Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20
Here we have three independent pericopes brought together by Matthew dealing with an errant church member, the binding of sins, and Jesus’ great promise of his presence.
The through-line of thought that Matthew seems to be employing is this: there is a traditional plan (based on Hebrew precedence) for dealing with errant church or synagogue members. Whatever the church decides is a binding decision, and Jesus’ presence in the true church (in its gatherings and business meetings) reinforces the decisions the church makes.
Given the many things that tempt the church toward division today, this word is timely. While Jesus is regularly preaching and performing wonders in this gospel, in this section of Matthew (chapters 18 and 19, commonly known as the fourth of Matthew’s discourses), he provides instruction on how to be a community of believers. He shows concern for children and weak members, and for those who might wander off. He teaches humility. In this reading, he is giving what almost appears to be legal advice to the church that will follow in his name. Such advice is prudent, though it does not ensure resolution of difficulties. If it did, we would have a fool-proof formula for dealing with church conflict and controversy.
One of the reasons our divisive issues are so difficult to resolve today is that both sides of key issues seek to use Jesus’ pattern to reconcile themselves to others. In other words, people on any side of an issue can find a number of brothers and sisters from the church to bring along in making their case. It is not simply a matter of noting which side the church is on and making judgments accordingly. We cannot tell which side is the true church in many discussions. All sides would insist that it is their side. And, in fact, they are more or less correct. Division in the church means that one part of the body of Christ disagrees with another part of the same body. Dissension is the natural result of human interaction. The church is very human in this regard.
The rule in verses 15-17 is a good one, but not fool-proof. When both sides of an issue are entrenched, they will assume their decision should be binding–on earth and in heaven–and expect the other side to see their error. If both sides are gathered in their caucuses in Jesus’ name, they can each appeal to his promise of divine presence. What are we to say about all this confusion?
We might say that this instruction is not about general disagreement, but specifically about sin. Shouldn’t it be easy to tell who sinned against whom? Well, no, it isn’t easy. Any pastoral counselor will know that in a dispute, the truth of the situation usually lies somewhere between the reports of conflicted parties. Our defensiveness and subjectivity keep us from seeing how much we might hurt others. Our self interests only allow us to see how greatly we have been offended. We often feel wronged, but fail to admit that we have wronged another. More confusion.
It is tempting to go about self-righteously judging, condemning, and binding the sins of our opponents. But, this is not what it means to be the church Jesus calls for. Where is the humility in this? Where is the concern for the weaker brother or sister? Ultimately, the only rule that appears fool-proof here is the final promise. If we gather as the church, Jesus is with us. Shall we not, then, dispute with one another in kindness? If Jesus is with us, on our side, in our caucus, do we not then need to approach the other side as he did? “Father, forgive them,” he spoke, even when his offenders did not repent. Disputes will come, linger, and perhaps go. We may seek scriptural remedies and strategies for dealing with our adversaries. But finally, it comes down to this: we are the church, and Christ is with us. Weak ones and strong, self-righteous ones and humble ones, do-gooders and wrong-doers.
In a day of great debates about our life together, the disputes are complex and not easily solved. If it were such a simple matter as identifying the sin of one person or group, we could deal with this and bring it to an end. But, there is plenty of sin to go around. And, there is plenty of grace to cover it. In worship or business, Jesus is with us. He comes with judgment and love. Those humble enough to repent of their sins are the beneficiaries of his loving-kindness. Others should beware.