Many of us are guilty of it. I admit that I am. We sometimes selectively use Scripture to bolster our arguments. When we want to win a point in a debate over theology, methodology, ecclesiology, or the like, we run to our favorite Biblical passage for ammunition to use in the fight. After all, who wants to “lose” a fight and, what better way to “win” than to resort to God’s Word.
Who hasn’t been in a debate with a non-believer — someone who couldn’t tell you if the Gospel of Matthew was in the Old Testament or New Testament — when all of a sudden, they begin quoting a verse from Matthew from memory. Now mind you, the particular verse that he or she quotes has overtaken John 3:16 as the most popular verse in America. It is a short verse, so that has made it easier for cultural Christians to commit to memory, should they ever need it when debating overly judgmental Christian-types. What verse am I talking about? Why Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” (they always seem to memorize it in the KJV).
While Matthew 7:1 is the most popular verse for pagans to use to win a debate with the Bible thumpers, another verse in Matthew has become popular with Christians who want to stifle debate with other Christians. What verse might that be?
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matthew 18:15, ESV)
I must admit that I am not a fan of using this verse to cut off debate or to win an argument. I believe that it not only is a misuse of this particular Scripture, but that many times the use of Matthew 18:15 comes into play when one wants to deflect attention away from the central points of a debate. When you don’t want to defend your position — or more likely the case, when you don’t want to defend the actions or words of someone who you like — you can pull Matthew 18:15 out to redirect an opponent away from pursuing a friend or an ally.
The latest example of the use of the Matthew 18:15 defense is occurring in the context of a discussion at SBCVoices (here) regarding criticism of Dr. James Merritt, Senior Pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Georgia and a former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, by certain bloggers (here, here, here and here), including yours truly (here).
In response to an email inquiry sent by Voices Editor Dave Miller to Dr. Merritt regarding his “alleged” involvement in a multi-level direct marketing scheme called Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing (FHTM), the Communications Director for Cross Pointe, Gene Mason, wasted no time in taking Matthew 18:15 out of his arsenal in an attempt to defend Dr. Merritt’s refusal to respond to (unnamed) critical blog posts. Said Mason:
“Pastor Merritt has chosen not to respond to blog entries he recently was made aware of because (1) the authors have already defied Matthew 18:15 . . . ” (Mr. Mason’s full email response can be read here)
I’m still not sure what it means to “defie” Matthew 18:15, but someone proficient in communication must know better than I what that means. In any event, just because a Pastor, Communications Director, Blogger, or Commenter says that something defies or contravenes Matthew 18:15 does not make it so. A person is certainly within their rights to interpret Matthew 18:15 as applying to this situation, but that person’s interpretation is not binding on anyone else.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Mr. Mason meant that certain bloggers have “defied” Matthew 18:15 because they did not first contact Dr. Merritt regarding his involvement in FHTM. Of course, also for the sake of argument, let’s stipulate to the fact that Dr. Merritt’s participation in FHTM was public knowledge through the posting of public videos (since deleted) on the internet showing Dr. Merritt extolling the virtues of FHTM. Let’s further stipulate to the fact that Dr. Merritt, through Mr. Mason’s email to SBCVoices, admits that Dr. Merritt “was involved in FHTM.” Finally, let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Dr. Merritt “found it (FHTM) to be a reputable organization” during the time of his involvement.
Of course, that’s all well and good, but that doesn’t answer if or how Matthew 18:15 should be applied to well-known Christian figures prior to any public criticism or questioning of that figure’s actions or words. The way that I read Mr. Mason’s response, it would appear that any criticism of Dr. Merritt (or any other Christian) can only happen if and when a “critic” contacts the object of criticism or questioning in advance of writing anything negative.
If one were inclined to view the Church as “universal” first and “local” second, then one could argue that a Christian brother in New Mexico or North Carolina is mandated — via Matthew 18:15 — to always try to make contact with the offending brother or sister before anything negative or critical is written. If that were the case (which I don’t believe it is), then would we not also be obligated to contact an offending Southern Baptist as well as an offending Moderate Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, or Catholic before questioning their words or actions or books in our blog posts? Before I questioned the Pope about his thoughts on the Big Bang Theory, shouldn’t I have at least tried to email the Vatican? The next time that I criticize President Obama (a professed Christian), I suppose I should shoot out an email to the White House for a response. That is, unless you think that only Southern Baptists are part of the universal church!
I could offer more examples, but you may begin to understand that the Matthew 18:15 argument, as selectively employed by Mr. Mason and others to stifle debate, collapses under its own weight. One need only peruse the blog sites of some well-known SBC bloggers to conclude that they probably don’t contact all the subjects (many times professed Christians) of their critical blog posts prior to publication.
Kinda reminds me of my freshman year at George Washington University when I lived in Thurston Hall. Marijuana consumption was rampant in the Fall of 1984 and I had often complained to the Resident Assistant on my floor. She knew about the pot smoking, but chose not to enforce the clear rules. One day, a friend and I were kicking a soccer ball in the long hallway on the 7th floor. That also was a clear violation of the rules. The RA came around the corner, picked up the soccer ball and said she was going to confiscate it because we were violating the rules.
I simply turned to her and said, “If you’re going to enforce that rule, why don’t you go ahead and start enforcing all the rules.” Needless to say, she handed me back the soccer ball. The moral of the story: if you’re going to apply Matthew 18:15 to your theological opponents, you better start applying it to your theological friends! Or, better yet, don’t apply it where it clearly doesn’t belong.