In the previous article on this topic, we analyzed how the principles Jesus revealed to us at Matthew 18:15-17 can be used to deal with sin within the Christian Congregation. The law of the Christ is a law based on love. It cannot be codified, but must be fluid, adaptable, based only on timeless principles founded in the very character of our God, Jehovah, who is love. (Galatians 6:2; 1 John 4:8) It is for this reason that the law of those brought into the New Covenant is a law that is written on the heart. – Jeremiah 31:33
Nevertheless, we must be wary of the Pharisee in us, for he casts a long shadow. Principles are hard, because they make us work. They make us take responsibility for our actions. The weak human heart will often cause us to delude ourselves into thinking that we can sidestep this responsibility by granting authority to another: a king, a ruler, some sort of leader who will tell us what to do and how to do it. Like the Israelites who wanted a king over themselves, we may give in to the temptation of having a human who will take responsibility for us. (1 Samuel 8:19) But we are only deluding ourselves. No one can truly take responsibility for us. “I was only following orders” is a very poor excuse and will not stand up on Judgment Day. (Romans 14:10) So it is best to accept Jesus as our only King now and learn how to be adults in a spiritual sense—spiritual men and women capable of examining all things, of discerning right from wrong. – 1 Corinthians 2:15
Rules Lead to Sin
Jeremiah foretold that the law that would replace the Old Covenant law given under Moses would be written on the heart. It was not written on the heart of one man, or one small group of men, but on the heart of each child of God. Each of us must learn how to apply that law for ourselves, mindful always that we answer to our Lord for our decisions.
By giving up this duty—by surrendering their conscience to the rules of men—many Christians have fallen into sin.
To illustrate this, I know of the case of a Jehovah’s Witness family whose daughter was disfellowshipped for fornication. She became pregnant and gave birth. The child’s father left her and she was destitute. She needed a place to live and some means to care for the baby while she found work to provide for herself and her child. Her father and mother had a spare room, so she asked if she could stay with them, at least until she got on her feet. They refused because she was disfellowshipped. Fortunately, she found help from a non-witness woman who took pity on her and gave her room and board. She found work and eventually was able to support herself.
As hard-hearted as they may seem, the Witness parents believed they were being obedient to God.
“Men will expel YOU from the synagogue. In fact, the hour is coming when everyone that kills YOU will imagine he has rendered a sacred service to God.” (John 16:2)
In fact, they were obeying the rules of men. The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses has powerful means of conveying their interpretation of how Christians are to deal with sinners. For example, at the 2016 Regional Convention, there were several dramas on the subject. In one, the Witness parents threw a teenage daughter out of the home. Later, when she tried to telephone home, her mother refused even to answer the call, though she had no idea why her child was calling. This attitude lines up with written instruction from the publications of JW.org, such as:
Really, what your beloved family member needs to see is your resolute stance to put Jehovah above everything else—including the family bond…Do not look for excuses to associate with a disfellowshipped family member, for example, through e-mail. – w13 1/15 p. 16 par. 19
The situation is different if the disfellowshipped one is not a minor and is living away from home. The apostle Paul admonished Christians in ancient Corinth: “Quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man.” (1 Corinthians 5:11) While caring for necessary family matters may require some contact with the disfellowshipped person, a Christian parent should strive to avoid needless association.
When an erring child is disciplined by Christian shepherds, it would be unwise if you were to reject or minimize their Bible-based action. Siding with your rebellious child would not be providing any real protection from the Devil. Actually, you would be endangering your own spiritual health. – w07 1/15 p. 20
The latter reference shows that what is important is to support the authority of the elders and through them, the Governing Body. While most parents would sacrifice their life to save that of their child, The Watchtower would have parents value their own welfare over that of their child.
The aforementioned Christian couple likely thought that this counsel was firmly based in such scriptures as Matthew 18:17 and 1 Corinthians 5:11. They also respected the Organizational arrangement which places forgiveness of sin in the hands of the local elders, so that even though their daughter was repentant and no longer sinning, they would not be in a position to grant her forgiveness until the official process of reinstatement had run its course—a process often taking a year or more as demonstrated again by the video drama from the 2016 Regional Convention.
