In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus teaches his followers how to deal with conflict within the church. In a cruel irony, this valuable teaching is often twisted by well-meaning Christians in a manner that perpetuates abuse. In this article, we will take a look at the teaching, consider how it is abused, and outline guidelines for its proper application.
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
This important instruction exemplifies principles of honesty and accountability which are essential to any healthy community. How much better off would we be if, when others caused offense, we spoke to them rather than about them, thereby seeking understanding and reconciliation?
Moral Truth Must Be Contextualized
Having said that, it is always important to recognize that moral instruction like this must be contextualized. Indeed, failure to contextualize important and valid moral teaching can have disastrous consequences. For a simple example, consider another important moral teaching: tell the truth! As children, we were all taught to tell the truth and not to lie. And yet, imagine one day that your daughter’s abusive boyfriend comes to your home drunken and wielding a gun. He pounds on the door and asks you if you know where your daughter is. In fact, you do know: she is hiding under the stairs just a few feet away. Can you lie to her boyfriend and tell him you haven’t seen her all day? Or are you required to tell the truth that you do know where she is?
I trust the answer is clear for us all: you should lie to the abuser because in this case your obligation to protect your daughter trumps your obligation to tell the truth. And if we fail to appreciate the proper application of moral principles like “tell the truth,” the consequences could truly be disastrous.
Matthew 18 and Context
The same is true when it comes to Matthew 18. Many Christians seem to treat this passage as an absolute norm such that whenever you have a conflict with someone else, you are obliged to go to that individual and address the matter. Thus, on this account, failure to address the issue with that individual before speaking to others is always a betrayal of Matthew 18 and thus a deviation from the teaching of Jesus.
This take seems to me to be wrong and profoundly so. Granted, Jesus’s direction is critically important as a general orientation to seek honesty and accountability with others. But that is only if other conditions are also in place. One of those key conditions is safety: in short, just as your obligation to tell the truth requires that you are not risking people’s lives, so your obligation to confront another requires that you perceive to be safe with the other. And lack of that safety overrides the teaching.
Let’s start with a clear example of that overrider. Imagine that a 12 year old boy is molested by his pastor. Who would think that the boy is required to address the pastor’s abuse with the pastor who abused him before he seeks help from others? The very idea is absurd. So in that case, at least, we can recognize that Matthew 18 is not an absolute principle. It requires the safety of those who find themselves in conflict with others (or survivors of the abuse of others).
Matthew 18 and the Workplace Bully
Despite that fact, many Christians fail to recognize the range of situations where that linchpin of safety may be absent. Consider, for example, that Pastor Jeff regularly bullies and harasses his administrative assistant Allie. It should be no surprise that Allie lacks the sense of safety that would allow her to confront Pastor Jeff directly. Thus, if she brings her concern directly to the church board, she is not thereby betraying Matthew 18 because her situation lacks the safety required for the honesty and accountability the teaching seeks to protect. Needless to say, to reprimand Allie for failing to follow Matthew 18 when she lacked the safety required to do so would do nothing more than empower her abuser.
To conclude, following wise prudential principles and ethical maxims is essential for the healthy community. In that sense, Matthew 18 remains a valid and important teaching. But at the same time, the failure to recognize the principle only applies if the requisite condition of safety is met will serve only to perpetuate the very abuse you seek to counter.