Does Matthew 18:15 refer to the public false teachings of an elder?

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If a person commits a public sin ( preaching heresy) how should that be addressed: privately or with a public rebuke?

Recently, the Limerick Reformed Fellowship (LRF) spoke out in the Limerick Post regarding blatantly heretical statements made by a local missionary in the same newspaper (i.e. publicly). A few people responded by pointing to Mat 18:15 and claiming that we had erredi by not discussing this privately with the missionary prior to publishing our opposition.

However, Matthew 18:15 is dealing with private, not public sin. This is indicated by the first phrase in the verse “if thy brother shall trespass against thee” [emphasis added]. It does not merely say “if thy brother shall trespass”. It is also indicated by the response required “tell him his fault between thee and him alone” [emphasis added]ii, before taking two or three witnesses, and before bringing the matter to the church.iii

 

If Christ indeed was commanding that even public sins be dealt with in this manner, the verse becomes absurd. Imagine a man sins publicly in the presence of thousands of people. Should he then receive thousands of private admonitions? And if he does not repent, should he then receive further thousands of private admonitions in the presence of witnesses? Again, if a man publishes a book in which he denies the deity of Christ (for example), is a Christian forbidden from warning others about this book, or publishing a response, until he has spoken in private with its author?

 

It is even more peculiar for people to try to misapply this verse, when other places in Scripture deal with the subject of gross sins (which have become public) far more clearly, for example, I Cor. 5:1-5. The apostle Paul hears a report of fornication, and so he commands excommunication even while not present, and certainly without approaching the man privately beforehand. How much more heinous is it when a preaching elder publicly mangles the Gospel that he is supposed to defend in purity?

Dealing specifically with the sins of elders in the context of false teaching, Paul instructs Timothy (I Tim. 5:19-20): “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” [emphasis added]. The first verse specifies that an allegation against an elder should not be sustained unless verified by “two or three witnesses”. If a newspaper publication with thousands of readers does not meet this requirement, nothing will.

Surely in the face of such public and horrible sin from a man purporting to be an elder in a Christian church, any Christian has the right to publicly protest and call the man to repentance? And other local church leaders ought to be warned that they even have the solemn responsibility to “rebuke [him] before all, that others also may fear”, and to sever their ecumenical ties if he does not repent.

“For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; … Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, especially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake. … Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.” - Titus 1:7-13.

This manner of dealing with public sin is what Christ and the Apostles practised. When someone publicly taught wrongly and misled the people, Christ immediately and publicly rebuked and refuted them (Luke 11:37-54, 13:14-17, etc.). As soon as the Apostle Paul saw the Apostle Peter publicly compromising with the Judaizers, he opposed and rebuked him publicly (Gal 2:11, 14).

Since God is love (I John 4:8), true love seeks to model the response of Christ to the public sins of false teaching, by undelayed public opposition without requiring prior private admonition. So far, we have heard no public rebuke from any of the other church leaders – have they even approached the man privately? Instead, strangely the LRF was publicly admonished for challenging him.

“And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.” - I Cor. 5:2.

This all having been clarified, the LRF expects that local church leaders will now be in no doubt as what their biblical calling in this issue is.

 

 

 

Footnotes

 

iThis claim seems to be believed by some, and is a very serious charge. It is serious because submission to the rule of Christ is what undergirds the three marks of a true church, biblical preaching, sacraments and discipline. A true church is one in which Christ is present on His throne, ruling by His Word and Spirit in the lives of His people and by means of the eldership. To disobey His Word then is to give an indication that perhaps His throne is not present, but rather that Satan's seat is in the midst. It is also serious because this verse refers to biblical church discipline without which a church has already had her lampstand taken away (Rev. 2:2-5).

While the LRF is not yet a church, it is nevertheless a fellowship seeking, if it is the Lord's will, to be eventually instituted as a true church. Accordingly, the principles above still apply, but they are limited by circumstances, such as having no teaching or ruling elders, and therefore no official preaching, sacraments, or discipline. The preaching is simply recorded sermons, and without officebearers, there cannot be any administration of sacraments or discipline, although if problems were to arise within the LRF, biblical principles would be followed with the aid of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Ballymena. The LRF then, with all diligence and fear, ought to carefully and humbly examine this claim, and be prepared quickly to repent if it is found to be true.

