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Matthew 18 and the Christian Journalist

“If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother.  But if he won’t listen, take one or two others with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established.  If he doesn’t pay attention to them, tell the church.  If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile or a tax collector to you.” –Matthew 18:15-17

Many Christians have a distaste for hard-hitting journalism, especially when it concerns our own.  This distaste sometimes gets wrapped in biblical language.  For example, when MinistryWatch writes a story critical of a ministry leader, we sometimes get emails telling us to “touch not God’s anointed.” (see Psalm 105:15.)

But by far the most common criticism we get comes from well-meaning people who tell us the person we’ve written about might deserve criticism, but that criticism should be done according to the principles of Matthew 18:15-17 (quoted in full above).  They say the proper course of action for addressing wrongdoing by church leaders is to confront that person face-to-face.  If the person doesn’t repent, take the offending leader before an ever-widening circle until the person repents or is turned out of the church altogether.

I have a high regard for this argument and this process. Indeed, just so you will have no doubt about my own position, let me be clear on this point: I believe that Scripture is the inerrant word of God and is “profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

But both a valid interpretation (hermeneutic) and the proper application of Scripture are essential. Too often, these verses get used to justify the bad behavior of Christian leaders, or to insulate them from accountability.  Those who use Matthew 18 also often ignore many other, and equally relevant, verses.  For example, what about verses (James 3:1, Titus 1:5-9) that clearly hold teachers and pastors to higher standards?  What about verses that plainly speak of God’s zeal for justice and truth (Isaiah 9:7)?  What about verses that command His people to be watchmen, guarding the innocent against evildoers (Ezekiel 3:17-19)?

In other words, we must consider the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) if we are to arrive at a truly Biblical understanding of Matthew 18:15-17.

The Prerequisites For Applying Matthew 18

With that idea and these verses in mind, let’s take a closer look at this passage to see if and how it applies to Christian journalism, investigative journalism in particular.

The first thing to note about Matthew 18: 15-17 is that it presumes the following conditions:

  1. This is a personal conflict between individuals.  The passage specifically says, “If someone has wronged you.”  This passage, while vital and helpful to the healing and restoration of personal relationships, clearly has a limited application.
  2. There are witnesses to the situation to establish the facts.
  3. The judgments and punishments that the church has at its disposal (disfellowship or excommunication, for example) are sufficient to provide justice and the possibility of restoration.
  4. The wrongdoing is of sufficient seriousness that, if guilt is in fact determined, excommunication is an appropriate response.

For situations in which these conditions exist, this passage is prescriptive and helpful.

However, it should be obvious that these conditions are not present in many conflicts and controversies, even between those who are Christians.  Most differences of opinion and interpersonal conflicts do not rise to a level requiring adjudication by a church body.

On the other end of the scale, neither should this passage prevent the victim of a crime from going immediately to the police, even if the perpetrator was a fellow church member.  Nor would it prevent a Christian police officer from writing a ticket to a speeder – even if they were members of the same church.  A widow would not be violating Matthew 18 if she sued an insurance company – even a Christian owned agency – for failing to pay upon the death of her husband.

In short, Matthew 18 is powerful and effective for dealing with specific kinds of conflicts and sinful behavior within the church.  It also provides principles (which we discuss below) for dealing with many other kinds of conflicts.  However, it is not a “one size fits all” solution to bringing wrongdoers in the church to repentance and restoration.  Nor does it provide specific guidance for providing justice and restitution to victims.  Scripture provides guidance elsewhere for answers to such questions.  The “whole counsel of God” requires us to include — but not be limited to — Matthew 18 in our consideration of such matters.

So Matthew 18 rarely applies directly in matters of investigative journalism.  Nonetheless, investigative journalism, governmental authorities (police and the justice system), and other institutions of civil society can help bring justice, heal relationships, and restore victims.  And the principles of Matthew 18 can be an aid to these outcomes.

The Principles of Matthew 18 Applied to Journalism

While it may not be possible to adhere strictly to the prescription laid out in Matthew 18 in every case, it is possible to keep the goals and principles in mind.  These goals and principles include:

Hold The Wrongdoer Accountable.  These are the clear goals of Matthew 18, and they should also be the goals of responsible journalists.

The Testimony of “Two or Three Witnesses.” Matthew 18 says that if the wrongdoer does not repent when confronted, the person wronged should bring “two or three witnesses” to corroborate the matter.

This language is an echo of Deuteronomy 19:15, which says: “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”  Responsible journalists should follow the same principle and have at least two sources for any contested facts in a story.

Process matters.  Though the Christian journalist is not compelled to follow Matthew 18 in the pursuit of a news story, a Christian journalist should ask if a biblical process of accountability and restoration is already at work.  If so, will this story derail or impede that process?  If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” it is the policy of MinistryWatch to refrain from such a story until the restoration process is complete, has broken down, or has been made public by the parties involved.

In the final analysis, Matthew 18 is not prescriptive for the Christian journalist.  However, both Matthew 18 and the responsible Christian journalist do agree on one vital point:  The truth matters.  Both Christian journalists in pursuit of a story, and those who attempt to apply Matthew 18 in matters of church discipline, should never lose sight of this pre-eminent goal.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.