A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

The Matthew 18 process — is it just the province of the church elders?

In my book Not Under Bondage, I followed the common assumption that “take it to the church” in Matthew 18:16 means taking it to the elders. But Matthew 18 does not specify the church leadership, it only says “take it to the church”.

Last year I witnessed a Matthew 18 process which involved more Christians than the elders of the local church, and was carried out, I believe, very admirably. We may be publishing an account of this case in the future, but I’ll give a quick synopsis here.

The victim sought help from a godly Christian husband and wife who are members of a sister church in her denomination in a different State. The reason she sought help from this couple is that she met them at a denominational gathering and realized they understood domestic abuse and the mindset of an abuser a lot more than most Christians. I won’t go into why this couple understand domestic abuse so well, as it’s a whole other — very good — story, but I am confident, from emails and video-calls with them, that this is so.

The couple, let’s call them Paul and Mary, set out to do a Matthew 18 process with the woman’s abusive husband, and, with the victim’s consent, they involved people from the leadership of the church which the victim attended with her abusive husband. Down the track, Paul and Mary also requested my involvement in the process because I had had some written contact with the victim and some expertise (my book and this blog) in the area of domestic abuse and Christianity.

I was able to say, based on the detailed documentation presented to me by Paul and Mary, that the way they carried out Matthew 18 was impeccable. They diligently and persistently called the abuser to repentance in extensive phone counseling sessions, giving him excellent guidance about how to stop being abusive and treat his wife rightly. Despite all that, the abuser was unrepentant, and the godly couple eventually set forth in writing for the abuser and all parties involved in the process, the clear evidence of the abuser’s unrepentance. When I saw all the material, I was bowled over by how thoroughly and scripturally the process had been conducted. Nevertheless, the church to which the victim belonged did not believe the evidence, and chose to punish the victim for ‘lack of wifely submission’ by removing her from the worship team. My conclusion: that church is steeped in a toxic Patriarchy that devalues and mistreats women with impunity.

My recommendation to a victim of abuse in a church like that? You don’t have to heed the admonishment of such a prejudiced church; you can treat the church as a place which has lost the plot, an organization which harms the oppressed rather than protects them, a place dominated by blind guides and proud Pharisees — and leave with a clear conscience should you so choose. For our Lord said, Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.

* * *

Important Note for recent followers of this blog:

Since writing Not Under Bondage I have changed my mind about the appropriateness of Matthew 18 for disciplining domestic abusers. See this post if you haven’t yet read it: Church discipline and church permission for divorce – how my mind has changed

7 Comments

  1. Wow, that really could have been a powerful testimony. How sad. I’ve heard far too many stories of the victims receiving discipline in these cases. Lord have mercy on us.

    • anonymous

      I went to my church for help, and spent over 3 years being crushed down by nouthetic counseling and arrogant elders. They refused to look at any evidence, or speak to any witnesses. I pleaded with them to reach out to Jeff or you for guidance-to no avail. When I finally filed for divorce they initiated church discipline against me. Abuse is acceptable..just uphold that vow till death do you part.

      • thepersistentwidow

        Anonymous, That sounds exactly like my situation! Why were you disciplined? For filing for divorce, for not being in total submission to their leadership, or the “sin” of questioning nouthetic counseling? My church refused to specify and to this day, I do not know.

  2. Brenda R

    I am not at all sure if the Matt. 18 process has ever been done in my church, but if it did and the victim was reprimanded, I would leave. I had doubts about leadership standing behind my decisions to leave X, but over time it has gotten better and I believe it has been accepted. I have become more comfortable within the people there and making friends with God’s people

    I am glad to hear there are people out there willing to help the oppressed even if the “church” involved was misguided enough to become another oppressor. I think we as the church sometimes give the elders, boards and pastors far too much authority when the entire body should be involved in some decisions.

  3. Anonymous

    Yes, beware.

  4. Carradee

    Matthew 18:15–17 has a clear pattern: you go to someone once in private; if they don’t repent, then once with a witness; if they don’t repent, then once to the church/assembly; if they don’t repent, then treat them as a pagan and tax collector. I’ve realized—after being “gracious” and repeating vs. 15 many times, then 16 more than once—that Scripture has good reason for that order. Scripture’s specific order for things was designed to protect victims, and in thinking I would show even more grace and love than necessary, I was only hurting myself and demonstrating pride (thinking I knew better than Scripture).

    Per Romans 12:18, we are only responsible to live at peace with others insofar as we can effect that peace. (Note the verb “effect” ≠ “affect”. 🙂 )

    If someone’s willing to repent, then they’ll do so when approached. Repeating any part of the cycle is, in fact, enabling the abuser to continue.

    (Also worth noting: the word “the church” is ekklésia, which means the church body, not merely the church government. (See that link for its meaning in some lexicons and for other verses where the word appears.)

    I personally have reached the point of v. 17, and my family and their church’s governing body (who, thanks to a screwup, is where my official membership still is) is insisting I have no interest in reconciliation or in applying v. 15–16—even after I point out directly that the prerequisites for reconciliation haven’t been met. (It’s been a “fun” situation. I’m good enough at reading people that I predicted this outcome, so that helps emotionally, but I’m still disappointed. “Reconciliation” has been treated as a be-all, end-all, without the prerequisites [like forgiveness] even being asked about, turning reconciliation into a nebulously defined idol. Not that they see or admit that, of course.)

    This is all entirely aside from the fact that, per Luke 17:3, forgiveness is only required of us if the rebuked party repents. And we’re only commanded to love our enemies, not to forgive them (ref. Matthew 5:44).

  5. Carradee

    The word “the church” in Matthew 18:17 is ekklésia, which means the church body, not merely the church government. (See that link for its meaning in some lexicons and for other verses where the word appears.)

    Matthew 18:15–17 has a clear pattern: you go to someone once in private; if they don’t repent, then once with a witness; if they don’t repent, then once to the church/assembly; if they don’t repent, then treat them as a pagan and tax collector. I’ve realized—after being “gracious” and repeating vs. 15 many times, then 16 more than once—that Scripture has good reason for that order. Scripture’s specific order for things was designed to protect victims, and in thinking I would show even more grace and love than necessary, I was only hurting myself and demonstrating pride (thinking I knew better than Scripture).

    Per Romans 12:18, we are only responsible to live at peace with others insofar as we can effect that peace. (Note the verb “effect” ≠ “affect”. 🙂 )

    If someone’s willing to repent, then they’ll do so when approached. Repeating any part of the cycle is, in fact, enabling the abuser to continue.

    This is all entirely aside from the fact that, per Luke 17:3, forgiveness is only required of us if the rebuked party repents. And we’re only commanded to love our enemies, not to forgive them (ref. Matthew 5:44).

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