Matthew 18, the PCA, and the Wild, Wild West

            One of the advantages of being old is that you have been around a long time and seen a lot of things. I like that commercial for Farmers Insurance where actor J. K. Simmons makes the statement, “At Farmers Insurance we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Not all who are old, or older, know a thing or two even if they have seen a thing or two. Yet, the Scripture says, “A gray head is a crown of glory; it is found in the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 16:31). 

            I was not at the first or second General Assemblies of the PCA (then called the National Presbyterian Church), but I attended the third GA as a visitor, and was ordained by the fourth GA. There was excitement aplenty in those early days, but there was also a sense that few people really knew what was to be done or how it was to be done. There were very few ministers in the PCA at that time who really understood Scriptural polity and I was one among them. But not to be outdone, there are very few ministers in any Presbyterian denomination who understand Scriptural polity. That is why I have tried to emphasize the necessity of Scriptural polity as one of the three key areas in which the regulative principle is determinative. The regulative principle determines what we believe (doctrine), how we worship, and how we govern (polity). Some churches are destroyed by heresy. Some churches are destroyed by man-made worship that is like a canker worm that eats the crops. And, some churches are destroyed by a rejection of Scriptural polity.

            In the early days of the PCA, General Assemblies were often like the wild, wild west. Cases would come to the Assembly and commissions would be appointed to adjudicate them before the closing session of the court. There were no guiding principles. Justice was meted out according to what seemed good to the men on those commissions. Their reports would be brought back to the Assembly and confusion would reign in the body until the court finally voted up or down. If you never experienced those days, you are truly blessed. That continued for many years until the Assembly finally determined to erect a Standing Judicial Commission. One of the first things the SJC did was to enforce the rights of due process according to Matthew 18. For that, they are to be commended. For a number of years previous to the SJC, justice was uneven and irregular. It was might that made right in too many instances. The Constitution did not matter if the votes were on the side of those who wanted to ignore it or act contrary to it. 

            Matthew 18 is important for several reasons. It is the most basic principle of Presbyterian governance. Before the erection of the SJC, Matthew 18 was mostly ignored. I speak from personal observation. It was never brought up in presbytery court meetings to my knowledge. It is still rarely brought up in any cases I have observed. The SJC enforced it. Cases were lost because of its neglect. But presbyteries and sessions still operated as though Matthew 18 was irrelevant. There are many things that the PCA’s SJC has done poorly in recent years, but it did this very well. For that reason, I commend them. 

            To be sure, Matthew 18 does not cover all circumstances and situations. If a minister is arrested for solicitation of a person whom he mistakenly thinks is a prostitute (which once happened in a presbytery where I served a church), then the first two steps of Matthew 18 are unnecessary. It is too late for those steps of Matthew 18. If a person writes a book filled with heretical statements, then the first two steps of Matthew 18 are not necessary in order to deal with the situation. Yet, even in the Federal Vision heresy of a minister in the old Louisiana Presbytery, I saw Matthew 18 followed. It was in vain, but it was followed, nonetheless. Once again, if a person is acting in a way contrary to the gospel in a gathered assembly, it is appropriate to rebuke him in front of all, as Paul rebuked Peter in Galatians 2:11-14. But, Paul rebuked Peter to his face. He did not gossip about him behind his back. Paul did not run away to others and get them stirred up against Peter. So, the principles of Matthew 18 were basically followed even in that instance. 

            William Hendricksen offers some great advice concerning Matthew 18:15 in his commentary on Matthew:

Nevertheless, although Jesus is here speaking about private offenses, the underlying requirement of showing love and the forgiving spirit toward all makes it reasonable to state that whenever the interests of the Church demand or even allow it, the rule of Matthew 18:15 should also be applied to public offenses.[1]

Love and forgiveness. That is the goal of all Scriptural discipline. If it is not done in love and if forgiveness is withheld when a person repents, it is not done according to Scripture. Galatians 6:1 inculcates the responsibility of love and meekness. Matthew 18:15 establishes that winning the brother back is the goal of all discipline. Galatians 6:1 says the same thing. For that reason, most every book of Presbyterian polity with which I am familiar contains some statement such as the following: “There are many cases, however, in which it will promote the interests of religion to send a committee to converse in a private manner with the offender, and endeavor, to bring him to a sense of his guilt, before instituting process” (BCO 33-7). The burden of proof is always with those who fail or refuse to follow Matthew 18 to show that the “interests of the Church” demanded that those steps be ignored. That is a very high threshold to attain. If the interests of the Church demand those steps to be ignored it will be obvious to almost all, since the entire Church’s interests demand it. Either it is obvious to almost everyone or else the Church is better served by proceeding cautiously through Matthew 18.

