Saturday, December 14, 2013

If You Hear Your Pastor Preach False Doctrine or Error, Does Matthew 18:15-18 Apply?

Here is a question. Consider this well-known passage: "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:15-18).

Now consider this situation. Suppose you are listening to your pastor give a sermon, and you hear him say something that sounds like false doctrine or doctrinal error. Does Matthew 18:15-18 apply? And if it applies, is it the only correct way to handle the situation? Is your only option to count the pastor as being a brother who has "sinned against you" by teaching something wrong, and then go through the steps of Matthew 18:15-18, starting with talking to your pastor alone about the issue?

Suppose your pastor tells you something like this: "If you hear me teach or say something that seems like false teaching, your only right option, according to Matthew 18:15-18, is to first talk to me privately about it. You are wrong if you keep silent and you are wrong if you leave this fellowship or congregation. Your only option is to talk to me personally - anything else is contrary to the Bible."

Is that correct? Does the process in Matthew 18:15-18 apply to the teaching of error by a minister? And if it does, are the steps in Matthew 18:15-18 the only right response or does the Bible allow for other options?

That is my question. Or, I should say, those are my questions, plural.

I will admit I have not studied or thought about this very much until recently. For most of the years I have been in the Church of God, I had not considered Matthew 18:15-18 in relation to doctrinal error taught by ministers in the Church. I never thought of applying Matthew 18:15-18 to the wrong teachings in Worldwide from the time Mr. Tkach began to make changes until the time I left Worldwide. I didn't decide against using the procedures in Matthew 18:15-18. It just never occurred to me.

When I first learned about the process in Matthew 18:15-18, I understood it to primarily apply to personal offenses between members, like, "he borrowed my lawnmower but never returned it", or "he keeps flirting with my wife and I told him to stop and he won't", or "he has been talking behind my back, spreading lies about me" - that sort of thing.

So can it apply to a minister teaching false doctrine?

I don't say I have every answer, but I will share my thoughts about this so far and point out what some other scriptures say that may have a bearing on the question. Hopefully, this may give food for thought to anyone struggling with this issue.

Matthew 18:15-18 describes a three-step process for resolving differences and offenses between brethren in the Church of God. It is only potentially three steps, because the process can end with the first or second step if there is success and the matter is resolved. The three steps are, talk first to your brother alone, then if that doesn't work take witnesses, and finally if that doesn't work take it to the "church", and I think most members understand that taking it to the church does not mean spreading it around but taking it to those in authority for a decision and ruling. After the description of the three steps comes this statement: "Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18).

That statement, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, helps to show the context of "tell it to the church", that telling it to the church means telling it to the ministry and leadership who have the authority to make binding decisions. Telling it to the church does not mean gossiping and spreading your complaint to everyone in the congregation. Most members understand that, or should understand that.

But this also shows that the primary application of this and the context is resolving disputes and wrongs committed by one member against the other, not doctrine. Why? The ministry and leadership can make binding decisions about resolving disputes, wrongs, and sins committed by one member against another. They can make judgments about remedies, about making amends. They can say, "return the lawnmower you borrowed", "stop flirting with that man's wife", and "stop spreading lies about that man and apologize publicly for what you have done."

But they cannot make binding decisions about what the truth is. They cannot, for example, say, "God is a trinity", and make that binding truth, to use an obvious example. God is not going to suddenly become a trinity just to make binding what the minister has taught based on Matthew 18:18. They can't say, "you have immortal souls" and suddenly God makes all our souls immortal to make binding in heaven what the minister has bound on earth. Nor does the ministry have the authority to do away with or change God's law, otherwise the Catholic Church could say, we used the binding authority given in Matthew 18:18 to change the Sabbath to Sunday.

To some degree the ministry has binding authority over the work of the Church including preaching the gospel and feeding the flock, or in other words, teaching. They have the authority to determine official doctrine that will be taught. That doesn't condone heresy, but there are smaller points of detail about doctrine that different people in the Church may have different opinions about, and the leadership has the authority to make binding decisions about what the official teaching of the Church is.

But truth is still truth and error is still error, and Matthew 18:18 cannot be used by the ministry to change truth to error or error to truth.

So the fact that Matthew 18:18, the verse giving binding authority to the ministry and leadership, directly follows the passage about the three steps for resolving disputes in Matthew 18:15-17, shows the context of Matthew 18:15-17, that it is not primarily about doctrinal truth, but about resolving sins and wrongs committed by one member against another. The ministry has the binding authority to determine if an accusation is fair, if the offense has been committed, and what the restitution should be.

