George Booker
Biblical Fellowship

9. The Scriptural Procedure (Matthew 18)

The key passage here with regard to fellowship (or more precisely, disfellowship) is verses 15-17:

“Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the ecclesia; but if he neglect to hear the ecclesia, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”

It is evident from a full consideration of the context, that the sin here is primarily a matter of personal offence, not of doctrinal divergence. (Compare v. 21: “....sin against me....” and v. 35: “if ye forgive not every one his brother....”) However, these verses are often considered to be the primary guideline to the pursuing and expunging of doctrinal errors from the ecclesia; so let us carefully consider the passage from that viewpoint.

“If thy brother trespass against thee”, then you — being by Bible standard and precept “your brother’s keeper” (Gen. 4:9) — are bound to warn the offender with the express purpose of turning him from his sin (Ezek. 3:17-21). Your love, actively manifested in an unpleasant task, may “cover a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).

In such cases the offender should not be evilly thought of, or spoken of. His status and feelings will be as fully considered and respected as one’s own. Neither will he be confronted from motives and feelings personal to the visitor, but solely and purely for his own good who has transgressed.

With the object of gaining, not of sacrificing his brother, the careful brother should in the spirit of meekness strive to restore the faulty; and he should consider his own imperfections and weaknesses and consequent liability to fall into temptation (Gal. 6:1). Every step that might lead to New Testament disfellowship (or withdrawal) was always intended to facilitate the repentance and reclamation of the offender. The Son of Man himself came into the world with the purpose of saving that which was lost (Matt. 18:11) — and well might we be thankful that he did that very thing!

Note the special precise sequence to be followed:

(1) Tell him his fault between you and him alone. How many falter at the very first step who desire to be “peacemakers”, but instead become “peace-keepers”, i.e. “law enforcement officials” in the ecclesias!

(2) Then — only if he fails to hear you — go with one or two others. And should not the one or two others be those who by experience and temperament are best able to rectify the division, not simply best able to support your contention and most likely to take your side no matter what?

The two or three witnesses confirm every word. This is a necessary counterbalance to the frequent malicious tendency of the flesh to believe without verification every evil word spoken against another brother.

(3) Finally, all else failing, you should go to the ecclesia. Whose ecclesia? Yours or his? His, of course, because it is the one with primary jurisdiction in the case. Implicit in the Master’s advice is no doubt the final step: After you tell the ecclesia, you bow out; the ecclesia now being properly informed has sole authority to pursue the matter. (In our modern-day inter-ecclesial tangle, with its rapid communications and sometimes volatile differences, this point and the next become very important.)

(4) One command that is not given, but so often “read into” Matthew 18: “Then tell it to all the ecclesias!” This would serve the dubious purpose of taking the “sins” (real or imagined) of your brother, whom you ostensibly sought to help, and broadcasting them to the ends of the world. This is wrong, it is malicious, and it is also a violation of the spirit of the commandment here and of the Scriptural basis of all inter-ecclesial relationships (as in Rev. 2 and 3).

We should notice, in any survey of Matthew 18, the related passage in the Ecclesial Guide, entitled “Cases of Sin and Withdrawal” (1949 Edition, p. 24). From there we quote:

“There should be a stringent refusal to hear an evil report concerning anyone until the reporter has taken the Scriptural course....”

And in another place Brother Roberts comments on the procedure:

“Nothing tends more to the keeping or the restoring of peace than the observance of this law; and no law is more constantly broken. The universal impulse, when anything is supposed to be wrong, is to tell the matter to third persons. From them it spreads, with the results of causing much bad feeling which, perhaps, the original cause does not warrant and would not have produced if the aggrieved person had taken the course prescribed by Christ, and told the fault ‘between thee and him alone.’ If good men, or those who consider themselves such, would adopt the rule of refusing to listen to an evil report privately conveyed, until it had been dealt with to the last stage according to the rule prescribed by Christ, much evil would be prevented” (“Between Thee and Him Alone”, The Berean Christadelphian, Vol. 59, No. 4 — April 1971 — p. 119).

