How are Christians supposed to handle sin in their midst? When there are wrongdoers in the congregation, what direction did our Lord give us on how to deal with them? Is there such a thing as a Christian Judicial System?
The answer to these questions came in response to a seemingly unrelated question put to Jesus by his disciples. On one occasion, they asked him, “Who really is greatest in the Kingdom of the heavens?” (Mt 18:1) This was a recurring theme for them. They seemed overly concerned about position and prominence. (See Mr 9:33-37; Lu 9:46-48; 22:24)
Jesus’ answer showed them that they had much to unlearn; that their notion of leadership, prominence and greatness was all wrong and that unless they changed their mental perception, it would go exceedingly bad for them. In fact, failing to change their attitude could mean eternal death. It could also result in catastrophic suffering for humanity.
He began with a simple object lesson:
“So calling a young child to him, he stood him in their midst 3 and said: “Truly I say to you, unless you turn around and become as young children, you will by no means enter into the Kingdom of the heavens. 4 Therefore, whoever will humble himself like this young child is the one who is the greatest in the Kingdom of the heavens; and whoever receives one such young child on the basis of my name receives me also.” (Mt 18:2-5)
Notice that he said they had to “turn around”, meaning they were already heading in the wrong direction. Then he tells them that to be great they have to become like young children. An adolescent may think he knows more than his parents, but a young child thinks Daddy and Mommy knows it all. When he has a question, he runs to them. When they give him the answer, he accepts it in complete trust, with the unconditional assurance that they would never lie to him.
This is the humble trust we must have in God, and in the one who does nothing of his own initiative, but only what he beholds the Father doing, Jesus Christ. (John 5:19)
Only then can we be great.
If, on the other hand, we don’t adopt this childlike attitude, what then? What are the consequences? They are grave indeed. He goes on in this context to warn us:
“But whoever stumbles one of these little ones who have faith in me, it would be better for him to have hung around his neck a millstone that is turned by a donkey and to be sunk in the open sea.” (Mt 18:6)
A proud attitude born of the desire for prominence would inevitably lead to an abuse of power and a stumbling of the little ones. The retribution for such a sin is too horrendous to contemplate, for who would wish to be pitched into the heart of the sea with a massive stone tied round one’s neck?
Nevertheless, given imperfect human nature, Jesus foresaw the inevitability of this scenario.
“Woe to the world because of the stumbling blocks! Of course, it is inevitable that stumbling blocks will come, but woe to the man through whom the stumbling block comes!” (Mt 18:7)
Woe to the world! The proud attitude, the proud quest for greatness, has lead Christian leaders to commit some of the worst atrocities of history. The dark ages, the Inquisition, countless wars and crusades, the persecution of faithful disciples of Jesus—the list just goes on and on. All because men sought to become powerful and lead others with their own ideas, instead of demonstrating childlike reliance on Christ as the one true leader of the congregation. Woe to the world, indeed!
What Is Eisegesis
Before we go further, we need to look at a tool that would-be leaders and so-called great men use to support their quest for power. The term is eisegesis. It comes from the Greek and describes a Bible study methodology wherein one starts with a conclusion and then finds Scriptures which can be twisted to provide what looks like proof.
It is important that we understand this, because from this point forward, we will see that our Lord does more than answer the disciples’ question. He goes beyond that to institute something radically new. We will see the proper application of these words. We will also see how they have been misapplied in a way that has meant “woe to the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
But first there is more Jesus has to teach us about the proper view of greatness.
(The fact that he attacks the disciples’ erroneous perception from several vantage points should impress upon us just have very important it is that we understand this properly.)
Misapplying the Causes for Stumbling
Jesus next gives us a powerful metaphor.
“If, then, your hand or your foot makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it away from you. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or lame than to be thrown with two hands or two feet into the everlasting fire. 9 Also, if your eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it away from you. It is better for you to enter one-eyed into life than to be thrown with two eyes into the fiery Ge·henʹna.” (Mt 18:8, 9)
If you read the publications of the Watchtower Society, you will see that these verses are usually applied to such things as immoral or violent entertainment (movies, TV shows, video games, and music) as well as materialism and a lust for fame or prominence. Often higher education is touted as the wrong path that will lead to such things. (w14 7/15 p. 16 pars. 18-19; w09 2/1 p. 29; w06 3/1 p. 19 par. 8)
Was Jesus suddenly changing the subject here? Was he going off topic? Is he really suggesting that if we watch the wrong kind of movies or play the wrong kind of video games, or buy too many things, we are going to die the second death in the fiery Gehenna?
