causing the lost brother to “hear them” and be “gained”.
- If unqualified “witnesses” are brought into a confrontation, then they may unjustly and irreversibly add to a prejudicial spirit of presumed guilt, instead of presumed innocence (“Love ... bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things”, I Corinthians 13:8), thereby denying someone a fair hearing.
- If unqualified “witnesses” are brought into a confrontation, discord among brethren may result from the unjustified repeating of an accusation.
- If unqualified “judges” are brought to help resolve a conflict, then injustice, feuds, and sin may fester due to incompetence or prejudice.
- If people incorrectly expect some form of resolution, whether it be repentance or withdrawal as the process of Matthew 18:15-17 should inevitably produce, they may not be able to accept a lack of resolution, which will prolong disagreements, tension, misery, and discord.
- If we develop sloppy, inconsistent study habits with unpredictable results, then we open the door to incorrect understanding and false applications of other passages.
- If we accept faulty reasoning and study, we open the door to sustainable claims of inconsistency and hypocrisy by opponents, who may use it as an excuse to blaspheme God and reject His Word.
Regardless of traditional application of Matthew 18:15-17, and regardless of implications upon past or future behavior, let us not turn a blind eye to the numerous contextual inconsistencies accepted by trying to accommodate a flawed interpretation, lest we accommodate away our own integrity, turn on our back on the wisdom provided by the Lord in this passage and those related, and risk the above dangers.
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