Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Welcoming and Warning

There is something fascinating going on in Matthew 18:5-6.  Matthew brings together two sayings which are separated in Mark (by three verses) and Luke (by eight chapters!) to make a really interesting juxtaposition:
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
What has been particularly stimulating my thinking this morning is the tying together of two themes: welcome and hospitality on the one hand, and leading another into sin on the other.  I feel like one of these gets a lot of airplay in contemporary debate.  The idea of being inclusive and welcoming is very important - and rightly so.  Here it is, from the mouth of the Lord: to welcome someone in Christ's name is to welcome Christ himself (and Mark adds: also to receive the one who sent him, i.e., the Father).  Christian hospitality is crucial, and it is only right that it be talked about a lot.  We could do with moving on to actually practice it, to be honest.  It's worth noting that the discussion here is about welcoming believers - i.e., about practical Christian unity - rather than hospitality towards those outside the community (which the NT addresses elsewhere).  Still, here is an agenda which we ought to get behind - and none the less because in a more general, fuzzy sense it is a popular agenda in the world at large.

Logically, we might think that the 'but' in Matthew 18:6 should be followed by an opposite, something like: whoever turns someone away turns me away.  Instead it is followed by the warning that if anyone causes a believer to sin (literally, to stumble), it would be better for them to drown.  The link, presumably, is partly caused by the ongoing image of the believer as child (reinforced in the narrative by the actual presence of a child).  But that surely isn't all.  Matthew presents this as one complete thought: you should welcome believers in Jesus' name, but you shouldn't cause them to sin.  It is not hard to imagine the multiplicity of ways in which one might cause a believer to sin: by giving a poor example; by failing to encourage and support; by failing to welcome and include, I guess, such that they are cut off from church life; and also by teaching falsely about right and wrong.

I wonder whether there is something here that needs teasing out for the sake of our current discourse.  One of the dynamics in the church at the moment is that there are those pushing for a change in the church's ethical teaching so as to be more inclusive.  I feel like that is taking the theme of Matthew 18:5 and ignoring the 'but'.  The NT has a particular horror of those who will teach the church to believe falsely and behave wrongly.  Matthew is perhaps particularly strong on the latter - consider Matthew 5:17-20.  If we take seriously the call of the NT to radical welcome and inclusion in the name of Jesus, we must also take seriously the call to ethical purity for the sake of Jesus.

Matthew 18:6 is not gentle language.  It is, nevertheless, gracious language.  It is unlikely that anyone who is on the end of an appeal to stop leading others into sin will feel that it is gracious - especially not if language about millstones is involved - but if the Lord Jesus is right (if!) then it is gracious to abruptly correct someone, to point out that they are endangering the souls of themselves and their hearers.  Arguably, it is part of receiving an erring brother or sister in Christ's name to rebuke them strongly, to warn them that they are in danger of forfeiting that name - and all the more so if they have taken on the role of a teacher.

It is not a contradiction of Matthew 18:5 to also read Matthew 18:6.


  1. I think this is an important question. And it is always difficult to know how to apply both the Gospel’s firm command to welcome every sinner, and the equally firm warning not to tolerate sin. Recently I’ve been pondering the difference in guidance between 1 Corinthians 5 and Romans 14 which I think speaks into this.

    In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul says that in this particular case of serious unrepentant sin, the church should abandon their principle of welcoming sinners, and expel the sinner from amongst them. This is a shocking command, but it ties firmly in with Matthew 18:6.

    However, I am struck by how Paul applies a different guidance to the Church in Romans 14 (he covers a similar case for the Corinthians in chapter 8 but his advice in Romans is more expanded). Here, the church is faced with a sincere disagreement over whether a particular behaviour is sinful or not. Eating food sacrificed to idols was traditionally considered a grave sin. It is firmly condemned by the laws of the Old Testament, and this prohibition was one of the few considered serious enough to be explicitly ratified by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. But the Church was now facing a situation where one group of believers were suddenly claiming that because of Christ, they were free to ignore these prohibitions.

    This was a serious problem and the traditionalists, if they were to follow Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 5, and apply it faithfully, would have felt perfectly justified in expelling these other believers from amongst them, condemning them for leading other people into grave sin. In fact, this is what the Apostle John urged the church to do in Revelation 2:14-16. He was appalled that some people were eating food sacrificed to idols, and condemned the Church of Pergamum for tolerating such people among them. For the Apostle John and, we can assume, for a large proportion of the Church as a whole, this looked like a simple case of expelling sinfulness from among them.

    Paul, on the other hand offers an alternative solution. While Paul in general seems to be theologically supportive of the radicals and their new reinterpretation of what constituted sinfulness, he does not condemn the traditionalists as he condemned the circumcisers in Galatians 5:12. Rather he urges the Church to accept that this is a difference of opinion among sincere and faithful believers. Although in Corinthians 5 he demands that the believers judge each other, in Romans 14 he commands them not to, that they should leave this as a matter between each servant and his master, and they should not condemn each other for their difference of belief and practice.

    This is not a contradiction but merely Paul speaking into a different situation. I think the Church today needs to be very careful not to apply a ‘1 Corinthians 5’ solution to a ‘Romans 14’ situation.

    1. Thanks Mike - that's useful, and your last para is important (one could, of course, reverse it - it would be at least as bad to treat a 1 Cor 5 situation as if it were a Rom 14 situation).

      I think the 'food sacrificed to idols' situation has a further nuance which is worth bearing in mind, incidentally, not that it hugely changes your point: Paul is also appalled by the idea of eating food sacrificed to idols IF it implies complicity in idol worship (1 Cor 10). So his point is not simply that 'it used to be bad but now it isn't', nor is he necessarily contradicting Rev 2:14-16. But as I say, that doesn't affect your main point: that some issues are things people can disagree about in good conscience, and others are not.

      (As a further aside, I think Paul's position can be supported from the OT, which doesn't explicitly forbid eating sacrificed meat anywhere, although it does forbid joining in with pagan sacrificial rituals - e.g. Exodus 34:15, where joining in with the sacrifice is seen as binding oneself to a foreign god, in a way very similar to what Paul writes in 1 Cor 10).

      Basically I think there is no a priori way to tell whether what we're dealing with here is 'indifferent'/open to conscientious disagreement or an issue of division/judgement. The only way to get into it is to do the hard graft in Scripture. The main line being pushed at the moment, for example, is around sexual ethics, so we have to do the work of ascertaining what the overall Biblical picture of a sexual ethic looks like, and whether it fits more into the 'agree to disagree' or the 'expel the immoral brother' category. I think it's the latter although interestingly, even if it were the former, on a parallel with Paul's Romans 14 logic it would be those who feel more liberated who should be more restrained!

    2. Should also add: most of the harsh language in the NT is, I think, directed at people who teach others to sin, rather than at sinners. Causing others to stumble is condemned; stumbling is met with compassion.