Mailbag #76: The Role of Matthew 18’s “One or Two Witnesses” . . . Must Christians Go to Church Every Sunday? . . . How to Care for an Unwed & Pregnant Member

Mailbag
03.01.2019

When corrective discipline moves to the second step of bringing one or two witnesses (Mt 18:16), what purpose and obligations do the witnesses have in the matter? »
Are Christians required to be at church every Sunday? »
How does a church balance love and discipline in a case of an unwed teen who is pregnant? »

Dear 9Marks,

When corrective discipline moves to the second step of bringing one or two witnesses (Mt 18:16), what purpose and obligations do the witnesses have in the matter? Are they present simply as silent objective witnesses in case questions arise later in regards to what was said? Or is their role to be actively engaged in the meeting and prepared to render a judgment concerning the person’s guilt or innocence? Are they responsible to call the person to repentance should it be necessary?

I appreciate your wisdom on the subject.

—Andrew

Dear Andrew,

I believe that part of the rich wisdom of Christ’s direction is found in the dual role that these one or two witnesses can have. While not necessarily witnesses to the original offense, they’re witnesses to this second round of pursuing restoration. Therefore, they witness 1) whether the offended party really has a legitimate case or complaint, and 2) whether the accused is responding to the issue as they should.

If the matter isn’t resolved, then these witnesses will be called upon as part of the process that brings the matter before the congregation. They’ll have to be convinced that the original offense was legitimate, that the person who sinned is unwilling to repent, and that the proper process has been followed. These witnesses, therefore, function not only as an objective witness but if necessary (and it usually is) as mediators to help facilitate the process of repentance and reconciliation.

So, to your question specifically: What purpose and obligation do the witnesses have? My answer: to observe the meeting, consider the merits of the charge, evaluate the response of the person being confronted, give council to the two parties, and decide whether or not this needs to go to the next level.

Therefore, they’re not simply silent and objective witnesses, though in some cases they may not need to say that much. In most cases, they would facilitate such a meeting, careful to be as objective as possible and to communicate that to both sides.

Furthermore, they’ll most likely be actively engaged as the meeting goes on, since the first private meeting did not get the matter resolved.

And finally—yes, they should call the person to repentance. That may apply more to the person bringing the charge, if the charge was not necessary, or it may apply to the person who offended, assuming the charge was established as legitimate. Often, it will apply to both sides.

Grace and peace,

—Bob Johnson

Dear 9Marks,

How many Sundays count as regular church attendance? Twice a month? Or are Christians required to be at church every Sunday?

—Desmond

Dear Desmond,

This is an important question. In short: if physically able, Christians should be present at every Lord’s Day gathering. It’s what we do. But let me explain.

First, before we receive a command to attend, we receive a promise: Jesus is present. Throughout the Bible, God is drawing his people to himself. In Genesis, we’re created to be in God’s delightful presence—and since the Fall, God has been redeeming his people for such a privilege. For Israel, God’s presence was restricted to the tabernacle (and later, temple).

But in Christ, all of God’s promises are fulfilled and these former images are transformed (2 Corinthians 1:20). Jesus is the temple—he’s “the place” we experience God’s delightful presence. Before Jesus left this earth, he gave a promise: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am present” (Matthew 18:20). What Jesus had in mind is what we call our “church services”: a group of people (at least two or three) who gather in the name of Jesus to represent him to the world. Therefore, church services aren’t like religious classes or moral fill-up stations or personal worship times. Jesus is present at our services in a unique way as the church gathers to worship and represent him. That’s the promise.

Second, consider the backdrop of the Sabbath. God himself established the seven day cycle of creation, rested on the seventh day, and then gave his old covenant people the covenant sign of the Sabbath both for rest and to mark them off as belonging to him. Almost immediately and universally, the churches of the New Testament stopped celebrating the Sabbath and began gathering on the first day of the week, resurrection day (e.g. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). By  doing so they both affirmed that they found their “rest” in the Lord of the Sabbath and marked themselves off as those who belong to him. That’s what it means to “gather in his name,” a gathering sealed by his presence (see previous point). In the same way, the seven-day cycle orders creation, so gathering on the first day orders new creation. If you want to make gathering every other week your regular practice, you first need to convince me God established a 14-day cycle in creation.

