Church meetings often give me an uneasy feeling. It’s one of the times when it seems to be harder than usual to answer the question: ‘What would Jesus do?’
Would he approve of our budget? And what about our health and safety policy? (I’m sure it doesn’t allow walking on water without a prior risk-assessment!) Would Jesus approve of how we admit or eject people to or from membership? In order to keep a high standard of purity, would he emphasise excluding people from membership? Or would he welcome anyone who wanted to be a member, whatever stage of sanctification they have reached?
Matthew’s Gospel deals much more with issues of church discipline than others. Perhaps his community had some severe problems caused by difficult members or difficult leaders. The first instance is when he records Jesus telling Peter and other leaders that decisions they make on earth will be ratified in heaven (Matthew 16:19; 18:18). To balance that, he warns leaders not to get above themselves with high-sounding titles (Matthew 23:8-12).
The teaching of Jesus that church constitutions take really seriously is the process for excluding someone from the church. Matthew 18:15-17 presents a three-stage procedure for a church leader to deal with a believer’s sin:
- 1 Point out the fault to them, keeping it just between the two of you.
- 2 Repeat this with one or two witnesses.
- 3 Tell it to the whole church and exclude them like a pagan or a tax collector.
HOLINESS AND PURITY
When Matthew’s readers heard this, it reminded them of policies they already knew about: it was the same three-stage procedure that was followed by the strict community of Jews living at Qumran in Jesus’ day. In the sect’s Manual of Discipline found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, it says that if any of them saw a fellow member commit a sin, they should: ‘reproach him [on his own] that same day…But no one should raise a matter before the Congregation unless they have [already] reproved him before witnesses’ (6.1).
The Qumran community emphasised holiness and purity and followed strict rules. Their most common punishment was exclusion from the main meal, which included a ‘holy’ portion, perhaps similar to our Eucharist. This had serious consequences because Qumran was in the desert, and members only had the food they were given. You could be punished like this for a month if you fell asleep in a meeting or laughed inappropriately. And if you gossiped about a member, you could be thrown out for ever. If these rules were applied in church, I imagine Communion services would be almost empty!
CHRISTIANS AND QUMRAN
Matthew’s Gospel shows that Jesus was generally critical of the distinctive beliefs of the Qumran community. They believed you should ‘hate your enemies’ (a good summary of what it says in Manual of Discipline 1:10), which Jesus rejected (Matthew 5:43- 44). They also took the Sabbath so seriously that they wouldn’t rescue an animal that fell into a pit, even if it was likely to die (Damascus Document 11:13-14). Jesus said that of course the animal should be rescued (Matthew 12:11).
So why did Jesus commend the Qumran community’s rules for church discipline? The three-stage procedure is exactly the same. The similarity suggests either that Christians copied Qumran rules (which, as we’ve seen, is unlikely), or that it was a process that was in operation generally by other groups within Judaism.
To discover what was distinctive about Jesus’ teaching on church discipline, we have to ask what his hearers would have regarded as new – in other words, what was it that they didn’t already know and accept? We can do this by subtracting from Jesus’ words the bits which are also found at Qumran. This reveals a clear message (in italics) about rehabilitating the sinner:
Matthew 18:15-17: ‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector’ (my italics).
HELPING THE SINNER
According to Jesus, the whole point of the process at every stage is to help the sinner to listen – both to the church members and to God – and then change their ways. The best scenario is if they listen to you the first time, but if they do not, then you must take others with you to help convince them. And if that fails, then the whole church should join in helping to persuade them away from a destructive lifestyle. Only if all this persuasion fails, should you exclude them for a while to help them repent. We know of one case in Corinth where a man had to be excluded for sleeping with his mother (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). It appears that this led to his repentance because Paul later told the Corinthian Church to re-admit him (2 Corinthians 2:5-7).
Apart from the spiritual implications, being excluded from the early Church could have serious social consequences. In Roman society, people banded together in associations (or fellowship groups) and swore to help each other when needed. Members strengthened their personal bonds by dining together, but these meals took place in pagan temples. This meant that Christians had to leave these groups and form their own fellowship groups. Being thrown out of church was therefore a big issue because of the loss of the social benefits provided by the church when illness or bereavement struck.
This kind of discipline fails utterly today because we can shrug off the criticism of one church and go to another. Churches often don’t communicate with each other, so a predatory person can simply move to another pasture to find new victims. Confronting sin is as important today as it ever was, and we have seen some terrible consequences of not dealing with it.
Matthew placed this teaching immediately after the parable of the lost sheep, which ends with ‘your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish’ (v14, my italics). I’d love to have a rule that everyone voting in a church meeting should first personally plead with the person they are about to exclude. I think that’s what Jesus would do.