When Scripture is (Mis)Used to Stifle Debate!

Many of us are guilty of it.  I admit that I am.  We sometimes selectively use Scripture to bolster our arguments.  When we want to win a point in a debate over theology, methodology, ecclesiology, or the like, we run to our favorite Biblical passage for ammunition to use in the fight.  After all, who wants to “lose” a fight and, what better way to “win” than to resort to God’s Word.

Who hasn’t been in a debate with a non-believer — someone who couldn’t tell you if the Gospel of Matthew was in the Old Testament or New Testament — when all of a sudden, they begin quoting a verse from Matthew from memory.  Now mind you, the particular verse that he or she quotes has overtaken John 3:16 as the most popular verse in America.  It is a short verse, so that has made it easier for cultural Christians to commit to memory, should they ever need it when debating overly judgmental Christian-types.  What verse am I talking about?  Why Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” (they always seem to memorize it in the KJV).

While Matthew 7:1 is the most popular verse for pagans to use to win a debate with the Bible thumpers, another verse in Matthew has become popular with Christians who want to stifle debate with other Christians.  What verse might that be? 

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matthew 18:15, ESV)

I must admit that I am not a fan of using this verse to cut off debate or to win an argument.  I believe that it not only is a misuse of this particular Scripture, but that many times the use of Matthew 18:15 comes into play when one wants to deflect attention away from the central points of a debate.  When you don’t want to defend your position — or more likely the case, when you don’t want to defend the actions or words of someone who you like — you can pull Matthew 18:15 out to redirect an opponent away from pursuing a friend or an ally.

The latest example of the use of the Matthew 18:15 defense is occurring in the context of a discussion at SBCVoices (here) regarding criticism of Dr. James Merritt, Senior Pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Georgia and a former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, by certain bloggers (here, here, here and here), including yours truly (here). 

In response to an email inquiry sent by Voices Editor Dave Miller to Dr. Merritt regarding his “alleged” involvement in a multi-level direct marketing scheme called Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing (FHTM), the Communications Director for Cross Pointe, Gene Mason, wasted no time in taking Matthew 18:15 out of his arsenal in an attempt to defend Dr. Merritt’s refusal to respond to (unnamed) critical blog posts.  Said Mason:

“Pastor Merritt has chosen not to respond to blog entries he recently was made aware of because (1) the authors have already defied Matthew 18:15 . . . ” (Mr. Mason’s full email response can be read here)

I’m still not sure what it means to “defie” Matthew 18:15, but someone proficient in communication must know better than I what that means.  In any event, just because a Pastor, Communications Director, Blogger, or Commenter says that something defies or contravenes Matthew 18:15 does not make it so.  A person is certainly within their rights to interpret Matthew 18:15 as applying to this situation, but that person’s interpretation is not binding on anyone else.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Mr. Mason meant that certain bloggers have “defied” Matthew 18:15 because they did not first contact Dr. Merritt regarding his involvement in FHTM.  Of course, also for the sake of argument, let’s stipulate to the fact that Dr. Merritt’s participation in FHTM was public knowledge through the posting of public videos (since deleted) on the internet showing Dr. Merritt extolling the virtues of FHTM.  Let’s further stipulate to the fact that Dr. Merritt, through Mr. Mason’s email to SBCVoices, admits that Dr. Merritt “was involved in FHTM.”  Finally, let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Dr. Merritt “found it (FHTM) to be a reputable organization” during the time of his involvement.

Of course, that’s all well and good, but that doesn’t answer if or how Matthew 18:15 should be applied to well-known Christian figures prior to any public criticism or questioning of that figure’s actions or words.  The way that I read Mr. Mason’s response, it would appear that any criticism of Dr. Merritt (or any other Christian) can only happen if and when a “critic” contacts the object of criticism or questioning in advance of writing anything negative.

