Jesus’s words in Matthew 18 about confronting a brother in sin are among the most frequently weaponised in service of power and against the persecuted. “But have you approached this person privately about this? Have you followed Matthew 18?” These are questions that so many of us will recognise and even find triggering. Maybe some of us have even repeated these questions to someone in conflict, thinking this is what Jesus requires of us.
- Consider a church leader who insists that he will only entertain disagreement with his public teaching in private.
- Consider a Christian asking a friend for advice or seeking legal counsel about what she suspects is spiritual abuse, only then to be accused by other Christians of “gossiping” to a “third party” in violation of Matthew 18.
- Or, what’s worse, consider the case of a woman who was assaulted by a well-known doctor when she was barely 18, he a supposed pillar of a church community. When this teenager asked her church leaders for help, they insisted that she meet with her rapist – whom they continued to refer to as ‘brother’ – and confront this violent man face-to-face. This is the proper procedure, they claimed.
So much damage is done by Christians using wooden applications of Matthew 18. How painfully ironic, this laying of heavy burdens on the already hurting! Jesus’s words, rightly applied, actually pivot our perspective away from the interests of those with power and prestige and towards the heart of the Gospel which is Love. Let’s see how.
In Matthew 18, Jesus presents scenarios involving two parties. He sits with a child in front of his disciples. He speaks of a person who harms such a child. He tells a story about a shepherd who goes to find one lost sheep. He talks of two brothers resolving a dispute in private. In all this and from the Bible’s first scenes, we meet again and again a beautiful and mysterious symmetry, that which threatens it and the One who brings sweet relief.
At the beginning of the world, God made the two great lights (Gen 1:16). He called the animals by two’s into the ark, to keep them alive (Gen 6:19). Two cherubim flanked the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant (Num 7:89), and we meet multiple accounts of two men taking an oath (Gen 21:31, Ex 22:11). God gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony (Ex 31:18). David and Jonathan, these two in union made a covenant before the Lord (1 Sam 23:18). In Neh 12:40, two choirs take their stand in the house of God. In the book of Zechariah, the prophet speaks of taking for himself two staffs, one he called Favor and the other Union (Zech 11:7). And St. Luke records that Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs ahead of him to every city and place where he himself was going to go (Lk 10).
What is the meaning of all these dynamic duos? At the creation of the universe, God declared that it is not good to be alone. To be by oneself is to be vulnerable, to be without a helper. It is to be without strength, to be scattered. Moses’s father-in-law, when he sees all he is doing for the people of Israel, says to him, “Why do you alone sit as judge? The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Exodus 18:14). Here and in so many other places, God reminds us over and over that he did not create us for isolation.
This is beauty and intimacy worthy of meditation! Our innate desire for friendship, for co-workers, for community, for brothers and sisters, for love shared between equals: all this exists in large part to beckon us towards our need for our Creator and towards the Love and companionship that the Maker of all things extends to us. The writer of Deuteronomy declares “The Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4), but we are not one without him. Our God comes as our helper and our strength, and God calls us into relationship with one another to mirror this divine dynamic. We were made for intimacy with God and with our fellow human beings, for peace with God and peace between people.
And yet, in this cruel world, this beautifully balanced community, this goodwill has been broken. Adam turned against Eve, ruling over her. Caan against Abel, murdering him. In 1 Samuel 11, when Saul makes war against the Ammonites, the text says that of Israel’s enemies, no two of them were left together, a symbolic signal of just how scattered they were. The writer of Ecclesiastes uses this same imagery to weep over the world, saying,
I have seen that every labour and every skill which is done is rivalry between a man and his neighbour.Ecclesiastes 4:4
All creation is harmed by this hierarchical hyper-competitiveness. And yet, in the aftermath of the fall at Eden, some suffer more than others in humankind’s toxic antagonism and the alienation that follows. The writer of Ecclesiates exposes all such earthly patterns of injustice, forcing us to face the many acts of oppression under the sun committed by the rulers of this world, from the corporate billionaire to the household dictator who dominates a family behind closed doors. Ecclesiastes laments over the desolation of all those whom such tyrants neglect, abuse, rob, trample, those forced to wear the heavy and uneven yoke of slavery, those left friendless and seemingly hopeless.
