Scripture references: Matthew 18:15-20, Luke 17:3-4, and Matthew 5:21-26
- What we have here is the description of a social process that is to be applied within the community of believers. This process is commanded by Jesus, and putting it into practice conveys to the assembly a special divine authority.
- The responsibility for initiating the procedure rests upon the offended, not the offender. So the person who seems to be least at fault is the one who should take the first step.
- It's a personal initiative, not a clerical or ecclesiastical one. It's not the job of some leader to watch over all the members in this way. Rather, the mutual love between all the members should allow for open, lateral communications.
- The aim is restoration, not punishment. Things must be done in love, gentleness and humility, in hope of bringing the sinner to repentance.
- There is no distinction between "major" offences and "minor" offences. Basically, any offence is pardonable, but none is unimportant.
Under the old covenant
The church stems from the old covenant. It is a reality that had been promised to Israel and Judah for centuries. We mustn't consider it as an altogether new entity that came about in the time of Jesus as a "replacement" for Israel. Rather, it is the natural continuation of the relationship between God and Israel under the old covenant. It fulfils in their entirety all the promises that had been given to the people of Israel. As such, the whole ministry of Jesus and of his apostles must be considered against the historical background of the old covenant.
Read Deut. 17:2-13, Numbers 35:30, and John 8:17
- We see that already under the old covenant, God had commanded Israel to intervene as a community against the sin that was amoung them. As Jesus says in John 8:17, several people were necessary in order for the judgement to be considered valid.
- We see in the process described here a prefiguration of the law of Christ given in Matthew 18. Read Deut. 17: verse 4 (personal), verse 6 (two or three witnesses), verse 7 (all the people).
- In the judgement that was entrusted to Israel, the decision of the counsel was given divine approval. This prefigures the authority to bind and to loose that was later to be given to the church by virtue of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Read Deut. 17:10-12. Jesus and Paul recognize this divine authority that rests upon the spiritual leaders, whether they be right or wrong. Read Matthew 23:2-3, 26:63-64, Acts 23:4-5.
New Testament References
Nowadays, the church as a body has received this authority that had previously been given to the leaders of Israel: the power to bind and to loose, to forgive or to refuse forgiveness. Read Matthew 16:19; John 20:21-23.
It's interesting to note that the term "church" (eklesia) only appears twice in the four gospels: in Matthew 16:18 and 18:17, and in both instances, it's in the context of the authority of a group of believers to bind and to loose (that is, to execute a judgement holding divine authority).
- Galatians 6:1-4: "The Law of Christ"
This passage is an example of applying Matthieu 18:15-20, which Paul calls "the Law of Christ." There are several things to note:
- Verse 1: Paul is addressing first a group ("brethren") and then each individual personally ("thou"). The mission of restoration is given to a group ("ye which are spiritual"), but individually, each must be sure to behave in "the spirit of meekness".
- "Considering thyself" — The divine authority entrusted to the church must not give rise to pride nor severity towards the one who has sinned.
- The emphasis is put, as in Matthew 18, on restoration, not on punishment nor humiliation (note the term "restore").
- Verse 2: The law of Christ is to bear each others burdens, that is, to take on part of the responsibility for the sins of others. Indeed, as we saw in Matthew 18, within a community of Christians, the brother who was offended is the one who has the responsibility to go to his brother to make the matter right.
- Verses 3 and 4: Paul reminds that we do still bear personal responsibility ("every man shall bear his own burdens") for our own sins, and that for that reason, we must be examining our own selves even while we're working with other believers towards the restoring of a brother who has sinned.
- 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 --> 2 Corinthians 2:6-11: The case of serious sin
In the first passage, Paul deals with the subject of a fornicator who was present in the assembly of Corinth. It may be, as some commentators say, that the second passage is referring to the same man. Suffice it to make a remarks, without claiming to deal even superficially with the different questions brought up by these passages.
- Paul makes a personal judgement about the sin and the measures to be taken towards the sinner. Still, he tells the entire church to get together "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" to pronounce a judgement upon the man. So we can see that he is upholding the law of Christ both in the community process and in the authority of judgement that is to be thus pronounced.
- Even in the case of a serious sin like the one dealt with in this passage, we can see that the principle of restoration is present: "that the spirit may be saved." The aim of the exclusion is not mere punishment. It is for keeping the conscience of the assembly clean (verses 6 and 7) and also for the personal good of the sinner.