If one were inclined to view the Church as “universal” first and “local” second, then one could argue that a Christian brother in New Mexico or North Carolina is mandated — via Matthew 18:15 — to always try to make contact with the offending brother or sister before anything negative or critical is written.  If that were the case (which I don’t believe it is), then would we not also be obligated to contact an offending Southern Baptist as well as an offending Moderate Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, or Catholic before questioning their words or actions or books in our blog posts?  Before I questioned the Pope about his thoughts on the Big Bang Theory, shouldn’t I have at least tried to email the Vatican?  The next time that I criticize President Obama (a professed Christian), I suppose I should shoot out an email to the White House for a response.  That is, unless you think that only Southern Baptists are part of the universal church!

I could offer more examples, but you may begin to understand that the Matthew 18:15 argument, as selectively employed by Mr. Mason and others to stifle debate, collapses under its own weight.  One need only peruse the blog sites of some well-known SBC bloggers to conclude that they probably don’t contact all the subjects (many times professed Christians) of their critical blog posts prior to publication. 

Kinda reminds me of my freshman year at George Washington University when I lived in Thurston Hall.  Marijuana consumption was rampant in the Fall of 1984 and I had often complained to the Resident Assistant on my floor.  She knew about the pot smoking, but chose not to enforce the clear rules.  One day, a friend and I were kicking a soccer ball in the long hallway on the 7th floor.  That also was a clear violation of the rules.  The RA came around the corner, picked up the soccer ball and said she was going to confiscate it because we were violating the rules. 

I simply turned to her and said, “If you’re going to enforce that rule, why don’t you go ahead and start enforcing all the rules.”  Needless to say, she handed me back the soccer ball.  The moral of the story:  if you’re going to apply Matthew 18:15 to your theological opponents, you better start applying it to your theological friends!  Or, better yet, don’t apply it where it clearly doesn’t belong.

14 comments for “When Scripture is (Mis)Used to Stifle Debate!

  1. August 4, 2011 at 6:35 AM

    My first thought, question is — why be critical of brothers and sisters in the Lord in public?

  2. K Gray
    August 4, 2011 at 8:14 AM

    I’m with lambskinny on this. The problem is much deeper than whether one is complying with Matt.18:15.

    Many bloggers don’t even have facts. They have some other blogger’s unchecked, uncharitable, slightly amplified version of things. It’s the game of grapevine, and we should have nothing to do with it. To get the facts you have to call the source sometimes. Itt’s a fact check AND a heart check.

    This simple step would cut down on a lot of grievous harm and misinforming the public.

    • August 4, 2011 at 8:30 AM

      Karen,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that some bloggers (like some news reporters) don’t always have the facts (or at least all the facts). Of course, I’m not sure that one can always have all the facts in any particular situation. That being said, I don’t believe that it is appropriate to comment on that which is unclear or written to cast someone in a negative light when the facts themselves do not warrant it. I don’t think that you are saying that one must always call the “source” who happens to be the subject of a particular post or article. If that were the case, then one simply could not make commentary on any person’s words or actions, no matter where they were located in the world. That not only is not practical, but I do not think that it is always required. In the case of Dr. Merritt, a public video was posted on multiple sites which clearly and unambiguously sang the praises of FHTM, a multi-level marketing scheme. To question a pastor’s wisdom in promoting such nonsense, particularly when he did it using the facilities of his church, is entirely legitimate.

      This is not directed at you as much as it is others who would be quick to use Matthew 18:15 — I wonder how many people contacted Rob Bell personally before they began to attack him for his recent book? Probably not too many. Of course, that get’s to lambskinny’s question of whether or not we should ever be critical of any Christian in public. I came across an article by D.A. Carson which speaks to this subject, especially the use of Matthew 18:15 (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/publications/36-1/editorial-on-abusing-matthew-18). It helped me put some things in perspective. As always, thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts on this. God bless,

      Howell

  3. August 4, 2011 at 8:57 AM

    Brother Howell,

    You have certainly raised a good point concerning Matthew 18. I like the way D. A. Carson ends the editorial that you linked above.