Hardly! So what is his message?
Consider that these verses are sandwiched between the warnings of verses 7 and 10.
“Woe to the world because of the stumbling blocks! Of course, it is inevitable that stumbling blocks will come, but woe to the man through whom the stumbling block comes!” (Mt 18:7)
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 18:10)
After warning us about stumbling blocks and just before warning us against stumbling the little ones, he tells us to pluck out our eye, or cut off an appendage if either should cause us to stumble. In verse 6 he tells us if we stumble the little one we get pitched into the sea with a millstone hung round the neck and in verse 9 he says that if our eye, hand, or foot makes us stumble we end up in Gehenna.
He hasn’t changed the topic at all. He’s still extending his answer to the question put to him in verse 1. All of this relates to a quest for power. The eye desires the prominence, the adulation of men. The hand is what we use to work toward that; the foot moves us toward our goal. The question in verse 1 reveals a wrong attitude or desire (the eye). They wanted to know how (the hand, the foot) to achieve greatness. But they were on the wrong path. They had to turn around. If not they would stumble themselves and many more besides, possibly resulting in eternal death.
By misapplying Mt 18:8-9 to mere issues of conduct and personal choice, the Governing Body has missed a vital warning. In fact, that they would presume to impose their conscience on others is part of the stumbling process. This is why eisegesis is such a snare. Taken on their own, these verses can be easily misapplied. Until we look at the context, it even seems like a logical application. But the context reveals something else.
Jesus Continues to Make His Point
Jesus is not done hammering home his lesson.
“What do you think? If a man has 100 sheep and one of them strays, will he not leave the 99 on the mountains and set out on a search for the one that is straying? 13 And if he finds it, I certainly tell you, he rejoices more over it than over the 99 that have not strayed. 14 Likewise, it is not a desirable thing to my Father who is in heaven for even one of these little ones to perish.” (Mt 18:10-14)
So here we’ve reached verse 14 and what have we learned.
- Man’s way of achieving greatness is by pride.
- God’s way of achieving greatness is by childlike humility.
- Man’s way to greatness leads to the Second Death.
- It results in stumbling little ones.
- It comes from wrong desires (metaphorical eye, hand, or foot).
- Jehovah values the little ones greatly.
Jesus Prepares Us to Rule
Jesus came to prepare the way for the chosen of God; those who would rule with him as Kings and Priests for the reconciliation of all humankind to God. (Re 5:10; 1Co 15:25-28) But these ones, men and women, first have to learn how to exercise this authority. The ways of the past would lead to doom. Something new was called for.
Jesus came to fulfill the law and end the Mosaic Law Covenant, so that a New Covenant with a New Law could come into being. Jesus was authorized to make law. (Mt 5:17; Je 31:33; 1Co 11:25; Ga 6:2; John 13:34)
That new law would have to be administrated somehow.
At great personal risk, people defect from countries with oppressive judicial systems. Humans have endured untold suffering at the hands of dictatorial leaders. Jesus would never want his disciples to become like such ones, so he would not leave us without first giving us specific instructions on how to properly exercise of justice?
On that premise let us examine two things:
- What Jesus actually said.
- What Jehovah’s Witnesses have interpreted.
What Jesus Said
If the disciples were to handle the problems of a New World full of millions or billions of resurrected unrighteous ones—if they were to judge even angels—they had to be trained. (1Co 6:3) They had to learn obedience just as their Lord did. (He 5:8) They had to be tested as to fitness. (Ja 1:2-4) They had to learn to be humble, like young children, and tested to prove they would not give in to the desire for greatness, prominence and power independent from God.
One proving ground would be the manner in which they handled sin within their midst. So Jesus gave them the following 3-step judicial process.
“Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go and reveal his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, so that on the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17 If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.” (Mt 18:15-17)
One vital fact to bear in mind: This is the only instruction our Lord gave us on judicial procedures.
Since this is all he gave us, we must conclude that this is all we need.
Unfortunately, these instructions were not enough for JW leadership going all the way back to Judge Rutherford.
How Do JWs Interpret Matthew 18:15-17?
Even though this is the only statement Jesus made regarding the handling of sin in the congregation, the Governing Body believes there is more. They claim these verses are only a small apart of the Christian judicial process, and therefore, they only apply to sins of a personal nature.