 

iiWhy is this – surely Christ has some reason in mind for this secrecy? Elsewhere, many reasons are given for secrecy in certain circumstances:

“A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.”

- Prov. 11:13.

“Debate thy cause with thy neighbour himself; and discover not a secret to another: Lest he that heareth it put thee to shame, and thine infamy not turn away.”

- Prov. 25:9-10.

“Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth.”

- Prov. 26:20.

“Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD. Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.”

- Lev. 19:16-18.

If the sin were public before all, then such privacy in telling him his fault would be redundant. Even from this, it can be seen that this passage is discussing private sins between one brother and another. Christ is therefore commanding us not to gossip about our brothers' faults, or speak of their sins to everyone else before speaking to them first and privately.

 

iiiThat it is told to the “church” still does not necessarily imply that the matter is public to the whole congregation. If a matter is brought to the attention of America (for example), this does not necessarily mean every citizen. Rather, the church hears of the matter and deals with the matter through the eldership. Only if it is absolutely necessary should the fault be told to the entire church. This can be deduced from the role of eldership. No exact rules are given about how the eldership is to proceed from the point of being informed, to the point of the brother being excommunicated if he is unrepentant (Matt. 18:17-20; cf. I Cor. 5).

There are only guidelines and principles (which are more than sufficient), and these guidelines would certainly include not naming and shaming the brother unless the situation demands this. The manner in which the eldership ought to deal with the issue is one of delicacy, and ought to be pursued with love, and the earnest desire for the brother to repent for his sake, and the sake of the church, and above all for the glory of God, and with much fervent prayer for the brother. It would also be related to be manner of sin involved, and all the circumstances surrounding it, and the brother's attitude to the issue, and willingness to submit to the discipline. The congregation ought to pray too, even if they do not know the manner of sin or the persons involved.

Verse 18 makes it abundantly clear that when Christ uses the word “church” in this passage, He is not referring to some primitive gathering of “pre-church” believers (in which case the LRF could definitely not be faulted for not adhering to it), or any kind of fanatical group, but rather to that holy institution to which the keys of the kingdom of heaven have been granted (Matt. 16:19; John 20:21-23; cf. Matt. 21:42-44; 23:38; 24:2). This proves that it is referring to the New Testament church institute, which Christ is laid the foundation of, as He spoke these decrees here, and as He worked through His instruments, the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:19-22).

It is to the apostles that He declares, “Verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This apostolic authority is exercised today in any true church institute by means of the congregation acting through its eldership in the preaching, and in everything that official church discipline involves, but only if it is conducted rightly according to the apostolic doctrine (III John 9-11). This is what the true church has always confessed in the ancient Nicene Creed: “And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

Only if a church is founded upon, and faithful to apostolic doctrine, can it ever exercise the apostolic authority given by Christ in this passage. This is also the terrifying reality of excommunication if carried out biblically and if the subject does not repent – it is expulsion from the kingdom of Christ: “Let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.”

Ordinarily, there can be no salvation outside of a true church institute. This is one of the reasons that the LRF seeks to become a true church institute, not only for our own salvation, but also the salvation of all God's elect here in Limerick. And that God may be glorified by the proclamation of the truth in Limerick, and the true spiritual worship of His people in His church (I Pet. 2:1-9; I Tim. 3:14-16). We know that Christ's sacrifice on the cross alone for His elect church alone is the sole basis of all our salvation (Eph. 5:25-27; not speaking now of the institute in which there will generally always be hypocrites – I John 2:19; Rom. 9:6), but we also know that we are justified by faith alone which the Spirit works in us by power of this atonement, and that the means by which God works this faith in us is by the official preaching of the Word. This is ordinarily found only in a true instituted church (Rom. 10:13-17).

We are all too aware of our many frailties and weaknesses to despise the church of God as unnecessary for our continuing sanctification, and the strengthening of our faith, and we know that “without holiness, no-one will see the Lord”. Any sort of “ticket-to-heaven” Christianity is foreign to the Bible – it is because we know by faith alone (not any of our works) that God has eternally saved us (II Tim. 1:9; Tit. 3:5-8), is saving us in this present time (Phil. 2:12-13), and will save us in the end (Rom. 5:5-11), that the LRF “with fear and trembling” works to be established as a true church institute, knowing that “unless the LORD builds the house, the labourers labour in vain.”