Matthew 18 and the Universal Church

Josh Buice

open pocket bible on green surface

Last week, I wrote an article about the problems that I personally perceive regarding the ministry of Andy Stanley.  I learned a great lesson from that article.  I can call out false teachers for heresy, but if I criticize someone within the bounds of evangelicalism for error, I’ve somehow crossed the line.  Occasionally, on this blog, I write about books and ministries that people should avoid.  For instance, I’ve written about Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer.  In both cases, I have openly referred to them as heretics.  In my article regarding Andy Stanley’s problem with the Bible, I didn’t call him a heretic.  I do have serious concerns regarding the trajectory of his ministry given some recent decisions, but at this point, I must still refer to him as a brother.

Every once in a while I receive an e-mail from a concerned reader of this blog asking me if I had taken time to contact someone before I publicly named them in my article.  This past week, I received more than one e-mail asking me that very question.  In fact, I received at least ten such e-mails and some were quite critical of my intentions as they accused me of sin for not following the model of church discipline found in Matthew 18.  So the question remains – should I have contacted Pastor Andy Stanley before I made him the center figure in a critical article?

The Context of Matthew 18

As Jesus provides the detailed process of church discipline in Matthew 18, He uses the word ἐκκλησία translated church in our English Bible.  This is not the first time Jesus has used this word in the New Testament.  In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  It’s clear from the context of Matthew 18 and Matthew 16, that Jesus is using the word church in two different ways.  In His statement in Matthew 16:18, it’s clear that He is referring to the universal church.  For we certainly know that the gates of hell have prevailed against some local churches throughout redemptive history.  In Matthew 18:17, Jesus uses the word church in reference to the local church.

In the context of Matthew 18:15-20, we see that the sin is personal, private, and the person guilty of the offense is personally accessible.  This all points to the local church as the context of Jesus’ detailed model for solving sin problems within the church.  Most conservative Christians will agree that church discipline is nearly an archaic method that’s largely absent from the normal life of the evangelical church.  This is an unfortunate observation indeed.  John Leadley Dagg, the author of a well-known and influential church manual of the nineteenth century, noted, “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” [1]

In May of 2011, D.A. Carson addresses the abuse of Matthew 18 in a theological journal known as Themelios. According to Carson:

Person A writes a book criticizing some element or other of historic Christian confessionalism. A few bloggers respond with more heat than light. Person B writes a blog with some substance, responding to Person A. The blogosphere lights up with attacks on Person B, many of them asking Person B rather accusingly, “Did you communicate with Person A in private first? If not, aren’t you guilty of violating what Jesus taught us in Matthew 18?” This pattern of counter-attack, with minor variations, is flourishing.

Carson provides some well thought out answers to this popular scenario.  Likewise, J. C. Ryle writes, “If this second course proves useless, we are to refer the whole matter to the Christian congregation of which we are members: we are to ‘tell it to the church’ (verse 17).” [2]  It’s obvious that the context of Matthew 18 is referring to a local church and interpersonal relationships as opposed to the extended universal church.

The Dilemma

The obvious dilemma is clearly seen when Matthew 18 is read within its proper context.  In my case, suppose that I took time to reach out to Andy Stanley before I wrote my article and he graciously welcomed a conversation over coffee.  What if after I confronted Andy Stanley he simply replied and suggested that we operate from a different ministry philosophy?  What is my next step?  Do I return with two witnesses?  What if we sit down for a meeting again with witnesses and he sticks to his position?  Should we demand that he allow me to publicly accuse him before his congregation that I’m not a member of?

If you think through the process, goals, and practice of church discipline in accordance with Matthew 18, it’s clearly reserved for local church matters.  So, while I appreciate the care of people who have suggested that I should have reached out to Andy Stanley before I wrote the article, I disagree with their conclusion.  I think the text is clear and the obvious dilemma of being outside of his congregation prevents the entire process of Matthew 18 from being possible.  If I were a member or an elder within Andy Stanley’s church, I would have handled myself in a different way and followed the steps of Matthew 18.

The Freedom of Critique

In the end, we have the freedom of critique when it comes to public figures, authors, and preachers.  I do think that at times polemic ministries can go overboard in their attempt to warn people regarding dangerous doctrines and heretics.  I’ve certainly watched specific polemic ministries become so myopic that they tend to focus on the smallest difference as opposed to the big issues and false teachers that are plaguing the church.

As we study the context of Matthew 18, we see that church discipline is something that must be taken seriously and practiced today. How many people who insisted that I speak with Andy Stanley before writing my article actually practice Matthew 18 in their own life and church?  How many of those people attend a church where someone has been publicly disciplined within the last five or ten years?  The fact is, the church that I serve practices church discipline and we have seen positive fruit from this biblical method of confronting error.  Following the Lord’s detailed plan for church discipline is essential for a healthy church.

After reading Matthew 18, we likewise come to understand that when someone writes a book or preaches a sermon and the content of the message is troubling, it’s not sinful to write an article about it.  If your pastor preaches a sermon that you disagree with, it would not be biblical to take issue with him on your blog on Monday morning.  If you have an issue with someone in your local church, you should likewise have access to that individual – even the pastor of a megachurch.

Writing articles to confront error can be helpful and promote greater health within the church as a whole if carried out in a biblical manner.  We should avoid becoming overly critical, but we should not refrain from being critical when necessary.  If someone leaves a church because they disagree with their former pastor and leadership, they don’t have open freedom to attack their former pastor and church online.  Before writing an article or calling out someone on social media, think about your goal and ask yourself if you are exercising wisdom in your attempt to confront error.  I’ve certainly ran too quickly to the blog in the eleven years that I’ve been writing this blog.  Could I have reached out to Andy Stanley before writing my article?  Absolutely.  Was I mandated according to Matthew 18 to make contact with Andy Stanley before I called him out publicly?  Absolutely not.

  1. John L. Dagg, A Treatise on Church Order (Paris, Arkansas: Baptist Standard Bearer, 2006), 274.
  2. J. C. Ryle, Matthew, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 162.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Author open pocket bible on green surface

Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He is married to Kari and they have four children, Karis, John Mark, Kalli, and Judson. Additionally, he serves as Assistant Professor of Preaching at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors, including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.