Saturday, 6 September 2008
Discipline and Forgiveness (The Structure of Matthew 18)
Where two or three are gathered..." This is the verse we usually focus on in Matt 18; the presence of Jesus is not dependent on huge 'success'. True enough, and it gives a bit of a warm fuzzy, especially to dwindling congregations or persecuted churches. But let's not miss what else is also going on in this text. But to do this we need to look at all of Matt 18, which can be divided up into four basic parts. The first section talks of the need for humility(18:1-5) . Given the next section's focus on the need for leaders to care for those they lead, and the question about greatness at 18:1, it is probable that this section is a warning to the leaders of the church, offering a practical solution to the ever-present problem of arrogant leadership.
Section 2 is 18:8-14 warns these leaders about the judgment to follow if they disdain even the least of the Christian community. None should be lost. But alas, while this sounds like a recipe for harmonious communal relations, such is not the case. Section 3 (18:15-20) provides the church with a simple procedure by which recalcitrant members of the church can, to be anachronistic, be excommunicated. ("Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector"; although see 9:9-13). Try to work it out the text says, but if , then take witnesses to see if they can talk some sense into the person, and if the person persists, let them be judged in front of the entire church. God will uphold the decision (18:18 "... will be bound in heaven", a theological passive, that is, God will do it) of the disciples, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (18:20)
But we can't stop there. Section 4 is that beautiful teaching of Jesus on forgiveness that is a direct response to the arrogant mega-vengeance of Lamech in Gen 4:15 & 22. (See Matt 18:21-22) , followed by the parable of the unforgiving servant. The teaching of Jesus is a response to the universal predicament of humankind, offering an abundance of forgiveness as an antidote to the hubris of disproportionate vengeance. (And this forgiveness that we practice toward others mimics God's forgiveness of us, Matt 18:23-35.)
A couple of things to notice about the structure of the chapter. First, the sections on potential relationship breakdown occupy half the chapter, while the need for forgiveness occupies the remaining half chapter. There is a suggestion here, I think, of the importance of forgiveness no matter what else is said about particular instances of church discipline.
Second, while forgiveness seems to be the primary and overriding imperative here, church discipline cannot be excluded. Arrogant leadership brings judgment (threatened eternal judgment, see 18:3, 8-9), and improper behaviour linked to an arrogant unwillingness to be corrected results in 'ex-communication' (with earthly consequences and heavenly implications, see 18:18-20)
By holding all these threads together without a simple resolution the passage reflects the complexity of real life. It just isn't enough, in the face of serious ecclesial failure, to speak only of forgiveness. Similarly, however, heavy-handed punishment is overriden by the dominical imperative to forgive.