Sunday, August 21, 2011

Matthew 18 does not apply to criticizing public articles

This should not need to be said, but I've become aware (most recently through some reactions to a post at W4) that some in the evangelical community are developing the oddest notions about public writings and public refutations. Apparently Jesus' injunctions about how to handle it if "your brother trespasses against you" in Matthew 18 are being applied to criticism of the public writings of people who claim to be Christians or even who simply may be Christians based on some affiliation of theirs. (I even saw it lately applied to a group of homosexual activists who, as far as I know, make no claim to be Christians at all!)

Now, this is a wild misapplication of the verses. Obviously, if someone unknown to me has written something in public, this isn't a matter "between me and him alone." The whole point of Jesus' instruction is that if something is, initially, a private dispute between two Christians, it should be escalated to a public matter involving the opinion of the whole church only by degrees and only if it cannot be resolved at a lower level. But this has no point to it at all if we are talking about the public writings of one Christian (much less a merely possible Christian or putative Christian, still less a non-Christian). There is no dispute between two individuals. The matter is public ab initio. There is no specific person who has been "trespassed against" who might try to "gain his brother" by getting a private apology and resolution. The entire set of instructions is obviously inapplicable.

I have been told that this misuse of Matthew 18 has even been applied to authors like Rob Bell who write arguably heretical books. When pastors and theologians try to criticize them, they are in turn criticized if they did not first go to Bell privately concerning his published books! This, even if they have no independent private acquaintance with Bell. What absurdity.

Moreover, of course, if the principle applies, it should also apply to public criticism of public critics, which would mean that no Christian could be publically criticized for anything at all before "the steps of Matthew 18" were followed. So the critics of public critics, if they have not first "followed the steps of Matthew 18," are subject to their own criticism of acting unbiblically. This is a reductio of the entire application of the passage, though I suppose it's asking too much for those who misuse it in this way to see that.

So, what does this come to? Well, to quote an old Internet friend of mine, the inimitable Zippy: No, we won't shut up.


Robert Kunda said...


Next you're going to tell me that Matt. 18:20 doesn't mean that God shows up when we gather for church.

And Jer. 29:11 isn't written to me.


Reformation said...

Ya oughta kinda review the SGM-Mahaney chaos at for a perspective on ths applied question.

Lydia McGrew said...

It's not something I've followed a lot. Whoever is in the right, it seems to me that it isn't about criticizing written articles but rather about criticizing alleged abuses within the churches. Doubtless also a legitimate thing to do under the right circumstances, but not what I'm addressing here.