    3) There is a flavor of play-acting righteousness, of disproportionate indignation, behind the current round of “Gotcha!” games. If Person B charges Person A, who has written a book arguing for a revisionist understanding of the Bible, with serious error and possibly with heresy, it is no part of wisdom to “Tut-tut” the narrow-mindedness of Person B and smile condescendingly and dismissively over such judgmentalism. That may play well among those who think the greatest virtue in the world is tolerance, but surely it cannot be the honorable path for a Christian. Genuine heresy is a damnable thing, a horrible thing. It dishonors God and leads people astray. It misrepresents the gospel and entices people to believe untrue things and to act in reprehensible ways. Of course, Person B may be entirely mistaken. Perhaps the charge Person B is making is entirely misguided, even perverse. In that case, one should demonstrate the fact, not hide behind a procedural matter. And where Person B is advancing serious biblical argumentation, it should be evaluated, not dismissed with a procedural sleight-of-hand and a wrong-headed appeal to Matthew 18.

    It seems that Matthew 18 is thrown around for one reason only–negate the truth by arguing for a violation of a scripture. It is comical that Matthew 18 was being trotted out as something some believe should be followed but the one trotting it out did not contact Pastor Nelms before posting on his prayer. 🙂 But, that is what you get in the blogging world.

    Blessings,
    Tim

    • August 4, 2011 at 12:11 PM

      Bro. Tim,

      One of the things that bugs me on this particular issue and the use of Matthew 18 is the hypocrisy of it all. How many of the folks who wrote scathing blogs attacking Rob Bell’s latest book took the time to contact him prior to them publishing their posts? Do the big name SBC bloggers contact every Christian (professed or otherwise) who they write about, sometimes in a fairly negative way? Of course, you pointed out the Nelms’ Nascar prayer issue, which goes to the heart of this Matthew 18 debate. When yone wants to apply Matthew 18:15 outside the local church context, he or she better either be willing to apply it across the board or not at all. Generally speaking, I say not at all. Hope all is well in NC. Have a great day and God bless,

      Howell

  4. K Gray
    August 4, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    Thinking further, isn’t the objective of Matt. 18 ultimately truth-honoring, God-pleasing reconciliation and restoration — while not being drawn into sin (e.g. sinful attitudes and speech) ourselves?

    More simply, when all else fails we could use the standard we would like applied to ourselves: would we want a brother or sister in Christ to dialogue with us before blogging on our actions?

  5. August 4, 2011 at 6:06 PM

    Sister Karen,

    Look, I only know one way to explain this. I have a very close friend in a local mega church pastor. We meet once a quarter for breakfast and I gain lots of wise counsel from him. Now, if he were the one that I found on the internet, certainly I would have contacted him. Why? I have a relationship with him. However, had you found it on the internet, you would never hear me complain that you did not contact my friend concerning this. If I saw you place on the internet, what I placed on the internet, I would certainly contact my friend and ask him about it. If he tried to tell me that you were lying and making false accusations because he had been out of it for a couple of months, I would call him out on that. Why? If he knew there was a problem with a company he should warn others that his public endorsement should be removed. But, is that what happened with Dr. Merritt? No, it is not. He still defends the company. Notice what he says in his public statement:

    During the time he was involved in FHTM he found it to be a reputable organization.

    This wording gives an appearance that Dr. Merritt not involved with the company when it was fined by the state of Montana. A reputable organization is not fined $1 million for wrong employment practices. I had a person comment on my blog that Dr. Merritt has not been involved with the company for the past 4 months. However, the state of Montana placed the fine on the company in 2010. Thus, the wording of his statement is now suspect.

    Now, let me say something to reveal to you my motive. I have none. I have followed Dr. Merritt’s ministry and have viewed it as a ministry of integrity. I do not desire to see him hurt in the fallout of this issue. However, the truth is there and no one has lied or created any false impression of what was on that video.

    Blessings,
    Tim

  6. August 4, 2011 at 9:36 PM

    Misquoting scripture is being done in epidemic proportions to support preconceived theological positions… this is nothing compared to the abusive liberties I have seen taken with one liners to justify all sorts of things.

