Matthew 18:15 and the Moralistic One-Upmanship Move

According to Notre Dame historian, Mark Noll, the scandal of the evangelical mind “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Nowhere is this more evident than in evangelicalism’s growing fear and discomfort with intellectual disagreement. Contemporary postmodern evangelicalism pronounces against it. Disagreement conjures up the image of factions, divisions, and broken relationships. And this is a ‘bad witness’ to the world.Thus in an article entitled “The Problem with Black-and-White” (Relevant magazine, 14 Oct 2010), emergent church leader and best-selling author, Donald Miller, tells us that “Black-and-white, either-or thinking polarizes people and stunts progressive thought.” But of course that’s just what disagreement is. If I believe p and you believe not-p, I have to believe that either I am right or you are. But then if I am right, you must be wrong. For if I believe (and perhaps tell you) that we’re both right, I am committed to asserting p and not-p: a flat contradiction. So Miller’s postmodern prohibition only trades one sort of discomfort (relational) for another (intellectual). And of course it goes without saying that a believer’s tolerating contradictions, for whatever reason, is also a very ‘bad witness’ to the world.

The Moralistic One-Upmanship Move

There is yet another evangelical gambit for shutting down disagreement–especially public disagreement between Christians. Call it the Moralistic One-Upmanship Move (MOM, for short). According to MOM, it is unbiblical and hence sinful to “call out” a Christian colleague by name in a public forum (e.g., a book, article, blog post, or tweet). If you want to write on Open Theism, say, or Inerrancy, you may certainly do so. But it’s unbiblical (and you can be “called out” for) publicly identifying the mistakes of a “colleague” (always vaguely defined) on these topics without first talking to them in private.

Now those who endorse MOM typically restrict its application to Christian circles. It has zero purchase on non-Christian thinkers or intellectuals. They may do as they please (and do); it’s a free country. If Michael Ruse wants to publicly correct Richard Dawkins’ views on Darwinism or philosophy, he is under no obligation to first book a flight to the UK so that the two can sit down together and ‘work out’ their differences. Ruse is academically free to publicly disseminate his views (for example, see here). On MOM logic, however, the idea seems to be that if the two meet privately and Ruse manages to convince Dawkins of his errors, there is no longer any need for him to publish on Dawkins at all. He can write articles on evolution in general, but without criticizing anyone’s views by name. For that would involve his having to arrange further flights (large numbers of them potentially, if he’s got lots of footnotes) and private meetings with all his fellow disputants. As you can see, it’s an impossible business. Indeed, if Ruse is an introvert with a fear of flying, he might want to stop publishing altogether and take up a new line of work.

The Matthew Mandate?

In light of the sheer implausibility of this picture, what is the justification for MOM supposed to be? It will need to be substantial. Is there, perhaps, an argument here? There is; and it goes approximately as follows. According to MOM, Matthew 18:15 enjoins private meetings between Christians who disagree. The verse reads as follows:

If your brother sins against you, [then] go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

Here we must note the following. First, this is a conditional. Its antecedent is the proposition Your brother sins against you (A). Its consequent is an imperative Go and show him his fault privately (C). So this verse has the logical form: If then C.

Second, what the proponent of MOM clearly wants to say is that C obtains. That is, you and I–if we’re Christians–are commanded (and hence obliged) to show each other our faults privately. But here we strike a problem. For we can’t simply deduce that (i.e., C) from If A then C alone; we must first establish that its antecedent A is true.

So let’s say that I’ve decided to post something to my blog about Pastor Greg Boyd’s case for Open Theism. A quick google search reveals that Boyd has advanced his views publicly in books, articles, blog posts, podcasts, and YouTube videos. What could be the problem with my writing up a blog post with a link to the relevant URL (if any)? According to the MOM arguer, the problem is that C applies to me. I must first have a private meeting with Pastor Greg, and then if he spurns my correction (but only then), I may publish my blog post. (Of course, at that point the alleged ‘bad witness’ problem rears its ugly head, since the blog post will involve a public disagreement, and MOM bids us to hide that fact from the world.)

In any event, if you want to enjoin that private meeting upon me on the back of Mt 18:15, you’ll have to demonstrate that A obtains in my case: that I believe Pastor Greg has sinned against me. Notice “his fault” in C isn’t a logical or exegetical error; it’s a moral failing–some sin on his part; a sin against me. But how in the world is it to be shown that I believe that? To be sure, I disagree with one or another of Boyd’s arguments. It hardly follows that I believe a fallacious argument on his part is somehow a sin against me. Goodness. Maybe that would follow if I believed that anyone who propounded a view that contradicted my own had sinned against me. But why think I believe a thing like that? I assure you I don’t. I haven’t the foggiest idea of how you might prove to me that I do.

The Ad Hominem Muddle

Perhaps the reply will be that my having blogged about Boyd signals the fact that I have a personal issue with him. In the circles in which I travel–it pains me to say it–this confusion is well-nigh commonplace. It stems from a failure to distinguish between persons and their intellectual positions. Intellectual maturity is marked by a recognition that if you disagree with me, it doesn’t mean that you dislike me and don’t want to be my friend. Positions are something we hold; we are not our positions. It’s simply an ad hominem muddle to think otherwise. Sadly, this point is extremely difficult to get across to non-academics, since (1) they aren’t used to (or good at) disagreeing on this scale, and (2) their experiences of disagreement have frequently been negative. Perhaps it has led to a relational breakdown or two.

Here it is important to remember that relational divisions aren’t to be laid solely at the feet of disagreement. More often than not, it is how we disagree (not that we disagree) that divides us. We fail to control our emotions (Prov 16:32). We fail to control the tongue (Prov 21:23). We aren’t filled with the Spirit but with something else instead (Eph 5:18). That disagreement triggers anger and defensiveness in us is more a statement about our spiritual maturity than it is about disagreement itself. Some evangelicals fear disagreement because they fear what (frequently) comes along for the ride: strife, discomfort, pain, and division. This is perfectly understandable, but they need to mature.

Perhaps it will help to recall that even in Scripture public disagreement isn’t always portrayed as bad. Our Savior “calls out” the Sadducees in a most painful, public way (no prior warning): “You are wrong,” Jesus says, “because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mt 22:29). And the Great Apostle publicly “calls out” Peter for his bad example. Without apology, Paul confesses: “I said to Cephas before them all [no heads-up], ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?'” (Gal 2:14). “I said [this] to Cephas before them all,” Paul unapologetically declares. He certainly did. It wasn’t a private meeting at Starbucks; it occurred “before them all.” The public sin called for a public “calling out.”

Without a doubt, evangelicals have struggled with the life of the mind. They continue to do so. As a result, one of their ongoing Achilles Heel’s has been managing disagreement. Alas, it is inevitable. We will publicly disagree with those inside and outside the church. The temptation will be to shut it down. We can do that by muzzling those who initiate public disagreements with brute appeals to Matthew 18:15. The truth be known: that is actually the bad witness. The world sees right through grotesque anti-intellectual power moves of this sort. By contrast, what the Lord requires of us is that we step up, become intellectually mature, and learn to disagree and be disagreed with–publicly and agreeably.


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