How We Deal With Those We Believe are Wrong

Part of my morning prayer these days includes reflecting on Brendan Byrne’s commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today.

In the section I used this morning, Byrne comments on Matthew 18:15-18, where Jesus provides “a carefully gradated structure of fraternal correction,” instructing his disciples:

If your brother sins, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.  If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as your would a Gentile or a tax collector.

Byrne writes the following:

The steps are designed to preserve the errant brother or sister as far as possible from public shame.  The goal is to “win” the brother or sister in the sense of bringing him or her to an understanding of the matter that will result in conversion and full integration into the holiness of the community – in contemporary language, to make the procedure a growth opportunity for all concerned.  If this does not work, then recourse must be had to more serious steps, bringing in two or three witnesses, then “the church”, and ultimately, if the person persists in refusing to listen, proceeding to excommunication – a last resort that was, on the lines of Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor 5:1-5, intended to be remedial and temporary rather than final.

The first line of the passage I just quoted was the one that first jumped out at me, for it seems to me that today it is too often that our first step is one of public shame (a particularly easy first step given social media).  That makes me wonder if we have lost sight of the goal of bringing others into conversion and full integration, rather than punishing them.

Byrne acknowledges that the specific disciplinary procedure outlines really only works in a small local community, but I think the implications of the teaching: keeping in mind a goal of conversion and reintegration and making public shame a last resort, are still ones worth keeping in mind.

Postscript: This is the second of Byrne’s Gospel commentarys I am working my way through; I started with his book on Luke (The Hospitality of God).  I have found them very helpful.