From the Oct. 15, 1999 Watchtower p. 19 par. 7 “You May Gain Your Brother”
“Note, though, that the class of sins Jesus here spoke of could be settled between two persons. As examples: Moved by anger or jealousy, a person slanders his fellowman. A Christian contracts to do a job with particular materials and to finish by a certain date. Someone agrees that he will repay money on a schedule or by a final date. A person gives his word that if his employer trains him, he will not (even if changing jobs) compete or try to take his employer’s clients for a set time or in a designated area. If a brother would not keep his word and is unrepentant over such wrongs, it would certainly be serious. (Revelation 21:8) But such wrongs could be settled between the two involved.”
What about sins like fornication, apostasy, blasphemy? The same Watchtower states in paragraph 7:
“Under the Law, some sins called for more than forgiveness from an offended person. Blasphemy, apostasy, idolatry, and the sexual sins of fornication, adultery, and homosexuality were to be reported to and handled by elders (or priests). That is true also in the Christian congregation. (Leviticus 5:1; 20:10-13; Numbers 5:30; 35:12; Deuteronomy 17:9; 19:16-19; Proverbs 29:24)”
What a great example this is of eisegesis—imposing one’s preconceived interpretation on a Scripture. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Judeo-Christian religion with heavy emphasis on the Judeo part. Here, we are to believe that we are to modify Jesus’ instructions based on the Jewish model. Since there were sins that had to be reported to Jewish elders and/or priests, the Christian congregation—according to the Governing Body—must enforce the same standard.
Now since Jesus doesn’t tell us that certain kinds of sins are excluded from his instructions, on what basis do we make this claim? Since Jesus makes no mention of applying the Jewish judicial model to the congregation he is setting up, on what basis do we add to his new law?
If you read Leviticus 20:10-13 (cited in the above WT reference) you will see that the sins that had to be reported were capital offenses. The Jewish older men were to judge whether these were true or not. There was no provision for repentance. The men were not there to grant forgiveness. If guilty, the accused was to be executed.
Since the Governing Body is saying that what applied in the nation of Israel must be “true also in the Christian congregation”, why do they only apply part of it? Why are they picking some aspects of the Law code while rejecting others? What this reveals to us is another aspect of their eisegetical interpretive process, the need to cherry-pick which verses they want to apply and reject the rest.
You will notice that in the quote from par. 7 of The Watchtower article, they only cite references from the Hebrew Scriptures. The reason is that there are no instructions in the Christian Scriptures to support their interpretation. In fact, there is very little in the entirety of the Christian Scriptures telling us how to deal with sin. The only direct instruction we have from our King is what is found in Matthew 18:15-17. Some Christian writers have helped us understand this application better, in practical terms, but none limited its application by stating it only refers to sins of a personal nature, and that there are other instructions for more grievous sins. There simply is not.
In short, the Lord gave us all we need, and we need all that he gave us. We do not need anything beyond that.
Consider how wonderful this new law really is? If you were to commit a sin like fornication, would you want to be under the Israelite system, facing certain death with no chance of leniency based on repentance?
Given this, why is the Governing Body returning us to what is now obsolete and replaced? Would it be that they have not “turned around”? Could they be reasoning this way?
We want the flock of God to answer to us. We want them to confess their sins to those we appoint over them. We want them to come to us for forgiveness; to think that God will not forgive them unless we are involved in the process. We want them to fear us and to kowtow to our authority. We want to control every aspect of their lives. We want the most important thing to be the purity of the congregation, because that assures our absolute authority. If a few little ones get sacrificed along the way, it’s all in a good cause.
Unfortunately, Mt 18:15-17 doesn’t provide for that kind of authority, so they have to minimize its importance. Hence the fabricated distinction between “personal sins” and “serious sins”. Next, they have to change the application of Mt 18:17 from “the congregation” to a select 3-member committee of elders who answer to them directly, not to the local congregation.
After that, they engage in some major league cherry-picking, quoting scriptures like Leviticus 5:1; 20:10-13; Numbers 5:30; 35:12; Deuteronomy 17:9; 19:16-19; Proverbs 29:24 in an attempt to reinvigorate selective judicial practices under the Mosaic Law, claiming these now apply to Christians. In this way, they make us believe all such sins must be reported to the elders.