Against this same backdrop, in Matthew 18, when we pan out beyond the often-misused section about confronting a fellow believer face-to-face, Jesus too is speaking first of the disempowered and disenfranchised, beginning with victims of religious systems of exploitation and of the wicked ones who propagate and profit from such systems. Do you see where Jesus’s thoughts go first? The wounded and the vulnerable among his people are our Saviour’s primary priority. He has only just a few verses above called a child to himself and set the child before his disciples and warned them of what would happen to anyone who caused such a little one to fall in their faith.
It would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
The Mighty Messiah sitting with a small child! Jesus destabilises before our very eyes the accepted social order in the kingdom of this world and sets it in proper position, using divine kingdom principles. The first are now last and the last first, a revolutionary rebalancing of the unjust scales of this world, justice that begins in the house of God.
We learn here that the most egregious violators of the kingdom order of Jesus Christ are those who set out stumbling blocks, who hoard and wield power and wealth in God’s house in selfish and cruel ambition, in accumulation of profit and influence. The enemies of Christ are all those who infiltrate the church and unsettle the perfectly balanced safety, comfort, encouragement and strength that should be present wherever two are gathered together.
These destabilisers are the eye that causes the body to stumble. They are the hand that has failed, the foot that has fallen. We Christ’s body, these pairs of organs, of limbs, we are meant to work together in symmetry, to be of the same mind in the Lord, but in so many egregious ways, we do not. Like bone from bone, acts of violence splinter and separate us.
So what do we do when we are party to a brutal fracture in the body of Christ? Who does Jesus expect to sort it out? Here again we return to the power of two, the strength of witness, a concept that oppressed communities all around the world know very well. The question, “Can I get a witness?” is one my Black brothers and sisters already know very well. Charles Marsh, Shea Tuttle and Daniel Rhodes write, that
So many longings, hopes and struggles are wrapped up in this question, Can I get a witness? In the black church tradition, the question … is asked in anticipation of an ‘Amen’!”
Do you hear this? Have you been spiritually abused, your body and your soul bruised and violated by someone bearing the name of Christ? Can you get a witness? Amen!
One place that Scripture shows us what this looks like is 2 Kings 9, in the account of the execution of Jezebel. Some chapters before this, in 1 Kings 21, Jezebel harnesses the power of procedure, the appearance of obedience to the letter of the law. She calls witnesses, whom the narrator tells us are worthless men, to falsely accuse Naboth so that he will be stoned and she can steal his vineyard for King Ahab.
But God does not let this stand. Justice comes in the actions of King Jehu of Israel, who enters the castle gate and is immediately mocked by Jezebel, who has adorned herself with all the visible signs of her privilege. The text tells us that Jehu lifted up his face to her window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” And two or three officials looked down on him (2 Kings 9:32).
This warrior king has called to his side righteous witnesses to enact justice against the powerful Queen Jezebel for her abuse of her royal position. Faced with a broken limb in the body of God’s people, so to speak, he calls for the strength of a splint, the power of two. Look how his witnesses appear without hesitation, straightaway! And what do they do next? They throw Jezebel down (v. 33)!
We find in this account the characteristics of a just witness, according to Scripture. First, a just witness is not a liar, by no means a worthless witness like those that Jezebel called. Rather, these are people of moral courage and strength who stand in the light of truth (see Lev. 19:19; 2 Cor. 6:14). Neither is a just witness a passive person. It is not a name for someone who operates behind the scenes, a silent supporter who doesn’t want to get their hands dirty. Nor is it someone who comes in and takes over. Hear Ecclesiastes 4:10: “if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion.” And verse 12: “if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him.” Two can resist him.
To be a witness then is to be in resistance together against the forces of oppression. To come as a witness is to stand shoulder to shoulder, equally yoked, offering strength and working alongside a brother or sister in pursuit of revolutionary peace. There is a lovely 2nd-century rabbinical saying from after the destruction of the Temple, that “If two sit together and words of the Law are between them, the Shekinah [glory of God] rests between them” (m. Abot 3.2). We who are in Christ know that this law between two people, this glory, this finds its meaning in Jesus, on whom hangs all the law and the prophets. His presence is his Spirit, whom he has sent to dwell in and among us.
