Are We Missing the Point of Matthew 18?

Are We Missing the Point of Matthew 18? by JONATHAN T. PENNINGTON for Christianity Today

A pastor learns that a married man is having an affair with a married woman in the same small group Bible study. The fallout is only just beginning. According to Scripture, how should the pastor address this?

Or imagine this: A copastor of a church plant has been increasingly erratic. He’s showing signs of classic narcissism, leaving a wake of damaged people who’ve run afoul of his overbearing leadership. How should his co-pastor handle this?

Or bring it down a level: Two high schoolers in the youth group began showing romantic interest in each other. The boy’s parents were anxious about the situation, so they worked hard to shut it down. As a result, the girl’s parents were hurt and upset. Now there’s escalating tension between the parents, and accusations of wrongdoing are flying from both sides. The pastor is brought in to negotiate. What steps should the pastor take?

Those who’ve been in ministry any length of time don’t have to use much imagination to recognize these scenarios; most pastors have experienced some version of these circumstances. The varieties of sin are infinite but also predictable. It’s not only the poor we will always have with us, as Jesus reminds us, but it’s also humans doing bad stuff—including Christian humans.

A matter of discipline?

Over the past 25 years, I’ve been privileged to serve as both a pastor and a professor—and currently as both at once. In my experience, it’s much more difficult to be a pastor than a professor, largely because of the complexity of interpersonal relationships in the church.

Though conflicts come and go in a congregation, they never go away forever. In just the past year, I can recall multiple instances of hurt feelings, misunderstandings, explosive anxiety, and conflict between Christians in our church—including within the staff. I’ve been brought in to help with some situations, I’ve been aware of others, and I’ve been personally involved in and affected by some.

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