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Friday, August 01, 2008

What to do (and not do) when a Christian offends

I hope that this is a subject that you have never experienced, or never do experience. Nonetheless, some musings.

Jesus had something to say about this subject in Matthew 18.

In verses 7-9, which may not be related to the subject at hand, He warns that sin is real, and that the penalty for sin is everlasting torment. (He also made clear, in several places in the gospels, that there is a way to avoid that penalty, namely by accepting His own substitutional sacrifice for us.)

Then, beginning with verse 15, He gets to some practical directions on the matter:
Matthew 18:15 “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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (All Bible quotations are from the ESV)

The principles Jesus sets forth are these: Don't communicate with others first, but go directly to the individual who may have sinned. If only that directive were always followed! How much trouble would be saved. Jesus does not promise that the other person won't be angry. Perhaps he or she will. But we have a duty to approach him or her first.

Assuming that the other person does not satisfy you that no sin has been committed, take a witness, so that what is said is heard by more than one individual.

If satisfaction is not yet obtained, discuss the matter with the church, and take some action. The action prescribed appears to be removing the person from the church fellowship. I Corinthians 5:1-5 seems to mention such a case. Note that, even though the offense was grievous, Paul wanted the punishment to restore the person.

The Blueletter Bible displays the Greek words of the New Testament. Here they are, for Matthew 18:17 (go down to that verse). I was particularly interested in the use of the word "church." There was no church when Jesus said this. What word did Jesus use? He used ekklesia, twice. I am no Greek scholar, but the web page states that that word is #1577 in Strong's Greek reference. Clicking on that number yields a page, that shows, when you scroll down, all the uses of that word, and also gives the meaning of the word. Apparently it could have been used for Old Testament congregations. It is used in only one other place in the Gospels, namely Matthew 16:18. Ekklesia is used in a number of places in Acts, and elsewhere in the New Testament, where it means church, or congregation of believers.

Jesus didn't mention several possibilities, or specify further action. For that, I turn elsewhere in the New Testament.

What happens if the offense is done to the whole church, or the whole church becomes aware of it at once? In Acts 5:1-11, Ananias and Sapphira lied to the whole church. Peter dealt with the offense at once, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Sapphira, at least, was given a chance to repent, but she held to the lie. Both of them dropped dead in front of the church, with some time between the events.

What happens if the sister or brother confesses? That's a good question, and it is not completely answered. The response of the accuser, or the church, should be loving, forgiving, restoring, and careful. Here's what Paul said about this:
Galatians 6:1 Brothers*, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
*The ESV has a note, indicating that this may be taken to mean "brothers and sisters."

There is no mention of restitution here. But restitution is mentioned in the New Testament, by Zacchaeus, in Luke 19:1-10. Zacchaeus had been a dishonest tax collector. He promised to restore what he had taken by fraud. After he said this, Jesus told him that salvation had come to his house. Would the salvation have come if Zacchaeus had not offered to restore what he had taken? We don't know. How could this man possibly know how much he had taken from whom, and how did he go about making restitution? We aren't told.

Clearly, sometimes restitution is difficult or impossible. The person offended may be dead. Or someone may have done damage in a way that can't really be made up for, for example by raping someone. Or a thief may have squandered what was taken, and have no reasonable prospect of giving it back. So restitution is something that should be attempted, but it isn't a necessary part of restoration.

1 Corinthians 6:1-8 warns against Christians going to civil courts when a fellow believer offends. Is this prohibition absolute, or is it only about disputes between individual Christians? I don't know. What if, for example, a believer burns down the church building? This is not an offense against an individual, but the church as a whole. Is that covered? I'm not sure. Arson is not only a crime against the church, but it is also a civil crime. Don't we have a duty to report such a matter, for the protection of others? Don't we have a duty, under Romans 13:1-7, to obey the law and report the crime? Perhaps this person will burn down a grocery store, or a neighbor's house, if not punished. A hard question.

The Bible doesn't speak of several other matters. One of them is the possibility of delegating the church's authority to some smaller body, such as a church board or equivalent. Another one is how far to go in restoration. I suppose, for example, that if a brother or sister has sexually molested a child, he or she should be forgiven, and restored to full fellowship, but that doesn't mean that they should be put on nursery duty, or asked to teach a children's Sunday School class. If they can be tempted in that way, it is foolish for the church to put them in temptation's way again, and a disservice to the individual. Another one is whether or not to inform the public at large, or the authorities.

I haven't said all that can, or that should be said. I close with two items.

The first is the story of the priests and the building fund, in 2 Kings
12:1-16. The priests had, apparently, been using the Temple building fund for their own use for as long as 23 years. The king confronted them, and remedial action was taken -- there were safeguards put in place, so that the money was used for the purpose for which it was given. But there is no mention of restitution, even though restitution for property stolen or damaged was part of the Old Testament law (Exodus 22:1-14, for example). Why not, in this case? I don't know.

The second, and most important, is this: Any offense by a believer, or even mentioning the possibility, should remind me that I, too, may be tempted. (Galatians 6:1) How can I be more careful to avoid temptation? How can I act with integrity? I, too, may have to be dealt with at some point. I hope not, but I may. So may you.

Thanks for reading.


Keetha said...

One aspect of this topic I do feel very strongly about. Before we go to our "brother" with whatever aught we have against him, we'd better make sure it isn't our own problem instead of theirs. If we go to them and the problem is really our own, we may FEEL some freedom (and I would think this is false freedom) from guilt, but at what price to them?

Once in my CWC days, the fall revival of my freshman year, I had several girls (3 to 5 or so, memory isn't serving) come to me to apologize for having "hated" me because I was a Yankee. I don't think it was an orchestrated thing since they all came individually at different times. They all went away feeling better and I was left crushed. I had not known they thought they hated me, rather I thought they were my friends. I think they should have asked GOD to forgive them those attitudes and changed their back biting ways WITHOUT bringing me into it at all. I had not done anything.

Too many times I've seen people use the "going to their brother" as an "accepted" way of telling their brother off.

Keetha said...

On another note - - - my M-I-L has made a fun little conversation over on my blog in the comments under the microscope post that involves you.

jmoon said...

Thanks for the comment on my blog. I (quickly) perused through your first page posts, and will try to check back in as time allows.

superrustyfly said...

The blue letter bible seems like it takes it's greek manuscript from a different source than my copy, but it looked great. You're point is very good. I agree completely.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Keetha. You are right about that. When in doubt, don't say anything, is a good rule.

Thanks, superrustyfly. I'm not an expert on Greek. Glad you are!

Thanks for stopping by, jmoon.