Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The devil can quote Matthew 18, too

God’s Word is a weapon against the devil. It is the gladius Spiritus, the “sword of the Spirit,” as the Apostle calls it in Ephesians 6. By it, the Holy Spirit gives new birth to those first born in the devil’s kingdom. By it, the kingdom of God comes and the kingdom of the devil falls. God’s Word, rightly used, is the devil’s undoing.

But God’s Word, twisted and perverted, is the devil’s tool. We know that our enemy, the devil, is a master at misusing God’s Word. “Did God really say…?” he queried Eve. “Throw yourself down! For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you…’” he taunted the famished Lord Christ from the highest point of Jerusalem’s temple. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” the Adversary whispered, influencing the “adversaries” of the Lutheran Church to cite James 2:24 as proof that faith and works must be combined to bring about man’s justification before God.

Our Lutheran forefathers were able to handily untwist God’s Word (Apology, Art. V) by interpreting it in context and by using the whole of Scripture to harmonize the passages which seemed to contradict one another.

Distribuite tempora, et concordat Scriptura, Augustine said. “Distinguish the times (when each Scripture passage applies), and the Scripture agrees with itself” (Sermones, LXXXII). He said this in reference to two passages of Scripture – one oft quoted in our times, the other oft forgotten. He was speaking about the apparent contradiction between Matthew 18:15 and 1 Timothy 5:20.

Actually, he began the discussion talking about the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Proverbs 10:10b, “He that reproves openly makes peace.” Lest anyone should make the argument that the New Testament (Matthew 18) trumps the Old Testament (Proverbs 10), Augustine put the argument on an unquestionably even plain: Christ against Christ, that is, Christ’s words in Matthew 18 vs. Christ’s words in 1 Timothy 5:20 (spoken through his apostle).

    Matthew 18:15“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you…” (NIV).

    1 Timothy 5:20“Those [elders] who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning” (NIV).

    Augustine - “Brothers, let us then listen to these two precepts in such a way that we may understand them, and let us be at peace between them both. Let us be in agreement with our own heart, and Holy Scripture will in no part disagree with itself. It is entirely true, both precepts are true; but we must make a distinction, that sometimes the one, sometimes the other must be done; that sometimes a brother must be ‘reproved between him and you alone,’ sometimes a brother ‘must be reproved before all, that the others also may fear.’ If we sometimes do the one, and sometimes the other, we will maintain the harmony of the Scriptures, and in doing and fulfilling them, we will not go wrong.” (translation mine)

When does the admonition in Matthew 18:15 apply – for a brother to rebuke a brother privately or secretly? When the sin is known only between the two of them. In that case, it would unnecessarily harm the reputation of the sinner to alert others to it. When does 1 Timothy 5:20 apply? When the sin is committed in the presence of other witnesses. Ergo ipsa corripienda sunt coram omnibus, quae peccantur coram omnibus: ipsa corripienda sunt secretius, quae peccantur secretius. “Therefore, those sins are to be reproved before all that are committed before all; those sins are to be reproved in secret that are committed in secret.”

In addition to the different circumstances in which Matthew 18 and 1 Timothy 5 apply, they also emphasize different purposes. Matthew 18 focuses on the repentance of the one who has sinned, while 1 Timothy 5 focuses on the effect the public rebuke is to have on “the others.” In context, Paul is speaking of the “presiding elders” in the congregation, “especially those who preach and teach.” No accusation against one of these elders ought to be entertained lightly, because they hold that noble office of the ministry and are worthy of “double honor.” Two or three witnesses are required for any accusation to be entertained against them. But where these witnesses are present, Paul calls for a public rebuke of the elder (in our context, “minister”) who has sinned, “so that the others may take warning.” Literally, “so that the rest may have fear.”

The public nature of the rebuke of an elder is to serve as a warning to anyone – layman or clergy – who might be tempted to sin in a similar way. Whatever an elder does, whether good or bad, has tremendous influence on the beliefs and actions of others, because an elder is supposed to be trustworthy. His life is supposed to be an example, a pattern for others to follow (Phil. 3:17). If that pattern has been sinful in some area and has gone on without rebuke, then others may easily be tempted to conclude that the pattern is, in fact, an acceptable one, and so may be tempted to follow it. For this reason, a public rebuke is called for, so that everyone may be warned against following the sinful pattern set for them by the elder.

The rest of the Scriptures support this same distinction in the use of Matthew 18 and 1 Timothy 5. When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees as hypocrites, there is no indication that he approached each one individually first to rebuke them in private (though they were, at that time, still his “brothers” in the visible church called “Israel”). Paul rebuked Peter “in front of them all” (Galatians 2:14) because Peter’s public actions had led others astray. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the man in their midst who had openly taken his father’s wife to be his own (1 Cor. 5:1), he didn’t call on the Corinthians to “begin the steps of Matthew 18” with this man. Paul’s instruction to them was clear: “When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:4,5).

Likewise, Paul did not hesitate, at times, to “name names” of those individuals who had sinned publicly. “Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:19-20). “For Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10). One wonders if, in our synod today, Paul would be accused of “breaking the 8th Commandment.”

