Some Thoughts on Foucault and Matthew 18:15-20

William B. Evans

Is Matthew 18:15-20 currently the most abused text in Scripture?  A ministerial colleague recently called my attention to a fine piece by D. A. Carson in Themelios entitled "Editorial on Abusing Mathew 18" here.  Carson makes at least two points that are of considerable importance in the current context--that much of the time this passage is invoked in situations where it is clearly not applicable, and that it is sometimes (often?) deployed as a way of avoiding having to take a stand against that which is wrong.  Regarding the second point, this paragraph by Carson stands out:


There is a flavor of play-acting righteousness, of disproportionate indignation, behind the current round of "Gotcha!" games. If Person B charges Person A, who has written a book arguing for a revisionist understanding of the Bible, with serious error and possibly with heresy, it is no part of wisdom to "Tut-tut" the narrow-mindedness of Person B and smile condescendingly and dismissively over such judgmentalism. That may play well among those who think the greatest virtue in the world is tolerance, but surely it cannot be the honorable path for a Christian. Genuine heresy is a damnable thing, a horrible thing. It dishonors God and leads people astray. It misrepresents the gospel and entices people to believe untrue things and to act in reprehensible ways. Of course, Person B may be entirely mistaken. Perhaps the charge Person B is making is entirely misguided, even perverse. In that case, one should demonstrate the fact, not hide behind a procedural matter. And where Person B is advancing serious biblical argumentation, it should be evaluated, not dismissed with a procedural sleight-of-hand and a wrong-headed appeal to Matthew 18.


In recent years I have noticed an upsurge of appeals to Matthew 18.  This likely has something to do with the way the Internet has changed the dynamic of public conflict in the church.  With controversies unfolding in real time over the course of hours and days as opposed to months and years, it is much more difficult for those in power to manage such episodes, and Matthew 18 is attractive in that it seems to provide such people with leverage by which to stifle dissent.  I suspect that Michel Foucault, the late French critical social theorist who taught us to analyze the power relationships behind discourse, would have a field day with such uses of Matthew 18. And lest I be misunderstood, Foucault was wrong in reducing discourse to expressions of power, but he was right in calling our attention to the influence of power relationships.


Often the assumption seems to be that any complaint against an individual or institution must be preceded by a "Matthew 18 process."  But on the face of it, Matthew 18:15-20 deals with matters of private offense that can, in principle, be settled by the process of reconciliation outlined.  It manifestly does not deal with matters of public false teaching.  As Carson rightly notes, that sort of thing is dealt with by other passages such as Titus 1:9.  It also does not provide a one-size-fits-all template for church discipline.  And, at the risk of sounding Foucaultian, we should note that Matthew 18:15-20 does not address the question of what is  required in cases involving significant power disparity, e.g., the administrator at a Christian organization who abuses subordinates or the pastor who sexually abuses young people.  


This is also a text that has an uncanny capacity to double back and bite those who misuse it.  Witness this instance: the leadership of a local church undertook to censure an individual who was not a member of that congregation and without even speaking with that individual first.  The reason cited for this censure was the fact that the individual had not followed a "Matthew 18 process" before publicly criticizing what he took to be heresy emanating from the pulpit of that church.   The irony of all this was apparently lost on the leadership in question.  It seems that those who publicly carp about the failure of others to follow Matthew 18:15-20 sometimes do not follow it themselves.  They are making a charge, and by the logic of their own position they should go to the alleged offender first.  Moreover, those who cite Matthew 18:15-20 as an excuse for not confronting public false teaching then have an obligation privately to confront the error they recognize.


Why do these wrongheaded appeals to Matthew 18:15-20 gain so much traction in Evangelical circles?  It probably has something to do with a naïve Biblicism that values simplistic proof-texting over the careful exegesis and application of Scripture.  It probably has something to do, as Carson suggests, with an exaltation of tolerance as the "greatest virtue."  But most of all, it likely has to do with a simple failure to take biblical truth seriously.