Of course, they must leave some cherries on the trees, for they cannot have their judicial cases exposed to public scrutiny as was the practice in Israel, where legal cases were heard at the city gates in full view of the citizenry. Additionally, the older men who heard and judged these cases were not appointed by the priesthood, but were simply acknowledged by the local populous as wise men. These men answered to the people. If their judgment was skewed by prejudice or outside influence, it was evident to all witnessing the proceedings, because trials were always public. (De 16:18; 21:18-20; 22:15; 25:7; 2Sa 19:8; 1Ki 22:10; Je 38:7)
So they cherry-pick the verses that support their authority and ignore those which are “inconvenient”. Thus all hearings are private. Observers are not allowed, nor are recording devices, nor transcripts, such as one finds in the law courts of all civilized countries. There is no way to test the decision of the committee since their ruling never sees the light of day.[i]
How can such a system ensure justice for all?
Where is the Scriptural support for any of it?
Further on, we will see evidence for the true source and nature of this judicial process, but for now, let’s get back to what Jesus actually said.
The Purpose of the Christian Judicial Process
Before looking at the “how to” let us consider the more important “why”. What is the goal of this new process? It is not to keep the congregation clean. If it were, Jesus would have made some mention of that, but all he speaks of in the entire chapter is forgiveness and caring for the little ones. He even shows the extent to which we are to go to safeguard the little one with his illustration of the 99 sheep that are left to search for the single stray. He then concludes the chapter with an object lesson on the need for mercy and forgiveness. All this after emphasizing that the loss of a little one is unacceptable and woe to the man who causes stumbling.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the purpose of the judicial process in verses 15 thru 17 is to exhaust every avenue in an attempt to save the errant one.
Step 1 of the Judicial Process
“Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go and reveal his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Mt 18:15)
Jesus puts no limitation here on the type of sin involved. For example, if you see your brother blaspheming, you are to confront him alone. If you see him coming out of a house of prostitution, you are to confront him alone. One on one makes it easier for him. This is the simplest and most discreet method. Nowhere does Jesus tell us to inform anyone else. It stays between the sinner and the witness.
What if you witness your brother murdering, raping, or even abusing a child? These are not only sins, but crimes against the state. Another law comes into effect, that of Romans 13:1-7, which clearly shows that the State is “God’s minister” for meting out justice. Therefore, we would have to obey God’s word and report the crime to the civil authorities. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Would we still apply Mt 18:15? That would depend on the circumstances. A Christian is guided by principles, not a rigid set of laws. He would definitely apply the principles of Mt 18 with a view to gaining his brother, while mindful of obeying any other principles that are relevant, such as ensuring one’s own safety and the safety of others.
(On a side note: If our Organization had been obedient to Romans 13:1-7 we wouldn’t be enduring the growing child abuse scandal that now threatens to bankrupt us. This is yet another example of the Governing Body cherry-picking Scriptures for its own benefit. The 1999 Watchtower cited earlier uses Leviticus 5:1 to compel Witnesses to report sins to the elders. But does this rationale not apply equally to WT officials aware of crimes that need to be reported to the “superior authorities”?)
Who Does Jesus Have in Mind?
Since our goal is the exegetical study of Scripture, we must not overlook context here. Based on everything from verses 2 to 14, Jesus is focusing on those who cause stumbling. It follows then that what he has in mind with “if your brother commits a sin…” would be sins of stumbling. Now all this is in answer to the question, “Who really is the greatest…?”, so we can conclude that the principle causes of stumbling are those who take the lead in the congregation in the manner of worldly leaders, not the Christ.
Jesus is saying, if one of your leaders sins—causes stumbling—call him on it, but privately. Can you imagine if an elder in the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses starts to throw his weight around, and you did this? What do you think would be the outcome? A truly spiritual man would react positively, but a physical man would act as the Pharisees did when Jesus corrected them. From personal experience, I can assure you that in most cases, the elders would close ranks, appeal to the authority of the “faithful slave”, and the prophecy about “stumbling-blocks” would find yet another fulfillment.
Step 2 of the Judicial Process
Jesus next tells us what we must do if the sinner does not listen to us.
“But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, so that on the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established.” (Mt 18:16)
Whom do we take along? One or two others. These are to be witnesses who can reprove the sinner, who can convince him he is on a wrong course. Again, the goal is not maintaining the purity of the congregation. The goal is regaining the lost one.
Step 3 of the Judicial Process
Sometimes even two or three cannot get through to the sinner. What then?
