“If your brother sins against you”….and he’s a sex offender

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Jesus Teaching - courtesy of Lawrence OP via Flickr

Jesus Teaching - courtesy of Lawrence OP via Flickr

“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.  Mathew 18: 15-17.

Do these words of Jesus require professing Christians to privately confront those accused of committing a crime before the matter can be reported to the police?  Too many within faith communities argue that it does.  Even worse, I have met many sexual abuse survivors who actually walked through this nightmare. Not only were they re-traumatized by being required to privately confront their abuser, but they often watched as the perpetrator was never reported to law enforcement.

This well-known biblical passage has all too often been a justification for 1) not reporting abuse disclosures to the authorities and 2) convincing sexual abuse victims to privately confront their perpetrators.  Needless to say, this misreading and misapplication of Jesus’ words is incredibly harmful on a number of fronts.  More importantly, it’s simply not consistent with the person and character of Jesus.

Jesus Teaching - courtesy of Lawrence OP via Flickr

Jesus Teaching – courtesy of Lawrence OP via Flickr

In Matthew 18, Jesus prescribes three progressive steps for handling personal offenses within the local church: 1) a private confrontation, 2) a witnessed confrontation, and 3) a wider confrontation before the church.  At each step, the goal is repentance by the offender as a basis for some form of reconciliation with the offended.  If all three approaches are rebuffed, then the offender is no longer part of the fellowship.

Child sexual abuse is not merely a personal offense.  It is a serious crime.  Child sexual abuse does not even fit into the paradigm of which Jesus was speaking about in this passage.   Jesus never intended these statements to be twisted into the required method for handling murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, or genocide.  Child sexual abuse is not a private matter, but rather a public offense against the victim, society and humanity as a whole.  It is not a matter which can be handled quietly between two persons or between two families, as is wrongly done in many communities.   It is a matter of public alarm, because of its pervasive, extensive, and expansive nature, causing a cascade of misery in countless lives.

Such offenses are rightly under the jurisdiction of the governing authorities.  In the New Testament book of Romans, the Apostle Paul writes that Christ followers are to be subject to the civil authorities.  He writes, Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  He even mentions that the role of government is to punish evildoers.  Child sexual abuse is an evil that has been rightly deemed to be criminal by the civil authorities.  Therefore, those who profess to follow Jesus have the responsibility to make sure that a person accused of committing such a crime is subjected to those governing authorities – which includes making a police report and cooperating throughout the criminal justice process.

Any claim that Christians must follow any form of progressive confrontation process before reporting disclosures of child sexual abuse to the authorities is simply wrong. Seminary Professor John Schuetze puts it this way,

“Let’s assume you are driving by the local convenience store and notice a fellow member of the congregation holding up the attendant. In that scenario, it would be ludicrous to have a conversation with the parishioner. Your obligation instead is to call the police. To say otherwise is to conclude Christ was devoid of common sense.”

What kind of church leadership would reason that kidnapping or rape should not be reported to the civil authorities until the church has followed the process in Matthew 18?

Furthermore, proper respect for the civil authorities as commanded in scripture also means that we do not disturb their investigation.  Faith communities must learn to stand back while the freight train of the state runs its investigation through the station of life.  Before commencing any type of investigation of its own, churches must pause until the criminal process is finished. In fact, waiting for the civil authorities to complete their investigation will usually alleviate a church from having to do its own.  Even when such a church investigation is necessary, there are many cautions and concerns that must be carefully considered – but that is another blog for another day.

The common thread running throughout Scripture in the life of the Christian and the Church is something most fundamental of all to the Christian faith: Love.  Love from God, love for God, and for humankind.  The distorted interpretation and application of this scripture passage utterly fails to demonstrate such a love to those who need it most.

Throughout the course of history, the misinterpretation and misapplication of the Bible has resulted in horrendous acts and unspeakable pains.  By working together, we can help our faith communities understand that “Let the disclosing little child come forward privately and accuse me” is a monstrous interpretation that destroys lives, protects offenders, and has not one leg to stand on before Jesus.


This post is adapted from my interview with Rachel Held Evans. For the full interview, go to No More Silence. To receive posts from Rhymes with Religion, click the red subscribe button in the right hand column. Follow @BozT on Twitter and consider visiting the GRACE Facebook page. 


  • Paula

    Excellent. It’s amazing how many people don’t see this when it comes to outright crimes.

    My question is, what if it is happening in an even more nebulous fashion? i.e. a man who serially propositions or verbally sexually harasses women often without respect to marital status or age? He hasn’t crossed the line into crime, but is definitely pushing the line. If you privately confront such a man for harassing you, he could apologize, realize you’re not a soft target, and move on to the next woman, who may very well not have the courage to stand up for herself against him. These men often resort to “you didn’t follow Matt 18” when confronted with witnesses or warned about among the group. (doesn’t matter if you did, or someone else did, because he will just claim you didn’t or that the offense wasn’t against you, so you have no stake in the matter). What is the proper response for such serial coercive behavior?

