Not our job

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:15-20)

My Mennonite community, and other Anabaptist traditions, historically practised ‘the ban’, shunning any member who offended and refused to listen to correction. As in other denominations with an emphasis on church discipline (the Exclusive Brethren, for instance), a shunned member would be barred from communion, possibly from worship, and might not even be allowed to eat with their own family. The ban has not always been practised well or for good reasons — it can be judgmental, can arise out of an abuse of power, and I doubt it regularly leads to the shunned member returning to the fold. However in historic perspective, it was at least a non-violent alternative to the established churches’ ‘discipline’ of burning or beheading errant believers! (I gather Protestants generally beheaded, while Catholics burned).

This passage is often regarded by scholars as an insertion into Matthew’s Gospel by the later church which was seeking to preserve order in its ranks. Whether or not it is an authentic teaching of Jesus, my feeling is that it has been highly misinterpreted, by a failure to relate it to Jesus’ actual practice. The passage itself says nothing about banning or shunning: instead it instructs the church to regard an unrepentant sinner ‘as a Gentile and a tax collector’. How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors (the latter being essentially collaborators with the occupying Roman state)? Well he certainly didn’t shun them. In fact he ate with them, witnessed to them, healed them and generally sought to recruit them to his Kingdom. In other words, I see this passage as essentially saying ‘If one of your number is not behaving in a Christian way, then they are clearly not really a Christian, and your task is to evangelize them, not to avoid them.

However this is not the main focus I want to emphasise here. Rather, I want to point out a way in which this teaching has been not only misinterpreted, but actually misread. We all read the Bible selectively, noticing what we want to notice or what we have been schooled to notice — for instance, in Ephesians 5:21ff, men have generally been very happy to read the part addressed to their wives (and it is very impolite to read a letter addressed to someone else!) and not so keen to read the section addressed to them, even though the latter is eight verses compared to the mere three addressed to wives.

And in today’s passage, it seems these instructions have mostly been read missing out two vital words at the beginning: ‘If another member of the church sins against you‘ (my italics). We do not have licence to go round pointing out the sins, or what we perceive to be the sins, of our fellow Christians. Indeed, we are instructed quite clearly, earlier in the same Gospel ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’ (Matthew 7:1). Rather, this procedure outlined in Matthew 18 is specifically designed for dealing with someone you feel to have sinned against you. Not against God, not against the congregation or its rules, but against you yourself. How have we extended it into a right to point out the failings of all and sundry, never mind their impact on ourselves? It is not our job as Christians to police the lives of others, even if they are our fellow Christians.

What is Jesus’ primary teaching on dealing with someone who has sinned against you? Well we don’t have to look far for it. It is reiterated in the very next few verses, from 21-34, first in Jesus’ command to Peter to forgive 77 times, and then in the parable of the unforgiving servant (or slave). So Matthew 18 cannot be a process for exacting justice; rather, it is guidance for winning back to the Christian community someone who has alienated themselves from it by harming a member of it — a member who should, before this process even begins, already have forgiven them. Forgiveness is, after all, not a way of disregarding the offence, but a way of managing to continue one’s relationship with the offender — and it some cases, perhaps all, this will necessitate helping the offender understand the impact of their offence.

Forget shunning, then, and forget thinking you are the moral thought police; rather, this is a teaching about restoring the relationship between a sinner and God, and between yourself and the sinner. And that designation of ‘sinner’ will probably apply to all of us at times, however faithful we consider ourselves to be.

About veronicazundel

I'm a professional writer, amateur mother, and churchless Mennonite (ie I don't have a Mennonite church to belong to any more, so am currently attending an Anglo-Catholic church with an evangelical vicar!). I live in north London with my husband, adult son and a fat fluffy cat. I'm a second generation refugee kid, and eat Marmite on matzo crackers every morning.
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