Reconciliation as Sacrament

Both Christians and non-believers are familiar with the idea of sacraments (or ordinances, as Southern Baptists prefer to call them, thinking the term ‘sacrament’ too Catholic and/or mystical sounding).  They are the practices the church engages in in the belief that God is also acting “in, through and under.”  Baptism and communion are the most commonly understood sacraments, but any action performed by the church in the faith that God is also acting is a sacrament, so marriages and healing services also qualify.

A sacrament you seldom see in church

In Matthew 18, shortly after Jesus has revealed himself as the Messiah and used the term “church” for the first time, he imparts this bit of wisdom:

If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that “by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established.”  If he pays no attention to them, tell the church.  But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you.

In summary, it’s a strategy of conflict-resolution.  If a fellow disciple has sinned, your duty as a follower of Jesus is not to look the other way, but to take them aside and ask them about it.  If you reach an understanding, then that’s perfect, but if not take two or three “witnesses” with you to address the matter again.

Now, these aren’t witnesses in the sense that they saw the sin committed.  That’s irrelevant.  What Jesus is doing here is citing the Levitical statute that in civil trials two or more witnesses are required for a conviction.  This makes it clear that Jesus intends this rule to function as a form of jurisprudence in the church, which he envisions as a continuation of the nation of Israel.

If even this fails, the entire discipleship community (that is, the church) is brought in on the matter.  Naturally, the offending party has motivation to see that it doesn’t come to this.  But should the full weight of the church’s appeal fail to bring the sinner back in line, the church should choose to cut all ties with them rather than let the issue go.  We always have to bear in mind that this is the context in which Jesus says, “Forgive not seven times but seventy times seven.”

What makes this a sacrament?

Jesus goes on to say

I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.

The point is that the God is acting “in, through and under” the actions of the church in its judgment.  When the church forgives the offender and welcomes them back into community, God himself is binding us together.  And when the sinner refuses to repent for the sake of community, God is cutting them loose in the same act that the church is.

The bottom line

This is a radical concept for a number of reasons.

  1. The initiative is a personal one, not a function of the clergy.  It is when you know of someone’s sin that you talk to them privately.
  2. The intention is to restore the person to community, never to punish an infraction.  There is no talk of punishment (though there may always be consequences).
  3. No distinction is made between major and minor sins.  Any sin can be forgiven, and no sin is so small as to be worth overlooking.
  4. The focus of the sacrament is not the church, or keeping the community pure.  It is the health and heart of the offender, with the hope of restoring them to community without forsaking truth.

Now, there is one difficulty in interpretation.  In the best and oldest manuscripts of Matthew, the phrase “against you” is absent from the first line.  The general line of thought is that an inattentive or overzealous copyist wanted to make the phrase match up more closely to verse 21.  But even if we take the more restrictive meaning of only directly addressing sins that are against us personally, this understanding has radical implications for both Roman Catholic interpreters and readers in the so-called free churches.

John Howard Yoder says of this practice that

Taking [it] seriously would put us at the mercy of a number of ecclesial scarecrows.  It gives more authority to the church than does Rome, trusts more to the Holy Spirit than does Pentecostalism, has more respect for the individual than does liberal humanism, makes moral standards more binding than did Puritanism and is more open to the new situation than was what some called “the new morality” a quarter-century ago. 

He goes on to say

If practiced, it would radically restructure the life of churches.  Thus the path to the rediscovery of Christian faithfulness might lead through some positions contemporary Christian “moderates” have been trying to avoid. 

What do you think?

  • Have you ever seen this practice of the church put into practice?
  • How would a consistent use of this practice “radically restructure the life of churches”?
  • How different is our situation from the discipleship community Jesus was addressing?  Is it feasible to bring every dispute before “the whole church”?
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