By Joel A Hess –
From Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to the Matthew 18 passage on church discipline that never goes out of circulation, Christians have wrongly used Jesus’ words to establish new bureaucracies. Ironically, our Lord used these same exact words to tear down the bureaucracy of the day. Some church bodies have even set up constitutions specifically based on what they believe is Jesus’ prescription for sin management. Others are more subtle. Instead of hearing “Christ, the mediator of a new covenant,” many in our pews hear, “A new bureaucracy I give unto you!”
When Jesus equated name calling with murder and said it’s deserving of Hell fire, He was not establishing a new list of rules to follow. Imagine one of his disciples immediately thinking to himself, “Ok, so you can’t say ‘fool,’ but maybe you can say ‘jerk.’” When Jesus pointed out that lust was equal to adultery, He was not encouraging churches to create new guidelines for sexual purity. For example, “If you think about a woman for over one second, then you are guilty. But under a second, no problem.” Yes, I heard a woman from an Assemblies of God church tell me exactly this. Jesus was not upping the ante. He was not establishing new laws.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was primarily used to kill the hopes of anyone who thought they were righteous by their own efforts. He especially had in mind those who thought they were following the rules. He was not offering a new means to manage sin or run a church. If you want to go ahead and start chopping your hands and limbs in order to avoid sin, you will eventually be down to a beating heart, and there will still be sin.
Jesus was not setting up a new bureaucracy to take the place of the Sanhedrin. He desired to kill the sin-management government of the day to replace it with His death and resurrection. “Tear this temple down and…” He came to save people with names and faces who can’t save themselves. He’ll take care of the sin management all by himself, thank you very much!
Matthew 18 gets abused especially in this way. How many times has someone pulled the Matthew 18 card as if it’s a get out of jail free card when a problem arises? How many times has someone declined the Matthew 18 card by judging that it didn’t apply to this particular case because it’s a “public” sin? Good job, nerd boy! Both parties are guilty of using Jesus’ words as a new bureaucracy that we must follow with just as much scrutiny as the best of Pharisees. As long as we follow procedures, who cares about people or actual issues?
Jesus’ goal in Matthew 18 regarding winning back the brother is just that: winning back the brother. His point was not to set up a more effective bureaucratic way to deal with issues in the church. His number one goal was to kill the cold bureaucracy of dealing with problems and encourage people to love one another. Screw the bureaucracy! Cut the crap!
We need organization, yes. Paul commends good organization in Corinthians. The apostles appointed deacons for better organization. Jesus sets up an organization of sorts with preachers and people. It’s fine to establish agreed-upon rules. But to what point? To bring sinners to repentance and life in Christ. To bring the dead to life. To reconcile the lost to God and to one another. To resurrect and preserve real people, not a bureaucracy.
This does not mean we shouldn’t go to Matthew 18 or the Sermon on the Mount for issues in our churches. But when we do, we should always ask ourselves why and for what purpose. Do we really want to save the life of a sister in Christ? Or do we just want to follow rules?
Forgive me, Lord, for caring more about bureaucratic gods than your people and your truth. I can’t wait to finally stand in that perfect, resurrected organization in a city without walls—inside or out—with the Lamb as its light. Lord have mercy.