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Studies & Actions of the General Assembly of
The Presbyterian Church in America

24th General Assembly, 1996, 24-17, pages 97 - 110.

by Paul B. Fowler, Ph.D.

I. Hermeneutic Assumptions
The Old Testament is rich in principles and examples of judicial process for God's people. In contrast, the New Testament has relatively few passages to consider. The details of judicial process are simply lacking. However, there is sufficient evidence to show a thorough continuity with OT principles of judicial procedure.
Our purpose is to reflect on pertinent NT passages in the light of and in concert with the Old Testament study presented elsewhere in this report. The OT study provides a balanced and clear exposition of judicial procedures in the OT, and it is our contention that the same principles that guided OT jurisprudence within the state of Israel are active in the NT church body. We will also refer at some length to Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, in which he presents what may be considered one of the ablest expositions of the texts in question.

II. New Testament Vocabulary
The term "justice" does not occur in the New Testament. But the judicial principles of justice are clearly present:

• rendering to every man according to his works, and showing no partiality (Rom. 2:6-11);
• the moral standard by which God measures human conduct (Rom. 2:12-13); and
• punishment for moral infraction (Rom. 1:18ff).

In the Authorized version, the adjective "righteous" (dikaios) is translated 30 times by the word "just", and the terms "judgment" (krisis) and "righteousness" (dikaiosune) appear often. Remembering that in the Old Testament the concept of justice is essentially one with righteousness, [1] we note that in the New the same is true. The Law of God is written in our hearts (2 Cor. 3:3), and it is God the Father who carefully considers His children's acts of righteousness (Mt. 6:1, 4, 6, 18; Heb. 12:5-11). Based on Christ's active obedience, His perfect righteousness is imputed to believers. Thus God is at the present time both "just [exacting punishment] and the justifier [reckoning just] of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:21-26). Correspondingly, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just [not demanding justice, but faithful in reckoning just] to forgive our sins." (1 John 1:9).

This accent on the spiritual dimension of jurisprudence, thoroughly consistent with the OT emphasis, finds complete expression following the death and resurrection of Christ. It is through faith that God declares a person righteous, and it is through forgiveness of sins that God establishes righteousness. This is the primary task of justice! This also plays a rolle in how we understand God is working judicially today in the midst of His people.

The concept of God's covenant love (hesed), His loyalty and faithfulness to His chosen people, is rendered in the New Testament by charis meaning "unmerited favor."[2] The specific notion of mercy as compassion to one in need is rendered by eleos (and a few other words). Trench makes the distinction between charis as concerned for man as guilty, and eleos as concerned for man in his miserable condition.[3] The emphasis in the New Testament seems to be that God is "the Father of mercies" and it is because of His mercy we are saved (Eph. 2:4; Titus 3:5). Jesus bids us to be merciful as our Father is merciful (Lk 6:36; Mt. 18:21ff.). And according to Paul, Christians are to put on a "heart of compassion" (Col. 3:12) and to "forbear one another in love" (Eph. 4:2).

This does not mean that we are not to become involved in judicial process, for mercy supplants justice. Me genoito! ("God forbid"). But rather, as we approach problems, we recognize the personal and spiritual dimensions of God's working in the lives of individuals and resolve to be an asset, not a liability. For as the remainder of this study indicates, mercy is no more opposed to justice in the New Testament than in the Old. There is no question of setting justice over against mercy as being in two separate spheres.

III. The Relation of Justice and Mercy
In the Old Testament study, we found that justice and mercy are constantly joined together. The same is true in the New Testament.[4] Two major passages exemplify this truth.

Matthew 18:15-20
15 “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 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. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, this if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst." (NASV)

Jesus presents four stages to follow when faced with an "offense" by a "brother."[5] These stages are:

Stage #1. When an offense occurs, the one who sees it[6] must first go to the offender in private, in the spirit of brotherly love, to show the sinner his fault, for the purpose of restoring him or her to fellowship. This approach is clearly set apart from gossiping and first telling others.

