Don't Just Forgive
Don't Just Forgive
Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life
Austin, Michael W. and R. Douglas Geivett
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
December 20, 2011
292 pp., $19.90
If your brother sins against you, go privately and reprove him. If he listens, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that, with the word of two witnesses, or even three, the whole matter may be resolved. But if he refuses to listen to then, tell it to the church. And if again he refuses to listen, even to the church, then regard him as if he was a Gentile or a tax collector. I tell you truly, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt. 18:1518)
How often, when someone has injured us, have we been advised, counseled, or commanded to forgive by members of our community? This is one of the most familiar rituals of contemporary Protestant Christianity. But this counsel is muddled, at best, and spiritually injurious at worst.
When you have been seriously wronged, should you not follow the wise counsel of Jesus? If, in following his counsel as recorded in Matthew 18, you are dealing with a recalcitrant wrongdoer who has injured you, by all means, search out one or two members of your community to join in confronting him with his sin. But choose wisely. It is a near certainty that even the most likely candidates for this critical responsibility will tell you to "get on with forgiving the person already." This casual reflex betrays a shortage of the virtue of forgiveness among such "counselors."
The tragedy is, when you've been wronged, there may be no one to whom you can go. Or the pain of injustice you've already experienced may be compounded by absurd counsel that presumes to be the wisdom of God.
This is yet another arresting indicator of the sad state of the Western church. We have allowed ourselves to slip into patterns of behavior that we think have the authority of Scripture, but are simply means of skirting responsibility.
Oddly, injured members of our community are likely to be rebuffed when they ask for assistance in dealing with a sinning member. When that happens, further injury is done to offended parties. For all intents and purposes, leaders, who should "man up" and take a firm stance regarding sin against a brother and sister, often conspire with the wrongdoer through inaction or, worse, level the playing field.
Conveniently, many leaders today presume that when there has been a rupture in relationship between two members of their community, both are blameworthy. Of course, this frequently is the case. But it is not always the case. And leaders are ill-prepared for the reality of asymmetric wrongdoing.
We know it to be a reality because of Jesus' own teaching. His counsel in Matthew 18 presupposes a context of asymmetrical harm done by one person to another. The corrupt action and its disastrous effects are unilateral. Faithful exegesis requires this interpretation.
What then? A great portion of Jesus' teaching in this passage focuses on the responsibilities of others to intervene on behalf of injured persons. This is an important protection for the injured person. If he is rebuffed when he approaches the wrongdoer about his sin, he should be able to have confidence that others will validate the wrongness of what has been done, and step up with aid in holding the wrongdoer accountable.
In every such instance of significant wrongdoing, there is always the possibility that others will need to take action. Initially, one or two of them may need to accompany the offended person—with the purpose of confronting the wrongdoer with his sin and challenging him to repent. If that fails, because there has been no repentance, then the case of wrongdoing is to be made known to the rest of the fellowship. And if that doesn't do the trick, the guilty person is to be removed from active participation in the community. "Regard him as if he were a Gentile or a tax collector," Jesus says (verse 17). In other words, treat him as if he were an unbeliever, someone who is not a member of the community.