And yet, the whole three-step process in Matthew 18:15-17 does not necessarily exclude the possibility that the "brother" who sinned against you may be a minister who sinned against you by teaching you false doctrine. I am only saying, that does not seem to be the main context. But it is not complete excluded either.

So if you consider that the minister has "sinned against you" by teaching wrong doctrine or error or heresy, yes, it can apply, but with qualifications.

First of all, is every mistake in speaking or doctrinal error a "sin against you" that requires that you talk to the minister about it? I don't think so. Even in personal matters between brethren that have nothing to do with doctrine or with a minister, you always have the option to overlook a matter, to forgive and forget, to put it behind you. If everyone applied Matthew 18:15-18 to every minor offense, you would have chaos in the Church. If I applied Matthew 18:15-18 every time I passed a member and he didn't say "hi", that would not make for peace in the Church of God. We may be offended, we have our feelings hurt, but we should try not to be easily offended. We don't have to count every small thing as a "sin" against us, especially when we consider that the person who slighted us may have had no intention of doing so. Accidents, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations happen all the time.

There is a larger principle behind Matthew 18:15-18, and that principle is peace based on love in the Church of God. "Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). If you go through this list, you will find a number of reasons why love will often overlook a small matter and not try to seek justice through Matthew 18:15-18.

The objective of Matthew 18:15-18 is to resolve conflicts that cannot be overlooked and must be resolved to have real peace. The objective is never to stir up strife over small matters by magnifying something tiny until it becomes something big. Matthew 18:15-18 should never be a battle-plan for warfare. Satan would like to see Matthew 18:15-18 misused. He would like to use it as a lever to stir up strive and division between brethren. And it is not hard to imagine how it can be misused that way.

Yes, if you have a problem with your brother, if you need to use Matthew 18:15-18, use it. But you don't always have to use it. You have to judge whether to use it or not. And keep in mind Christ's words, "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12). So put yourself in the other member's situation. If you committed the offense to him, accidentally, would you want him to apply Matthew 18:15-18? Well, maybe you would, at least the first step. You might want him to talk to you so you could resolve the misunderstanding or apologize if you were wrong. But look at it from his point of view before you make a decision.

For scriptural proof that Matthew 18:15-18 must be set in the context of the overall objective of promoting peace in the Church of God, consider these scriptures: "Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. Therefore, 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:17-21). "For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints" (1 Corinthians 14:33). "Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you" (2 Corinthians 13:11). "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23).

Also, "Be at peace among yourselves" (1 Thessalonians 5:13). "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). "But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace" (James 3:17-18). "For 'He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good; Let him seek peace and pursue it" (1 Peter 3:10-11).

Also, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" (Matthew 5:9).

Peace is the objective. Matthew 18:15-18 is one of the mechanisms, one of the tools for achieving peace when an offense cannot be overlooked.

Do you have the option to overlook an offense, or would it be contrary to Matthew 18:15-18 to overlook an offense? Consider this well-known passage about lawsuits in the Church. In 1 Corinthians 6:1-6 Paul rebukes the Corinthians for going to this world's courts in lawsuits against each other. Now notice verse 7 which follows: "Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?" (1 Corinthians 6:7). So according to Paul, it is not a sin to let yourself be wronged, to accept that you have been cheated and forgive the offender without seeking redress. He says this in regard to filing lawsuits, but he could not have said this if it was a sin to overlook a wrong, if we are required to apply Matthew 18:15-18 to EVERY sin against us whether we feel we need to or not.

So overlooking a sin against you, forgiving it, not counting it, is always an option, provided you can do it from the heart (Matthew 18:35). There can be no room for grudges. If you cannot completely forgive unless the matter is resolved, then go through the steps of Matthew 18:15-18.

Now, back to the matter of doctrinal teaching by a minister.

Can the steps in Matthew 18:15-18 be applied to a minister teaching false doctrine? If you feel he has sinned against you by what he says, I think you can go through those steps to try to resolve the situation, or at least the first step. Certainly you can go to the minister privately and see if you misunderstood what he said or if he just made a verbal mistake, a "slip of the tongue", and the words that came out of his mouth were not what he really was trying to say. That can happen to anyone who speaks frequently. Maybe he just used a bad choice of words to try to express what he was thinking. And as with personal offenses, you have the option, if the matter is not critically important, to just overlook it and count it as a human mistake not worth making an issue about. If I went to my pastor for every case where I heard him say anything I didn't fully agree with, he would have to kick me out or he wouldn't have time for anyone else - I could argue with him 8 hours a day if I wanted. When to talk to the minister and when to keep silent is your judgment call for each situation.

