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Gospel Order, part II

Good morning, Friends!

Matthew 18:15–20, NRSVUE: 15 “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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Matthew 5:23–24, NRSVUE: 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

We’re picking up again where we left off two weeks ago, with this passage from Matthew 18, and adding another to it, from Matthew’s fifth chapter. The last time I spoke, I lifted up that treasured Quaker phrase, “Gospel Order,” and we explored a bit of its origins and its application. As to its origins, however, I wasn’t sure where or when it first appeared. Well, my thanks to Ben Richmond, who has pointed me to several of George Fox’s letters where he uses this phrase; it looks like the first occurrence was 1669. So that’s that question answered.

If you know some Quaker history, you might remember that the late 1660s were when Fox was giving structure to the movement, for example organizing Friends into Monthly and Quarterly Meetings. With that context, I think, it makes sense that Fox would be reading the

Scriptures with an eye towards order: in his words, what he and others were initiating was “the Government of Christ Jesus” by which Friends were to be ruled, “an everlasting Fellowship and an everlasting Order” (Fox, Epistle 308) that had come to be re-established in their midst. (And if that’s interesting to you, please stick around for the 11 o’clock hour this morning, when we’ll be starting our Introduction to Quakerism class... with that announcement from our sponsor, we now return you to our regularly scheduled programming...)

The last time I spoke, we observed that in the first part of the Matthew 18 passage, there seems to be a three-part process for addressing sin in the community; it could be any sort of transgression, but usually when we read this passage, we think of sins against one another, the things that cause conflict and hurt between members of the faithful community. I also suggested that the process is meant to be restorative rather than punitive; this is supposed to be about putting things right rather than finding fault and condemning people.

The passage seems to spell out three steps: it starts with an individual encounter. You go to the offender by yourself, one on one. And then only if things aren't resolved does one widen the circle of people involved, but just “one or two”. The circle widens still further if that work is ineffective, going “to the church,” and that is the final step before the one who has given offense is to be treated “as a gentile and a tax collector”. (And remember, that doesn’t mean that you kick them out, and you never see them again, necessarily.) Now, I’ll admit that this sounds more punitive than restorative. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how things won’t go wrong with this even before you get to the third step. In my experience, conflicts in a congregation often end up with someone leaving when something goes wrong at the individual encounter stage—we may not even get to the later parts.

So this is one of the reasons I wanted to hold up another piece of Scripture alongside the “gospel order” passage. For quite some time, whenever I read this part of Matthew 18, I have thought of the other passage that we’ve heard read today, from Matthew 5:23–24. These two passages, it seems to me, are the two sides of the same coin. For just as we need to address the situation when someone else has wronged us, we also need to be aware of our own tendency to wrong others, and to be willing to repair that wrong. I think the Matthew 18 process would be a lot easier if each of us also had the Matthew 5 passage close to us, in our hearts and in our minds.

It’s interesting to me that the chapter 18 passage spells out a series of procedures, while the chapter 5 instruction is less detailed. But I think it’s most notable that the chapter 5 passage is tied to worship: Jesus seems to say that we can’t really be worshipful—perhaps even that God does not want our worship—if we know we have unresolved things in our relationships with others. We cannot be fully with God in worship if we have not first made the way clear with our sisters and brothers.

One commentator points out that it’s improbable that someone would actually leave the altar in the middle of an act of worship, perhaps even leaving the assembly entirely, to make a journey to find the sister or brother that they had wronged. So perhaps there’s some hyperbole here; but if so, it’s to emphasize the importance of reconciliation in the life of the body of Christ. Can we expect there to be no barriers between us and God if there are barriers between us and our siblings? Can that vertical channel of love be fully free and clear if there’s hurt and unforgiveness in the horizontals between us?

The next thing that I have to say about the kinds of processes that these two passages describe is that I am terrible at them. Going to my brother or sister when there has been offense, whether I have caused the offense or they have, is really difficult. I confess that I have violated Jesus’ instruction to stop my worship and go seek reconciliation to someone I have offended... well, more times than I can count. I really should be leaving this building right now to go talk to some folks, for I know there are a few people that I’m not right with, and it’s been that way for a while. And I know I’m not the only one here whose first instinct is to avoid conflict, rather than to meet it head on. As much as we Quakers love peace, too often we choose peace on the surface, a peace of appearances, rather than going deeper and doing the hard work that allows for restoration and reconciliation.

