How should churches handle reports of abuse?

Does Jesus give Christians the authority to handle criminal offenses and accusations in the church without going to the governing authorities? Some have understood Matthew 18:15-20 as teaching that the church can adjudicate crimes like sexual abuse by means of church discipline and interpersonal reconciliation. Such an understanding of Jesus’ instruction, however, is a distortion and misunderstanding of the Bible’s teaching regarding the authority of the church and the authority of the state.

Matthew 18:15-20 records Jesus’ instruction to his disciples regarding discipline in the church. Jesus says,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

While in the past some believers have either misunderstood or largely ignored this passage, it has started to resurface in the age of the #MeToo movement. Tragically, it appears that some people are attempting to use Matthew 18 as a guide for addressing issues of sexual abuse in the church. Such an application of this passage cannot go unchallenged.

Living under two authorities 

While Jesus’ instruction to his disciples would undoubtedly apply to matters of church discipline, the church must never forget that as long as Christ tarries and the Church remains on earth, the church is living in two overlapping realms of God-ordained authority. In Matthew 18, Jesus was not addressing criminal offenses. As the Creator and Sustainer of all things (Heb. 1:1-3), Jesus was well aware of the vital role that governing authorities must play in dealing with criminal evils. Such governing authorities, as we will see in Romans 13, were his idea. If we continue to read through the Gospel of Matthew, we will find Jesus explicitly affirming the limited but necessary authority of the state.

Consider Matthew 22:15-22, where Jesus tells the Pharisees that certain things “belong to Caesar, while other things belong to God.” The Pharisees, who had a problem with the authority of Rome, were attempting to “entangle Jesus in His words.” The Pharisees wondered if Jesus would affirm a radical view regarding taxes paid to Rome. They believed that many of Jesus’ followers were Jewish Zealots who were anticipating the revelation of his Messianic rule, which would result in the overthrow of Rome. They hoped to catch Jesus teaching that his role and rule as Messiah would undermine the authority of Rome in the life of his disciples. However, Jesus did not affirm an overrealized idea about his rule as the true king of Israel. In fact, when Jesus speaks of his own Kingdom in John 18, he does not place it in opposition to the kingdom of man. Instead, Jesus speaks of the transcendence of his Kingdom, which will “bear witness to the truth” in the context of the Roman Empire.

While the Kingdom of Christ should certainly orient and direct a disciple’s life in the kingdom of man, unless it is at odds with the Christ’s Kingdom, disciples are obligated to live under the authority of the earthly authorities as an expression of their submission to the ultimate authority of Christ. Scripture is clear that God has delegated a limited authority to governments for punishing evil and rewarding good (1 Pet. 2:13-14). Accordingly, the church must recognize that they have no more authority to adjudicate an accusation of murder within the church than they do for an accusation of sexual abuse. While the church must discipline members according to the pattern found in Matthew 18, there may be times when crimes have been committed, and God has ordained the state (not the church) as the institution entrusted with the authority to handle such matters.

What does this mean? 

What does this mean for life in a #MeToo age? While Matthew 18 certainly provides guidelines for Christian reconciliation and discipline in the context of the church, we do not simply live in the context of the church. We also live as citizens of a state that God has granted authority for the good of all people. In fact, the apostle Paul viewed a properly functioning state as an ideal for which Christians should pray (1 Tim. 2:2). We must recognize that we live in the context of and under the authority of a government that God has tasked with investigating and punishing evildoers. If such evildoers turn to Christ for salvation, while they have been forgiven and possess eternal life now and for the world to come, they must still face the consequences of their crimes in this life. 

Such a recognition of the consequences of their crime is also a part of what it means to repent and trust in Christ. Salvation and reconciliation in the church does not exempt a person from the societal and legal consequences of their crimes in the world. Furthermore, it is not the church’s responsibility to investigate and determine the best course of action on a matter that has violated the laws of the state. If the laws of the land are just (punishing evil and rewarding good) and do not require the church to violate the law of God (requiring us to abandon our love for God and our neighbor), then the church is obligated by Christ himself to render unto Caesar not only the taxes but the jurisdiction that belongs to the state. The state, not the saints, bear the sword against evildoers. For the state is “God’s servant for your good.”

In a #MeToo age, the church should be grateful for governments that will investigate and punish evil while preserving and rewarding those who do good. For when a government functions in this manner, it is echoing the righteousness and justice of God.