[From ws4/16 p. 3 for June 27-July 2]
“Keep peace with one another.”—Mark 9:50
The purpose of these reviews is to ensure that the Watchtower reader is aware when the publication is straying from Scriptural truth. Sometimes that requires a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of the study article, while other times we only need concentrate on the one portion where clarification is called for.
This week’s study has a lot of fine counsel on settling differences between brothers. The one point of divergence occurs when the article tries to explain Matthew 18:15-17.
Under the subtitle, “Should You Involve the Elders?”, the article applies Matthew 18:15-17 exclusively to:
“…(1) a sin that could be settled between the individuals concerned but…was also (2) a sin serious enough to merit disfellowshipping if not settled. Such sins might involve a measure of fraud or might include damaging a person’s reputation through slander.” – Par. 14
What makes this JW interpretation remarkable is that it pays no heed to the fact that this is the only counsel Jesus gives the congregation on how to handle sinners in our midst. Thus, the Organization’s teaching leaves us to conclude that Jesus was so concerned about our getting along that he gave us a three-step procedure to follow when they go awry, yet when it comes to protecting the congregation from such sins as adultery, fornication, sectarianism, idolatry, rape, child abuse, and murder, he had nothing to say?!
The fact is Jesus provides no qualification as to the type of sin he’s referring to. Therefore, when he says “sin”, we have no basis to qualify it either. We must accept it at face value. Anything that qualifies as sin in the Bible is to be handled in this way.
When Jesus spoke the words recorded at Matthew chapter 18, his disciples were all Jews. Jews had the Law code which accurately cataloged sinful acts. (Ro 3:20) So no further explanation was needed. However, when gentiles came into the congregation, things such as idolatry and fornication were common practice and not viewed as sinful. So the Christian Bible writers provided them with the knowledge they needed to apply Matthew 18:15-17 within the congregation. (Ga 5:19-21)
Paragraph 14 concludes with the following categorical statement, but fails to provide even a single reference from the Bible to back it up:
“The offense did not include such a sin as adultery, homosexuality, apostasy, idolatry, or some other gross sin definitely requiring the attention of the congregation elders.” – Par. 14
Why do you think the Organization would make this unscriptural distinction?
You will notice that Jesus makes no mention of elders or older men at all. He just says that if steps 1 and 2 fail, the congregation gets involved. This would include the older men, of course, as they are part of the congregation. It would also include the older women, and indeed all. All need to be involved at the third phase of this procedure. Nevertheless, before getting to phase 3, should there be a genuine manifestation of repentance, the matter can be resolved at either the first or second phase of this procedure. That would apply for all sin, including fornication or idolatry. The matter is put to rest without any report being made to the elders. Jesus imposed no such reporting requirement upon us.
This doesn’t support the idea of a top-down ecclesiastical hierarchy governing the lives of Christians. If the rule of man is what a religion is about—and all organized religion is about the rule of man—then sins have to be handled by the powers that be. That is why the Organization would have us believe that we cannot gain God’s forgiveness on our own, but must make confession to the elders, even for what they call “hidden sins”.
Though it would pain Witnesses to admit it, this is simply a variation of the Catholic confessional. In the case of Catholics, there is some degree of anonymity and only one man is involved, while with Jehovah’s Witnesses, three are involved and all details must be revealed. A witness would counter that it’s not the same because Catholics believe that a priest can forgive sins, while the Bible teaches that only God can forgive sins, so elders are merely determining whether an individual should remain in the congregation.
The truth of the matter is our own publications contradict this notion.