Now let’s look at this situation without institutionalized procedures coloring the landscape. What principles apply. Certainly the aforementioned ones from Matthew 18:17 and 1 Corinthians 5:11, but these do not stand alone. The law of the Christ, the law of love, is made up of a tapestry of interwoven principles. Some of those which come into play here, are found at Matthew 5:44 (We must love our enemies) and John 13:34 (We must love each other as Christ loved us) and 1 Timothy 5:8 (We must provide for our family).
The last one is particularly pertinent to the example under discussion, because the death sentence is attached to it implicitly.
“Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” – 1 Timothy 5:8 NIV
Another principle that bears on the situation is this one found in John’s first letter:
“Do not marvel, brothers, that the world hates YOU. 14 We know we have passed over from death to life, because we love the brothers. He who does not love remains in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a manslayer, and YOU know that no manslayer has everlasting life remaining in him. 16 By this we have come to know love, because that one surrendered his soul for us; and we are under obligation to surrender [our] souls for [our] brothers. 17 But whoever has this world’s means for supporting life and beholds his brother having need and yet shuts the door of his tender compassions upon him, in what way does the love of God remain in him? 18 Little children, let us love, neither in word nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth.” – 1 John 3:13-18 NWT
While we are told not to ‘mix in company with a brother who practices sin’ and to treat such a one as ‘man of the nations’, there is no condemnation attached to these commands. We are not told that if we fail to do this, we are a manslayer, or worse than a person without faith. On the other hand, failing to show love results in missing out on the Kingdom of the heavens. So in this particular circumstance, which principles carry the most weight?
You be the judge. That may turn out to be more than a rhetorical statement. If you are ever faced with such circumstances, you will have to judge for yourselves how you will apply these principles, knowing that one day you will have to stand before Jesus and explain yourself.
Is there a case history in the Bible that might guide us in understanding about dealing with sinners, such as fornicators? How and when should forgiveness be granted? Is it done on a personal basis, or must we wait for some official decision from the congregation, such as from a judicial committee made up of local elders?
Applying Matthew 18
An incident arose in the Corinthian congregation which demonstrates how the third step of the Matthew 18:15-17 process would work.
The Apostle Paul starts off by chastising the Corinthian congregation for tolerating sin that was offensive even to the Pagans.
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is intolerable even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife.” – 1 Corinthians 5:1 BSB
Evidently, the Corinthian brothers had not followed Matthew 18:15-17 completely. Possibly they’d gone through all three steps, but had failed to apply the final action which called for casting the individual out of the congregation when he refused to repent and turn away from sin.
“If, however, he ignores them, tell it to the congregation. If he also ignores the congregation, regard him as an unbeliever and a tax collector.” – Matthew 18:17 ISV
Paul called for the congregation to take the action Jesus had proscribed. He told them to hand such a man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.
The Berean Study Bible renders 1 Corinthians 5:5 this way:
“…hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”
In contrast, the New Living Translation gives this rendering:
“Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.”
The word rendered “destruction” in this verse is olethros, which is one of a number of Greek words with subtle differences in meaning which are often rendered with the same English word, “destruction”. Thus, through translation and the limitations of one language compared to another, the precise meaning is in dispute. This word is also used at 2 Thessalonians 1:9 where it is likewise rendered “destruction”; a verse which has been used by many Adventists sects to predict the annihilation of all life—save for the elect—off the face of the planet. Obviously, annihilation is not the meaning given the word at 1 Corinthians 5:5, a fact that should cause us to give more careful consideration to 2 Thessalonians 1:9. But that is a discussion for another time.
HELPS Word-studies gives the following:
3639 ólethros (from ollymi/“destroy”) – properly, ruination with its full, destructive results (LS). 3639 /ólethros (“ruination”) however does not imply “extinction” (annihilation). Rather it emphasizes the consequent loss that goes with the complete “undoing.”
Given this, it would seem that the New Living Translation is giving us a reasonably accurate translation of Paul’s thoughts on the benefit of cutting this sinner off from the congregation.
