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"Matthew Eighteen"

A Viable Contention Where Principles of the Gospel are Concerned?
by Debra Bouey

With the advent of mass media there has been an explosion over the airwaves of preachers and teachers. Radio and television shows provide a platform which reaches thousands and thousands of people daily. Often, less than orthodox teachings proceed from some of these electronic pulpits.

When Biblical apologists comment publicly on these aberrant, sometimes heretical, teachings, the principals involved, and their supporters, quickly and repeatedly raise the "Matthew 18 Argument", contending that the "brother" [or, as the case may be, "sister"] should have been approached privately, "according to Matthew 18". To that end, it seems judicious to examine the passages in Matthew 18 in light of the whole counsel of Scripture. Is Matthew 18 a valid contention in these instances? Let us go to God's Word and see.

The Passages at Issue -- Matthew 18:15-17:

[15] And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. [16] But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. [17] And 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-gatherer. [NASB]

[15] Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained Thy brother. [16] But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. [17] And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. [KJV]

[15] If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. [16] But if he 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 he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. [NIV]

Here, in these passages, Jesus sets the standard by which we, as Christians, are to deal with those who sin against us individually. These verses relate specifically to sins committed between individual believers. Jesus is telling us how the conflicts between individual believers are to be resolved so that the believers may be reconciled with one another, alleviating strife and dissension. As Matthew 18:35 tells us, we are to forgive one another from the heart and that forgiveness is not contingent upon whether or not the believer who has wronged us either apologizes or makes amends -- we are to forgive unconditionally, as we have been forgiven.. In the matter of strife and wrongdoing between individual Christians, a plenarily inspired Paul elaborates further in I Corinthians 5:12-6:7:

[12] For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? [13] But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves. [6:1] Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? [2] Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? [3] Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, matters of this life? [4] If then you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? [5] I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, [6] but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers? [7] Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?

I Corinthians 6:7 is a forerunner to chapter 13, " not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered...". But here, we are dealing with what a Christian's behavior should be in a situation where one believer has treated another unjustly and not with a matter concerning the principles of the Gospel. One is a personal offense, the other is an affront to the Gospel truth.

Is There Scriptural Precedent for Public Correction?

Yes, there is, in matters which affect the principles of the Gospel. Paul states in Galatians 2:11-14:

[11] But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. [12] For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. [13] And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. [14] But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, "If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? Why did Paul confront Peter publicly "before them all"? Because he "saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the Gospel" and their words and actions were causing others to be led astray. Therefore, we see a clear-cut Biblical precedent for public rebuke where it concerns aberrant teachings which depart from the truth of the Gospel.

In II Timothy 2:15-18, Paul calls false teachers by name ("Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth...".) In Acts 20:29-31, Paul tells us he continued to warn the early church about false teachers and doctrine for three years. ("Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.") In fact, the New Testament is replete with public correction of erroneous teachings within the church.

Why is it Important to Correct Publicly?

As James said, "Behold, the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder, wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body...Behold, how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!" [James 3:4-5]

Words are powerful; God likens the tongue to a rudder on a ship and a bit in a horses mouth. These, in themselves, are powerful words recorded there in James for our counsel, caution and exhortation.

Words are so powerful, that when the Hebrew nation went into battle, God commanded that any man who was "afraid and fainthearted" should be sent home "so that he might not make his brothers' hearts melt like his heart." [Deuteronomy 20:8, among others] God knew that if the fearful stayed in the ranks, they would speak of their fear and act accordingly, thus causing others to become fearful as well. We often influence one another with our words, even, perhaps especially, when we are not aware we are doing so.

Where the straightforwardness of the Gospel is deviated from publicly, those aberrant words are equally as powerful and potentially influential to the hearers, particularly to seekers and those who may not be well- rooted and grounded in God's Word. In such situations, we must not remain silent. We are as accountable to God for remaining silent when we ought to speak out as we are for speaking inappropriately or when we ought to remain silent.

Furthermore, God has said in Proverbs 18:21a: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" Throughout Scripture, we see the damage errantly spoken words can do; how they impact and sway the hearer(s). Therefore, with the potential for countless thousands on the other end of radios and televisions to be led astray, correction of aberrant, often heretical, teachings needs to be equally as public. When erroneous teachings are proclaimed to broad audiences as Gospel truth, thereby impacting and influencing them, shouldn't those errant teachings be repudiated to equally as public and broad of an audience? The issue here is not fault-finding, but addressing public teaching of false doctrine related to the foundational tenets of our Christian faith.

Isn't Public Correction Unloving?

No, it isn't. Quite the contrary.

Proverbs 27:5: Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed.

It simply isn't Divine love to sit by and do nothing where the straightforwardness of the Gospel truth is concerned. I am not talking about wrangling over words and making obtuse arguments about peripheral issues, but where the Gospel itself has been departed from. It only takes a few errant words to firmly fix an aberrant, unorthodox doctrine in the minds of the hearers... "Behold, how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!" [James 3:5b] We are talking about a very "narrow gate" here, as Jesus Himself stated in Matthew 7:13-14:

[13] Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. [14] For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it.

If we, as Christians, are all one Body [in Christ] as we claim to be, then we ought to love another enough to speak the truth in these matters... and to hear the truth and receive correction as well...even when it may be an unpopular truth. We ought to love one another enough to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." [Jude 3]

The phrase "contend earnestly" in Jude is unique in all of the New Testament. In the Greek, it means to contend, literally to the point of agony, as an athlete might in the Olympic games, as competing and contending to win the prize. That is a very distinctive mandate to vigorously contend for the faith, for the Gospel truth in the face of aberrant teachings. In fact, the little epistle of Jude tells us both why [false teachers] and how [in the love of God] we are to "contend earnestly" for the faith.