And then there’s that delicate question of how you go to someone who has committed an offense and seek to bring them back into harmony with the rest of the body. In open worship the last time we looked at this passage together, Stephanie Crumley-Effinger recalled that Friends have had a difficult history with some of what the Matthew 18 passage seems to call for. There was a time in our history when the practice of eldering, as it was generally known, was used in a punitive way, and those who had the responsibility for shepherding the flock often concentrated on outward adherence to Friends practices—was your manner suitably sober, were your clothes appropriately plain? The stereotypical example was the dreaded visit of the elders to one’s home, when they would measure the length of the fringe of the curtains and make sure it wasn’t too long, or too elaborate. But this discipline was also employed in spiritual, moral, and family matters, and in a way that meant that Friends lost many thousands of people over the course of a century or more. I haven’t done the research to know if Matthew 18 was always brought to bear in those situations—my guess is that it wasn’t—but regardless, Friends often chose a means that valued the maintenance of orthodoxy more than the practice of mercy.

That aspect of our history means that in the 20th and 21st centuries, many North American Friends are reluctant to do any kind of eldering in their meetings and churches. That, we fear, would mean a return to the bad old days. That fear is justified, to some extent. But t hat sensitivity, combined with the extreme individualism of our culture, means that when any one person walks into our meetinghouse—whether they’re brand new or they’ve been here for decades—they probably expect that their business is their business; and for the group, well, we don’t want to pry; we don’t want to offend. As Stephanie put it two weeks ago, it ends up being “you do what you do and I do what I do,” and we don’t really even give each other much help.

That being the case, I don’t think we have very much practice with the parts of Matthew 18 that are supposed to happen after the individual conversation. I can count on one hand the times that I have been part of a group eldering situation in a meeting I was part of (and sometimes it was me being eldered). That individual encounter is hard enough; could there possibly be a way to get more people involved and not have it be a disaster?

This is where I think it’s useful to return to George Fox for a minute. There’s one of his letters where he interprets this passage for the Friends he wrote to, about how to handle these delicate situations:

...though the doctrine of Jesus Christ requireth his people to admonish a brother or sister twice, before they tell the church, yet that limiteth none, so... that they shall use no longer forbearance, before they tell the church, but that they shall not less than twice admonish their brother or sister before they tell the church. (Fox, Epistle 264; emphasis added)

The language is antique, but what Fox is saying is that the Matthew 18 passage spells out a kind of minimum requirement: you shall “not less than twice admonish [your] brother or sister,” but in fact you could go back to them individually, or with a group of people, any number of times, working with them in love, laboring towards a resolution. And in the rest of what Fox says he extends this idea, recommending that Friends seek help not just from their Monthly Meeting, but from the Quarterly Meeting, seeking especially those who have the spiritual depth to meet this challenge mercifully and in love. All of this points to a process that could take quite a lot of time, but exceeds what the Scripture requires—conforming to the Spirit rather than the letter of the law.

This is hard work. I’m reminded of what William Penn says about love being the hardest lesson to learn in Christianity… and for that reason it should be most our concern to learn it.1 We have to put in the time to do that work.

Another aspect of this passage that we touched upon two weeks ago is in what Jesus says about binding and loosing. We observed that he is speaking about prayer, and when we pray, we may be binding, or retaining, or refusing to forgive someone or something; or we may be loosing, or liberating, or forgiving something or someone. That’s part of what binding and loosing means; and I think of this particularly with regard to unforgiveness, to not forgiving someone. That's a way of binding not just that person to behavior that you can't forgive them for, and expecting that they will continue to behave that way; it’s also binding yourself to a particular position, that if you don't relent, it's just going to harden.

This leads me to ask how we, as a meeting, are bound, or by what we are bound; and in what circumstances we find ourselves loosed. There are all sorts of ways in which we might

There are all sorts of ways in which we might be said to be bound, and in many cases, these are limitations or even constrictions: we may be bound by culture, or by fear, or by a love of comfort and that surface peace that I mentioned earlier. But I am reminded also that the root of the Englsh word “religion” is said to have come from the Latin for “to bind fast” (the same root as for “ligature”); and in that sense there is a positive binding. The choice to follow in the way of Jesus is to bind oneself to the person of Christ, and to his inward teaching. And that leads me to those paradoxical images of the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light; for the bonds of faithfulness to God in Christ are bonds that liberate rather than constrict. In binding ourselves to Christ, a great many other things will be loosed. Let’s pray, Friends. and agree together to know God’s ordering gospel, that we might be loosed to do his merciful work in the world.

1“Love is the hardest Lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it.” William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude, 1693.

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.

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