The Abuse of Matthew 18:15


In the blogosphere and social media, without question one of the most hurled passages of Scripture in regards to controversy over public behavior or teaching is Matthew 18:15. This passage seems to be abused as often as “Judge not…”. The passage itself reads:

“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.” (ESV)

Now then, let’s clear a few things up. After all, we want to be good communicators, don’t we?

First, this passage is in regard to private matters between individuals – a sin committed privately against you.

The literal translation reads like this:

But if your brother may sin against you, go and reprove him between you and him alone.

It does not say, to borrow phrases from John Calvin,  “If your brother publicly blogs or tweets something stupidly ignorant for the whole world to see.”

What it says is that if a brother sins “against you”, go and tell him his fault, “between you and him alone.”

Did you get that? alone. The sin was committed against you alone, not on Twitter, Facebook or a blog. The remedy, according to Jesus, is to go to him initially alone. Resolve the private sin against you privately by going to him, or her, alone, privately. Did I mention the sin spoken of in this passage is a private one, and so is the remedy?

If someone blogs, tweets or ‘faces’ something doctrinally untrue, Matthew 18:15 is not necessarily the remedy. Public actions like those are not a private matter. Yet private matters are precisely what Jesus is speaking of in Matthew 18:15. Sure, you may be offended. You may strongly disagree with a doctrinal position being touted by some celebrity preacher, but this passage is not your answer.

So what do you do when such public wrong occurs? What are the options?

(This might be a good time to remind everyone, that if you publicly correct someone, it’s a good idea to have all your ducks in a row. You need to know what you’re talking about before spouting off to the world your latest theory. If you are a pastor-teacher called of God, that’s one thing, but if you are blogger, street-preacher or passionate Christian who has begun teaching the world as if you were, I suggest you rethink what you are doing. See James 3:1 ).

If someone openly denies penal substitution, the Trinity, or other fundamental doctrines of Christianity, or is simply promoting a false teaching of any Christian doctrine, it is the obligation of the defenders of the Christian faith (that’s you), to do just that. Defend the truth, expose the darkness, publicly, without shame – be jealous for the glory of God in Christ Jesus – be willing to die, if necessary, for His truth….or, you could just remain quiet and allow everyone within type-shot of that false teaching to be deceived and harmed by it.

Sleep well, if you can.

Ah, I can almost hear the objections. For example, what if someone publicly teaches wrong doctrine, but you have personal, private access to him or her and could go to them privately? If that’s what you want to do, go for it.

But that doesn’t change the fact that a public wrong was done. Others are affected in public actions, and thus, public confrontation is often necessary. A private correction to a public wrong doesn’t inform or help the rest of the Church, does it?

Reprove, correct and rebuke-privately if a private sin against you, and publicly if done so publicly at the Church’s expense. That, after all, is what we find in Scripture as the pattern to follow. Public wrong, public correction – see I Corinthians 5:1-5 and Galatians 2:11-14. (cf. also Matt. 18:21; Luke 17:3-4).

Do not use Matthew 18:15 as a catch-all stone to be hurled at others when they perhaps are more concerned for the truth of God than you may be. Listen folks, with all the love I can muster in a Georgia font, learn to use Scripture for the benefit of others. Doctrine is for bringing people, even Christians, to Christ.

Can Matthew 18:15 ever be used in regard to public sins? Yes, but remember, “If your brother sins against you” is a personal condition. If we are dealing with public teaching, that is quite a different matter.

John Calvin, commenting on Galatians 2:14:

This example instructs us, that those who have sinned publicly must be publicly chastised, so far as concerns the Church. The intention is, that their sin may not, by remaining unpunished, form a dangerous example; and Paul elsewhere (1 Timothy 5:20) lays down this rule expressly, to be observed in the case of elders,

“Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear;”

because the station which they hold renders their example more pernicious. It was particularly advantageous, that the good cause, in which all had an interest, should be openly defended in presence of the people, that Paul might have a better opportunity of shewing that he did not shrink from the broad light of day.