Misusing Matthew 18

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“Have you followed the way of Matthew 18?” That question has stopped a number of people in their tracks. Someone approaches a person in authority with concerns about the conduct of someone under their charge and often the first response is: “Did you go and talk with so-and-so? I can’t do anything until you’ve taken the steps of Matthew 18. That’s the Christian way, you know.” Oh. That usually ends the conversation and the concerned person walks away feeling guilty, frustrated and intimidated. And all too-often the genuine concerns get silenced, swept under the carpet, never to be raised again to the powers that be. Yet they fester below the surface.

But should this be the case? Does Matthew 18:15-20 apply in all situations where a person might have concerns about the conduct of another? I think we sometimes jump to that passage too fast and end up misusing it. Doing so can unintentionally dampen or silence legitimate criticism which has nothing to do with the teaching of the Lord Jesus in that chapter. Over the years and across the federation, I have heard of such misuse in two particular areas: one relates to teachers in our Christian schools and the other to ministers in our churches.

Professional Ability
I love our Christian schools and I’m sure most of us do as well. As a rule, we are blessed with faithful, competent teachers and I’m convinced we all wish to hold them all in the highest esteem. Yet there are times when parents grow concerned about the teaching ability of a certain instructor.

Suppose you learn through your child that the teacher is constantly disorganized, never finishes lessons and has very poor control over the class-room. Or perhaps the issue is an instructor whom the students cannot understand, a person who simply can’t communicate the material in a clear and understandable way. There may be other problems. You think maybe it’s just your son or daughter’s perspective but you ask around and find out it’s the concern of many parents and it’s been this way for years.

Now suppose your concern grows to the point where you raise it with the principal or with the chairman of the board only to be asked whether you followed Matthew 18. No doubt they ask this out of a desire to do right by the teacher and the Lord, to follow due Christian process for the sake of all, but is this the correct process? Is it fair to send such a parent to address a teacher in the way of Matthew 18? Would it actually be possible?

Matthew 18
To begin with, the Lord Jesus throughout Matthew 18 is addressing the topic of sin, not professional ability at all. He warns about temptations to sin (vv.7-9), he calls the church to go out of its way to seek out the sinning member (straying sheep, vv.10-14) and at the end of the chapter Christ teaches us to forgive repentant fellow sinners like our heavenly Father forgives us (vv.21-35). In-between, in the famous passage (vv.15-20) that is often referred to simply as “Matthew 18”, the Lord gives specific instructions to church members in what to do when we notice that our fellow member has fallen into sin and has not repented. The opening verse is crystal clear, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”

The issue is sin within a congregation – not ineffectiveness in one’s daily job! If a teacher can’t communicate a subject clearly or get organized or has no passion to stir up the students’ interests, that should never be reported to the elders (v.17)! And no one would ever sanction the application of church discipline over such matters! The issue in those cases is the serious question of whether an employee of the school society is able to do his/her task. It’s a matter of concern about a teacher’s performance and as such should be addressed to the supervisor (the principal) who then should be following an established in-house policy to resolve such concerns.

Consider this: would it even be feasible for a parent to address the teacher about his concern in a Matthew 18 kind of way? That parent will in all likelihood not have witnessed what his/her child reported – it would only be at the student’s say-so or perhaps with third-hand information from other parents. And to expect a student to address the teacher – even with an accompanying parent – is neither realistic nor fair to the young person. A student cannot be expected to have the maturity to sort out what the teacher’s proper task is and how he/she is falling short – never mind the fear of facing an older authority figure! Even from a practical point of view, the early steps of Matthew 18 just don’t fit such a situation.

Concerned parents should not be turned away by the administration with a perhaps well-meant but misguided reference to Matthew 18. Instead, they should be invited into a process of careful, fair discussion and evaluation that seeks to uphold the reputation of all involved and verify the truth of the concern. Not every expressed concern may be valid and hence the need for the impartial assessment of someone in a supervisory role to the instructor. Invalid concerns can then lead to further discussion with the student and parents but valid and verified concerns can lead to further discussion with the teacher with the aim to bring about a solution beneficial to all. This is not a church matter but a school matter.

Professional Misconduct
Would it be different if the concern was about the professional misconduct of a teacher? What if the issue is not so much about performance but rather behaviour that could be described as sinful? For example, suppose a teacher is consistently berating a student or students in front of the class, humiliating them (basically, bullying). Or making crude sexual jokes. What then?