“If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation.” (Mt 18:17a)
So this is where we involve the elders, right? Hold on! We’re thinking eisegetically again. Where does Jesus mention the elders? He says “speak to the congregation”. Well surely not the whole congregation? What about confidentiality?
Indeed, what about confidentiality? This is the excuse given to justify the closed-door trials JWs claim is God’s way, but does Jesus mention it at all?
In the Bible, is there any precedent for a secret trial, hidden away at night, where the accused is denied the support of family and friends? Yes, there is! It was the illegal trial of our Lord Jesus before the Jewish High Court, the Sanhedrin. Other than that, all trials are public. At this stage, confidentiality works against the cause of justice.
But surely the congregation is not qualified to judge such cases? Really? The congregation members are not qualified, but three elders—an electrician, a janitor and a window washer—are?
“When there is no skillful direction, the people fall; but there is salvation in the multitude of counselors.” (Pr 11:14)
The congregation is comprised of spirit anointed men and women—a multitude of counsellors. The spirit operates from the bottom up, not the top down. Jesus pours it out on all Christians, and thus all are guided by it. So we have one Lord, one leader, the Christ. We are all brothers and sisters. No one is our leader, save the Christ. Thus, the spirit, operating through the whole, will guide us to the best decision.
It is only when we come to this realization that we can understand the next verses.
Binding Up Things on Earth
These words apply to the congregation as a whole, not to an elite group of individuals presuming to govern it.
“Truly I say to you, whatever things you may bind on earth will be things already bound in heaven, and whatever things you may loosen on earth will be things already loosened in heaven. 19 Again I tell you truly, if two of you on earth agree concerning anything of importance that they should request, it will take place for them on account of my Father in heaven. 20 For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.” (Mt 18:18-20)
The Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses has misapplied these Scriptures as a way to strengthen its authority over the flock. For instance:
“Confession of Sins—Man’s Way or God’s?”[ii] (w91 3/15 p. 5)
“In matters involving serious violations of God’s law, responsible men in the congregation would have to judge matters and decide whether a wrongdoer should be “bound” (viewed as guilty) or “loosed” (acquitted). Did this mean that heaven would follow the decisions of humans? No. As Bible scholar Robert Young indicates, any decision made by the disciples would follow heaven’s decision, not precede it. He says that verse 18 should literally read: What you bind on earth “shall be that which has been bound (already)” in heaven.” [boldface added]
“Forgive One Another Freely” (w12 11/15 p. 30 par. 16)
“In accord with Jehovah’s will, Christian elders have been entrusted with the responsibility of handling cases of wrongdoing in the congregation. These brothers do not have the full insight that God does, but they aim to make their decision harmonize with the direction given in God’s Word under the guidance of holy spirit. Hence, what they decide in such matters after seeking Jehovah’s help in prayer will reflect his point of view.—Matt. 18:18.”[iii]
There is nothing in verses 18 thru 20 to indicate Jesus is investing authority in a ruling elite. In verse 17, he refers to the congregation doing the judging and now, carrying that thought further, he shows that the entire body of the congregation will have Jehovah’s spirit, and that whenever Christians are gathered in his name, he is present.
There is a 14th Century proverb that says: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
We have two competing judicial processes—two recipes for making pudding.
The other recipe comes from the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It ignores the context of Matthew 18 and limits the application of verses 15 to 17. Then it implements a series of procedures codified in the publication Shepherd the Flock of God, claiming that its self-appointed role as the “faithful and discreet slave” gives it the authorization to do so.
Let us ‘eat the pudding’, as it were, by examining the outcome of each process.
(I have taken the case histories that follow from my experiences serving as an elder over the past forty years.)
A young sister falls in love with a brother. They engage in sexual intercourse on several occasions. Then he breaks up with her. She feels abandoned, used, and guilty. She confides in a friend. The friend advises her to go to the elders. She waits a few days then contacts the elders. However, the friend has already informed on her. A judicial committee is formed. One of its members is a single brother who wanted to date her at one time, but was rebuffed. The elders decide that since she sinned repeatedly she has engaged in a serious practice of sin. They’re concerned that she didn’t come forward on her own, but had to be pushed into it by a friend. They ask her for intimate and embarrassing details about the type of sexual intercourse she engaged in. She’s embarrassed and finds it difficult to speak candidly. They ask her if she still loves the brother. She confesses that she does. They take this as evidence she is not repentant. They disfellowship her. She is devastated and feels she has been unfairly judged since she had stopped the sin and had gone to them for help. She appeals the decision.