But when it comes to taking witnesses with you to talk to minister a second time, and if that doesn't resolve it to report him to headquarters for something he has said to everyone in the congregation from the podium, additional factors come into play that are not involved in simple disputes between brethren. I don't rule those steps out, but you should think some things through first.

First of all, is his teaching consistent with the headquarters of the Church of God fellowship you both attend? What if what he says is wrong, it is error, it is false doctrine, but your fellowship's headquarters is teaching the same error, the same false doctrine, and he is only following the error of headquarters in his teaching? It's not going to do much good then to "report him" to headquarters, in which case headquarters will only be glad to learn he is teaching what they want him to teach. You will actually be "reporting" yourself to headquarters. Are you ready to leave that fellowship? Maybe so, and maybe this is the way to do it. But if you already know that headquarters, the leadership of that Church of God organization, is itself teaching the error, why put it on the minister? After clarifying with your pastor what headquarters actually teaches, you can write to headquarters and say, "why do YOU teach such-and-such in light of these scriptures...?". There would be no need to take witnesses with you if both your pastor and headquarters are openly teaching the doctrine - headquarters knows what it teaches. Talking to other members to gather "witnesses" for a second discussion with the pastor can be construed as promoting division over the issue, as it well might be.

God does teach that we are to speak the same thing and not sow division (1 Corinthians 1:10). I have long taught in this blog in many posts that members should not contradict their pastors and ministry in conversation with other members in that same fellowship. It would be kind of hard to gather witnesses without getting into conversation in which you would tell other members why you think the pastor, and headquarters, are wrong.

But if it really seems that the minister is departing from headquarters in his teaching, that he is going out on his own, teaching wrong doctrine and departing from the sound teaching of headquarters and the leader of the fellowship, and if this seems to be confirmed by your private discussion with him, then a second discussion with witnesses can be a useful step before reporting his words to headquarters. But when you write to headquarters, use wisdom and be polite. State your pastor's words as accurately as you can and say, "is this the teaching of the Church?", or something like that.

Always consider the consequences of what you do. "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). I don't say that being in the Church is like being among wolves. Most of the time it is not (but sometimes it can be). The context of Christ's words may be different than the context we are talking about here. But this is based on a general principle, think before you act - consider the outcome. Here is that general principle stated: "A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished" (Proverbs 22:3). There is a time to remain silent (Amos 5:13) and there is a time to contend (Jude 3).

If things are not clear, time will sometimes bring things out in the open and make things more clear. Study it, pray about it, and give God time to make it clear what you should do.

So if a pastor says, you are wrong to keep silent, that is not necessarily true.

But as to whether you can leave the fellowship you are in to attend a different fellowship, that is not about Matthew 18:15-18 at all. The Church of God today is divided into competing fellowships, and Matthew 18:15-18 is not intended to make division more workable. We are in the Laodicean era - all the fruits of the scattered condition of the whole Church of God show this.

Matthew 18:15-18 is not intended to address the issue of where to attend when the Church is divided.

When you were baptized, your commitment was to God the Father and to Jesus Christ, not to any denomination or organization. You don't need your pastor's permission to go to the Church of God fellowship Christ leads you to. Christ is your head in matters of your salvation, not any Church leader. If you began attending the fellowship you are in because you thought they were doing the best job of feeding the flock and preaching the gospel, and now Christ shows you that He wants you elsewhere, that the fruits are not good where you are now, either because the organization has changed or you were mistaken when you began to attend with them, I know of no scripture or passage in the Bible that says you cannot go to a fellowship that is doing God's work most faithfully, or that you cannot leave a fellowship without your pastor's permission, when the Church is scattered as it is now.

Although Matthew 18:15-18 does not address where to attend, other scriptures do.

"If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds" (2 John 10-11). This is a scripture that helped me to see that I had to leave Worldwide, when I saw that their errors were so many and so serious that they were in effect teaching a false gospel.

"And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them" (Ephesians 5:11). This is not talking about ordinary human mistakes of converted ministers who are basically teaching the truth. This is talking about serious false teaching to the point that the overall message is a "work of darkness". If error becomes this serious, get out fast, don't take the time to wave good bye. When this becomes the character of the whole organization, you don't need to talk to the minister before you obey Christ.

