Reconcile before worship?

I have been critical of nouthetic counseling in this blog before. I admit that I get overwhelmed at the sheer number of cases of injustice that take place in the church. Men, women, and children are cast out, shunned and slandered for reporting crimes, complaining about assault and objecting to being devoured by wolves.

In the past few years, two things have struck me. There are from time to time reports of huge numbers of people who have become sick through food-borne illness. And huge numbers of people report crimes committed against them by officers or leaders in the church. The reported numbers coming out of Protestant churches is as large as the numbers that came out of the Roman Catholic Church.

In the first scenario, the authorities do whatever it takes to discern the cause of the growth of food-borne pathogens, so that they will not continue to fester and cause illness. Chemicals, heat, proper safe food handling techniques are implemented or devised. The solution to food borne illness is to create a hostile environment for food borne pathogens.

I would suggest the same principles be applied to crimes committed in the church. Unlike food-borne illness, we pretend it doesn’t happen, excommunicate the one who got sick, and cover up and deny all traces.

Instead, it seems to me, we should make our churches hostile towards wolves. We should remove those teachings and those cultural assumptions that cause wolves to thrive and sheep to be destroyed.

One of those environments that is very comfortable for a wolf is an environment steeped in nouthetic counseling. As it departs from scripture, it leaves tremendous damage in its wake.

The topic I would like to tackle today is Matthew 5, which., along with Matthew 18, are used to great harm by nouthetic leaders. Matthew 5, as quoted by nouthetic counselors, reads like this:

23 “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you,
24 “leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24 NKJ).

Generally speaking, this passage is used in conjunction with Matthew 18, which reads like this:

15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. (Matthew 18:15 NKJ).

The two verses together in the hands of a nouthetic counselor turn into something diabolical, which has caused tremendous harm in the church and has caused great offense to the little ones who belong to Jesus.

Take this scenario:

A 12 year old girl reports to her parents that Mr. Smith, her Sunday School teacher, exposed himself to her during class.

The parents take the child to the pastor, and report to the pastor.

The pastor, following his seminary education, asks the child if she has confronted Mr. Smith one on one.

“Matthew 18 says that you are supposed to confront him one on one. Have you done that yet? We can’t hear the report from you until you take that step first. “

The parents ask about contacting the police.

“Absolutely not!” says the pastor. “We need to be a place of forgiveness. This will destroy our ministry and the reputation of Christ! Besides, we ought to obey God rather than man, and God tells us that we need to confront him privately first. If he asks forgiveness, you must let it go. Promise to never bring it up again.”

The parents sit in stunned silence.

The pastor goes on. “Also, Matthew 5 teaches us that you cannot take the Lord’s Supper or lead in worship until you reconcile with Mr. Smith.”

There will be three kinds of people who read this scenario. The first will be those who understand exactly what I am saying, because it happened to them exactly like I described. There are more of you that you think.

The second group will accuse me of making things up or exaggerating. They are very comfortable keeping their heads in the sand. Believe me, if you simply learn how to listen you will hear worse accounts than this one. It happens. Over and over again. The reports coming out of ARBCA, the Southern Baptist Convention, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and many, many others are almost exactly like this one.

The third group will wonder what that pastor did wrong in that scenario. The girl is a trouble maker who is stirring things up. Probably accusing Mr. Smith falsely to get some attention. We got to watch these girls. Always up to something. We must protect Dear Mr. Smith from these sorts of people.

The third group are wolves. Watch out for them. The second group might be wolves. It depends on if they will finally listen, or if they will continue to deny that there is a problem.

So first, let me state – Matthew 18 is about offenses between brothers, not crimes against God and the state. Crimes are reported to the appropriate magistrate and consequences are administered. That is also biblical. God is a God of justice as well as mercy, and the state has been given the sword to administer that justice.

But I would like to invite your attention back to Matthew 5. The two verses I quoted are used by Jay Adams in his book “Christian Counselors Manual”. He teaches that they mean that if you are getting ready to go to worship and you remember that “you have done something against your brother (or he thinks you have), drop your gift and first go and get the matter straightened out with your brother. Then…(then and only then) you may come back and finish your act of worship.” (Competent to Counsel, p 53)

I also used to teach and counsel this way. And then I had the privilege of dealing with a wolf. It occurred to me that this is not at all what Jesus is teaching, for he never contradicts himself.

Is Jesus really teaching that if ANYONE thinks that you have done something against them that you are forbidden to worship until you reconcile with them? What about those who thrive on causing destruction? Those who enjoy causing pain and lying about it?

  • David couldn’t go to temple until Saul was straightened out?
  • Paul couldn’t lead worship until he reconciled with Hymenaus and Alexander?
  • John shouldn’t take the Lord’s Supper until he brought Diotrephes to repentance?
  • And the 12 year old girl in our scenario was forbidden to worship until she reconciled with a wolf?
  • That an abused woman is forbidden to worship until she reconciles with her abuser?

This is how this passage is taught throughout the country. It is the petri dish that causes wolves to flourish quite nicely in our congregations. If your sheep doesn’t lay down and play nice, just wait. The pastor will send her right back to you and forbid her to report it. All you have to do is say a few words and you can go right back doing what you were doing.

But Jesus was no fool. Look at the passage again, and this time look at the whole thing (notice that the two verses I quoted above begin with “therefore”. It is the conclusion to the previous section. It also does not end with verse 24). The whole passage reads thus:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old,`You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’

22 “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother,`Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says,`You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.

23 “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you,

24 “leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

25 “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.

26 “Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:21-26 NKJ)

When you see the whole context, you can see that Adams’ interpretation just doesn’t make sense.