Isn't Public Correction Divisive and Harmful to the Unity of the Body?

We need to understand that if we don't "rightly divide the word of truth" [2 Timothy 2:15], God's Word will divide us.

God always draws a dividing line between truth and error. We also need to understand that Jesus Christ did not come to bring the shallow, superficial kind of peace which downplays the profound differences between truth and error just for the sake of some kind of specious unity. Any kind of "unity" which calls for unanimity for unity's sake itself--strange as that may seem--is a false unity if it has compromised and attempted to unite truth with erroneous, faulty teachings.

Anything we make concessions at the expense of God's truth to get-- including unity, especially unity--we will ultimately lose. What compromise really means is that nobody gets what they want, doesn't it? God is not interested in providing solutions "everybody can live with", but, rather, with truth, holiness and righteousness. Which is precisely what often separates God's version of "unity" and "oneness" from man's ideas about what constitutes unity.

Man's version of unity is not what God wants--and certainly not unity at the cost of compromising the Gospel. He wants a holy people separated to Himself--this is what Jesus meant when He said "follow Me". For far too long, many of us have labored under the misconception that putting on a unified "front", while overlooking aberrant teaching within the ranks, will usher in revival. Not so. When God's people really start seeking first His Kingdom and His righteousness [Matthew 6:33]--earnestly seeking to live our lives, worship and pray according to God's Word, "hating even the garment polluted by the flesh" [Jude 23], loving His truth and loathing sin and error--then God Himself, by His beloved indwelling Holy Spirit, will unite and knit together the hearts of them that love Him and His truth. Then God's light and glory will shine forth from the midst of such a people and the world will know. We, the professing Body of Christ, will never know true, Christ-centered unity any o! ther way. Church history these last 2000+ years has revealed to us that inescapable fact.

We need to be separated from error. Where there is ongoing denial of, and unwillingness to clearly and soundly repudiate false teachings, rather than attempting to unite truth with error under the guise of misguided "unity" and "love", we need to understand that division is not an undesirable thing in that context, but a needful thing and we should take action according to the Biblical criteria. Consider carefully why Paul uses such strong and forceful language in Galatians 1:8, then goes on to reiterate and reemphasize the point in verse 9:

[8] But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. [9] As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.
Paul is referring to any perversion of the Gospel The message, Paul is saying, must not change, and must not be changed, even by him, because the absolute truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ never changes--this is "the faith which was ONCE FOR ALL delivered to the saints." [Jude 3] and any deviation therefrom is to be insufferable. It does not matter to Paul here whether the one who might come preaching "a gospel contrary" was doing so out of the best of, albeit misguided, intentions or not. There is no qualification here whatever...because the Gospel deals with the eternal destiny of souls and so, therefore, it is a life and death matter. Simply, an extraordinarily strongly-worded "...if any man is preaching to you a Gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed."

In a brief aside, it occurs to me as I have been pondering over the various passages dealing with these matters, if Paul was here today, he'd likely be called "unloving" and "divisive" for his preaching regarding aberrant teachings. He rebuked and offered correction publicly in Scripture and I expect he'd do so equally as publicly if he was here with us today.

Proverbs 28:23: He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor Than he who flatters with the tongue.

Closing Thoughts

How the individual reader views the "Matthew 18 Contention" and contending earnestly for the faith is highly dependent upon what place one gives the written Word of God. Do you view Scripture as God's absolute, objective truth? As the gauge by which all teachings and subjective spirituals matters are to be measured?

Today, some would have us believe that "God is bigger than His word" in an attempt to elevate a subjective, experience-oriented faith above a sound, Bible-based Gospel. Consider Psalms 138:2b, where God tells us He has equated His Word with His name; with His very character:

"For Thou hast magnified Thy word according to all Thy name."

There is today a group of people who believe themselves to be "apostles and prophets", claiming there is a "new move of God", a "third wave" and "fresh [extra-Biblical] revelation" through dreams and visions. In fact, some have gone so far as to equate those who do not agree with their assertions with "Saul", while likening themselves to "Davids". Whether there are prophets in the church today is not the issue at hand. The crux of the matter is this: Is our standard for the personal practice of our Christian faith going to be determined by the accumulative evidences of the objective Word of God--the Bible--or shall we make our criteria for the practice of our faith dependent upon the personal, subjective spiritual revelations and prophecies of an exclusive, modern-day cadre of self-professed apostles and prophets?

Are we going to view personal spiritual revelations through the lens of God's Word or are we going to view God's Word through the lens of personal spiritual revelations? The former--God's Word--is objective and absolute truth. It is as applicable to your life as it is to mine and has been to countless other dear saints who have preceded us. The latter--personal spiritual revelations--are subjective, not absolute...and not always accurate.

Acts 17:11: Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so.

Paul not only didn't object to the Bereans "examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things [Paul was teaching] were so" [Acts 17:11], but he highly commended them, calling them "more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica". If we wish to avoid error and deception, we all should be as "noble-minded" as the Bereans were. In evaluating all teachings and subjective spiritual revelations, we should never forget Isaiah 8:20: "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them." [KJV]

"Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is captive to the Word of God....God help me. Here I stand. I can do no other." [Martin Luther]

Except where otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, California.

© Copyright 1995 by Debra Bouey
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