My head jerked up when I heard the chapel speaker told the “ladies” in the auditorium that they need to “mow your lawn.” I was even more shocked when this dean at the Southern Baptist college where I taught extended the metaphor by saying that women who had multiple sexual partners were like “crack houses,” where people also enter and leave often.
I teach Old Testament, and I’d spent much time in my classes over the past four years discussing the image of God and its implications for how we view other human beings. I was certain when I went through the channels outlined in the faculty handbook that my objection to the objectification and degradation of women would be handled quickly and seamlessly. Of course my school doesn’t think sexually active women are crack houses. Of course my school doesn’t think it’s okay to tell women to “mow your lawn.” Of course they’ll release a statement affirming that all humans are made in God’s image and, therefore, all humans have inherent value distinct from their sexual activity or pubic hair.
The president responded — predictably, in hindsight — with an email to all students, faculty, and staff “encouraging” us to follow Matthew 18 instead of the school’s stated policy for issuing complaints. When someone is “perceived to have committed an offense, we must . . . seek more ‘official’ redress only after the biblical method has failed.”
Here’s the passage:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established 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. (Matthew 18:15–17)
Jesus is talking to his disciples about the proper way to handle conflict among themselves, that is, within a church setting. But applying this passage isn’t as straightforward as “what happens in the church stays in the church.”
Unknown or Unintentional Sin
Why does Jesus tell the sinned against person to confront the sinner, to “tell him his fault?” Because the sinner doesn’t know he sinned. Perhaps it was an offhand remark intended in jest or perhaps the sinner did something he legitimately thought was okay. But Jesus is not talking about something that is clearly and self-evidently wrong, such as rape.
The “sin” Jesus mentions here is personal — something a person has done against another person. Thus, correcting a fellow Christian should happen in private when that person has sinned in private. Often people will publicly make outrageous comments, like calling women crack houses, then cry, “Matthew 18!” when someone confronts them publicly. Take the example of Peter refusing to eat with non-Jews — a racial distinction that Jesus abolished. In Galatians 2:11 Paul states, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” Peter sinned publicly, so Paul opposed him publicly. He even enshrined it in scripture for all to see!
Presumption of Guilt
Key in this passage is that Jesus assumes that the person sinned against is telling the truth. This runs against the grain of how Christians typically handle abuse allegations, where the abuser is presumed innocent. It’s fine to maintain innocence until guilt is proven; it’s a bedrock of the United States’ criminal defense system. But one cannot both clamor for Matthew 18 and presume innocence.
In addition, the sin is not criminal activity, for the offender would already know that is wrong. It is more akin to the type of offense that happens when someone makes a hurtful comment about another person. However, even if a fellow Christian has committed a crime, there remains a distinction between church discipline and civil discipline. A person can receive forgiveness for a sin and still face consequences for that sin. For example, if someone steals my car, I can confront him, he can repent and return the car, and I can forgive him. But he can still also be arrested and face consequences for stealing the car. The two are not mutually exclusive. The New Testament makes clear in other places that the government was established to punish wrongdoers (1 Peter 2:14), and there is no indication that punishing criminal activity — issuing justice, that is — is in the church’s purview.
This process of church discipline ends in excommunication if the person refuses to repent. That is, after being confronted by one person, then a few people, the person who wrongly maintains innocence in the matter is to be banned from the church. If the situation in question does not meet each of these qualifications, then Matthew 18 does not apply.
Wes Feltner, who was recently accused of sexually abusing two women under his pastoral care, cited Matthew 18 in his defense, stating: “The Bible directs God’s people to take their grievances first to the person accused and, if that person won’t listen, to try again and bring a witness; and if the person still won’t listen, then to take it to the church (Matthew 18:15-17). The group circulating these allegations did not bring them to me, rather, they took them directly to the church and, not being satisfied with the church’s response, they have taken them to the general public.”
This response is typical of pastors accused of sexual abuse. Let’s think through Feltner’s use of Matthew 18 in light of the requirements for applying it in particular circumstances.
Is it possible that sexual abuse was unintentional? No.
Was the sin private? Yes.
Was there a presumption of guilt of the sinner? No.
Was the sin criminal? Yes.
Did the church follow through to excommunication? No.
Matthew 18 does not apply in every single case of sexual abuse I’ve ever heard of. While sexual abuse is typically a private, personal sin committed by one person against another, it is also an intentional, criminal act. Further, innocence and not guilt is the typical presumption, and churches rarely carry the process through to excommunication. Instead, the abuse survivor is typically not believed, told to remain silent, and/or gaslighted. Rather than confront the accused, folks tend to defend the accused: “Pastor Doe couldn’t have done that!”
Since resigning from the Baptist college where I heard women compared to crack houses, I’ve waded into the world of advocacy for sexual abuse survivors. And I’ve found, to my shame and chagrin, that the school’s misuse of Matthew 18 is far from unusual.
Matthew 18:15-17 contains the words of Christ to his church, instructing us on how to deal with internal conflict with a brother or sister who sins against us and doesn’t know it. It’s appropriate to follow that model in that situation, but it’s inadequate — and becomes itself a tool for abuse — when it is used to bully abuse survivors into silence.