“Hence, any forgiving or not forgiving on the part of the elders would be in the sense of Jesus’ words at Matthew 18:18: “Truly I say to you men, Whatever things you may bind on earth will be things bound in heaven, and whatever things you may loose on earth will be things loosed in heaven.” Their actions would simply reflect Jehovah’s view of matters as presented in the Bible.” (w96 4/15 p. 29 Questions From Readers)
This quotes the very next verse following the three-step process. Does Matthew 18:18 speak of forgiving the sin? Only Jehovah forgives the sin. What the brother or sister is looking for at step 1 of the process is whether the sinner is repentant—“if he listens to you”. Jesus says nothing about the sinner getting forgiveness from those he is listening to. Matthew 18:18 refers to the decision whether or not to continue to accept the sinner as a brother. So it has to do with recognizing his repentance and that he has stopped sinning. If not, then we move through the process until step 3 is reached, at which point, if he is still not listening to us, we consider him to be as a man of the nations.
As for forgiveness, only God can grant that.
This may seem like a subtle distinction, but when we fail to make such distinctions, we lay the foundation for a deviation from the righteous norm. We create, as it were, a fork in the road.
Excluding most sin from the Matthew 18 procedure requires the elders to then get involved whenever sin is committed. If someone sins, they have to get the elders “Okay” before they can consider themselves to be forgiven by God. As evidence of this mindset, consider this excerpt:
“Yet what if a close friend tells us that he has committed a gross sin but wants us to keep it secret? The soul-searching talk “Do Not Share in the Sins of Others” stressed the need to be loyal to Jehovah and his organization. If we are unable to persuade our conscience-stricken friend to confess to the elders, we should go to them about the matter. “(w85 1/15 p. 26 “Kingdom Increase” Conventions—What Rich Spiritual Feasts!)
There is no qualification of time here, only that it is a single sin, “a gross sin”. So it follows that a sin has been committed and has not been repeated. Let’s say the brother got drunk one night and had sex with a prostitute. Let’s say a year has passed. According to this, you still must encourage him “to confess to the elders”. You are to forgo Matthew 18:15 which clearly provides a means to protect the privacy and reputation of the individual while ensuring the safety of the congregation. No, you must involve the elders, though there is no Scriptural direction to do so. If you do not, you are being disloyal, not only to Jehovah, but to the Organization.
You are required to act as an informant, reporting all sin to the elders, or you are being disloyal to the organization.
Such unscriptural instruction can have a profound effect on the individual. When I was serving as the congregation coordinator, I had an elder come to me to confess that he had looked at pornography, specifically Playboy magazines, 20 years in the past! He was guilt-ridden because of a part on pornography at the recent Elders school. I asked him if he’d asked for Jehovah’s forgiveness back then and he said he had. Yet, that was not enough. He still felt guilty because he had never asked for and received forgiveness from the elders. It was obvious that God’s forgiveness was insufficient to assuage his conscience. He needed the forgiveness of men. This was a direct result of the mentality inculcated into Jehovah’s Witnesses through numerous articles on this subject, such as the one we are now considering.
There is simply no provision within the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses for a brother or sister to stop sinning and pray to Jehovah for forgiveness and leave it at that. He or she must also confess the sin before the elders who will then decide whether or not to allow the individual to remain in the congregation.
What about Crimes?
How can we apply Matthew 18:15-17 when the sin involves a crime like rape or child abuse? Surely such things cannot be resolved at the step 1 level?
We must make a distinction between crimes and sins. In the case of rape and child abuse, both are sins, but they are also crimes. Based on Romans 13:1-7, crimes are not to be handled by the congregation, but by the civil authorities which are God’s minister for executing justice. So one would report such crimes at which point they would become public knowledge and the relative anonymity afforded by step 1 would go away so that the congregation would come to know of the sin and become involved. Still, it is up the whole congregation—not a committee of three men meeting in secret—to deal with such sins, while cooperating with the civil authorities as they deal with the crime.
You can imagine that had we properly applied Matthew 18:15-17 together with Romans 13:1-7 when the sin/crime of child abuse occurred in the congregation, we would not be enduring the scandals that now plague the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The congregation would have been protected by knowing of the sin and who the perpetrator was, and there could be no accusations of a cover-up.
This is just another example of how disobedience to the Christ results in reproach.