The man was to be handed over to Satan. He was not to be associated with. Christians would not eat with him, an action which in those days signified one was at peace with those at the table. Since eating together was a regular part of Christian worship, this would mean the man would not be included in Christian gatherings. (1 Corinthians 11:20; Jude 12) Thus there is nothing to suggest that first century Christians required the sinner to go through a humiliating process of sitting quietly for months on end while being pointedly ignored by the rest of the attendees as evidence of his or her repentance.
We should take special note that this command by Paul was not given exclusively to the elders. There is no evidence to support the idea of a judicial committee that made a ruling which every member of the congregation was expected to submit to obediently. This direction from Paul was given to all individuals in the congregation. It was for each one to determine if and how to apply it.
Most scholars agree that only a few months went by before the second letter from Paul arrived. By then, the circumstances had changed. The sinner had repented and turned around. Paul now called for a different action. Reading 2 Corinthians 2:6 we find this:
Darby Bible Translation
Sufficient to such a one [is] this rebuke which [has been inflicted] by the many;
English Revised Version
Sufficient to such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the many;
Webster’s Bible Translation
Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted by many.
Weymouth New Testament
In the case of such a person the punishment which was inflicted by the majority of you is enough.
Note that not all inflicted this rebuke or punishment upon the sinner; but the majority did, and that was enough. Nevertheless, there was a danger for both the former sinner as well as the congregation were this punishment to continue for too long a period of time.
For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 7so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. 9For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs. – 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 ESV
Lamentably, in today’s religious climate, Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the foremost failures in this test of obedience. Their rigid, stern, and often harsh process for forgiveness forces the sinner to endure a twice-weekly humiliation for many months, and even years, after having expressed repentance and turned away from sin. This practice has caused them to fall into a trap of Satan. The Devil has exploited their own sense of self-righteousness to outwit them and turn them from the course of Christian love and mercy.
How it must please him to see so many little ones overwhelmed by excessive sorrow and fall away, even to the point of agnosticism and atheism. All because the individual cannot be allowed to decide for himself when to extend mercy, but rather he is forced to comply with the decision of a quorum of three men. Unity—which really means compliance with direction from the Governing Body—is placed on a higher plane than love.
In an aside, when a man, or a group of men, claim to be speaking for God and demand unquestioning obedience, they are demanding that which only God has the right to demand: exclusive devotion.
“I, Jehovah your God, am a God who requires exclusive devotion, bringing punishment for the error of fathers upon sons..” (Ex 20:5)
When Sin Is Not Quite Sin
How does one deal with wrong conduct that doesn’t rise to the level of overt sin, such as that committed by the Corinthian brother? Matthew 18:15-17 doesn’t apply in such cases, but the case of certain ones in the Thessalonian congregation is quite illustrative. Actually, it seems to apply particularly in situations where those who are misbehaving are in a position of responsibility.
To lay the groundwork, we need to look at the first letter Paul wrote to the brothers in Thessalonica.
“In fact, you know that we never used flattering speech or put on any false front with greedy motives; God is witness! 6 Nor have we been seeking glory from men, either from you or from others, though we could be an expensive burden as apostles of Christ.” (1Th 2:5, 6)
“Make it your aim to live quietly and to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk decently in the eyes of people outside and not need anything.” (1Th 4:11, 12)
Paul is not contradicting Jesus’ words to the effect that a worker is worthy of his wages. (Luke 10:7) In fact, he elsewhere acknowledges that he and the other apostles had such authority to become an “expensive burden”, but out of love they chose not to. (2Th 3:9) This became part of the instructions he imparted to the Thessalonians, what he calls in his second letter, the tradition that he imparted to them. (2Th 2:15; 3:6)
However, in time, some in the congregation deviated from his example and started to impose themselves on the brothers. Upon learning of this, Paul gave further instruction. But first he reminded them of what they already knew and had been taught.
“So, then, brothers, stand firm and maintain your hold on the traditions that you were taught, whether it was by a spoken message or by a letter from us.” (2Th 2:15)
The former instructions they’d received in writing or by word of mouth had now become part of their Christian way of life. They had become traditions to guide them. There is nothing wrong with a tradition as long as it is based in truth. Traditions of men that contravene God’s law are another thing entirely. (Mr 7:8-9) Here, Paul is speaking of divine instruction that had become part of the traditions of the congregation, so these are good traditions.
