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.
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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