There’s no doubt that such behaviour breaks God’s commandments. Teachers, too, must always look out for their neighbour’s best interest and use words and actions to build up their students (6th commandment, see Lord’s Day 40). Teachers must also treat the gift of sexuality with utmost esteem and honour (7th commandment, see Lord’s Day 41). Yet, the process to follow is not in the first place Matthew 18 (which has no place for the supervisory role of principals and boards) but rather the protocol that each school society has (or should have) in place with respect to the conduct of its employees. Like any organization which hires workers, the Board should also have clear policies in place to discipline staff who violate the standards of the work place.

Is there a role for elders and church discipline to play? Only when there is hardening in sin or when the initial sin was of a public nature and becomes known in the teacher’s church community. In the case of hardening, the Board should indeed “tell it to the church,” that is, the elders. The matter has gone beyond the classroom and boardroom to the consistory room for now it is clear that the very soul of the teacher is at stake and with it the spiritual health of that person’s congregation as well. Let’s not forget the honour of the Lord’s Name.

In the case of a public sin, the elders should be officially informed by the Board. That way, the consistory can enter into the picture equipped with all the facts for the spiritual care of the teacher and take whatever action might be appropriate (such as an announcement and public prayer; much will depend on whether there is repentance and how the sin has affected the community).

Preaching Concerns
What has happened at times in our schools has also happened at times in the church, specifically when a member has sincere concerns about the preaching. Such a member might raise the matter with the ward elder only to be told, “Have you talked to the minister about it? I can’t do anything until you’ve followed Matthew 18.” Really?
Unless the member is accusing the minister of a particular sin (which is almost never the case when preaching concerns are raised), it is always appropriate to dialogue with the elders about the preaching. Matthew 18 only comes into the picture if the minister has sinned – and if it’s a public sin done in the preaching, the elders should already be actively involved!

Disquiet over the quality of the preaching is the bailiwick of elders. One of the important tasks of elders is to oversee the preaching and to help ministers in their calling, also when it comes to their effectiveness and fruitfulness as a preacher (see the Form for Ordination of Elders). After all, if the flock is not being fed, if the sermons are not edifying because something about them is lacking, who is to work that through with the minister if not the elders? Elders have the added benefit of having heard all the same sermons as the concerned member and can analyze the sermons at arms’ length and help determine whether the member’s complaint has validity. Not every concern expressed may be valid, and elders can play an important role in helping the member to see his or her own part in failing to benefit from what is otherwise sound and edifying preaching.

Approaching the Minister
Now, I am not saying that speaking directly with the minister isn’t a good idea – it can be a good starting point. Listeners, it is understood, will aim to be quick to listen and slow to criticize, recognizing the difficult task of a preacher and how he is charged with bringing the precious Word of God. Yet because sincere listeners rightly hunger for the Word, when that hunger is not satisfied, when despite their serious efforts they struggle to be strengthened in their faith by the preaching, their concerns should be listened to carefully. Such concerns can range anywhere from repetitiousness to lack of clarity to imbalance in emphasis all the way to genuine questions about a preacher’s doctrine. Discussing those concerns with the minister can clear up small issues or misunderstandings whether on the minister’s side or the member’s side. When both discuss the matter humbly and carefully, with a desire to understand one another and end up with improved preaching and listening, there can be much benefit.

But a member might feel intimidated to meet with the minister or fear a negative reaction. Perhaps they’ve tried to speak with the minister but did not get much of a reception. Such an earnest, struggling member should always find a listening ear from an elder. Perhaps the elder will go with the member to discuss things with the minister, but the elder should not turn the member away with the cold shower of “follow Matthew 18!” This is not a question of sin but of ability, of being edified, not of being wronged.

Elders and Preaching
Preachers have a weighty task to bring the gospel with faithfulness and clarity, in a balanced, understandable way that connects with peoples’ hearts and lives. Elders have the equally weighty task of making sure this happens. When the sheep are missing that (or some of that), they should be heard, the concern should be seriously evaluated and, if found to be accurate, properly addressed by the elders with the minister. This is all the more pressing where those concerns are long-standing and are found in a pattern over time.

Matthew 18 is a chapter filled with beautiful and important instruction on how to address sins within the church. Let’s make good use of it to that end in each local body of Christ! But when it’s about how teachers teach and preachers preach, let’s get the appropriate authorities involved and use sensible protocols to resolve concerns.

Peter H. Holtvluwer

(Rev P Holtvluwer is minister of the Spring Creek Canadian Reformed Church at Tintern, Ontario. This article is published here with his kind permission. It was published in Clarion, April 8th, 2016.)