Saturday, January 21, 2006

Witness this!

Matthew 18:15 "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. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 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.

Much is made, in Christian circles, of the process a correcting brother must go through in an effort to bring repentance to a sinner. Not enough attention is given to the corrected brother and his process. Ideally, the corrected will listen at the first meeting with just one testimony - the charge of the corrector (and perhaps the second testimony of his own conscience). If the corrected brother does not listen, the corrector should move to Step Two and gain witnesses. An especially tragic tactic in this effort is when the corrected insists that his reason for not listening (sometimes not even granting a hearing) at Step One was the absence of the witnesses. He claims the witnesses must be produced to gain standing in the original contention. In actuality they ought to be present to make assessment of the conversation occurring between the corrector and the corrected. They are not witnesses of the originating sin, but of the corrected brother’s refusal to listen. The public appraisal is more about the case each brother makes and the reaction to correction (“every word”) than the originating sin itself. They become potential witnesses to a new sin - the unwillingness to hear and consider. The corrected person should indeed listen when their sins are discussed before these others, and the others can witness their repentance or refusal. To heap tragedy on tragedy the corrected person, (not allowing that the public display of his inaccessible ear is precisely what he demanded in refusing to listen at Step One), then refuses to listen at Step Two because it has not been settled by church courts. It is not that the Matthew process is “holy” and must be followed that necessarily carries the contention to this endpoint, but it is the corrected’s refusal to listen. It is assumed in the text of Matthew that it is a shame that the brother who sinned did not listen at the earlier encounters. In “gaining your brother” both sides need to fulfill an obligation. The corrector corrects, and the corrected ought to listen.
When the corrected brother is an elder, the church is merely reminded of the Matthew standard in I Timothy 5.
19 Never admit any charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
It does not say that the elder may not be approached privately or with the witnessing brothers or, if he is, he does not have to listen. He certainly can, may, and ought to listen to the charges, because he is not the Church waiting for Step Three, but rather a Christian experiencing Step One or Two. It merely says in Timothy that the church at large should not take action until the conversation reaches Step Three, adding an extra sanction to a final Step Four, which is public rebuke along with the elder’s excommunication (“persist in sin” is suggestive of an unrepentance regarding the originating charge and the persistant refusal to listen. That is, if Timothy dovetails with Matthew 18 regarding what the “two or three” witnessed). But here is the rub. When the evasive person is a pastor or elder and is constantly pushing for future Steps in order to defer his responsibility to listen, he knows that the issue is eventually going to enter his “own” courtroom. Essentially, he says, “It is not Biblical justice until I have control of the judges and jury.”
Where does all this leave the corrector? He knows that at Step Three, church leadership becomes notoriously deaf when it involves popular and powerful elders (especially those who have practiced not listening through Steps One and Two). The corrector ought to be driven by the desire to restore the brother, and must plead in Step One for a hearing and a listening, now, without witnesses, just two brothers and a conscience. He also has Step Two at his disposal, that of pleading for a hearing in front of those who can witness the exchange, so that more could testify to the points and counterpoints, listening or the refusal to listen. If that body of witnesses gets large enough, the corrected elder may not be able to smile knowingly at the protections he believed he had on Step Three.
This examination of the potential misuse of the Matthew 18 and I Timothy 5 passages is all made under the presumption that the corrected brother is truly in the wrong. He might not be. Does he show his righteousness by demanding the action go to higher steps, or does he know that his role in this moment is that of the corrected Christian, and right or wrong, he should listen? He knows (or ought to know) that he has faults, and without listening he will never find out if this is one of them. The corrected person, in order to be godly, must follow the Biblical process just as the corrector ought, and eagerly seek to hear and listen. If at Step One the misinformed corrector does not gain the desired repentance (because his brother was in the right), we should find the innocent man patiently awaiting Step Two that his listening and responses will display, for all who choose to witness, the grace of his readiness to hear and listen and consider. The righteous would do no other.

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