    Shameful. Simply shameful. But then again… it seems to me that it is only shameful when others are the ones doing it.

    Grateful to be in His Grip,

    ><>

  7. August 5, 2011 at 4:39 AM

    Howell,

    A great piece!

    Those who exploit our Lord’s Words to shout down legitimate questions must be balanced out with reasonable, sober interpretations of Scripture.

    Consider: when I initially raised questions and offered different conclusions toward Jonathan Merritt’s article on homosexuality in the CSM, the first objection he logged on my site in March included a Matt 18 knock-down to me. Think of it. I was responding to a public opinion editorial in a major media outlet–Christian Science Monitor–much in the same way as letters to the editor operate. Yet I’m told I breached Matt 18. Good heavens, man!

    The type of nutty biblical interpretation hawked these days by prominent individuals is killing credible evangelicalism.

    With that, I am…
    Peter

    • August 5, 2011 at 11:05 AM

      Peter,

      Thanks for the kind words. As I told Carley, I think that Chrisitans who put things out in the public eye cannot plead Matthew 18:15 as a defense against any questioning or challenging of what they said or wrote. To take that to its logical conclusion, that would mean that no one — including some of the higher up SBC bloggers in postions of authority — could not challenge any other Christian’s words or theology without first contacting that person to get their side of the story. That is a preposterous proposition that no one adheres to. But, if one wants to try to argue Matthew 18:15 as a defense to criticism, then it shoudl be applied to one’s theological friends as well as one’s theological opponents. And, your last statement is spot on! Have a great day and God bless,

      Howell

  8. August 5, 2011 at 5:59 AM

    Debating against heresy, is of course, correct. The question is — how do we go about it? and how public do we need to do it? If the person is publicly misleading people, I still think we can go to them privately, certainly before we go public against them.

    • August 5, 2011 at 10:59 AM

      Carley (aka, “lambskinny”),

      Thanks for taking the time to read and to interact with this post. I appreciate your comments. As I have been thinking about what you wrote yesterday and this morning, let me see if I can share my take on it. First, I have no doubt that Matthew 18:15 applies to the local church and that brothers and sisters within the same church should follow the admonition of Jesus in Matthew 18. Second, if an offense is private — between two or more parties, even if they are not at the same local church — I think that could be handled privately using the principles found in Matthew 18:15. Lastly, and this is where people could disagree, if a Christian puts something out in the public domain — books, blogs, videos, sermons, etc. — then that person opens themselves up for questioning and criticism. I do not think that they can then hide behind a Matthew 18:15 argument to avoid what they have said or written — in public — to be questioned or challenged. As Christians, we should always try (although we don’t do it perfectly) to challenge or question the person’s ideas and not the person themselves. There is a fine line there and there are those who have such thin skin that any challenge of their ideas or opinions is seen as a personal attack. I can tell you as a pastor, that one must have thicker skin in the pastorate and in the blog world. Hope that helps to clarify my thinking on this. Thanks again for stopping by and God bless,

      Howell

  9. Lydia
    August 5, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    “Debating against heresy, is of course, correct. The question is — how do we go about it? and how public do we need to do it? If the person is publicly misleading people, I still think we can go to them privately, certainly before we go public against them.”

    We have a couple of examples in scripture of dealing with behavior in both cases the behavior teaching wrong doctrine.

    One is in Galatians where Paul publicly rebukes Peter because he is following the lead of the Jewish Christians and not eating with the Gentiles. Paul makes it clear he did this publicly.

    Another is John in a letter to Gaius that was passed around that warn him about Diotrephes. In that case, it was third party information. How did John have all the facts?

    You know, even Paul’s counsel to Chloe’s people in 1 Corin 5 is from third party information. How did Paul have all the facts?

    But the biggest problem we have is that a long time “pastor” is using Matthew 18 incorrectly. That is a huge red flag. He should know better. If he is misusing that, what about other things he teaches? Matthew 18 is about personal offenses,.It is not about the public behavior of the leader or their publicly teaching wrong doctrine.

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