"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 18.15-20. Discipline in the church.

What a really odd Gospel passage. I can’t remember having read it in its wider context before, and having done so now I find it even more disturbing.

If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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 collector.

I’ve always found this passage rather distasteful. There’s plenty of scope here for mischief making; there’s plenty of scope here for the misuse of power and authority; there’s plenty of scope here for the following of a personal agenda or vendetta against individuals or groups of people who aren’t perceived to be People Like Us; there’s plenty of scope here for the “in crowd” to marginalise others and there’s plenty of scope here for individuals to decide the boundaries of moral or spiritual authority on behalf of others. No. I don’t like this passage one bit because it opens the gates for abusive behaviour. Perhaps you need to have this used against you, or seen it used against others, to understand its devastating power.

One of the things that was drummed into me at Vicar School was the importance of recognising who Jesus’ audience was when analysing a particular text. There is always an immediate audience, usually the disciples, often the crowds, occasionally an individual. There is sometimes also an implied audience, perhaps the scribes and Pharisees standing on the fringes. Many Christians like to assume that you and I today are always the implied audience as if what Jesus had to say to his listeners on every occasion two thousand years ago is for us today. Of course, sometimes we are the implied audience and Jesus does speak to us down the generations but is this one of those passages?

I’m very conscious that if I were preaching this sermon in another church, say a certain large, city centre, Evangelical church not a million miles from here some people would be wriggling very uncomfortably at this point – the clergy certainly would be. For many Christians any discussion of the problems of scripture means a departure from the well rehearsed script of its inerrancy. So, one of my other concerns is that there are branches of Christianity which are anti-intellectual and which don’t want people to debate scripture – simply to obey it. I’m increasingly of the opinion that much of what we discuss and debate between ourselves goes to the heart of our understanding of scripture and the limits which can be put on its authority, or as William Blake noted: “Both read the Bible day and night; but you read black where I read white.” It often feels like that to me and those conversations are usually a dialogue of the deaf and believe me, I've had a fair few of those down the years.

That will be of no surprise to anyone here. “The wisdom of men is foolishness to God.” they’ll tell us, using scripture as a stick to beat us with. And in so doing they’ll give themselves permission to discount generations’ worth of scholarship and textual criticism.

I remember one friend relating his experiences. “At University”, he said “I used to argue and fight with fundamentalists. I remember once taking my Greek New Testament with me to show a sweating, shouting evangelist an aorist verb. He stared at the Bible for a moment, looked back at me and shouted, “Your pride will be your downfall, and you will burn forever in the LAKE OF FIIIIIRE!!!!!” How do you deal with such people?

Well, I’m not going along with inerrancy and so I’m not going along with a passage that seems to give carte-blanche to anyone to oppress someone else. I’m following the reasoning of the American theologian Robert Brinsmead when he said: “We must stop using the Bible as though it were a potpourri of inerrant proof-texts by which we can bring people into bondage to our religious traditions...We must no longer use the Bible as the Pharisees used the Torah when they gave it absolute and final status. Christian biblicism is no different from Jewish legalism. It is the old way of the letter, not the new way of the Spirit.”

I find it hard to believe Jesus could have uttered these words. The text concludes with the excommunication of an impenitent offender, urging the church to treat that one as a Gentile and a tax collector. Come on! In his ministry Jesus embraced such people and much to the consternation of the Scribes and Pharisees, even ate with them. This is the same Jesus who Matthew tells us several chapters earlier had said, “Judge not that you be not judged.” Isn't that inconsistent?

Also, the placement of this passage is jarring. It separates the account of the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 in the fold and begins his search for one who was lost and the story of Peter probing the limits of forgiveness with Jesus: “Lord, how many times should we forgive? Seven?” “No, Peter; 70 x 7” or to put it another way, as many times as you have to. There is no limit on forgiveness. This passage simply doesn’t fit here.

In addition, in Matthew this passage has a footnote: it tells me that there is a corresponding passage in Luke 17.
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him.; and if he sins against you seven times and say “I repent”, you must forgive him.”
It’s not the same is it?. Only Matthew has his version. So why is that? And the answer to that might lie in why it would be wrong to assume that we are the implied audience of this passage.

Of course there is an alternative reading of this gospel segment which does fit where Matthew has it, but it isn't one I've heard espoused that often. When Matthew has Jesus saying "Let him (the impenitent sinner) be to you as a Gentile or a Tax collector." Jesus isn't suggesting excommunication but rather forgiveness on the basis that his attitude to Gentiles and Tax Collectors was one of inclusion and forgiveness and this is a pattern he is setting out for the church. That's quite revolutionary and perhaps is exactly the point of the passage but this is not how most expressions of the church down the ages, determined to be disciplinarian and punitive in their dealings with the "troublesome", seem to have interpreted it.

Matthew was most certainly talking to an audience of Jewish converts, a group of people for whom an adherence to the law was still very much part of their tradition. At this point it’s a community in transition from synagogue to church and, importantly, a community with no central authority and a community which had yet to become clear about its own understanding of sin. This is why I think the first interpretation of the passage is the most likely.

Have you ever wondered why Matthew’s is the first Gospel? Because it is recognised as the most ecclesiastical of the Gospels – the most church centred, if you like. And yet there was no church in Jesus day. Why then does Matthew have Jesus talking about church discipline? Jesus didn't foresee the Church. He prophesied the kingdom. It's not the same thing.

What is disturbing is Matthew’s implication that the understanding of acceptable moral and religious behaviour is left to the community and the community, therefore, acts with the authority of God. The problem is that, very often, our individual experiences have made us very wary of the weilding of authority in the name of God and we can look back and see what damage has been caused to individuals and groups by an application of this sort of approach to discipline.

