Tuesday Re-mix – This is a popular post from last year, updated and resubmitted for your consideration and comments.
In the entire Bible, there is no chapter or passage which comes up more often in the midst of church fights than Matthew 18, particularly the passage in v. 15 and following which talks about how to confront a brother. Unfortunately, people abuse it more than they use it, and that is because they don’t really understand it. They don’t understand it because they read it out of context. But in context, read together as one huge lesson (the way Jesus taught it), it makes perfect sense. In fact, it shows Jesus’ utterly amazing insight into the church and how it would function over the centuries to follow.
In my work with conflicted congregations, I lost count a long time ago of the number of times people did really hateful, humiliating things to each other all in the name of “confronting a brother” pursuant to Matthew 18:15-17. The truth is, people often (usually?) decide first what they want and then use scripture to help them get it. If you think about it, it is a pretty childish way to go about doing church. Then again, childish behavior in the church doesn’t surprise most church leaders any longer. It disappoints, yes, but it doesn’t surprise. Even Jesus’ own brother, James, wrote about it in his letter to the church:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.” James 4:1-2.
It is a vivid picture of childish behavior, as true today as it was in Pastor James’ church 2000 years ago. People decide what they want, then start confronting each other in order to get it, and it all happens in the name of “scriptural authority”.
People want everyone in the church to think like they think. People want there to be no behavior in the church which would embarrass us. People in leadership and with a great deal invested in the current system want to be comfortable, without anything changing around them. People want to get their way in their “country club” because they give a lot of money to it. All of these (and many other) “wants” become the real motives behind many (most?) of the Matthew 18 confrontations. But none of these are right motives.
Jesus’ discussion of Christian relationships in Matthew 18 takes up the entire chapter, not just three verses out of it. The disciples’ own childish behavior (i.e., arguing about who would be greatest in the kingdom of Heaven) presented a perfect “teachable moment” for Jesus. He took this opportunity to teach about the revolution, i.e., the movement He was about to begin which would change the world. The disciples had questions about this new “church” He talked about (by the way, the word he used, “eklesia”, had little if any religious connotations; rather, it had to do more with “community” gatherings). And so, He brought them all together to talk about it. All of the discussion we find in Matthew 18 is that single lesson which ensued.
Jesus begins the lesson by clarifying how people would gain entry into this new movement: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And so, long before we ever get to the lesson about confronting a brother, Jesus lays this groundwork: changing and becoming childlike is the first critical prerequisite to even being a part of the church. Having a childlike love (unconditional), a childlike faith (like Peter showed in Matthew 16) and childlike vulnerability to one another would all be foundational to this movement, this revolution. Without that childlikeness, we don’t even get to talk about any of the other issues in Matthew 18.
There is a difference, you see, between that kind of childlikeness and just plain childishness. Let’s learn that lesson first and foremost. Maybe it will then shed some light on the other lessons in Matthew 18 which would follow (and which will follow here in future posts).
© Blake Coffee
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