Wednesday, June 4, 2014

If Thy Brother Shall Trespass Against Thee

Life of Christ 95

          Jesus and His Apostles, after spending a week north of Galilee in the mountains, return to Capernaum. Immediately upon their return they are confronted by a Temple taxman, and Jesus ends up paying a tax He doesn't owe because He doesn't want to unnecessarily offend. Following that, Jesus confronts the Apostles about their argument in relation to who is the greatest in the Kingdom, and teaches them, through a little child, the importance of humility. The conversation then flows around John's question about other Christian groups, and Jesus teaches them to focus on keeping themselves holy, and to live at peace with other genuine Christian churches.
          In each of these three aspects, taking place basically in one extended conversation, we see Jesus emphasizing to the Apostles how to build good relationships with other people. Most of this has a direct application to the infant Church, and we are going to see, in the last part of the conversation, that Jesus makes that even more explicit (Matthew 18.15-35).
          We are to seek not to cause offense. Living in humility, we will find that ambition doesn't breed arguments between us. Focusing on ourselves, primarily, we seek to live at peace with one another. All of these are focused on me, on keeping me right and sweet, but what happens if the other guy isn't? What happens if the other guy in our Christian relationship does something to injure me, or to injure our relationship? How do I handle that?

       Initially, I am to approach him privately (Matthew 18.15). If that doesn't resolve the situation, and it is important enough, I am to go back to him with another brother or two in Christ (Matthew 18.16). If that, in turn, doesn't resolve the 
situation, I am to explain it to the entire church, and let the church formally ask the brother to resolve the situation. If the brother still, in spite of all of this, refuses to resolve the situation then the entire church must at this point stop treating him like a brother (Matthew 18.17).
          We can see, from the intended context that this deals with relationships, not between churches, but inside a church. As Baptists we believe in the local church, and since our church cannot discipline a member of another church we must conclude that this passage is pointed at how we are to get along with each other in our own church.
          Then, following another emphasis on the importance of prayer in the Church yet again, He closes off this entire conversation by emphasizing forgiveness. 'Then Peter came to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven' (Matthew 18.21-22). He illustrates that with the wonderful story of a man forgiven and yet unforgiving. What is the conclusion of the entire conversation? We are to forgive one another (Matthew 18.35).
          In this story I see three lessons. First, let us be patient in resolving trespasses with each other. The major point, as I understand, in church discipline, is restoration of the erring brother (Galatians 6.1). This is why we are to give them repeated chances. This is why we are to give them time. The scriptural word for this patience and time is 'space', as in, 'I gave her space to repent of her fornication' (Revelation 2.21). When my brother trespasses against me my initial response is not to hit him upside the head with my spiritual 2x4, rather it is to give him space to repent.
          Secondly, and probably more controversially, egregious offenses that refuse to be resolved must not be allowed to fester. Paul condemned the Corinthian church for refusing to deal with a man who was having a sexual relationship with his own step-mother (I Corinthians 5). John condemned the church at Thyatira because it allowed a woman prophetess to continue to seduce men in the church unchecked (Revelation 2.20).
          When a church member is being stubbornly rebellious about widely known sexual sin the only solution is to cast them out. Even this casting out is designed to bring them to the place of restoration by allowing the devil to wreak havoc in their lives, and force them back to Christ (I Corinthians 5.5).
          Both of these scriptural cases I've used for illustration, in Corinth and in Thyatira, are similar in structure to the church discipline process discussed in Matthew 18. Both involve known sexual immorality, refusal to repent, and a congregation that was instructed to cast them out. This is because there are some wounds that are so deep and so infected that the only possible way to prevent the entire body from being consumed is to amputate the afflicted member.
          You can see aspects of this in Proverbs in relation to someone who is soundly committed to their wrong course of action, and who refuses to be dealt with. 'Cast out the scorner, and contention shall go out; yea, strife and reproach shall cease' (Proverbs 22.10). 'Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth' (Proverbs 26.20).
          You cannot allow these kinds of people, committed and firm in their rebellion, to remain in your church. They will corrupt it and damage it badly. 'Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?' (I Corinthians 5.6). 'Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person' (I Corinthians 5.13).
          One of the harder lessons I've had to learn as a pastor is that I must, occasionally, make a judgment call that a particular person is a wolf in sheep's clothing, or, alternatively, that they are a member living in open and rebellious sin. If I allow them to remain in our church they will damage, not only its external reputation and thus God's name, but the very spiritual health and condition of our church. I do not make that decision quickly, lightly, or easily. Indeed, in seventeen years in the pastorate I've made it only three times, but I must make it, and the church must, then, if it agrees, send them packing.
          Martin Luther, that most feisty of saints, was reported to have said once that since he couldn't reason with a rebel he punched him in the nose until his face bled. When you try to reason with a rebel you waste your breath. They cannot be reasoned with. They must be expelled. For their sake, and for the church's sake.
          Thirdly, and most importantly, Jesus' big emphasis here was not on kicking people out of the church, but rather in simply forgiving each other when trespasses occur. The vast majority of sins, mistakes, errors, and trespasses that church people do, even toward one another, do not rise close to the level of meriting the church discipline process. They can and should simply be forgiven.
          I believe Jesus started the first church (see Life of Christ 82). As a member of that first church was He ever trespassed against? Absolutely. Yet how many did He kick out, for lack of a better term. Only one , Judas Iscariot.
          The devil is always after the genuine church, but thankfully, the genuine church has God's divine protection and promise of preservation (Matthew 16.18). We see this illustrated, time and time again in Church history, by the spiritual results when external persecution is brought to bear. Tertullian well said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed, not the death, of the Church. Persecution purges a church, blowing away the chaff, and leaving behind the dedicated and committed genuine believers. This, in turn, promotes holiness, draws the power of God, and impacts the world around that church. (There are so many parallels here to the condition of the current American Church that it isn't even funny, but I do not have space to draw them.)
          Well, if this is true, that God has given the genuine church a writ of protection then why is it that genuine churches die? Two Baptist churches within a mile of our church, here in Chicago, have closed their doors in the last ten years. How does this happen if we have this guarantee of protection from the devil's attack?
          Churches die for a variety of reasons, in my opinion. They die due to doctrinal impurity, and though the congregation may continue to meet the actual truth is that they have had their charter or their franchise agreement removed. This is what John is speaking about in Revelation 2 and 3 when he alludes to a candlestick being removed. Churches also die from lack of evangelism. A church that gives up going after people with gospel invariably becomes way too inwardly focused, and navel gazing and a long, slow, agonizing decline eventually follows. Churches also die as an indirect result of rampant sexual immorality. This hypocrisy breeds, in the younger generation of members, distrust and deceit, and the result, again, is often a long, slow, agonizing death. But the biggest reason churches die, at least as I see it, is this matter of trespasses. A brother offends another brother, and fuss develops. It morphs into a feud, people take sides, the church splits, and a long, slow, agonizing decline ends in a whimpering death.
          This last one could be prevented if we would just forgive one another, as Jesus so clearly called for here in Matthew 18. You can see now, can't you, how important it is to Jesus that His children get along with each other, and live in peace? This is the major thrust of this entire day's worth of conversation between Jesus and His Apostles.

          Give up your rights so as not to offend. Be humble, not ambitious. Have salt in yourselves. Be at peace one with another. Clean house, if you must. And, above all, forgive one another.

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