[Note:  This two part article was originally written as a portion of a larger piece prepared in 2002 for a joint meeting of the seminary faculties and Council of Presidents. Yet it is still just as relevant today and is offered for prayerful consideration by all.]

YOU GO! That’s what Jesus says we owe the brother or sister when we discover differences and offenses. You go to seek to be reconciled in Christ. You go to hold each other accountable to the Word of God. You go, so that repentance and forgiveness of sins are at the heart of our life together.

Now some may ask at this point whether the steps of Matthew 18 actually apply in the case of a doctrinal offense, particularly a public one. When it comes to doctrine, don’t we have the obligation to point out error and speak the truth? Of course, we do. But do you read anything in Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 or Matthew 5 that excuses us from going first to the brother when the difference is public doctrine? No. Love demands it – both our love for the truth and our love for the brother. When you become aware of a problem – you go!

I understand here that our confession on the basis of Scripture makes a distinction between public and private offense. The reference in the Large Catechism is well known:

“Where the sin is so public that the judge and everyone else are aware of it, you can without sin shun and avoid those who have brought disgrace upon themselves, and you may also testify publicly against them. For when something is exposed to the light of day, there can be no question of slander or injustice or false witness. For example, we now censure the pope and his teaching, which is publicly set forth in books and shouted throughout the world. Where the sin is public, appropriate public punishment should follow so that everyone may know how to guard against it” (LC VIII, Kolb/Wengert, p. 424).

In his Pastoral Theology, John H.C. Fritz also uses the example of Paul confronting Peter before the whole group because Peter had given public offense to the Gospel (Galatians 2). So yes, there are times when that must be done, particularly when the Gospel is clearly at stake.

However, I fear we too often have rushed to bring an offense to further public notice among us, when what would have been more helpful should have been further brotherly discussion under the Word of God instead. Listen carefully to the Lord’s apostle,

“Brothers, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

There are several things to note in this Scripture:

  1. It refers to “any trespass.” I hear no distinction between doctrine or life, public or private.
  2. Go to each other in a spirit of gentleness, not pride.
  3. Watch out, because the devil has a trap laid for you, too.

Again I fear, my brothers, that too often we have come to each other in a spirit of pride, not gentleness. We want to stake out the rightness of our own position rather than win our brother back. We want to defend ourselves rather than do what is good for the whole body.

JHC Fritz, who has much to say regarding dealing with public offense, also gives this fascinating caution:

“The highest law, however, is under all circumstances the law of Christian charity (love). If Christian charity therefore demands that a public offender be spoken to privately, it would be unjust at once to proceed against him publicly; for the purpose of church discipline is to bring a sinner to a knowledge of his sins and to true repentance. By bringing the case at once to the attention of the congregation (although according to the letter of Matt. 18 we would have the right to do so), we might keep the sinner from confessing his guilt…” (Fritz, Pastoral Theology, CPH, 1936, p. 237).

We have to be careful that before we bring public charges against someone that we have first exhausted all avenues to speak to the brother in love, as a brother.

Let me put it another way. Luther used the Pope as an example in the Large Catechism reference. That should lead us to be extremely careful in how we invoke this passage of our confession to justify immediate public exposure or condemnation of the faults of fellow pastors in the Synod. You see, within the Synod especially we are talking about BROTHERS, brothers by Baptism, brothers in office, brothers who have taken the same vow. Should not love for the individual brother (as well as love for all the sisters and brothers) lead us to be very careful when we proceed publicly against another BROTHER? To do so only after every other avenue has been exhausted?

Of course, the converse is also true (and this has been forgotten by many as well). Because we are BROTHERS, we are concerned about one another. When we see a brother doing something that may/will lead him or others away from the truth, we cannot stand idly by. He is a brother in Christ and must be approached with our concern – because he is a brother. We do not just let him go his own way.

So, because we are brothers, we must be quick to go to one another in private. And then slow to take a matter public even when we may believe we have the right to do so. Why? Because we are brothers who are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3).

So, now, how do we do this? When we recognize differences and when we go to one another, how can we really work to resolve these differences?

  • We are called to come together in a spirit of humility under the Word of God. Hear Peter’s admonition concerning humility – “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” Remember what he says next: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.” (1 Peter 5:5-6).
  • That humility has two sides – 1) We must be ready to put everything we think under the Word of God. And 2) We must be willing to listen to our brothers, for God has given them to us to help us listen to the Word of God.
  • We must each come with a desire to hear and confess together God’s Word, no more, no less.
  • In so doing, we must listen not only to ourselves, but to the testimony of our Church in her confessions.
  • It is important to define our terms and clarify what is really at issue – what are the questions? What are the real problems? What are people really saying?
  • Then, we must listen carefully to the Word of God and to each other. A good exercise is to ask each group to state in non-pejorative terms the position of the other side – that way we are sure we understand what others are really saying. Even more, we must let the Word of God be just that – God’s Word and the final authority. Remember, God’s Word does not allow for a diversity of doctrine or a deviation from sound practice.
  • That means we must be ready to put aside our own opinions and be ready to say together what God says. And if we conclude that God’s Word is not clear on an issue, we must be ready for that also.

But the bottom line is that we are called to deal with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We have one Lord and Master. Christ died for each of us. So we don’t each go off on our own. We confess together. We bear witness together. We show mercy together. We seek to live together in Christ’s love, holding onto each other under the Word of God.

+Herbert C. Mueller
First Vice President