We note how the full and complete context speaks so eloquently, not of judgment, nor of condemnation or disfellowship, but rather of reconciliation, reunion, mercy, and forgiveness:

(1) Verse 14: “It is not my Father’s will that any of these little ones [cp. the children of vv. 1-6] should perish.” Surely these fellowship matters are dynamite, and when wrongly handled they explode and the weak ones and the young ones “for whom Christ died” are most in danger of injury or “death”. How many young ones, it may be asked, ever perished spiritually because of that “dangerous” but little-understood “false doctrine” or improper action halfway round the globe? But how many truly became disillusioned and ultimately drifted away from the Brotherhood because of the grievous spectacle — on their own doorsteps — of envious, small-minded brethren, and their internal bickering and accusatory letters?

(2) How many times should I forgive? “Until seventy times seven” (v. 22). Almost without end! And Jesus adds the parable of the debtors, with the comment that the Father in heaven will by no means forgive the unforgiving (vv. 23-35). Notice the extreme contrasts in this parable. How heavily must the balance be weighted on the side of mercy in our cases!

It may also be noted that in Matthew 18 there is no provision for a disgruntled, dissatisfied individual or minority to withdraw from the ecclesia because of a difference in judging a case. The ecclesia, as a body, is assumed to have the greater ability judiciously to weigh the facts and to reach a Scriptural and just decision. Most of our ecclesial “constitutions” contain a provision to this effect:

“That we mutually engage to submit to the order and arrangements preferred by the greater number” (Article 5 of the Birmingham “Constitution”).

It may be confidently asserted that nearly every division in the Christadelphian world since these words were written has been brought about by a disregard of this very principle, which all have bound themselves to honor.

Finally, if it be argued that Matthew 18:15-17 applies only to individual cases in one’s own ecclesia, and not to cases in other ecclesias, then I would ask:

(1) Should it be easier — in view of the doctrine of the One Body and the superlative examples of and inducements to peace and unity — to judge and disfellowship thousands at a distance than individuals at home?

(2) Or, put the other way round, do many brethren deserve less love and consideration than one?

This section closes with a document drawn up by several brethren in England during the “Berean” division of the 1920’s, entitled “A Series of Rules proposed to govern inter-ecclesial disputes, based on Matthew 18:15-17”:

  1. That imputations against brethren affecting their fidelity to the faith ought not to be made except as commanded by Christ.
  2. That the same rule applies to ecclesias — especially as affecting inter-ecclesial co-operation.
  3. So, if a brother is convinced that a brother or brethren in an ecclesia of which he is not a member is or are advocating heresy, or otherwise in danger of rejection at the judgment seat of Christ, the proper course for such a brother to adopt is:
  4. The above rules may not be possible of observance in detail where ecclesias are so far separated as to make a personal interview unfeasible, but in any case, an opportunity should be given for those who are associated with one who teaches error, to repudiate the same before exclusion from fellowship” (“So Do Unto Them”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 61, No. 724 — Oct. 1924 — p. 455).
With the above agree also the very well-balanced remarks of Brother Roberts (“A Second Voyage to Australia”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 35, No. 410 — Aug. 1898 — pp. 331,332), from which I quote the following extracts:

“It ought not to be in the power of any ecclesia to pass judgment on an accused brother in his absence, unless that absence was wilful. This was an elementary principle recognized in every system of law, ancient or modern, human or divine. It was a feature of British law all over the world — that no man should be condemned without the opportunity and invitation to answer the charge made against him. It used to be the same with Roman law, as casually comes out in Acts 25:16:

‘It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die before that he that is accused have the accusers face to face and have licence to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him.’

“The Jews observed the same practice:

‘Doth our law judge any man before it hear him?’ (John 7:15)

“Lastly, Christ enjoined the same thing in the law of Matthew 18 for dealing with an offending brother, only that he added the merciful requirement (absent from all human laws), that public accusation should not be made until the accused had been approached personally and privately by the accuser, and a second time with one or two others in case of failure.”

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