Matthew 18: 15-17, the Ploy of False Teachers


     The word of God has been provided to man by God to offer "doctrine," "reproof," "correction," and "instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3: 16, 17). Alas, it is regrettable that some "twist" these very scriptures to their own destruction and often to the spiritual harm of those whom they influence (2 Pet. 3: 16). Matthew 18: 15-17 continues to be perverted by teachers of error in an apparent effort to deflect and remove the spotlight from them and refocus it on others (those exposing their false teaching), claiming that the passage forbids any public exposure. Many of them further state that not only must one come to them privately, but if he and they are not members of the same local church, there can be no exposure or challenge at all. Jesus taught:

     "15: Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16: But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17: And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican" (Matt. 18).

     As we shall shortly examine and point out, "against thee" is missing in some Greek manuscripts and texts and is, therefore, omitted in some English translations, thus providing the impetus needed for false teachers to be able to confuse people and establish their lack of public accountability. Anterior to examining the text of Matthew 18, let us notice some examples as to how false teaching and behavior were sometimes handled.

     Some Bible examples regarding the handling of public false teaching and conduct. In logic, one simple way to overthrow a proposition is by noticing facts that are incongruous to the position being taken. It is a basic and undeniable fact that certain ones obviously having the approval of God did not follow the protocol of Matthew 18: 15-17 when addressing public circumstances. Our first example involves a sin committed by Peter, which was publicly rebuked by Paul. "But when Peter was come to Antioch," wrote Paul, "I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed" (Gal. 2: 14). Peter’s behavior had taught a false lesson and since it had been public, Paul addressed it in a very public manner, "before them all" (see Gal. 2: 12-14). Paul did not first privately go to Peter, then take witnesses, etc.

     Our next example of one publicly exposing those to whom he had not privately and individually gone is that of Jesus himself. Consider his statement, the statement upon which the Sermon on the Mount is built:

     "19: Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20: For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5).

     Many of the Pharisees openly taught error and perverted the word of God. Jesus very publicly exposed them and warned others not to be influenced by these errorists.

     Another example involves the apostle John and a church boss by the name of Diotrephes. Regarding Diotrephes John cogently penned:

     "9: I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. 10: Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church. 11: Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God" (3 John).

     It is evident that in the case of Paul, Jesus, and John, the procedure set forth in Matthew 18: 15-17 was not followed. Should Paul, Jesus, and John have first gone to Peter, the Pharisees, and Diotrephes, respectively? Did Paul, Jesus, and John sin?

     In order to avoid any misunderstanding, allow me to present a clear example of what I am addressing. I knew the personal beliefs and teachings of a certain man who was gaining influence in a public forum. I posed the following public question to him:

     "Do you believe that the lost can be saved without scriptural baptism?"

     I thought the question was fair and reasonable, it avoided a personal attack or presenting information concerning which the audience would not be in possession of any pertinent facts. His reply to me before the audience was:

     "Don Martin had no right to treat me in this fashion. I apologize for his behavior and I wish you had not been subjected to such horrible deeds. If Don had a problem with me, he should have obeyed Jesus’ teaching to deal with me privately instead of in the public forum. Don has sinned and manifested a corrupt and despicable character. Don has demonstrated the fact of his divisiveness….!"

     What Matthew 18: 15-17 is teaching. Jesus knew that there would be occasions even involving Christians when one would sin against another. Hence, Jesus provided instruction pertaining to the one who has sinned against another and also for the one against whom he has sinned (Matt. 5: 23-26; 18: 15-17). The sinner is not to delay going to the one sinned against and the sinned against is not to simply shun, tell others, or wait for the sinner to come, he is to go and inform the sinner of his sin (Luke 17: 3, 4). "Brother Martin, you are forgetting that ‘against thee’ is not in Matthew 18: 15-17; hence, one must privately approach all circumstances involving another in sin," I am told.

