Very often, when Christians disagree with a popular teacher, someone will bring up the “Biblical requirement” that the accusers should have gone to the person before publically stating their disagreement. They refer to a couple of verses in Matthew 18.
I want to look at this passage, but let’s note a couple of things before we do that.
First, this standard, in my experience, is used selectively. People criticize you for not going to their favorite teacher, but they are quite willing to disagree with other teachers publicly without a previous personal contact. It seems to make a difference who you disagree with. In both politics and religion, this double standard seems to rule the day.
Second, public teachers are notoriously difficult to contact. They post, publish, or proclaim their teaching then become almost reclusive. Not all, of course, but many. Enough so that it is very likely you would have difficulty getting an answer concerning your disagreement. You can understand this. A teacher writes a book or posts to a popular blog. Let’s say that 10,000 read the book or blog. If only one percent of those people disagree, the author would have to respond to personal contacts from 100 people. It’s easy to see why a teacher might not want to get started in that much correspondence. But does that mean that those who disagree have to keep quiet, since they had no personal contact?
When an author writes a book or a blog, he or she must understand the concept of “going public.” It simply means that the ideas are now out for the world’s examination. Almost all authors understand this. There will be reviews, criticisms, endorsements, or maybe protests—most without personal contact. Those who disagree will use the author’s name and possibly even try to discredit the idea by discrediting the author. Some of us might find that distasteful, perhaps even immoral, but authors and teachers who publish their ideas to the public have to understand that this is how the game is played.
So, let’s go back to Matthew 18:
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.
But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’
And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Matthew 18:15-17(NKJV)
Interesting, isn’t it? Where, exactly, does it say that I have to contact an author or teacher before I publicly disagree? Does the doctrinal concern he presents constitute “sin against” me? I don’t think of an error as sin. Even if I did, the sin wouldn’t be against me. If the teacher named me and misrepresented or misquoted me, it might be sin against me. But, if he simply teaches something with which I disagree, I don’t think that’s sin against me.
I have never really understood how this verse could be used in the situations we are talking about. It’s an important verse about relationships. It is certainly right to confront someone who has sinned against you and deal with that person through this process. But I would not be so quick to call a simple disagreement on doctrine sin—in any form.
Over the years I have encountered this admonition with supporters of legalistic teachers or preachers. They engender a considerable loyalty among their followers. Pointing to Matthew 18 has usually been a way of telling me or others to “shut up.” Disagreement with the teacher is not acceptable, apparently. Sometimes I have seen this used in church disputes and sometimes it is appropriate. Very often church problems become intensely personal and there is sin committed against fellow members. When we sin against each other, we should be ready to deal with the offense and the pain it caused.
Perhaps it will be helpful to look at Paul’s example. He names some of the people with whom he disagrees and there is little to indicate that he talked with them first (1 Cor. 1:11+; Phil. 4:2; 1 Tim. 1:20). In fact, Paul makes some fairly strong statements about these people—based on their teaching. John does a similar thing in 3 John 9-10. Now, I don’t know for certain that there was no personal contact. That must be said. But there is no statement about a personal contact before the negative assessments are given.
Look: if you can contact someone to discuss your concerns before you publicly state your disagreement, by all means do it. You may be the tool God uses to bring them back (or they may help you to see God’s truth.) But if this isn’t possible, you can challenge public teaching publicly.
Matthew 18 is a wonderful passage. It shouldn’t be misused.