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. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
Here, we find Jesus’ dreaded words about church discipline–what many wrongly see as a harsh and unforgiving process leading up to the ultimate punishment: excommunication. Phase One of excommunication is telling the sinner his fault privately. Phase Two of excommunication is bringing other Christians into the matter. Phase Three of excommunication is bringing it before the entire church. And the terminus of the process is the final phase: treating the sinner as a pariah and expelling him from your fellowship.
In my experience, most Christians shy away from these words. After all, we quite rightly don’t want our brothers and sisters to be excommunicated. What’s more, we worry that the process might be abused by a malicious member of the congregation. We’re afraid that they might sow strife and discord in the church and rouse up a mob against a brother or sister who is either innocent or whose sin is more of a peccadillo when compared to something as severe as excommunication.
These are understandable attitudes to hold, for there is a very real gravity to Jesus’ words here. However, they are also very misguided because they reflect a lack of trust in what Christ has given us–as though he were somehow setting us up to fail. And in this lack of trust we end up completely mischaracterizing these verses. These are not the phases of excommunication at all; they are the phases of gaining our brother. If we followed them, it would lead to more peace among us–not less. This remains true even when there’s a malicious person who wants to attack a fellow believer based on falsehood.
I came to realize this because, as I vented on Twitter a few days ago, my family was recently attacked by a malicious member of my congregation. And I truly wish they had followed Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18.
To provide some background: I am the father of two boys, 3 & 5, with special needs whom my wife and I bring to church each Sunday. We don’t keep their condition a secret–we tell people who ask or who need to know. But neither do we announce it, and it isn’t obvious at a glance. Accordingly, I won’t go into further detail on the internet for the sake of their future privacy (and because we’re still working with doctors to diagnose our youngest.) However, I will say that it can be a struggle to get everyone ready to go on Sunday morning, and sometimes they can be a handful during the service–a little more noisy and restless than the average boys their age.
Nevertheless, we’re there in the front row every week because my whole family needs the Divine Service. We’re sinners, and each week, Christ delivers us the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation which he won for us on the cross. The Gospel is right there for each one of us every Sunday. So while it’s difficult sometimes, we nevertheless bring them to Jesus’ feet as per his invitation. “Lord, it is good that we are here.”
But not everybody thinks it’s good for us to be there. Last Friday, my wife and I received an anonymous letter in the mail (no signature, no return address, everything typed including the mailing label.) This is what it said:
Mr & Mrs Cochran,
Are you oblivious to the fact that your family causes so much disruption, distraction, & disturbance during the Sunday morning worship service at [church name]? From being late every Sunday morning to the frequent exits and re-entries during the service to allowing your boys to ‘free reign,'[sic] these disturbances not only affect other worshipers of the congregation, but the pastor (and his sermon) as well.
You may assume that you’re being good parents by allowing your boys to do what they want during the service, but you are doing more harm to them than good. You’ll realize this soon when they grow up a bit more and you have NO control over them. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” Proverbs 13:24
How you raise your kids is YOUR business, but please be more cognizant of infringing on the rights of the rest of the congregation.
Perhaps ‘parenting classes’ with an emphasis on church etiquette? [Note: this last line is a dig at me personally because I’m currently teaching a class for parents/families on using Luther’s Large Catechism to teach the faith in the household.]
I have no problem calling this letter malicious. It is, of course, incredibly presumptuous. We’re by no means oblivious to the disruptions, and we’re certainly not giving our kids free rein. We’ve spoken to our pastor in the past, and he assures us we are not distracting him during the sermon. The people who actually sit around us understand our situation and have all been extremely supportive. The letter was definitely not written in Christian love–concerned as it is with their own supposed rights while our family is strictly “OUR business” until it interferes with them. And considering our children’s circumstances (which they mistake for a refusal to discipline) it’s effectively telling us to go away and stop bothering the rest of the congregation.
But even so, the worst part about this letter is the anonymity, and that’s why I brought up Matthew 18. When our brother sins against us, Jesus tells us to go to them privately–not anonymously. If they had come to us to tell us our fault–even if they were as rude as they were in the letter, which few people will do in person–we actually could have had a conversation about disturbances during the service. I doubt the writer even realizes that our kids have disabilities, but if they had spoken to us, they would have immediately learned about them. They could have learned that certain conditions require different forms of discipline that they might not recognize. They could have learned that they’re not truly speaking on behalf of our pastor or the people sitting closest to us as they presume. We could have talked with them about whether it’s more distracting for us to leave and use the cry room (i.e. the exists and re-entries) or to try and settle them down in the pew. We could have learned which things bother them the most and tried to find additional ways to mitigate them. We could have worked through the situation in love together–they could have gained their brothers and sister.
And if we hadn’t listened? If we were still at odds? Well, then they’d go to the next step and approach us with others in the congregation and we could all discuss it together where cooler heads might be able to moderate the conversation–giving them an even better chance of gaining their brother. If that didn’t work, it would come before the whole church where I know we have the love & support of our pastor and many of our fellow parishioners who could speak on our behalf–and also where there may be more loving people who share the writers’ grievances who could express them in more loving and constructive ways. We all would have had an even better chance to gain our brother. And because of that love and support that we have, I know with all certainty that we would never need to be treated as Gentiles and tax collectors. It would never reach the terminus because my congregation is far far better than that.