Third, the command to attend isn’t a pastor’s idea, but God’s. Members have responsibilities to one another, and elders have responsibilities to members. Practically speaking, the only way we can fulfill these duties is to be present when the church gathers. Hebrews 10:24–25 puts it bluntly: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” The habit of attending church every other week would also be the habit of forsaking church every other week. Of course, physical ailments, unforeseen emergencies, and other providential occurrences will occasionally keep you from attendance. But generally speaking, if you’re physically able to attend your church on the Lord’s Day, and you choose not to, you’re sinning.

I know that might sound strange to many modern-day Christians in America, but anything else would sound strange to many Christians of the past and in other parts of the world. Attending church on the Lord’s Day is the most natural thing we do. Geese fly in Vs, wolves hunt in packs, elephants travel in herds, penguins survive the winter in huddles, and Christians gather for worship. It’s our nature. It’s what we do

—Joel Kurz

Dear 9Marks,

How does a church balance love and discipline in a case of an unwed teen who is pregnant? I’ve seen both extremes: harshness and aloofness. Sin is serious, and I’m thankful when any pregnant mother doesn’t choose abortion. How does a church move forward honoring God when there is no marriage planned and the mother is repentant, at least in word? I’m seeing more and more celebration and thanking God for life without addressing the sin that resulted in the pregnancy.

Thanks for all that you do to help me and others lead God’s church for his glory.

—Shane

Dear Shane,

Every life is precious and valuable since it’s created in the image and likeness of God. This includes persons who come into being as a result of sinful acts. So, an unexpected pregnancy that results from sexual immorality or sexual offense is something to be cherished and protected. Every life is precious—without exception.

The sins involved in the creation of this life are not to be celebrated. It’s precisely here that many churches feel a conundrum: How do we communicate in word and deed that the life in the womb is precious without condoning the sins involved in its creation?

Like so many things in church life, wisdom and prudence are desperately needed. Here are a few things to consider.

1. Stand on the truth. A wise pastor will keep one foot solidly placed on the truth that the life in the womb is precious (Genesis 9:6). He will also look sin in the face and call it what it is (Romans 13:13). But he must lean equally on both.

2. A wise pastor will remember that a pregnancy that results from sexual immorality is one of the few sins that people keep seeing. For instance, if the parents are both part of the church family, people will watch her body change, but they won’t see that in the lad who got her pregnant. Sadly and unfairly, this can result in a kind of shaming of the woman and not the man. It’s better to deal decisively with the sinfulness of their actions at the outset, and then move on to celebrating the life that is to come.

3. If the pregnancy is the result of sexual immorality and both people are members, then the acknowledgment of their sin can be done at a Members’ Meeting. Since the pregnancy will be public, it seems best to address the sin in the limited “public sphere” of a Members’ Meeting. If both parties are repentant, they should be given an opportunity to—not forced to—express that to their fellow members. The church as a whole can then assure them of Christ’s pardon, grieving alongside them for their sin while also preparing to help them navigate the future.

Furthermore, the church should seize this opportunity to rejoice in their repentance. At no point should this be a shaming ceremony, invoking some form of penance for their sin. Consider Matthew 18:15: “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.” Christ died for all of our sins, even sins of sexual immorality that result in pregnancy.

If, however, one of the parents is unrepentant, then the church should wisely follow the pattern Jesus laid out for us in Matthew 18. As a church, we want to cultivate an atmosphere of grace for anyone who repents of and confesses their sin. A woman who has embraced an unexpected pregnancy needs to be affirmed in her choice. She needs to be supported and loved.

4. If the father is absent and the mother alone is a member of the church, the same action of acknowledging the sin that resulted in the pregnancy can be taken in the same setting. Again, the goal is never to shame the woman, but to deal honestly with sin and give opportunity for restoration (Galatians 6:1–2).

5. If the pregnancy is the result of sexual assault, so much love needs to be extended to the victim and her child. Beyond this basic counsel, church members may need to be taught how to offer love and support. For instance, she may be thinking hard about putting up her child for adoption. The church needs to know that this is a legitimate option (Romans 14) and be cautioned against judging their sister. Not only that, people can have weird and frankly ungodly ideas about the nature of the children who were conceived as a result of sexual assault. Some instruction may need to be given to help the church understand the value and dignity of the life of the child.

6. A final consideration should be the cultural context of your church. In a multi-cultural setting, there may be other specific sinful reactions by members or unjust expectations of parents or much deeper layers of shaming. All of these will require teaching and shepherding. A robust understanding of the sovereignty of God and the value of all human life will help you navigate some of these more subtle issues.

All in all, let it be said of our churches that we followed what the apostle commanded us, “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14).

—Paul Martin