And aren’t we selective about the exercise of discipline? I remember going to an event in another denomination where we sat down to a light lunch of prawn sandwiches after having tried - snd failed - to thrash out a protocol on issues of human sexuality without, it seems, anyone seeing any irony at all. (Leviticus appearing to have something very strong to say about both issues.) Let’s be clear- there were those in that group who would have relished the prospect of following Matthew’s advice to the letter: discipline in the church can very often be about the following of a hierarchy of what we perceive to be sinful behaviour, when to God all have sinned and fallen short. You build on that, very often, a wilful determination not to understand the context of some scriptural passages because an alternative perspective goes against the script and the whole issue of discipline becomes frought.

I’m sure most of you have read or heard the famous letter to Dr. Laura, the religious radio Agony Aunt. It’s been doing the rounds on the INTERNET for about a decade. Let me just quote you a short section:
“Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other specific laws and how to best follow them:

My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev 24:10-16 Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? Lev. 20:14.

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.”

To me, there are three questions there:
1) Who decides which Biblical strictures we can ditch and which we can’t?
2) What does it mean in that context to be a church in obedience to scripture?
3) Doesn’t that sort of extract, tongue in cheek as it is, drive a coach and horses through ideas of discipline in the church?
So, what’s he saying then? That there shouldn’t be discipline in the church?

No. What I’m saying is that for a variety of good reasons I don’t believe I am the implied audience for this passage. It speaks to Matthew’s age, his situation and his agenda, not mine. There’s nothing, of course, to stop you disagreeing with me and seeing this as a passage you can apply to your own lives. (I’ll just hang back at the end and see how many people approach Steve to set up a new rota.)

Of course we should be willing to challenge one another but this suggestion that the impenitent put themselves outside the church is preposterous. You and I wouldn’t be here today if people like Martin Luther and Richard Hooker hadn’t rocked the boat and remained impenitent: it’s often people who don’t toe the party line that have helped the church to grow, to develop and to flourish. I don’t doubt they were thorns in the sides of their church authorities and I don’t doubt that they were taken on one side for a few things to be spelt out to them on more than one occasion but they persevered and the rest is history.

So now I’m gently sliding into middle age. I’m tired of fighting over the Bible.

I have much simpler questions for people now.

Are you trying to follow Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, as a disciple, trying to understand what he said and trying to live the way he did, wherever possible? Yes?

Do you believe Jesus when in Ch 13 John records him as saying “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Yes?
Are you reading the New Testament? Yes?

Are you trying your best to understand it and it apply it to your life wherever possible? Yes?

Do you use your God given intellect as a channel for the Holy Spirit’s guidance? Yes?

Now there are plenty of inspirational Bible passages and I’m sure you might have special ones that inspire you that you could add to this list but these are mine. Do these passages inspire you?
* Micah Ch 6: “What does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God;" Yes?

* Philippians Ch 2: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Yes?

* Matthew in Ch 7: “Judge not that you be not judged.” Yes?

* One from today’s Epistle; from Romans 13: “… love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”. Yes?

* Do you subscribe to the spirit of St. Paul’s teaching “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free” etc in the sense of the equality of all people before God? Yes?

* And one little legacy from my days with the Lutherans: our salvation is unmerited and comes from God’s grace alone. Let’s not decide on God’s behalf who is outside his grace. Yes?



  1. A very good post. Just a few random responses while my dinner is nuking up:

    - Dr. Laura is actually Jewish, and a supposedly licensed psychotherapist. She is also a totally nasty bitch who screams at and abuses her callers in the most ungodly ways. Something very wrong with her psyche there, and her God - but people keep calling in, lapping it up.

    - You touch lightly on the point that the Church had not yet come into existence when Jesus supposedly said these words. Which brings up the question of whether them ol' apostles and such tinkered with the text, doesn't it? A question I avoided for a long time when the answer would have mattered a great deal. Now I'm like you, too tired of battling with Scripture to bother with it.

    - Your point that Christian biblicism and Jewish legalism are one and the same stinking mess is worth repeating. Most Bible-thumpers just don't get it, nor do they get the essential Christian programme, which you very nicely outline at the end of your post. The Pharisees, alas, like the poor are always with us.

    - It's interesting to see, isn't it, how the shrill neo-atheists are falling right into the same pharisaical trap, aren't they, in several ways. Which says a lot about human nature, and very little about "being good without [or with] God," doesn't it?

  2. Cheers, Russ,
    I've made that change. Thanks for the advice.

  3. So what do you do with people who claim that the Catholic church should have excommunicated those Nazis who were baptized Catholic? Or the Fascists in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Croatia and Hungary who were baptized Catholic?
    Or the segregationists who were baptized Protestant who condoned slavery in the USA or Apartheid in South Africa?
    Or those Orthodox bishops who cooperated with the Communists during 1918-1990?
    What can you do to be kicked out? Would you ever refuse communion to anyone, the most obvious and public sign of excommunication?

  4. So what do we do with such people? I think we continue to challenge from our understanding of the gospel. I remain unconvinced that excommunication ever changed a person's religious worldview and probably led to a form of philosophical martyring.

    As you note, history has already judged these people and I'm happy for that to continue. I'll leave the rest to God.

    I'm more concerned about those unjustly excommunicated by the church when it overreacted through feeling threatened and beleagured. What do we do with those?

  5. Jesus isn't suggesting excommunication but rather forgiveness on the basis that his attitude to Gentiles and Tax Collectors was one of inclusion and forgiveness and this is a pattern he is setting out for the church.

    Never before have I heard that interpretation of the passage, but it makes good sense to me. Jesus set the example for us of how we should relate to the outcasts.

    Well,done, Sir.

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