Stage #2. If an offender refuses to repent and ask forgiveness, then the seeking brother is not to give up, but is to revisit the offender with one or two more brothers. It is assumed that this visit would also be in private and those entitled would have the offender's best interests at heart. The purpose of the visit is to confirm the facts of the offense and to restore the brother to fellowship.

Stage #3. If an offender is again unresponsive, then the offense is to be communicated to the church. [We will argue below that the "church" should be understood as a plurality of elders.] Again, the purpose of bringing the church into the picture is to restore the person.

Stage #4. If an offender refuses to respond to the church, then the church should take steps to remove the offender from fellowship in the body of believers. The purpose of separating the offender from the church is to protect the purity and reputation of the church.

We note that the first two stages are necessary prerequisites for stages 3 and 4. Only the last two properly pertain to judicial process. However they are quite general. How is a peson to "tell it to the church"? What are the steps to be taken for removing the offender from fellowship? There is no outline of a detailed formal process in church courts. Moreover, it is not clear as to what is meant by "offense." Are we talking about personal wrongs, or public and scandalous sins?

John Calvin provides wisdom in understanding these questions. "The first foundation of discipline," he notes, "is to provide for private admonition." If there is a problem, then the offender should allow himself to be admonished.[7] On the other hand, these stages are designed "to hinder charity from being violated under the pretense of fervent zeal."[8]

"As the greater part of men are driven by ambition to publish with excessive eagerness the faults of their brethren, Christ seasonably meets this fault by enjoining us to cover the faults of brethren, as far as lies in our power; for those who take pleasure in the disgrace and infamy of brethren are unquestionably carried away by hatred and malice, since, if they were under the influence of charity, they would endeavor to prevent the shame of their brethren."[9]

Second, Calvin cautions that "we must attend to the distinction that some sins are private, others public or openly manifest."[10]

"Of the former, Christ says to every private individual, "go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone" (Matthew 18:15). Of open sins Paul says to Timothy, "Those that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear" (1 Tim. 5:20). . . The legitimate course, therefore, will be to proceed in correcting secret faults by the steps mentioned by Christ, and in open sins, accompanied with public scandal, to proceed at once to solemn correction by the Church."

According to Calvin, public sins are those committed openly before the church, private sins are those known only to a few. The former are addressed publicly such as in 1 Corinthians 5 and Galatians 2:11-14. The latter does not come before the church "unless there is contumacy."[11]

Third, Calvin says "some sins are mere delinquencies, others crimes and flagrant iniquities." In the latter case, it is necessary to employ not only admonition, but excommunication as in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, if the person is unrepentant.

"Therefore, when the church banishes from its fellowship open adulterers, fornicators, thieves, robbers, the seditious, the perjured, false witnesses, and others of that description; likewise the contumacious, who, when duly admonished for lighter faults, hold God and His tribunal in derision, instead of arrogating to itself anything that is unreasonable, it exercises a jurisdiction which it has received from the Lord."[12]

In the case of mere delinquincies:

". . . there is not so much occasion for severity, but verbal chastisement is sufficient, and that gentle and fatherly, so as not to exasperate or confound the offender, but to bring him back to himself, so that he may rather rejoice than be grieved at the correction."[13]

In all cases, says Calvin, the church should always act "with the spirit of meekness" and discipline should not "degenerate into destruction." For Paul cautions that the offender should "not be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow." (2 Cor. 2:7).[14]

Concluding Thoughts on Matthew 18

Following Calvin's lead in understanding Matthew 18, we submit that the first thing one must do when a person commits an offense is to deal with that person privately, personally and sensitively, with a view to their restoration. Other stages are to be applied only if this first step has been faithfully applied.

Second, there is great wisdom in proceeding with stage two. First by going to the offender privately with other witnesses, the seeker will know if he has just cause for the complaint or whether he is making a mountain out of a mole-hill. Then, if there is just cause, it may be easier for two or three persons to succeed in the task of winning the brother than for one. Finally, and more importantly, he will be following the dictates of Deut. 19:15, "that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter may be established." In this way, the witnesses will be able to confirm the matter before the church.[15]

Third, we should not understand "offense" in verse 15 as referring primarily to some flagrant iniquity. The admonition to have a "private" interview with the erring brother favors the assumption that the sin referred to was also of a "private" character. However, it may be that by the person's "contumacy," that act has developed into something major by stage four. We will also not leave out the possibility that the offense could be of a major sort. On the other hand, it certainly will not pertain to just any little thing that may offend one's sensibilities.

