Yesterday, I filled out an online survey to help out a student who's working on his Doctor of Ministry degree. A couple of the questions on the survey involved how our local congregation deals with sin among the membership. The student wanted to know if we practice "church discipline" in certain cases. Though he didn't specifically ask if we "follow Matthew 18," that's certainly what he meant. People use the phrase "following Matthew 18" to mean "church discipline," or to indicate Jesus' way of dealing with conflict among Christians. The passage they're referring to is found in verses 15-20:
15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.
While this is an important teaching on how to deal with conflict between believers, and even how to (tenderly) deal with sin in the church, it's unfortunate that most people stop here when they use that ticking-bomb of a phrase, "following Matthew 18." The problem is that they don't go far enough. They'd rather end matters by treating an offender as a pagan or corrupt tax collector, by forbidding or by permitting people to get close to them, rather than following the rest of Matthew 18, which talks about forgiveness.19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
In Matthew 18, Jesus talks about the importance of forgiveness.
21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
I could write on this passage all day, but let's just underscore that Jesus teaches that there's a connection between our willingness to forgive others, and God's forgiveness for us. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." This word "as" means that we want God to forgive us at the same time, in the same manner, and to the same degree that we forgive others. So it follows that if we refuse forgiveness, then we also will not be forgiven. When you read the scripture above, it just seems that you can't underscore enough the importance of forgiveness.
You may ask, "Which thing does Jesus want me to do to an offending person--treat him like a tax collector, or forgive him?" The answer is both. Because what did Jesus do with pagans and corrupt tax collectors? He forgave them! He invited them into His life and He gave them grace. How can we do any less?
While (disclaimer) I disagree with MacDonald's views against cremation, I still feel that it was one of the most important studies that I've done. We spent a few weeks talking about forgiveness, baring our souls to one another, studying God's Word, and praying that God would grant us the ability to forgive the hurts of our pasts. At the end of the study, we all wrote down the names of people in our lives who we needed to forgive. Then we went to the church cemetery where we buried those papers to symbolize our resolution to grieve the hurts but then to leave them behind.
Today I want to ask you--who do you need to forgive? Have you been hung up on the idea of going to that person to show them their faults, taking along a witness or two, and bringing their flaws into the public eye? Maybe you should go a bit further than that--and forgive! Because in your unforgiveness, you don't bind that person's heart--you bind your own. But by forgiving them, you set them free as well as yourself. Today, I invite you to lay the past to rest, and walk in the freedom and wholeness of forgiveness.
*Scriptures taken from the ESV.