“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.” (Matthew 18:15–20)
If you’ve perused newspapers, periodicals or magazines over the past few years you will have no doubt happened upon discussions surrounding social media. A decade or so ago sites such as Twitter and Facebook were seen to be a great leveller in public debate. Everyone would have their say, and wisdom would arise from the human hive. All were welcome to the discussion. Not so much now. Social media has become a place where people are hounded, and their views ‘cancelled’. Beware the idle tap on the keyboard which might bring about the anger of the mob! The companies which run the sites are hounded with demands that certain users are thrown off, and workplaces are lobbied so that offenders might be sacked. And then the spotlight moves on to the next person.
Against this background the words of Jesus are like a cold drink on a hot day.
There is a Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy is sitting on top of his kennel, bent over a typewriter. Looking up at him, Charlie Brown comments: “I hear you’re writing a book on theology”. He then adds: “I hope you have a good title”. Looking up from his work, Snoopy thinks “I have the perfect title” and then bends over the typewriter to type: “Has it Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?”.
It is often the case that the more ‘right’ we think we are, the more ‘wrong’ we think everyone else is. To leap to the worst conclusion is a short hop indeed. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2). It is against this background that we can understand the real wisdom in Jesus’s approach.
The first step which he sets out is to simply go and speak to the person who has sinned against you. Notice that he suggests you make the first move, rather than wait for an apology, and also notice that he suggests that this is a meeting which is not conducted before others. The aim is reconciliation not recrimination, a chance to talk things through. A chance to see the rights and wrongs on all sides.
Of course, it may well be the case that this approach does not bear fruit, and Jesus is realistic enough when it comes to human nature to know that a second approach might be necessary. This is not a chance to write off the other person, but rather a chance to re-engage along with one or two others.
This is an interesting step for a number of reasons. In the first place it means that you have to ask yourself the question: is it really that important? As you lay out the issue before others, you might discover that it is not as significant as you first thought, or it might be that Snoopy was right all along! Jesus’s advice also means that you are able to draw upon the wisdom of others, something much valued in the book of Proverbs: “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counsellors there is safety” (11:14).
Time has now passed, and you have discussed the matter with others. Hastiness has been dampened for “whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29). Here too is a time for prayer. Later in this passage Jesus promises that “where two are three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”, and it would appear that it is these two or three that are in mind.￼ Issues such as these are not matters to be dealt without reference to God in prayer. After all, “all the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit” (Proverbs 16:2).
With your counsellors you can then return the person who has sinned against you, and evidence can be heard. No longer are you taking the initiative in the heat of the moment, but there is a more measured discussion. Perhaps reconciliation can be worked?
Or not. Jesus once again acknowledges the frailty of human nature, and so goes on to give a third step which might have to be taken: “tell it to the church”. Whereas in the sphere of social media telling the world is often the first step, here engaging the church as a whole is a last resort. There is a pastoral and caring approach here, a chance for repentance in private given first. There is no rushing to public shaming, but even this step might prove ineffective, so a last one is given: excommunication.
That Jesus should speak about church discipline, and Matthew record his words, is telling. He is no idealistic utopian, but recognises that the Christian is prone to failure and thus to sin. He understands that humans can be swift to judge and slow to repent. He also knows that the wisdom of the Old Testament - especially that contained in the Book of Proverbs - remains of great relevance to us today. We may like to think that we are more evolved, more perfect than our forebears but a quick glimpse on social media should disabuse us of that opinion. In a world where gossip abounds, and is the foundation for so much entertainment, the Christian should stand aside. Yes, if criminal acts are involved then the police should also be involved. This should be no path to cover-ups in the church. But otherwise, the Christian can point to a better, more peaceful path.
After all, “for lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarrelling ceases” (Proverbs 26:20).