- If it truly is the same person as is referred to in 2 Corinthians 2:6-11, then we see that Paul again shows care for the sinner and enjoins forgiveness in order to avoid him being overcome by sorrow. We see in verse 10 Paul forgiving at a distance, as he judged at a distance in the first epistle, by the means of the local assembly.
- 1 Corinthians 6:1-8
Paul refers to the power and authority that has been given to the church as a group for executing judgement. It clearly seems to fit within the context of the command of Jesus in Matthew 18.
"Know ye not that we shall judge angels?" The authority for judgement that the church practices on earth today will apparently be confirmed and continued at an unimaginable level in the after-life.
- James 5:19-20
This passage, as the few verses before it, deals with the resolving of conflicts within the church.
"Shall hide a multitude of sins" seems to be referring to God forgiving our sins. In other words: if someone forgives his brother (and therefore saves a soul from death by bringing him back to repentance), his own sins will be forgiven by God.
Binding and Loosing
- The famous definition of the church ("where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them") is placed squarely in the centre of this discussion. This sentence is generally taken out of its context to show that all you need is two or three people to start your own new denomination — which is a pity. Taken in its context, we can see that this "Law of Christ" is much more than just good advice for social cooperation: it's a pillar of the church that involves the very presence of Jesus within a group for discerning and judging among the believers.
- When the assembly has taken a stand on the question, their decision bear a divine authority. It's important to note that the power to forgive sins (binding and loosing) is not entrusted to one single individual. We must understand that in Matthew 16:19, Jesus is addressing Peter as representative of the church, and it is the church which is collectively to receive this power.
The subject of forgiveness would warrant a study of its own, but let's merely point out a few aspects that are relevant to our present study.
- The term "forgiveness" does not appear in this passage, but is clearly understood. Really, it's the basis of everything. If your brother has offended you, you can't go to him to restore fellowship between you until you have forgiven his offence in your heart. As proof, in verse 21, Peter asks how many times a day he is to forgive his brother. This shows that he had understood that applying what Jesus had just said would involve first forgiving his brother.
- The parable that follows the passage shows the importance that is put on mutual forgiveness between brothers. The last verse is even surprising : "So likewise shall my heavenly father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses."
- So the forgiveness of our sins is conditioned on our forgiving of offences that we incur from others. Jesus makes that clear in Matthew 6:14-15 (and Mark 11:26) when he comments a sentence of his prayer concerning the forgiveness of sins (it's the only passage he comments actually).
- Living in this relational model is therefore set forth as a vital necessity, in as much as it enables us to live out brotherly forgiveness in a practical and daily way. Moreover, this forgiveness is not merely theoretical not intellectual. We must immediately prove its authenticity by going to our brother to restore him in love.
- Read also: Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13.
The Social Aspect
- This simple process shows the transcendental wisdom of the Creator. By putting his commands into practice, men find psychological, emotional and social peace and stability. To be human is to be in conflict: to offend and to be offended. By thus teaching us how to handle these conflicts, Jesus brings us healing and growth within the community. Forgiveness builds brotherhood and heals guilt.
- This method gives more authority to the church than Catholicism, it gives more individual freedom than all the liberal movements, it puts more trust in the Holy Spirit than the charismatics, and it gives more flexibility and openness to new situations than any other institution.
- Implementing this procedure is only possible within communities where membership is voluntary. It can only work if both parties have a common moral ground (the Bible) which they can refer to. Thus, tradition-based groups, since they often include people without a strong personal commitment, won't very well be able to have this kind of relationship between members.
Learning to interact with other members of the church teaches us something about the nature of God and his relations with humanity. After all, the first offence was perpetuated by man against his Creator. It was then that, in his love, God took the first step by coming to man to restore him and save him. Thus, at our human level, God puts us in situations where we can extend our forgiveness and our love to others, to those who have offended us, in much the same way that He did towards us. God didn't wait for man to come to Him: He sent his Son first; He took the initiative of redemption. Read 2 Corinthians 5:19, 1 John 4:9-11, Galatians 4:3-5.
As humans, we have to learn to face relational conflicts. Accepting this reality and handling conflicts with faith allows us to open a dialogue of redemption another. The moment we initiate this process, we know that God intervenes personally by our side. The result is that we obtain far more than just a solution to the problem at hand — we take a path that reveals truth and builds brotherhood and love within the community.
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