How Abusers Use (Mis-use) Matthew 18 to Escape Church Discipline. Evidence is not just eyewitness testimony.
One thing that abusers in the church are very good at is using Matthew 18 to continue their abuse. Many of them never do anything abusive in front of two or three witnesses. Abusers are rarely stupid enough to leave two or three witnesses. They always know what to say and who to say it to so their secret sins are not outed. And the abuser knows that if the victim tells others about the abuse, the abuser can accuse the victim of slander and gossip, and many in the church will go along with that gossip & slander accusation.
No doubt many of you have seen this tactic used against you. In fact, when an abuse victim reports the abuse and the two or three witnesses are not to be found, it is the victim who ends up charged. “You are gossiping/slandering/maligning. You should not be saying any of these things if you cannot prove them with witnesses.” And there are almost never ever witnesses in the flesh, other than the victim. Thus, the wicked one skates.
Matthew 18 is not the only Scripture addressing church discipline.
There are a lot of scriptures which touch on church discipline, and Matthew 18 is only one. Furthermore, Matthew 18 has often been misunderstood and misused to give injustice to victims (see ‘related posts’ below). What’s more, Matthew 18 is not generally the most appropriate Scripture to be applied in the case of abuse. A much better Scripture to go to is 1 Corinthians 5.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
… I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 11-13 ESV, emphasis added)
Abusers rarely work their evil spells of abuse in public. At least not in ways the uninformed would notice. They put on the fine, pious, “christian” facade in front of an audience and save their raging / viciousness / silent treatment for later at home or in the car. For example, they may generously put money in the offering and volunteer at church in lots of ways, but at home refuse to give their wife access to adequate grocery money, or they punish her when she can’t produce receipts for every cent spent. Abuse is a secret sin, you see. It is a dark evil performed in a corner. Two or three witnesses? Yeah, right.
If the victim reports some abusive conduct, the abuser counters with: “You don’t know that! You can’t prove that! So you need to just stop saying such things!” And church members often take the same line: “You shouldn’t slander your husband. You shouldn’t gossip about your husband. ”
Church leaders who are untrained in abuse and have been snowed by the abuser invariably intensify the abuse when they deny the victim justice by citing Matthew 18 as if it were the only passage in the Bible that speaks to church discipline. And abusers love it so.
When looking for evidence, we don’t have to limit ourselves to eyewitness testimony
If this ‘two or three [eye]witnesses’ business were applied in the realm of the criminal justice system, how many criminals would never be found guilty? Many! But the fact is, legal codes allow for other kinds of witnesses than eye-witnesses. We allow all kinds of forensic evidence into trials. Fingerprints. Printed documents. Emails. Firearm ballistics. DNA analysis. We even permit certain kinds of “circumstantial” evidence. All of these things are witnesses, and they are admissible in a criminal court.
And that’s just talking about crimes: things prohibited by the criminal code.
Hundreds of tactics used by domestic abusers do not come under the criminal code. Emotional abuse. Verbal abuse. Gaslighting and mind games. Financial abuse. Social abuse— the isolation of the victim. The whole pattern of coercive control: the abuser’s covert aggression, manipulation, and micro-management of the victim’s life. The way the abuser seeks out and tries to destroy the victim’s ‘safety zones’ — those small areas of her life where her confidence and competence is affirmed, the places where she can occasionally sip a few drops of happiness or peace.*
The burden of proof for things that are not crimes, is lower than the burden of proof for crimes.
In the secular justice system, there are two streams: the criminal and the civil. Criminal courts are different from civil courts. How does the burden of proof differ between criminal and civil courts? In a criminal court, it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt that the alleged crime was committed. But in a civil court, you don’t have to prove it beyond reasonable doubt: civil courts make rulings and decisions on the balance of probabilities. In the United States this concept is called a preponderance of the evidence, which simply, you might say, fifty-one percent so that the scales tip to that side of the evidence scale. Many people who haven’t been involved in courts don’t realise that the civil side of the justice system, the burden of proof is lower. And the Family Court system is part of the civil system not the criminal system (certainly this is true in Australia, Barb is not sure about other countries).
Church bodies are NOT able to investigate, judge or convict on criminal matters. Church officials are not trained to investigate crimes. That’s one reason why so many churches have made a mess of things when they’ve tried to investigate allegations of child abuse in the church. The New Testament makes it clear that the State, not the church, bears the power of the sword to punish criminals (Romans 13).
However, the Bible does talk about churches making judgements about whether or not to treat a so-called believer as a Christian. That’s part of what we call ‘biblical discipline’.
Anyone who is trained and experienced in the nature and tactics of non-criminal domestic abuse will be able to recognize a range of “witnesses” to the abuse that confirm the victim’s testimony. And if they are assessing on the balance of probabilities, it means that if the preponderance of evidence points to the victim’s claims being true, then the church can—and should—discipline abusers. And since all domestic abusers are revilers (verbal abusers) this means putting them out of the church and treating them as unbelievers. Handing them over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh as it says in 1 Corinthians 5.
If only more Christian leaders were wise and able to discern the tactics and language of abusers! And recognise and resist their dissembling!
We believe that when a church body makes out that it cannot discipline an abuser because there is not enough evidence, then that church body is quite probably being arrogant and misusing or misunderstanding Scripture.
Church bodies often ignore all the non-criminal evidence which the victim brings.
Here are some examples of the kinds of evidence that a victim may bring. The fact that she is not permitted to spend a dime of her own volition. The characteristic nature of the psychological abuse she reports. Indicators in the children’s behavior. (Speaking of children, how many pedophiles work their putrid evil on children in front of witnesses?). The mere fact that after years of marriage she is now only hesitatingly, coming forward to ask for help. Her own confusion about whether she is to blame. Financial records showing the husband’s credit card payments (e.g. to porn sites). Computer and phone records which demonstrate the abuser’s pattern of sinful conduct. The report of a member of the church who saw the husband’s face beet red and his fists clenched once in the corridor of the church. The observation of a member of the church who has witnessed the husband speaking sarcastically to his wife, or belittling her, or smirking inappropriately. All these things point to the disordered character of the abuser — his pattern of entitlement and his hardened heart.
The trained eye and ear can spot these typical signs and symptoms, and these signs and symptoms serve as valid witnesses to the abuse. Yet churches so very often, in ignorance and arrogance — or in plain alliance with the abuser — completely dismiss all of this affirming evidence. Result? The guilty are pronounced righteous and the righteous are condemned.
“If you can’t prove it with at least two and better three flesh and blood eye-witnesses, then keep your mouth shut and stop slandering this fine Christian man.” There it is. That is what so many victims are told. This is a perversion of the Scriptures. It is at best the mark of rank ignorance and often more likely a sign that the victim is talking to a member of their abuser’s evil brotherhood of abusers. It is the thing that protects the most vile evildoers who have crept in among us. We must be done with this cover up business. We announce that this “get out of jail free card” of twisting Matthew 18 just isn’t going to fly with us anymore.
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*In most parts of the world, coercive control tactics such as cyber-stalking, harassment by SMS and email, covert aggression and emotional / verbal abuse are never defined as criminal. However, in Australia and ? some other places that have relatively advanced DV laws, coercive control tactics are prohibited in Protection Orders, so when the abuser breaches a Protection Order that has been made against him, he commits a criminal offence. However, it’s not easy to prosecute and convict if there isn’t enough evidence to render it beyond reasonable doubt. . . because that’s the high bar of proof required under criminal law. Catch 22…
On Abusing Matthew 18, by D A Carson (Scroll down to the third page of the journal.)