     As conceded, "against thee" (eis eme) is missing in some manuscripts, but does such definitively prove its non-existence? Who is the "thee" of Matthew 18: 15-17? If the "thee" refers to all Christians, as we are being told it does, then all Christians are to privately go, take witnesses, tell it to the church. Such is ridiculous and easily illustrates that Jesus is not generally addressing the act of sin. In Luke 17: 1-4, there is no question or possible quibble regarding the manuscript authority and placement of "against thee" (see Luke 17: 4, by comparing Luke 17: 1-4 with Matthew 18: 6, 17, 18, it is evident that Luke 17: 1-4 is addressing precisely the same situation as Matthew 18: 15-17 addresses). Also, it is apparent that Peter understood Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18: 15-17 as being personal ("against thee") as opposed to general because he asked, "…Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?...." (Matt. 18: 21, there is no question as to the presence of "against me" in Matthew 18: 21).

     There is a serious difference between public and private, personal sins. It is a difference that necessitates a difference in approach. Consider this example of personal, private sin: A brother out of anger slaps another in the face and there are no witnesses. He, the sinned against, has the responsibility to go to the brother and rebuke him (Luke 17: 3, 4). If that brother does not repent, the sinned against is to then take witnesses. He could obtain proof before witnesses by asking, "Did you slap me because…?," and the brother might answer, "No, it was because…." The witnesses could then verify that the sin did take place. However, it would be disastrous for the brother to publicly charge another brother when the whole incident was private and providing no proof so others could make a correct determination (cp. John 8: 16-18; I Tim. 5: 19, 20).

     The sample question that I asked in the public forum was designed to both ascertain the position of the preacher regarding baptism and to do so in a way that provided proof of his position (the audience). It is interesting that the usual response is that which I mention in my example, attack the person asking the question and to deflect by placing the attention on the one asking a legitimate question. Moreover, such is of interest because the respondent is doing precisely the very thing of which he is charging the one asking the question, he is violating Matthew 18: 15-17, according to his own understanding of the teaching. Thus, he is showing himself to be inconsistent and rejecting the forced practice of his own understanding (he did not first go privately, etc.). Such blatant inconsistency reveals more than just a misunderstanding of Matthew 18: 15-17, I am afraid.

     Public teachers are publicly accountable. Public teachers are under tremendous responsibility and pressure (Jas. 3: 1). One instance of teaching error, whether deliberately or unknowingly, can result in souls being lost (cp. Jas. 5: 19, 20). One should never resent and adversely react to a posed question that is obviously designed to elicit one’s position (cp. Acts 15). When there is resentment, such reveals either lack of ability and qualification to be a public teacher or a flawed character. I believe the seriousness of teaching only the truth is why we see Paul, Jesus, and John thus responding in a public way. "Brother Martin, does not Acts 18: 24-26 disprove the public approach that you have defended and that you often practice?," I am on occasion asked.

     "25: This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John. 26: And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly" (Acts 18).

     It is explained that since Aquila and Priscilla privately instructed Apollos, such is binding and further shows Matthew 18: 15-17 is general. Such is an example of a sloppy and irreconcilable hermeneutic. Remember that we still have the examples of Paul, Jesus, and John, they did not first privately address the matter. There are occasions that judgment may suggest a private approach. I have never denied this and have often so done. However, there are many other circumstances where the public approach is the wiser and more advantageous.

     In closing, Matthew 18: 15-17 contains wonderful teaching that is specific in nature and scope and pertains to a specific circumstance, what the personally sinned against is to do. To attempt to force Matthew 18: 15-17 to be general and establish a universal protocol for the treatment of all sin, including the teaching of false doctrine and thus preclude public exposure is to make Paul, Jesus, and John sinners. We must not allow the abuse of Jesus’ teaching to be the ploy, stratagem, and deflection of false teachers (they are compounding their false teaching by so perverting Matthew 18: 15-17 and making a requirement that God never made).