"But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers....And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd" (John 10:2-16). When error reaches a point where you are hearing the voice of a stranger from the podium and from headquarters more than the voice of Christ, that would be a good clue that it is time to look for a fellowship where you will hear the voice of Christ, not strangers. Sometimes you can sense if the ministry is helping or hurting your relationship with God. When things reach a point where you feel the ministry is pulling you away from God, hurting your relationship with God, making it more difficult for you to believe, trust, and obey what God says in the Bible, that is a good time to leave. It's up to you whether to talk to your pastor first or not.

"Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: 'I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.' Therefore 'Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.' " (2 Corinthians 6:14-17). There is a time when we must separate ourselves from those who try to lead us to sin. Christ even told Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan", when Peter tried to dissuade Christ from being a sacrifice.

You should also be able to love your neighbors as yourself and have zeal for the gospel by supporting the preaching of the gospel and the Ezekiel warning as much as you can, including by fellowshipping with a group that is zealously doing that work, even if it means leaving where you are at. Again, if Christ leads you to see this, you don't have to talk to your pastor first, though you can if you want to.

I will repeat my previous question.

Suppose your pastor tells you something like this: "If you hear me teach or say something that seems like false teaching, your only right option, according to Matthew 18:15-18, is to first talk to me privately about it. You are wrong if you keep silent and you are wrong if you leave this fellowship or congregation. Your only option is to talk to me personally - anything else is contrary to the Bible."

As far as I can see from the Bible, a pastor who says this would be wrong on two counts. For one thing, there is a time to keep silent, to just pray about it, study it, and wait for Christ to resolve things. You can certainly do this over minor errors, and there can be scriptural grounds for choosing to not bring your disagreement over errors to the ministry. Matthew 18:15-18 does not bind you to discuss every issue with him that you think he is in error about. Matthew 18:15-18 is primarily about resolving disputes with a brother who sins against you. But whether you discuss your disagreement with the pastor or not, do not discuss it with the brethren, do not contradict him, and do not stir up division. Respect the office. Discuss it with the pastor, or keep it between you and God in prayer, but don't bring your disagreement to the brethren.

Secondly, he is wrong to say that Matthew 18:15-18 requires you to stay in the fellowship you are in if you see that God wants you in a different fellowship. And helping you see that the teaching of your pastor about a major doctrine is false may be a way Christ is showing you that He wants you in a different fellowship.

It is natural for someone baptized by a minister in a particular fellowship, either because he grew up in that fellowship or because he came into that fellowship from hearing the truth preached on TV and in publications by that group, to feel a special loyalty to that fellowship. But it is God who has really brought you into the Church and called you. Your loyalty should be towards God, and you need to seek his will first through Bible study and prayer and seek where Christ is working most effectively, and you need to seek that fellowship that is most faithful to God, if there are serious problems in the fellowship where you are at. And after you get all the facts and seek God's will, it may be that you discover that His will is for you to remain. At least then you will know.

And for those who were baptized in Worldwide before it split apart, how did you come into the fellowship you are in now? Did you not walk in of your own free will because you thought that this fellowship was where God wanted you to be? And if God now shows you differently, are you not free to walk out just as you walked in?

I know of no scriptures that endorse the principle of primary loyalty to only one part of a divided Church of God that is competing with and hostile towards other parts of God's Church, such as is the case when the Church of God is scattered and divided as it is today. Your loyalty should be to God and Christ, and wherever you attend, it should be because it is God's will you attend there, not because a minister commands you to stay.

Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:

When and How to Judge, Chapter 5

Should Each Member Promote His Own Opinion?, Chapter 6

Proving the Truth, Chapter 6

The Twelve Apostles, Chapter 8

Organization of the Church and Limitations on the Authority of the Ministry, Chapter 8

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The bible is clear on two things: God hates rebellion and dissent, and God will deal with any errors made by His Church on His own time, as the parable of the premature removal of tares in The Church clearly demonstrates.

Dissent causes disruption, as does the premature removal of tares in The Church.

I agree, in I think the best course of action for anyone concerned is to pray on the matter, sit still, and wait on God to act, and one of those actions may very well be that God moves one to disassociate with a particular church.

Yet, just as sure as one is concerned about any errors, those same concerns are shared by The Father Himself.