Fourth, William Hendricksen well notes that "although Jesus is here speaking about private offenses, the underlying requirement of showing love and the forgiving spirit towards all makes it reasonable to state that whenever the interests of the Church demand or even allow it, the rule of Matthew 18:15 should also be applied to public sins.[16]

Fifth, the presence of the triune God in the judical process is captured in Matthew 18:18-20. Verse 18 reveals that "whatever you [plural] shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven." This binding refers to the exercise of discipline, whereas the loosing refers to the declaring of forgiveness.[17] The "you" [plural] would refer to the representatives of the church (v. 17). Verse 19 refers to the importance of agreement and prayer in the process. And Verse 20 reminds us that when the church is "gathered together in My name," Christ is present "in their midst" (cf. 1 Cor. 5:4).

Finally, we urge that the purpose of restoration is not simply in view, but appears to dominate the passage. Verses 15-20 are sandwiched between the parable of the lost sheep, "If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying?" and Christ's teaching on forgiveness, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven." It should be clear that the purpose of God in all of this is that none "of these little ones perish" (18:1-10), that the straying sheep be returned to the fold (18:12-14). . . and that the Lord feels commpassion and releases us all and forgives us our debts (18:27, cf. 21-35).

[07/04/18 -- Please check back later for completion of this content]

1 Corinthians 5:1-8

Therefore, in 1 Corinthians 5 we find:

IV. Issues of Authority

Role of Elders

Role of Scripture

Spirit of Gentleness

V. In Conclusion

[1] Cf. the Old Testament study in this report written by Dr. Paul Gilchrist; also, Norman H. Snaith (The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament, pp. 161-173), who demonstrates that tsedeqah included the idea of 'benevolence' going beyond the strict measure of justice (p. 163).
[2] Cf. Snaith, Ibid., pp. 175-6.
[3] R.C. Trench, Synonymns of the New Testament, pp. 166ff.
[4] Full justice without mercy may be seen in the final judgment in such passages as Revelation 16. However, prior to that event, justice is mingled with mercy.
[5] I am indebted to Dr. David Gordon for the term "stages" instead of "steps." See Dr. Gordon's contribution to this report.
[6] In verse 15, after the words "And if your brother offends," the Textus Receptus inserts the phrase "against you." Some of the best and oldest manuscripts omit it. One may argue that it is implied, citing the parallel passage in Luke 17:3-4 where verse 3 omits it and verse 4 adds it. However, it is best not to concentrate on that issue but rather to assume that the sin referred to was either against you or known by you.
[7] Institutes, Book IV.12.2.
[8] Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, II, p. 352.
[9] Ibid., pp. 352-3.
[10] Institutes, Book IV.12.3.
[11] Ibid., Book IV.12.6.
[12] Ibid., Book IV.12.4.
[13] Ibid., Book IV.12.6.
[14] Ibid., Book IV.12.8-10.
[15] Calvin writes (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, p. 355): "We now perceive for what purpose Christ proposes to call witnesses. It is, to give greater weight and impressiveness to the admonition . . .Moses forbids sentence to be pronounced on a matter that is unknown, and defines this to be the lawful mode of proving, that it be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." (Italics his.)
[16] Matthew, in his New Testament Commentary series, p. 698.
[17] There is some question as to what the binding and loosing precisely refer. John 20:23 refers to forgiving or retaining sins. This surely correlates with Matthew 18:18. See also Matthew 16:19. According to Calvin (Institutes, Book IV.12.4), "The Lord has declared that it is nothing else than the promulgation of his own sentence, and that that which they do on earth is ratified in heaven. For they act by the word of the Lord in condemning the perverse, and by the word of the Lord in taking the penitent back into favour."