Unfortunately, the appeal committee is constrained by two rules set by the Governing Body:
- Was a sin of a disfellowshipping nature committed?
- Was there evidence of repentance at the time of the initial hearing?
The answer to 1) is of course, Yes. As for 2), the appeal committee has to weigh her testimony against that of three of their own. Since there are no recordings or transcripts available, they cannot review what was actually said. Since there are no observers allowed, they cannot hear the testimony of independent eyewitnesses to the proceedings. Not surprisingly, they go with the testimony of the three elders.
The original committee takes the fact she appealed as evidence that she rejects their decision, isn’t humble, doesn’t properly respect their authority, and isn’t really repentant after all. It takes two years of regular meeting attendance before they finally approve her reinstatement.
Through all of this, they feel justified in the belief that they kept the congregation clean and ensured that others have been dissuaded from sin by fear of a similar punishment befalling them.
Applying Matthew 18 to Case 1
If our Lord’s direction had been applied, the sister would have felt no obligation to confess her sins before a cadre of elders, since this is not something Jesus requires. Instead, her friend would have given her counsel and two things would have happened. 1) She would have learned from her experience, and never repeated it, or 2) she would have fallen back into sin. If the latter, her friend could have spoken to one or two others and applied step 2.
However, if this sister continued to commit fornication, then the congregation would have been involved. Congregations were small. They met in homes, not in mega-cathedrals. (Mega-cathedrals are for men seeking prominence.) They were like an extended family. Imagine how the women in the congregation would respond if one of the male members suggested the sinner wasn’t repentant because she was still in love. Such silliness would not be tolerated. The brother who had wanted to date her but had been rebuffed wouldn’t get far either as his testimony would be considered as tainted.
If, after all was heard and the congregation had its say, the sister still wanted to continue her course of sin, then it would be the congregation as a whole that would decide to treat her as “a man of the nations or a tax collector.” (Mt 18:17b)
Four teenagers get together several times to smoke marijuana. Then they stop. Three months go by. Then one feels guilty. He feels the need to confess his sin to the elders believing that without doing so he cannot get God’s forgiveness. All must then follow suit in their respective congregations. While three are privately reproved, one is disfellowshipped. Why? Allegedly, lack of repentance. Yet, like the rest, he had stopped sinning and had come forward of his own accord. However, he is the son of one of the elders and one of the committee members, acting out of jealousy, punishes the father through the son. (This was confirmed years later when he confessed to the father.) He appeals. As in the first case, the appeal committee hears the testimony of three older men as to what they heard at the hearing and then has to weigh that against the testimony of an intimidated and inexperienced teenager. The decision of the elders is upheld.
The young man attends meetings faithfully for over a year before being reinstated.
Applying Matthew 18 to Case 2
The case would have never have gotten past step 1. The young man had stopped sinning and had not returned to it for several months. He had no need to confess his sin to anyone except God. If he had wanted, he could have spoken with his father, or another trusted individual, but after that, there would simply be no reason to go to step 2 and less, step 3, because he was no longer sinning.
Two of the elders have been abusing the flock. They pick on every little thing. They meddle in family matters. They presume to tell parents how they should be training their children, and who the kids can or can’t date. They act on rumor and chastise people about parties or other forms of entertainment they feel is inappropriate. Some who protest this conduct are prohibited from giving comments at the meetings.
The publishers protest this conduct to the Circuit Overseer, but nothing gets done. The other elders do nothing because they are intimidated by these two. They go along so as not to rock the boat. A number move to other congregations. Others stop attending altogether and fall away.
One or two write to the branch, but nothing changes. There is nothing one can do, because the sinners are the very ones charged with judging sin and the branch’s job is to support the elders since these are the ones charged with upholding the authority of the Governing Body. This becomes a situation of “who watches the watchers?”
Applying Matthew 18 to Case 3
Someone in the congregation confronts the elders to lays bare their sin. They are stumbling the little ones. They do not listen, but try to silence the brother. He then comes back with two more who have also witnessed their actions. The offending elders now step up their campaign to silence these ones whom they label as rebellious and divisive. At the next meeting, the brothers who have attempted to correct the elders stand up and call on the congregation to bear witness. These elders are too proud to listen, so the congregation as a whole escorts them out of the meeting place and refuses to have any fellowship with them.
