Thursday, May 27, 2010
Matthew 18 -- NOT the Miranda Rights of the Church
Having had a little experience with the system of dispute resolution and reconciliation that replaced the adjudication structures based on a judicial model, I have learned a few things. First of all I am literally tired of all the talk about Matthew 18. Our Lord did not mean for this to become the Miranda Rights of the Church for those who have been offended. He did not intend for this to be a legalistic means to enforce reconciliation. He did not intend the various steps of Matthew 18 to be a rule book or SOP manual to be followed in order to make people get along. I know there are those who will disagree with me, but I am beginning to wonder if we are not guilty of making too much of Jesus’s words here – raising these words to the level of a the ultimate law that governs our relationships and defines how we deal with conflict or dispute in the Church. In doing so, I wonder if we have not lost some common sense.
I wonder if Matthew 18 is more about a question for our consideration – is the relationship more important or that which is in contention? The answer is not automatic. Sometimes the issue in contention IS more important than the relationship and sometimes the relationship is more important. Surely Jesus is not saying to us that the relationship is always more important than the issue in dispute. That would turn issues of truth and doctrine into secondary issues to the relationship between the people. There must be a place for both in the Church – a means to reconciliation when the issues are deemed less important than the relationship and a means to hold to the truth when the compromise of that truth compromises the very Gospel that is His gift to us.
Yes, it would be great if we could gather together those in conflict or dispute and be objective about it all and each acknowledge our fault and beg each other’s forgiveness. I am all for it. But the truth is that some (some might say many) of those who have conflict and dispute with others are not inclined to honest reflection or objective review. They want revenge. They want vindication. They want redress. They want some sort of compensation for the wrongs they believe have been done to them. They want the world to admit they were right and everyone else was wrong. And that is NOT what our Lord had in mind when He spoke about the loss of a brother in Christ, the address of a wrong, and how the relationship might be restored.
Indeed, it might be a worth considering whether the “brother” who is seeking something other than reconciliation is, in fact, a “brother.” When someone who feels wronged is out to hurt the one who wronged him, has he not forsaken the brotherly relationship? Jesus’ says reconciliation is the result of the Spirit’s work through the Word, in the heart and life of God’s people. Jesus did not give equal status to negotiation in which a little give and take can create a political solution to what is a spiritual problem. What creates reconciliation is not understanding but equal status under the Word of the Lord and openness to the working of the Spirit through that Word.
Jesus was not speaking from the vantage point of rights to be protected the way we speak today. We have in our by-laws many words about the rights and the protection of those rights. We structure the process to sort out the competing rights of the different parties to a dispute. Even if reconciliation cannot be achieved, we feel we have accomplished something by protecting people’s rights. But tThe language of rights is not from Scripture. It is from our modern culture (at least the last 300 years). We demand our rights but the very nature of Jesus’ service to us is that He disdained what was His right in order do what was love’s privilege and give Himself up for a people who neither voted for him nor sought His intervention. “While we were yet sinners and enemies” of God our Lord undertook to bear the guilt for our sins and pay the price for our redemption. Is the way we look at rights and their protection a reflection of this Gospel or of our American culture with its guarantees of rights to all citizens?
In the end, I think reconciliation is a good goal and we ought to work toward reconciliation at the foot of the cross. At the same time, we must acknowledge that those who want something other than reconciliation can and do hijack the intent of Matthew 18 and create a legalistic process more concerned about giving someone his due than what is right or wrong or how to reconcile those in conflict or dispute.
I do not think we kept the intent of our Lord by structuring a process which was more judicial than conciliatory but neither do I think we keep the intent of the Lord by turning settling for a reconciliation process which is more about the exercise of individual rights and their protection.... Just something to think about.