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Gospel Order, Part I

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 10th of Ninth Month, 2023

Speaker: Brian Young

Scripture: Matthew 18:15-20, NRSVUE

“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If you are listened to, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Good morning, Friends!

I begin with an apology: I don’t have it quite together today, Friends. I thought I would have a nice tidy complete message on this passage for this morning, and that would be it and it would be time to move on to other subjects. But as I’ve been wrestling with Jesus’ words here, I am realizing that there is a lot more attention that they need, certainly from me, and I hope from us together. So today will just be a start, and I intend for there to be at least one more message on this theme the next time I speak; so please forgive me for the fragmentary nature of this message today. Mostly I have questions.

One of our treasured pieces of Quaker vocabulary is the phrase, “Gospel Order”. I don’t know where this term came from or when it first developed, but I’ve always heard that it comes from the first generation of Quakerism, and if that’s the case, George Fox likely had something to do with it. I really should do more research here and try to find where it first appears in Quaker writings—but here at West Richmond, there may be someone who has done that work! So if anyone already knows the answer, I’d be happy to have you share that with me, and with all of us.

If you’re not familiar with this phrase, “gospel order” is often used to refer to various ways that we can understand God’s intention for our lives together. Often this is in a fairly narrow sense; for example, we sometimes apply it to our business process, to what we are trying to do when we make decisions together. Or you might hear someone label the passage we’ve heard this morning as “the gospel order passage”. That was certainly the first way that I heard the term used.

Now, possibly, you have heard me say this before: gospel order is much deeper and wider than just these two instances. When we think about all that “order” implies—at least theologically—we can go back to the very beginning, to the creation accounts in Genesis, which tell of how God ordered the cosmos as God brought it into being. In each of the first six days, God created different parts, ordering them so as to work with the rest—among these were day and night, waters and dry land, plants and animals, and then human animals, to name and care for all other living things. That ordered creation was what God called “good,” as God saw it coming into being. And the Gospel of John expands on this, proclaiming that Christ the Word was present in that creation, and that through Christ all things were made (John 1:1–3). So in some sense (some mysterious sense that I don’t fully understand), Christ is part of the very fabric of creation. We might say that “through him all things were ordered”: that part of the role of Christ in creation is to order and relate the various parts to one another—as it says in Colossians, that “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

And I think this connects with the “gospel” part of gospel order: when we think specifically of the body of Christ, the community of faith, the order of our lives together comes not from a legal code, or an externally-imposed set of rules that we must follow, but from the presence of Christ in our midst. When we each encounter the gospel, the good news of Christ’s redeeming love for us, and continuing accompaniment with us, what God desires is that we will allow that redeeming love to give a new shape to our lives. And that new shape then forms our lives with others: gospel order.

So that may make it clearer that any expression of our community life is an opportunity to demonstrate gospel order. In the way we make decisions, yes, as we seek to discern God’s ordering will for our body. In the way that we resolve conflicts, yes, as we seek to be reconciled to one another and so have Christ order our relationships. Certainly in our witness for peace and justice, which should show a trust that the nonviolent order of the Lamb is what our chaotic world most needs. In each of these areas, we have the opportunity to show not that we have it all together—for we certainly don’t—but to clearly commit ourselves to being directed by Christ in all things; or in as many things as we possibly can.

The passage that we’ve read today, as I said earlier, is sometimes labeled “the gospel order passage.” Where it comes in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 18, it is part of a series of teachings from Jesus on how his movement—what eventually became the church, and what is ultimately the kingdom of heaven—is to function. And this part of the chapter is about what happens when things aren’t functioning—when rather than gospel order, there is disorder.

Now, I want to begin where I'm comfortable, and maybe where you're comfortable too: the end of the passage, verse 20, probably the most-quoted part of it: “...where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We often quote this verse in isolation—I certainly have done so in the past—because it gives us a warm fuzzy feeling about God’s presence with us. We often use it when speaking about worship, because worship is probably what most of us think of when we think about being gathered in Christ’s name. But if we look at the context, Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking about worship. Rather, he is speaking specifically about prayer, about just a couple of people being gathered in prayer, and agreeing on what to ask God for. Verse 19 says, “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” OK—that is weighty, in the sense that April Vanlonden used the word in her message last week—if this is true, then we need to be very careful about what we pray for! If we take Jesus’ words here seriously, then we must also take our words seriously when we pray together.

Continuing to read from back to front, we find that Jesus is speaking about “binding and loosing.” In relation to the preceding verse, this appears to be specifically about prayer: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (v19). The action that takes place there, what God is responding to, appears to be prayer. So prayer—these words that we need to treat with care—prayer is an opportunity to restrict or to bind; or it's an opportunity to liberate or to loose. Earlier in Matthew's gospel, Jesus gives this power specifically to Peter (16:19), but here he gives it to all in the movement. So it's not just a Peter thing.

In a similar passage in John’s Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection, breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, and says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23), So it seems that loosing and forgiveness go together, and binding and retaining go together, and these are specifically about our response to sin—either forgiving or not forgiving sin. Again, this is a formidable responsibility!

Now, reading back-to-front more, to the first three verses of the passage (these are what I hope to have more to say about the next time I speak, but to start, a few things to observe). Here there seems to be a three-part process for addressing sin in the community; we note that while it says “If your brother or sister sins against you,” some of the earliest manuscripts don’t have the phrase “against you”; so it seems to refer to sin of any kind, not necessarily an interpersonal thing.

One of the other things I notice is that it starts with an individual encounter. You are supposed to go to that person by yourself, one on one. And then only if things aren't resolved do we widen the circle of people involved. In each case, I believe the approach is meant not to be punitive, but to be restorative, even to be liberative: to loose what needs to be loosed.

The final result, when Jesus says, “...if the offender refuses to listen even to the church,” (we’ve gone to the third step here) “...let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector” (v17). Now, this has always felt to me like, “then you kick them out and you never have to deal with them again.” Right? They’re beyond the pale. Done with them. But as I've been looking at this more closely, I've noticed: “ a gentile and a tax collector...” What was Jesus’ attitude towards folks like that? His approach was not to reject them outright and to never have anything to do with them. Gentiles and tax collectors were in fact welcome to fellowship. Jesus ate with tax collectors, Jesus ministered to and among gentiles. And of course the church—his movement, what is ultimately the kingdom of heaven—includes people of all sorts.

So one of my questions is, what does it mean for someone to be as a Gentile or a tax collector to me, to us? What is our approach there?

Here are some queries, and then we'll settle into open worship:

  • How do you see gospel order being enacted in the life of West Richmond Friends? What parts of our life together might need to be ordered more closely by Christ’s presence?

  • Have you experienced either the power of binding, or the power of loosing, in your life? Is this a power you would or would not like to wield in the lives of others?

  • How is the power of binding and loosing active in the life of West Richmond Friends? In what parts of our life together might we need things to be bound, and in what parts might we need things to be loosed?

New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Brian Young, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.

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