“Now we are giving you instructions, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to withdraw from every brother who is walking disorderly and not according to the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you should imitate us, because we did not behave in a disorderly way among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food free. On the contrary, by labor and toil we were working night and day so as not to impose an expensive burden on any one of you. 9 Not that we do not have authority, but we wanted to offer ourselves as an example for you to imitate. 10 In fact, when we were with you, we used to give you this order: “If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.” 11 For we hear that some are walking disorderly among you, not working at all, but meddling with what does not concern them. 12 To such people we give the order and exhortation in the Lord Jesus Christ that they should work quietly and eat food they themselves earn.” (2Th 3:6-12)
The context is clear. The instructions given and the example previously set by Paul was that each should provide for himself and not become a burden on others. So those “walking disorderly and not according to the tradition” previously received by the Thessalonians were those who were not working at all but living off the hard work of others, all the while meddling in affairs that did not concern them.
Throughout the last two millennia of Christianity, those who have lived off others, not working for themselves, but rather spending their time by meddling in the affairs of others have been those who have sought to lord it over the flock. The willingness of the human species to grant power and authority to those who do not deserve it is well known to us. How does one deal with those in a position of authority when they begin to walk in a disorderly fashion?
Paul’s counsel is powerful. Like his counsel to the Corinthians to stop associating with a sinner, this counsel is also applied by the individual. In the case of the Corinthian brother, they cut off all association. The man was handed over to Satan. He was like a man of the nations. In short, he was no longer a brother. This is not the case here. These men were not sinning, though their conduct, if left unchecked would eventually descend into sin. These men were “walking disorderly”. What did Paul mean when he said that we are to “withdraw” from such men? He clarified his words farther on.
“For your part, brothers, do not give up in doing good. 14 But if anyone is not obedient to our word through this letter, keep this one marked and stop associating with him, so that he may become ashamed. 15 And yet do not consider him an enemy, but continue admonishing him as a brother.” (2Th 3:13-15)
Most translations render “keep this one marked” as “take note”. So Paul is not speaking about some formal congregation policy or process. He wants us each to determine this for ourselves. What a simple, yet effective, method for correcting men who are getting out of hand. Peer pressure will often do what words cannot. Imagine a congregation where the elders are getting carried away with their power, meddling in the affairs of others, imposing their personal opinions and conscience on the flock. (I’ve known a few like this firsthand.) So what do you do? You obey God’s word and cut off all social contact with the offending ones. They don’t get invited to gatherings. They are not welcome in your home. If they invite you over, you decline. If they ask why, you ‘admonish them’ as you would any brother by being frank about the problem. How else will they learn? You stop associating with them outside of the confines of the congregation until they clean up their act.
This is more of a challenge now than it would have been in the first century, because then they elected their older men by spirit-directed consensus at the local congregation level. Now, the older men are given the title “’Elder” and are appointed institutionally. The holy spirit has little if anything to do with it. Thus, following Paul’s counsel will be seen as disdaining authority. Since the elders are the local representatives of the Governing Body, any challenge to their authority will be seen as a challenge to the authority of the Organization as a whole. So applying Paul’s counsel could well turn out to be a significant test of faith.
In this article as well as the first one, one thing is clear. The congregation was directed by Jesus and by holy spirit to deal with sin and with disorderly ones as a collective of individuals. Sinners are not dealt with by a small cabal of overseers appointed by a remote central authority. That makes sense, because of the old adage, “Who watches the watchers.” What happens then those charged with dealing with sinners are themselves the sinners? Only if the congregation acts unitedly as a whole can sin be properly handled and the health of the congregation be protected. The method used by Jehovah’s Witnesses is a variant of the old Roman Catholic model with its star-chamber justice. It cannot end in anything good, but instead will slowly damage the health of the congregation by stymieing the flow of the holy spirit. Eventually it leads to the corruption of the whole.
If we have moved away from the congregation or church we have formerly associated with and are now gathering in small groups as the first Christians did, we can do no better than to re-implement the methods our Lord gave us at Matthew 18:15-17 as well as the additional guidance provided by Paul to control the corrupting influence of sin.