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Thursday, March 03, 2016

If Your Brother Sins Against You

I was in Matthew 18 recently. I came across this passage.
"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. 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. 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." (Matt 18:15-17)
Some brief observations. First, we need to establish that this is not "the world". Jesus was not talking about your neighbor, your boss, or even your president. It's "your brother". In fact, the context is Jesus talking about becoming like a child (Matt 18:1-5). "It is not the will of My Father Who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish," He concludes (Matt 18:14). This passage is expanding on that idea, so "your brother" in this context is a reference to "these little ones" who have child-like faith in Christ and not some vague "we're all brothers" or even your blood brother. Christians (male or female).

Second, I would suspect that this is very rarely the actual procedure that occurs on your church (or mine). If your brother sins against you ... there are other more common responses. Tell it to the church first. You know, in whispers or private complaints. "Did you hear what she did to me?" "Has anyone told you about what he's doing?" Or the more spiritual "We need to pray for Mr. So-and-So because he's in deep sin and needs to repent. Oh, you haven't heard? Well ..." We know that's the wrong response because gossip is wrong (2 Cor 12:20). Equally common is just to keep your mouth shut. Look the other way. Let it go. You don't want to appear mean-spirited or judgmental. All very good, you'd think, but not biblical. I probably don't need to point out that an equally common response -- getting even -- is equally wrong, right?

What is the proper response? First, keep in mind that the aim throughout is not "so they get their comeuppance." It is restoration. The goal here is not justice or vengeance, but gaining a brother. Remember the original thought: "It is not the will of My Father Who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish." Don't forget that. So, with that in mind, the proper response is 1) go to your fellow believer privately and point out the fault and end it there if he/she repents or 2) go back to your fellow believer with one or two others who also know of it and point out the fault and end it there if he/she repents or 3) take it to the church who will point out the fault and end it there if he/she repents or 4) withdraw from them.

Two further considerations.

First, from our perspective "let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" seems, well, a bit harsh, doesn't it? And maybe it does. But remember that it is Jesus who is saying to do this. If you think it's a bit harsh, tell it to the Lord. And we need to remember that we're speaking of "sin" of something far more serious than a social faux pas. Sin isn't minor; it is serious. Thus, if you think it's a bit harsh, it's probably because you're not thinking properly about sin, not this outcome.

Second, there is a real question here regarding who we're talking about. The opening phrase of the text is "If your brother sins against you." Most of us have no problem calling to mind someone who at some time in our lives "sinned against us". We're not unclear on that. But is this what is in mind? Or is this regarding all sin? That is, is this talking about only those cases when someone does something specifically against you, or does it include sin of which you are aware? You find out, for instance, that John, a deacon at your church, is addicted to pornography or is abusive to his wife or something like that; is it your job to carry out this procedure with him? I mean, sure, it's sin, but it could be argued that it's not a sin "against you" and, therefore, not your responsibility. The problem is only made worse in the acknowledgment that the phrase "against you" is not found in some manuscripts, but is found down in verse 21 when Peter asks about how often he has to forgive when "my brother sins against me". It would seem to me that if the goal is restoration and if it is true that sin is a problem and if "no man is an island", that sin does not happen in a vacuum, then all sin would be a sin against God and would have negative effects on the Body of Christ as well. So if I am the one aware of the sin even if it was not done "against me" in a literal sense and if I love my fellow believers (including the one doing the sin) and if I want to seek their best interest, I would have to conclude that this passage is referring to all sins, either against me or those of a more private nature of which I am aware, and my responsibility would be to carry out, for the sake of love and restoration and the larger Body of Christ, this process that Jesus lays out to prevent the loss of "one of these little ones".

Now, I'm sure there will be those who disagree on that final point. "It's not my job," they will tell me. That's fine. You can perhaps give an idea of how you, in love and seeking restored Christians, can pass that off to someone else and exactly to whom you would pass it. I won't debate it. But let's not make the mistake of ignoring the solution. That is, neither backbiting and gossip nor turning a blind eye constitute the proper way to get the best outcome for a fellow believer in sin. You may think that "being non-judgmental" is a good idea, but that just belies a failure to grasp the seriousness of sin and its ripple effects on those around it. Acting in the best interest of other believers can be difficult, frightening, even painful, but you can't call it love if you simply complain about it or ignore it, let alone if you embrace and encourage it. Remember, "It is not the will of My Father Who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish."

I generally write these entries some time in advance. I realized, in rereading this one, that it could very easily be thought by some that I am thinking here of some recent exchanges with people here or the like. I know of people who think, "That's about me, isn't it? He's throwing a zinger at me!" So I thought I'd state for the record that this is not about anyone connected to this blog, either writers or readers. It's about the Scripture I came across because I've been reading in Matthew. Just so everyone is clear. I'm not talking about you. (Of course, if it hits a sore spot, maybe there's a reason, but it was not my idea.)


Bob said...

Stan since we are on the subject; i want you to know how my feelings are hurt because you are smarter than me. you need to repent and get a little dumber, for your brother's sake.
there are times when i want to confess some secret sin, but there is really no one around.
do i wait until the statutes of limitations run out or do i call the FBI and turn myself in?
i know that we are to confess our sins to one another. but that can be embarrassing for me and awkward for the other person. thank God for brother Stan, he makes it easy for me. especially when he says something like "yea me too" then i don't feel so alone in this struggle. so before you get the urge to shout out "I GOT WARRANTS" think again. but there is something great about getting some sin off your chest. it is a very special person that can listen and empathize with your weakness. thank you Jesus..

Stan said...

I don't know, Bob. There are probably a large number of "brothers" who would suggest that I can't get much dumber. "Couldn't be and survive," I think they'd say.

Kidding aside, I do wonder how different life would be for believers if we actually were safe and obedient in confessing our sins to one another. How many would say things like, "Oh, wait ... you mean I'm not alone in that? What a relief!"

Bob said...

if it wasn't for the fact that the catholic priest consider themselves intercessors, confession on Saturdays would be a healthy forum. the idea of having a place and time to get right with the lord is a good thing. but like so many efforts; the confessional became a theological contradiction. too bad. i wonder if the confessional could be reinstated from a reformed view.
now that i think about; what made Martin Luther such a stand out was the fact that he spent a lot time in the confessional, that is until he discovered salvation by Grace thru faith.
but i am not really talking about confessionals use with respect to salvation, but rather a means clearing one's conscience, and restoring one's relationship with the Lord.
i can feel the weight of stupidity pressing down on me.. something in me is saying that my point is some what flawed.

Stan said...

Well, I suppose some might question the validity of your point, but Scripture says, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed." (James 5:16) The point appears to be for "healing" (versus salvation) (and, oh, that "healing" could be either spiritual or physical) as well as restoration (James 5:19-20). You can't be too far off the mark if Scripture commands believers to confess their sins "to one another."