taking the words of Jesus seriously

Jesus offers a model for reconciliation in Matthew 18.15-17.  Often, these three verses are used for the opposite of this: alienation.  These words operate as a law in some settings, when in fact they are meant to give guidance toward restoring relationship.

Over the past few days, Matthew Paul Turner hosted a series of blogs (#1 & #2) about a guy named Andrew.  It was found out that he engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior and he was placed on church discipline.  After reading part 1 of the series, although I thought the rigidity of creating a church discipline contract was over-the-top, I didn’t know that the actions of the Mars Hill elders were worth fussing about.  After all, when a leader in the church acts in a way that is inappropriate, the way to restore them back to good standing is to raise the bar – so to speak.  We ought to invite people to repent and put their lives back on a good track – good for the people involved and good for the community of faith.

But, after hearing the second part of the story, I knew it was time for me to engage in the conversation.  This is what happened when it was all said and done:

Andrew’s friend informed him that a letter addressed to Mars Hills members had been posted on The City, which is described on Mars Hills’ website as “Mars Hill Church’s online network. Rather than encouraging virtual community, the purpose of The City is to enhance actual relationships within the church…” Andrew described The City to be like “Facebook for Mars Hill members.”  Mars Hill had blocked Andrew’s access to The City. Andrew’s friend copy and pasted the letter (in its entirety) and emailed it to Andrew.

Here is the thrust of that quite public letter:

Andrew [because he chose to leave the church after receiving the contract] did not leave the church as a member in good standing, but instead left the church as a member under discipline.  This means the discipline and consequences of his sin will continue to follow Andrew.  Our model for this is Matthew 18:15-18.  Andrew was confronted in his sin, called to repent and as an act of repentance, submit to his church leaders.  At this point in time, Andrew has, in general, admitted to sexual sin and deceit.  However, he is refusing to take the steps necessary to demonstrate genuine godly sorrow and repentance.  His is also  refusing to own full responsibility for his sin and the ensuing repercussions….  Because of this, Andrew’s actions have put you, his friends and community, in a position to need guidance on what steps to take in your interactions with Andrew.  When a member under discipline refuses to follow the guidance of the church, Matt. 18:17 states:
“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.”
….In leaving the church under discipline, he has removed himself from the protection, covering, and fellowship of the church.  Andrew needs to understand the church (including you) is unified in God’s discipline process, as led by the church elders.  During this difficult time, please elevate Jesus and the Cross, not Andrew and your relationship with him.

There is nothing restorative about this distorted process.  Many called this scenario a form of “spiritual abuse, ” and I agree.  An obvious reason is this letter.  Calling people to essentially end their relationship with Andrew is flat out controlling.  The leadership of this church bases their retributive action on Matthew 18, but I think they are misreading and failing to properly apply Jesus’ words.

First, we need to ask an obvious question – What gives Mars Hill leadership the ethical right to publicize a member’s sins to thousands of people? The text says that a time comes when we must “report them to the church, ” but this begs the question, what is the church? In other words, the New Testament never envisioned church as they are manifested in the mega-church model.  The closest equivalent during the biblical period would be a small group.  There’s a big difference between 15 and 5, 000 people.

Second – What about the author of this Gospel, Matthew? He was a tax collector!  Perhaps his book has more to say about how to “treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector”?   We do well to note Tim Geddert’s observation: “Everything in Jewish religious culture of the day said: If you are a tax collector, you are not one of us.”[1] Here is an overview:

  • In Matthew 9.9-13 Jesus calls Matthew and then parties with him.  This prompts the pharasees to ask: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  Jesus answers: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do… I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.”  In this short passage, we find that Jesus accepts and fellowships with “sinners” (even tax collectors).  This would have transformed Matthew’s whole world!  From being excluded to being embraced.
  • In Matthew 10, after having shared his conversion story in the previous chapter, Matthew writes a list of all the disciples.  It reads this way: “…first, Simon, who is called Peter; and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee; and John his brother; 3 Philip; and Bartholomew; Thomas; and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean; and Judas, who betrayed Jesus.”  Notice that Matthew only lists his profession in this list, as if to say: Look, Jesus treats tax collectors this way!
  • In Matthew 11, Jesus is accused of being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” and Jesus quotes them in affirmation.  You can almost hear Matthew say under his breath “You bet, he sure is!”

Then we arrive at chapter 18 and must ask: How is it that Jesus treats tax collectors and sinners? The answer to this question can lead down several roads: legalism, compromise, or a third option.  Legalism was the approach of old order Anabaptists who would shun a sinner via the “ban.”  This seems quite close to the Mars Hill approach as wellCompromise does nothing to address the sin, leaving the person on a dangerous path.

Then there is a third option, which Tim reflects upon:

Whatever led anyone to conclude that when Matthew, who knows how Jesus treats tax collectors, would write, “Treat him like a Gentile and a Tax Collector, ” he means, “Get him out of here!  Have nothing to do with him!”?  I think it means exactly the opposite.  I think it means, “Love him! Accept him! Invite him! Eat with him! And keep on challenging him to be transformed into a faithful disciple of Jesus!”  And how could “Treat him like a Gentile” mean “Get rid of him!” Reject him!” Shun him!” in a Gospel that ends with Jesus’ commission to invite into the fellowship of Jesus Gentiles from every nation on earth?  When Matthew writes, “Treat him like a tax collector, ” he surely means, “Treat him the way Jesus treated me.  He loved me, accepted me, invited me!”  When Matthew writes, “Treat him like a Gentile, ” he surely means, “Go to the ends of the earth to win him back into a life of discipleship.” (49)

Tim goes on to say:

God expects us to live according to our mutually discerned convictions.  And when someone later says: “Yes, I know that we agreed together, but I am not going to listen to the church!” then the church, filled with sorrow, says: “Then you are for us as a Gentile and a tax collector – We love you… but we recognize that you are opting out of this discerning fellowship.  You are not acting like an insider to be reconciled, but like an outsider to be drawn back.  Won’t you come? Please?… When you do, you will be brought back into the fellowship once more.” (53)

This is what it means to treat a member as an outsider or a tax collector.  We love them like we love outsiders, not through shuns or judgment, but through the love that Jesus demonstrated at Matthew’s party.  This is the key to reconciliation.  This sort of good treatment, when we make our convictions about behavior clear, has the potential to lead to genuine repentance and to a reconciled community.  Public humiliation and shunning are spiritual abuse.

I don’t intend to pick a fight with Mars Hill.  Rather, my prayer is that they will reconsider their approach to church discipline.  I also pray for Andrew.  I pray that he will find a community of Christ-followers that practice the words of Matthew 18 with love.  I pray that he will find healing from his poor choices and will not fall back into a pattern of poor behavior.  And I pray for the countless others abused by a fundamentalist approach to Matthew 18.  May you know what it is to truly be treated like a “tax collector” – to be loved and wooed back into the fellowship of a grace-filled church.


[1] Timothy J. Geddert, Double Take: New Meanings from Old Stories, 46.  The following biblical insights are to be attributed to this book as well.

Kurt Willems is an Anabaptist writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting next year by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.  He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook

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