Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pagans & Tax Collectors: Matthew 18 for the Theologically Challenged

This all started last August because a pastor made some guys stop playing Race for the Galaxy - really. For those of you who don't know what Race for the Galaxy is, a short aside: it's a difficult to learn but quick-playing (30 minutes or so) science fiction card game that is, once you get the hang of it, extremely addicting. OK, we're done with the gaming-related content for today.

Anyhow, that incident triggered a debate about how to deal with someone who had hurt and/or offended you - with particular application to how to deal with a figure in spiritual authority (in this case, a pastor at his church) who was the "problem child". The debate started out relatively civil (for the Internet) but soon degenerated into questioning of motives & finger-pointing that overwhelmed the original conversation.

One of the guys decided he had some real questions he wanted to ask... so he started a second thread entitled
Treating Your Pastor Like... - and it's the stuff that got raised in that (much more civil) discussion that I want to deal with today.

Let's start with the key passage in the discussion - Matthew 18:15-17 (quoted here from the NIV):
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
This is one of those "easy to understand, difficult to live" passages in the Scripture - which, btw, contains a lot more of those than we want to acknowledge. (It's much easier to act like the book is obtuse & difficult to follow... cuz then you don't have to follow it!) Let me break it into bite-sized pieces:
  • "brother" = follower of Jesus NOT someone who doesn't claim a relationship with Christ
  • "sins against you" indicates that the sin involves you personally... and that it really is a sin and not simple a disagreement over cultural preferences
  • "just between the two of you" means exactly what it says
  • a refusal to listen allows you to crank the process up a notch & invite 1 or 2 other people to help you in resolving the situation
  • only if all of these attempts fail should the issue be brought to the attention of the church

The sticking point in the discussion was the final phrase: "if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." What does that mean?

This is where having some historical context is helpful - while we here in the 3rd millennium are not big fans of the IRS, we don't think they are corrupt minions of the evil overlords... which is a pretty decent picture of how 1st century Jews looked at them. Rabbinical writings of the time often used the pairing of "robbers & tax collectors" while Roman writers (such as Chrysostom) let ring with the pungent "brothel keepers & tax collectors."

Various translations use the words "pagan" and "Gentile" (people who are religiously & ethnically not Jewish) interchangeably. Gentiles were ritually unclean and so were to be avoided by devout Jews... so, we've got Jesus telling folks that the church has the right/obligation to ostracize habitually sinning people who claim to be followers of Jesus.

Some of Paul's writings help clarify what that is going to look like "when the rubber hits the road":

  • This process applies ONLY to people who claim to follow Jesus.
But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you." (1 Corinthians 5:11-13, NIV)
  • The ultimate end of any kind of church discipline is restoration.
If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent—not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. (2 Corinthians 2:5-8, NIV)

Next time out, I'll deal with the question: "Are there different rules for those in positions in spiritual authority?"

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