A Note from Our Editor: Matthew 18 and Christian Conduct -- By: John Warwick Montgomery
A Note from Our Editor: Matthew 18 and Christian Conduct
Matthew 18:15-17 is the locus classicus for handling conflicts among Christians. It is however, commonly honoured in the breach. And its application is woefully narrowed. In this brief study, we shall attempt to clarify the meaning and the ambit of Jesus’ teaching on the responsibility of Christians in conflict situations.
The Thrust Of The Passage1
The purpose of Matthew 18:15-17 is surely to resolve in the most efficient and God-honouring manner disputes and conflicts among Christian believers. This is achieved by moving, in ever-widening circles, from the immediate source of the difficulty to resolutions involving increasingly higher-level decision making. Conflicts are ideally resolved on the lowest plane possible, thereby creating minimal embarrassment and publicity both for the creator of the conflict and for the larger community. The one at fault is ideally brought to a proper admission of his error and to a correction of it before it can create problems for third parties. Our Lord’s concern is both to bring the wrongdoer to right action and to maintain peace and harmony among the Christians with whom he or she is associated.
How Widely Does The Passage Apply?
Most commentators see the passage as speaking narrowly to church contexts. For them, the passage applies to instances in which one church member offends another. The object of the offense must then try to resolve the matter with the subject of the offense; if this does not happen owing to the intransigence of the sinner, the charge is made and repentance sought in the presence of two or three witnesses; and if this fails, the case is taken to the church as a whole. Only when the one at fault refuses to accept the judgment of the church is he removed from its membership.
That process is patently clear from the text. There is only one remaining question—and it is of vital importance: Is this revelatory procedure limited to ecclesiastical contexts, or is it mandated beyond those confines?
It is surely the case that the passage speaks of Christian “brethren” and does not have unbelievers in focus. To be sure, pagans as well as Christians would much benefit from applying the approach set out in the text, and it may well be that Jesus’ teaching has been an influence on the development of appeals procedures in the Civil and Common Law traditions. One thinks of the common procedural requirement in international tribunals such as the European Court of Human Rights that one must first “exhaust domestic remedies” before seeking the jurisdiction of the int...
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