Speaking of the 8th Commandment, Lutheran theologians, starting with Luther, have uniformly observed the distinction between private and public sin. Luther writes in the Large Catechism,

The true way in this matter would be to keep the order in the Gospel. In Matthew 18:15, Christ says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Here you have a precious and excellent teaching for governing well the tongue, which is to be carefully kept against this detestable misuse. Let this, then, be your rule, that you do not too quickly spread evil about your neighbor and slander him to others. Instead, admonish him privately that he may amend his life. Likewise, if someone reports to you what this or that person has done, teach him, too, to go and admonish that person personally, if he has seen the deed himself.

But then he adds,

All this has been said about secret sins. But where the sin is quite public, so that the judge and everybody know about it, you can without any sin shun the offender and let him go his own way, because he has brought himself into disgrace. You may also publicly testify about him. For when a matter is public in the daylight, there can be no slandering or false judging or testifying. It is like when we now rebuke the pope with his doctrine, which is publicly set forth in books and proclaimed in all the world. Where the sin is public, the rebuke also must be public, that everyone may learn to guard against it.

As we distinguish between Matthew 18 and 1 Timothy 5, it is not as if we are being required by God to choose “love” in some cases (Matthew 18) and to choose “lovelessness” in other cases (1 Timothy 5:20). Both actions – rebuking in private when called for and rebuking in public when called for – are commands of God, and therefore, both are perfectly loving. (A person’s attitude for doing either may or may not be motivated by love, but that is a separate question.)

But here is where the devil perverts the Holy Scriptures and reverts to his ancient temptation to turn man into God. He would make us to be gods who judge what love is or isn’t. “How can it be loving to publicly rebuke someone? That will harm their reputation. God tells you to guard your neighbor’s reputation, and therefore, it’s never appropriate to rebuke him in public. Remember, Jesus said, ‘…just between the two of you!’”

The devil would have us remember Matthew 18 while forgetting 1 Timothy 5. This is no different than what he did when he tempted Jesus. He wanted Jesus to remember Psalm 91:11-12 while forgetting Deuteronomy 6:16. (Thankfully, the Word incarnate didn’t forget Himself inspired.)

Then the devil inserts the following argument, “Besides, if you rebuke this man publicly, then it will hinder his preaching of the gospel and bring turmoil to his congregation, which will also hinder the work of the gospel. And since spreading the gospel is the most important work of all, you shouldn’t do anything that might hinder it. Surely discipline in the Church is a lesser work than spreading the gospel!”

Thus, Satan would convince us that one work of God is to be pitted against another. That is, the goal of “evangelism” is more important than following God’s commands for dealing with the one who has publicly sinned. The trouble is, of course, that the God who calls on his Church to preach the gospel is the same God who calls on his Church to rebuke public sins publicly, and this God never works against himself.

What does the devil accomplish when he succeeds in misquoting Matthew 18 in our ears? Several tragedies result:
  1. Our definition of “love” supersedes God’s definition of “love,” and our purposes in “evangelism” trump God’s commands regarding public sin. We, therefore, make ourselves to be gods, and leave the First Commandment lying in pieces.

  2. Public sins go publicly unreproved. God’s command to reprove publicly has the loving purpose of warning others. When the devil gets his way, others are not warned, but rather emboldened to commit the same sin, knowing that there will be no public consequence for it.

  3. Those who act appropriately according to God’s command in 1 Timothy 5:20 are threatened with acting out of line with Matthew 18:15, and may even be censured for acting in line with God’s command.

  4. If a sin is committed publicly by one pastor, but the rest of the pastors refuse to address it publicly, then the people of God lose trust in all their pastors.

  5. The name of God is “blasphemed among the Gentiles” when elders of God’s Church commit well-known sins, without there ever being any well-known rebuke for those sins. If the sin is well-known but the rebuke is only private, then the world’s suspicions of “clergy cover-up” will not be entirely without merit.


Matthew 18:15 is God’s Word. 1 Timothy 5:20 is God’s Word. The devil can quote either one against the other, and in our time, he seems to be having a great deal of success pushing Matthew 18 when Matthew 18 does not apply. Distribuite tempora, et concordat Scriptura. Distinguish the times, and the Scripture agrees with itself. Fail to distinguish when Matthew 18 applies, and it becomes another weapon in the devil’s arsenal.

4 comments:

Lisette Anne Lopez said...

Very excellent.

Michael Schottey said...

I once posted these views about the 8th Commandment on Facebook and was told (by a WELS member) that it was an "interesting doctrine."

Thankfully, a former classmate--now at WLS--pointed out that it is not "interesting" but "sound Lutheran doctrine."

Sadly, I personally have witnessed the leadership in our synod continue to misapply both Matthew 18 and the Eighth Commandment in a failure to distinguish the context of a matter.

Mathetes said...

Pastor Rydeki, is the above translation of St. Augustine from The Confessions or Sermones? I'm interested in reading further.

Mr. Benjamin Rusch

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

Mr. Rusch,

The above is from the Sermones. If you click the link above, it takes you to the Sermones. On the left side of the screen is a selection box. Select #82, click "Lege," and it will take you to this sermon. I believe the quote is from section #6, entitled, "Correptio alias secreta, alias publica esse debet." But the surrounding context is all relevant.

If you have the Nicene/Post Nicene Church Fathers in English, the numbering is different. I think it's Sermon #32, but I could be wrong.

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