  • Ben in oakland

    You have underlined so well why purely theological concerns and issues should not be enacted into the secular law that governs all of us.

    A crime against a child is first and foremost a crime against the child, and secondly, a crime against society. What does your private belief about your church have to do with that? Absolutely nothing.

    Religious sexual predators, for example, hide behind their religion. Catholic priests have been molesting children for centuries. It’s in Chaucer and Boccaccio, and a rather curious tome called “The book of Gomorrah” by St. Peter Damian. There’s also a great book on the subject “Fallen Order” by Karen Liebreich.

    It’s nothing new, but certainly underlines hwy we keep the church out of legal matters.

  • Thank you Boz, this is a powerful and important article. It touches upon so many challenges that plague institutional responses to abuse across many faiths, not just the Christian community.

  • Ron

    It’s a pity that many Faith communities have a ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude.

    The way this writer see’s it, it’s very difficult for professing Christians who have an organization or corporation to truly behave as Christians. Once they have assets to protect, Christian conduct seems to go flying out the window.

    And ‘Public Image’ is their new god, at all costs.

    Recently the Jehovah’ Witness ‘Church’ refused to speak about their abuse policy to the court through their chief honcho, ‘GERRIT LÖSCH’. For that ‘Christian behavior’,their faith community was slapped upside their Treasury Department’s vault door to the tune of $10,500,000 in punitive damages for having that self centered mindset.

    http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/11/prweb12295835.htm (see video)


    Perhaps the answer is to tax all religions. Then when they have no assets, they may very well imitate their Master a little better.

    Regarding the question,”What kind of church leadership would reason that kidnapping or rape should not be reported to the civil authorities until the church has followed the process in Matthew 18? – Most of organized Religion would be the correct answer.

    Look no farther than the issue of allowing civil laws to be changed, allowing victims of childhood sex abuse to recover damages because statute of limitations were too short, or the victims were ordered by the church leaders to never speak about their abuse.

    Who is fighting that tooth and nail? Organized Religion. And their winning, till the old school retires or passes on.

  • Amos

    “. . .tell it to the church. . .” The word “Church” per se, was not part of the Aramaic language that Jesus used. Church is an English translation of the Greek word Ekklesia that had no such meaning as Church in Aramaic. The closest we can come is “the out-shouting” in Aramaic, viz., a mob that were of one mind on an issue. Ekklesia in Greek had the secular meaning of an organized Assembly. All of which brings us to the conclusion that Matthean narrative written some fifty years after the Crucifixion employed the word Ekklesia because by 80 AD, it was an accepted definition of the Jewish-Christian community. This, then, leads us to conclude that the Jewish-Christian scribe, who employed this noun, in either translating the Aramaic Matthew, or editing it, needed Jesus’ words as Dominical in order to settle an on-going troubling issue that was causing strife in his community.

  • Elizabeth Niederer

    The proper response to such a person?

    “The answer is NO. Do not EVER make another comment like that to or about me again. This is your only warning. Stay AWAY from me or I will involve the law.”

    Then don’t believe any apologies or anything else he says. The ONLY thing you believe is his behavior. If he stays away from you/refrains from further harassment, he got the message. If he breaches the boundary, involve the law.

  • Michael

    Sigh. The Greek term ‘ekklesia’ occurs 80 times in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Tanakh (“Old Testament”) created in the 2nd century BC. The Jewish translators of the Septuagint used ‘ekklesia’ to translate the Hebrew word ‘qahal’ or its derivatives, which modern English versions translate as ‘congregation’ or ‘assembly.’ Hundreds of Septuagint manuscripts have been found, including some dated to the 1st century BC.

    On the other hand, there is no manuscript evidence of an original ‘Aramaic Matthew.’ The earliest Syriac manuscripts of the New Testament date to the late 2nd century A.D., and they are most likely translations of earlier Greek texts. But even if one holds that these Syriac manuscripts somehow preserve an earlier Aramaic tradition, the Septuagint uses ‘ekklesia’ in the necessary sense and predates Jesus by two centuries.

    Anyway, great post.

  • The point should also be made that in this same chapter, just a few sentences earlier (Matthew 18:1-10), Jesus says that little children are the exemplars of the kingdom of heaven, the ones we must become like to enter it, and that the way you treat a child is the way you treat Him– “Whoever welcomes one of these little children welcomes Me.” Then He immediately pronounces some of his most severe judgments– “Go drown yourself in the sea with a millstone around your neck!”– for anyone who “causes one of these little children to stumble.” By the way, the Greek word here translated “little child,” paidos, is the root from which we get our word “paedophile.”

    In other words, to “follow Matthew 18” must include openly speaking out and boldly confronting any form of evil that injures children; otherwise there’s no point to the whole chapter.

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  • Sarah

    Sexual harassment is a crime. If you’ve made it clear that the advances are not welcome and he continues, you have grounds to go to the police.