If two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.”Matthew 18:19
This is why, in the Apostle Paul’s epistle to Timothy, he warns us not to receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. In other words, as the Rev Sam Powell says, if you’re going to accuse someone who has religious authority, take some reliable backup. Faced with such an uneven playing field, don’t go alone! And in God’s name, do not abandon anyone else to go it alone (1 Tim. 5:19). It’s too risky! Instead, when a victim of oppression calls out for a witness, stand up immediately, like Jehu’s witnesses, and answer back, “Amen! I will witness! And if I cannot, I will find someone who can. I will act.”
The presence of a witness, then, is to assure safety and strength in a situation of even perceived imbalanced power, so that there is not further damage. So that justice can be swiftly carried out and peace restored. Where necessary, the wandering eye of personal gain plucked out. The stubbornly rebellious hand or foot cut off and thrown from us.
In all this, we walk in the footsteps of our Saviour. When we harness the power of two in service of the justice and peace of God, we mimic heaven itself. In the throne room of God, our Messiah stands as our witness in resurrection victory over the accuser, the evil one, that lying lord of all stumbling blocks. Jesus Christ testifies about his beloved children like he speaks about his own body. Do you receive such a child in his name? In so doing, you receive Jesus himself. Indeed, in every victim of oppression, the essence of the Gospel is before us, in terms of the ministry of Jesus Christ to the church, to those devastated by systemic poverty, by prejudice, to the grief-stricken, to the traumatised. For such was Jesus, bruised and broken. He made himself low for our sake, that he could lift us up.
And now, having begun where Jesus begins, with righteous intolerance of injustice in the body of Christ, then and only then can we move to our Saviour’s words of what to do when a brother or sister sins against us personally. The assumption here, we must be clear, is that these later verses, 15-17, refer now to a meeting between equals. Between equals.
We must place close attention here, as Jesus now sets before our eyes his fraternal paradigm. Indeed, Jesus’s model for reconciliation rebukes every man who on sexist principle refuses to meet with a woman unless a witness is present. Such a man by default signals that women are in our nature lowly and even unsafe, that a meeting between a man and a woman cannot be a meeting between equals. Do you see how this way of thinking and behaving defies what Jesus is teaching here? For as Paul reminds us, through the liberating power of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, we are now one in him (Gal 3:28), once former enemies, now reconciled in perfect union with him and with one another.
And so, considering the power of two God has embedded in Scripture, considering the nature of threats against it and the mechanisms Jesus offers us to restore peace, the question I propose we ask of every fracture in the church is this:
Is the person who has wronged us someone who is safe enough to be approached alone, as an equal?
If yes, then by all means, go to them, between you and them alone appeal to them. And if, for whatever reason, the situation calls for a splint, then bring a third party, bring a reliable ally, so that once again, the two of you can live in harmony in the Lord (see Philippians 4:1-3).
But if the break is severe,
if you perceive any signs of being unsteady or unsafe,
if someone who has wronged you refuses to allow you access to a witness, if any of us encounters an oppressor in the house of God, an abuser of privilege, power or authority,
then such a person is not to be regarded as a brother or sister until they have proven otherwise.
In this case, we are to exercise the wisdom of acting swiftly, together with others, to confront and, if necessary, to remove the threat to the body.
In all this, we model before a watching world our intolerance of injustice that blasphemes the Gospel within our gates. We testify of our deep love for the pure peace of heaven, in which there is no more inequality, no more rivalry, no more poverty, suffering or abuse. We witness before all creation that this is our guaranteed inheritance, and wisdom along with it, to look to and to live in the light of that great day, when Jesus comes again to bring perfect justice quickly (Lk 18:6-8). This cruel life under the sun will pass away and by the tender mercy of our God, we will make our dwelling place in perfect harmony in the light of the Sun of righteousness, the Sunrise from on high, the Lamp of the Lamb.