In Matthew’s gospel today we have very practical advice as to how disputes amongst church members, and how matters of moral conflict are to be settled.
First, you are to try and solve things privately. If that doesn’t work then you call on two or three other members of the church, probably the elders to get involved and make a decision on one side of the other. If the dispute continues then the whole community is supposed to get together and come to a judgement. If someone’s actions are condemned; they are an offense to the community they are to be shunned, excluded from the church. Now to get to that stage, the behaviour must surely be wilful and pretty awful!
The word “church” here refers directly to the local community rather than the massed ranks of Christians so can be seen as a process of damage limitation and gradual escalation but the interesting thing is that the local church has the authority “to bind or loose”.
This is a Jewish term that can apply a general prohibition to a particular action or behaviour. We can have confidence that we are acting under God’s guidance when the whole church has come to a mind on a particular thing. This confidence is built on the rock of faith in the revelation of God’s saving work in Christ.
A consequence of our faith that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself is that all Christians are to be ministers of reconciliation as far as humanly possible in situations from the personal face off between two people right to the whole church getting involved.
As in all disputes, large amounts of give and take and forgiveness are usually required but also the backbone to name and condemn certain behaviours. This leads to a church that is meek and mild, wishy-washy and loses its cutting edge.
Of course we are a church that believes in Grace and boundless forgiveness but quite often we misuse that to mask and excuse our moral cowardice and the inability to name and shame bad behaviour.
When we are too embarrassed to face something or someone Grace can become a very convenient excuse for doing absolutely nothing. Grace then becomes a licence to whatever you like and we are straight back to St. Paul who railed against this attitude in his letter to the Roman church and I quote “What are we to say then? Are we to continue in sin so that Grace may abound? By no means”
Of course Jesus also said “Judge not lest ye be judge” . Again if we took that at face value then we would have no laws – we would have anarchy and no Christian judges or magistrates would be permissible. I submit that what that in effect means is “Am I willing to be judged by the same measure by God as I am using to judge someone else? And am I ready to face the consequences of that judgement?”
To use a deliberately extreme and hypothetical example: If there was a paedophile intent on preying on children in this church and they saw nothing wrong in what they were doing and were intent on continuing then I would have no problem in excommunicating them from this and any other congregation as well as reporting them to the police. Doing nothing out of a misguided understanding of grace and forgiveness is just not an option.
In bringing such a person out into the open and safeguarding children and making treatment for the offender more likely is the far greater act of love. As some of the hard sayings of Jesus make clear, tough love is still love. Compassion for an offender is far outweighed by the compassion for any potential victims.
Personally I don’t think that the “Live and let live” mentality is particularly Christian, it is weak and cowardly secular approach that sees all people, morality and situations as relative. Right and wrong has no place within it. Christian morality and ethics is played out within a complex but clearly defined set of checks and balances that includes love compassion and forgiveness but also has a clear sense of right and wrong, goodness and sin.
In discerning the right and wise path in any undertaking, Christians must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and for unity in their deliberations and judgements.
For we may be confident that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them”.