Likewise, if they had not been anonymous, I could have gone to them privately in response to this hurtful letter they sent and told them their fault. After all, they have sinned against me and my family. I could have explained our situation to them and sought ways to alleviate their offense. I could have explained Christ’s invitation to the little children. I could have explained the purpose of the Divine Service–that we’re all there to receive Christ’s gifts, not to have a carefully crafted experience as though we were watching some kind of play. I could have told them the blessings my children receive by coming to church which the writer simply doesn’t have an opportunity to observe.
For example, the previous Sunday, my youngest son acted out because he really wanted to go check out the altar when we went up for Communion and I wouldn’t let him. He was pretty agitated at the railing, and I understand if that irritated people–it irritated me. But any irritation was beautifully redeemed that very morning. It took me a minute, but once I understood what he really wanted–and had a chance to let him know that I understood–I was presented with a great opportunity. When we got back to our pew, I told him that the altar was holy–that God made it a special place–and that because of that, we act in a special way around it. I told him what pastor and the elder and deacon were doing up their during Communion and why he couldn’t get underfoot. And then, I promised my son that I would take him up to see the altar after the service was over. So I brought him up there, and I taught him how to pause and bow before ascending the final step because it was a special place. I showed him the altar. I pointed out the cross on it and how it reminds us that Jesus died for our sins. I pointed out the chalice and explained the forgiveness that Jesus offers in his Supper. I pointed out the Bible and how God speaks to us through Holy Scriptures.
And he listened with rapt attention the whole time precisely because he was so stubborn about wanting to go up there in the first place. He’s only 3, so he doesn’t understand penal-substitutionary atonement, the real presence, or the office of the keys. But he knows that God sent his Son to die for him. He knows that because of Jesus he’s forgiven when he does bad things. He knows that our church is a special place where God cares for us. So for now… he knows that there’s something at that altar that truly matters, and he’ll grow into the rest as he matures–as long as my wife and I continue to bring him to Jesus.
Yes, the person who wrote that letter hurt me and my family, and I’ll confess that I was absolutely livid for awhile. But even so, I don’t believe they have a heart of stone. I don’t believe that all those wonderful blessings I could have shared would have been completely irrelevant to them. I don’t believe they would have persisted in stubborn ignorance. No. Call me naive if you want, but I believe I could have gained my brother. And if I couldn’t reach them myself, there’s bound to be someone in the congregation who could.
But I can’t go to them because they remained anonymous. I can’t bring others with me because they remained anonymous. So I did the only thing left: I brought it before the church.
Each Sunday, my congregation has its own tradition of “happy, sharing moments.” Before the service begins, pastor invites anyone to stand up and share something good that happened to them or a blessing that they received. I’ll admit that it’s kind of hokey, but there’s a beauty in that hokeyness. It gives each person in the congregation a chance to stand up and share something genuine with their brothers and sisters in Christ. After my wife and I spoke about it with our pastor the day before, this is what I shared (or at least my best recollection of it, as it was off-the-cuff):
My happy sharing moment is that we’re here. My wife, my sons, and I are here. And that’s a truly happy thing. Because this is where God forgives our sins–and God knows we need that. This is where we get to hear His word and sing His praises. This is where we encounter the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that is very happy and very much worth sharing.
I know that not everybody here feels that way. I know that not everyone thinks its good for us to be here because we received an anonymous letter telling us otherwise.
But it is good for us to be here because of these wonderful gifts that God gives all of us every week. Satan would prefer that this church be completely empty every Sunday because he wants to keep each one of us away from that Gospel. Because of that, it’s often a struggle for people to come here. Maybe we struggle against the weather or against an illness or against our circumstances. But we made it! Every single person in the pews this morning is a failure of Satan–and a victory of Jesus Christ. So I am happy that everyone made here this morning; because this is something worth sharing with each other.
Did I gain my brother (or sister)? I have no idea because they were anonymous. I’ll probably never know. And there’s still a part of me that thinks maybe I should have just stayed quiet and ignored it. After all, I absolutely loathe drama, and I worry that because of the anonymity, maybe I accidentally sowed dissension or distrust in the congregation, or maybe I just made the writer angry and tempted them to further sin. I really don’t know. But I made the best judgement I could and said it anyway because I love my family and have a responsibility to speak up for them. And I did it because we ought to share our blessings and burdens with one another. And I did it because some deeds that are done in darkness should be brought out into the light. And I did it because just maybe it would change someone’s mind.
And that’s why I’m writing the story here as well. For one thing, we all need to keep Matthew 18 in mind–not as a threat point, but as a way to be open with one another about our hurts and grievances. If an offense weighs heavily on you, then confront the person about it personally rather than anonymously. Hear their side and let them know yours. And if you’re not willing to do so personally–if it’s not worth the inconvenience or the awkwardness of a conversation–then it’s probably not that significant of an offense in the first place.
On top of that, I know that my family isn’t the only “distracting” one in the Church. So to every last person who struggles to come to God’s house on Sunday morning, I want to encourage you: Come! Even if you feel embarrassed, come. Even if you’re afraid somebody is going to give you the stink-eye, come. Jesus rose from the dead. He paid for your sins. He’s really present in the Supper, and when your pastor says, “I forgive you your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” forgiveness really happens for you. These things are always true no matter how anyone feels about you or how you feel about yourself–thanks be to God. And treasures like that are truly worth showing up for and bringing our kids to.