At this point, John Calvin is a faithful guide, as he almost always is. Concerning the matter of public and private sins, Calvin makes this very careful distinction:

To begin with, let us keep the division set forth above: that some sins are public; others are private or somewhat secret. Public sins are those witnessed not by one or two persons, but committed openly and to the offense of the entire church. I call secret sins, not those completely hidden from men, as are those of hypocrites (for those do not fall under the judgment of the church), but those of an intermediate sort, which are not unwitnessed, yet not public.    

The first kind does not require the steps which Christ lists [Matt. 18:15-17]; but when any such sin appears, the church ought to do its duty in summoning the sinner and correcting him according to his fault. 

In the second kind, according to that rule of Christ, the case does not come before the church until the sinner becomes obstinate.[2]

There are a couple of points Calvin makes that need to be noted. First, Calvin carefully distinguishes between public sins and private sins. Public sins are those known to the “entire church.” Private sins are those that are “of an intermediate sort,” not those known only to just  one or two. Often, people err by assuming that sins “of an intermediate sort” are public sins and do not require the steps of Matthew 18. Calvin disagrees with that opinion. I fully support Calvin’s view and that is why I think the PCA’s SJC made the right decision to require a very strict observance of that passage. Second, Calvin teaches that it is not the sin, but the obstinacy that requires a case to come before the church. He says, “the case does not come before the church until the sinner becomes obstinate.” Thus, Calvin emphasizes that point in what he says about the severity or mildness of church discipline:

But we ought not to pass over the fact that such severity as is joined with a “spirit of gentleness” [Gal. 6:1] befits the church. For we must always, as Paul bids us, take particular care that he who is punished be not overwhelmed with sorrow [II Cor. 2:7]. Thus a remedy would become destruction. But from the purpose intended it would be better to take a rule of moderation. For, in excommunication the intent is to lead the sinner to repentance and to remove bad examples from the midst, lest Christ’s name be maligned or others be provoked to imitate them. If, then, we look to these things, it will be easy for us to judge how far severity ought to go and where it ought to stop. Therefore, when a sinner gives testimony of his repentance to the church, and by that testimony wipes out the offense as far as he can, he is not to be urged any further. If he is urged, the rigor will now exceed measure.[3]     

Thus, Calvin sets the boundaries for discipline. If a person becomes obstinate, then the church needs to proceed with discipline. That is what Christ says in Matthew 18:17. If the sinner repents, then the necessity for discipline is arrested. That is what Christ says in Matthew 18:15-16. It has long been my practice that when someone comes to me to confess a sin, I deal with them in private and do not bring the matter before the session or the church. There have been some wonderful examples of how people have been restored in their Christian lives by my observation of these very simple rules. God knows who they are. It is unnecessary for others to know. Yet, I also have been very aware that if I turned repentant sinners over to the session for discipline, that the opportunity to minister to such people would completely cease. People are not going to confide in someone who cannot keep confidence or who punishes overmuch. That is what Calvin is telling the whole church. Obstinacy requires discipline. Repentance arrests the need for discipline. 

            In my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, I wrote in one chapter that I was aware of only one person in the whole history of the Church who fell away from orthodoxy, fell into heresy, but later repented of his heresy. Only one. Here is the reason why. A person does not become a heretic without first becoming obstinate. Heretics usually go from bad to worse. On the other hand, I know of many people who have been corrected from error. A humble, repentant spirit is a beautiful thing. Such person are not to be burdened overmuch by heavy handed discipline, but are to be shown mercy. But be very wary of obstinacy. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery through the end of 2021. 

Contributions to Vanguard Presbytery may be sent to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540. Visit us at: www.vanguardpresbytery.com


[1] William Hendricksen, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 698.

[2] John T. McNeil, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans., The Library of Christian Classics, Volume XXI, Calvin: The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume II (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1234. 

[3] Ibid., 1236.

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