Of course, if a congregation attempted to apply these instructions from Jesus, it is likely that the branch would view them as rebellious for flouting its authority, since only they can remove elders from their position.[iv] The elders would likely be supported by the branch, but if the congregation didn’t kowtow, there would be serious consequences.
(It should be noted that Jesus never set up a central authority for the appointment of elders. For example, the 12th apostle, Matthias, was not appointed by the other 11 the way the Governing Body appoints a new member. Instead, the entire congregation of some 120 was asked to select appropriate candidates, and the final choice was by casting lots. – Acts 1:15-26)
Tasting the Pudding
The judicial system created by the men governing or leading the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses has resulted in immeasurable suffering and even loss of life. Paul warned us that the one rebuked by the congregation could be lost by being “overly sad” and so he exhorted the Corinthians to welcome him back only months after they had broken off association with him. The sadness of the world results in death. (2Co 2:7; 7:10) However, our system doesn’t allow for the congregation to act. The power to forgive does not even rest in the hands of the elders of whatever congregation the former wrongdoer now attends. Only the original committee has the power to forgive. And as we’ve seen, the Governing Body misapplies Mt 18:18 to arrive at the conclusion that what the committee decides “in such matters after seeking Jehovah’s help in prayer will reflect his point of view.” (w12 11/15 p. 30 par. 16) Thus, as long as the committee prays, they can do no wrong.
Many have committed suicide due to the extreme sadness they have experienced at being unjustly cut off from family and friends. Many more have left the congregation; but worse, some have lost all faith in God and Christ. The number stumbled by a judicial system that puts the purity of the congregation above the welfare of the little one is incalculable.
That is how our JW pudding tastes.
On the other hand, Jesus gave us three simple steps designed to save the erring one. And even if after following all three, the sinner continued in his sin, there was still hope. Jesus did not implement a penal system with rigid terms of sentencing. Right after he spoke of these things, Peter asked for rules on forgiveness.
The Pharisees had rules for everything and that likely influenced Peter to ask his question: “Lord, how many times is my brother to sin against me and am I to forgive him?” (Mt 18:21) Peter wanted a number.
Such a pharisaical mentality continues to exist in the JW Organization. The de facto period before a disfellowshipped one can be reinstated is one year. If reinstatement occurs in less than that, say six months, the elders will likely be questioned either through a letter from the branch or by the circuit overseer on his next visit.
Yet, when Jesus answered Peter, he was still speaking in the context of his discourse at Matthew 18. What he revealed about forgiveness should therefore factor in to how we administer our Christian Judicial System. We’ll discuss that in a future article.
For those of us who are awakening, we often feel lost. Used to a well-regulated and regimented routine, and armed with a full set of rules governing all aspects of our life, we don’t know what to do away from the Organization. We have forgotten how to walk on our own two feet. But slowly we find others. We get together and enjoy fellowship and start to study the Scriptures again. Inevitably, we will start to form small congregations. As we do this, we may have to confront a situation where someone in our group sins. What do we do?
To extend the metaphor, we have never eaten the pudding that is based on the recipe Jesus gave us at Mt 18:15-17, but we know that he is the master chef. Trust in his recipe for success. Follow his direction faithfully. We are sure to find that it cannot be surpassed, and that it will give us the best results. Let us never return to the recipes that men concoct. We have eaten the pudding that the Governing Body has cooked up and have found it to be a recipe for disaster.
[i] Hear only those witnesses who have relevant testimony regarding the alleged wrongdoing. Those who intend to testify only about the character of the accused should not be allowed to do so. The witnesses should not hear details and testimony of other witnesses. Observers should not be present for moral support. Recording devices should not be allowed. (Shepherd the Flock of God, p. 90 par. 3)
[ii] It is fascinating that in an article entitled “Confession of Sins—Man’s Way or God’s” the reader is led to believe he is learning God’s way when in fact this is man’s way of handling sin.
[iii] Having witnessed the outcome of countless judicial hearings, I can assure the reader that Jehovah’s point of view is often not evident in the decision.
[iv] The Circuit Overseer is now empowered to do this, but he is merely an extension of the authority of the Governing Body and experience shows that elders rarely get removed for abusing their authority and beating the little ones. They do get removed very quickly if they challenge the authority of the branch or the Governing Body, however.