Jesus is speaking of murder in the heart. The scribes taught that the sixth commandment only refers to actually physical murder. Jesus is correcting them. There are many ways that we murder one another.

Jesus knows that wolves devour and destroy and that they do it with their words. Oppressive men and women use words to tear down, revile, assault. Those who are specifically skilled at it can truly cause life-long damage that is every bit as deadly and damaging as murder.

I read just the other day of another young girl who took her own life because of the words used against her by her evil classmates. The destruction of bullies cannot be underestimated. Suicide, drug abuse, alcohol, sexual promiscuity abound in High Schools because of the destruction brought upon souls by lawless words, at home and outside the home. But Jesus says that those who use words to revile and attack, seeking to tear down the image of God in their fellow humans will be held liable at the throne of judgment.

This is the context of verse 23.

So he then speaks to those wicked Jews, seeking to bring them to repentance. Using a figure familiar to them from Malachi 2 (where treacherous men have driven their wives and children to the altar of God, crying out for relief) Jesus calls them to remember his words.

These things can’t be covered up by offering a gift. You can’t revile your husband, beat your wife, drive your children to despair, and then show up to church thinking that a few coins in the plate will fix it.

If the Holy Spirit convicts you with your wrong-doing against your brother, stop everything. Because right now, they are covering the altar with tears crying out for relief from the judge of all the earth. Drop your gift and go reconcile with the one you destroyed with your words.

This is the true meaning. The parable at the end of the section makes no sense if Jesus is talking about perceived offenses. It makes no sense with Adams’ interpretation, which is why he stops at verse 24. But that leaves the “therefore” and the rest of the passage out in the cold.

But if you look at the whole thing, you see that a wronged brother is heading to the judge to get relief. You better fix this with him before he gets there. That’s the point.

So to sum this up. If you have sinned against someone and have until now refused to repent, refused to acknowledge your wickedness and hardened your heart against the pain you have caused; If you have torn your brother apart with words and slandered him; If you have lived in such a way that those who have crossed your path are covering the altar of God with tears crying out for relief – then know this:

The judge of all the earth is coming. He will descend in clouds of glory and judge the nations. He will recompense and bring vengeance. He will answer every cry of oppression and every tear of pain.

He will not be mollified by money in the offering plate, or external rituals.

So go to the one you have hurt. Be reconciled. Seek their forgiveness. Quit hurting them.

Before it is too late.

7 Comments

Filed under Pastoral ministry, Repentance

7 responses to “Reconcile before worship?

  1. Leonie Ozemoya

    Spot on! Love this pastor Sam, thanks for helping us untangle this, it has been taught in a twisted way forever! !
    When you come to understand the heart of God this is the only way it can be taken!!
    The one who is the wrong doer or who has an evil heart is the one God says better watch out and change his ways or be subject to the fires of hell!

  2. Sam, regarding “crimes against the state,” that is the truth of all crime, that is the foundation of our legal system. Victims are legally designated as witnesses to crimes against the state. Many victims have trouble with that concept, because they rightly feel as if the crime was against them personally. Just the same, it’s a really sound legal concept. That’s what enables us to protect rich and poor, powerless and powerful, and also to hand the matter over to an impartial 3rd party. Victims do not prosecute bad guys, the state does.

    I really appreciate and value the way you clarify the meaning of scripture for people who may have been misled. That’s critically important, but what really jumps out at me from reading your post was the incredible power imbalance. I can’t even imagine handing all my power over to a counselor who defines the Bible for me or someone who decides I can’t lead worship or take communion. LOL, it sounds very rebellious, but I assure you I get along with most people. It is just that we need to empower people, we need to teach them how to rely on Jesus themselves, read the Bible themselves, and not the opinions of counselors, abusers, and wolves. I don’t think you can fix an authoritarian system because it is always going to be full of flawed people.

  3. Hello Sam, you wrote:
    “Matthew 18 is about offenses between brothers. Not crimes against God and the state. Crimes are reported and consequences are administered. That is also biblical. God is a God of justice as well as mercy, and the state has been given the sword to administer that justice.”

    Something about that^ didn’t sit right with me.

    I agree that Matt 18 is about offences between brothers (‘brothers’ = those who know the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour). I agree that in the scenario you painted of the 12 year old girl and the pervert who was her Sunday School teacher, the teacher did indeed commit a crime. I agree that crimes are to be reported to the secular authorities and the state has been given the sword to administer justice for crimes.

    But your words: “Not crimes against God and the state” didn’t sit right with me. Yes; the crime was against the state. Yes; the crime was against God’s laws and precepts. But the crime was first and foremost against the GIRL. She is the victim of the crime. Your sentence: “Not crimes against God and the state” seemed to me to be skipping over and even dismissing her as a person.

    Who is most important in the scenario you painted? The girl? The state? God?

    To me, that sentence of yours conveyed that you think only the state and God are important in that scenario.

    • I can see the confusion. I switched by the time I got there to speaking generally, and no longer referring to the scenario. But I edited it and removed the confusion.
      Thank you!
      Good to hear from you 😊

    • As for your second post, I was willing to be conciliatory in order not to get lost in semantics, but I changed it back to the way I had it originally, for two reasons.
      First, “crimes against God and the state’ has a long history and means something. It does not denigrate the victim at all. It shows that she matters in the eyes of God and the eyes of the state and that certain sins against her are liable to punishment by the state.
      And the second reason, I do not take well to bullying and condescension. I make up my own mind and have the right to say “no, I won’t take up your cause”.
      It is my decision whether or not I wish to get involved in disputes and I owe no one an explanation.

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