It’s true — I’ve publicly and strongly disagreed with some well-known Christian leaders. It’s also true that some of them have very publicly disagreed with me. In those exchanges, however, I will frequently find some voices on the internet posing this question:
“Did you go and talk to them privately first, as instructed by Matthew 18, before writing this?”
It’s a fair question, and one worthy of its own post.
Matthew 18 does, in fact, offer an appropriate method for holding individuals accountable and promoting reconciliation in relationships. It essentially spells out a process when a fellow Christian in our faith community sins against us: Try to reason with them personally, bring others to mediate with you if that didn’t work, and then taking the matter before the entire congregation if all else fails. For many scenarios, this is a good and wise process that, with the right people involved, can work.
(With the wrong people involved, it can fail spectacularly, but that’s a different post.)
It is important to note that this is not an accountability or reconciliation process prescribed for dealing with public figures whom you do not personally know, and are not in community with. Instead, this process is specifically prescribed for when we have been personally sinned against in the context of an actual relationship with the individual, such as someone at your church. (Does anyone really think Franklin Graham would give you a personal audience every time you wanted to express a disagreement?)
Matthew 18 certainly represents an ideal — when possible and safe, it’s always a good idea to close the loop and talk with a person directly. However, when responding to public statements made by public figures, we are dealing with a situation outside of what is covered in Matthew 18 (unless one is in personal relationship with that person).
Nowhere in Matthew 18 does it grant public figures the freedom to say whatever they want behind the microphone, on television or in a book, while getting a free pass on criticism or push-back (and honestly, I don’t know a single one of us who expects that kind of treatment). In fact, when ideas are toxic and dangerous, fellow Christians actually have a responsibility to speak up, because that’s what Jesus did.
Let us not forget, that publicly rebuking the horrible ideas and oppressive practices by religious leaders was central to the ministry of Jesus — they were actually the ones who came up with the idea of killing him.
The fact that Jesus gave an entire speech where each paragraph started with “Woe to you!” probably didn’t win him any cool points.
I would argue that it is actually good and right to publicly rebuke harmful Christian leaders, when done for the right reasons.
Let me illustrate one example. When I first went through my teaching practicum (months of teaching with a babysitter who graded every hour of your teaching), I had one write-up that was more common than the others: I would get written up for not correcting students who shared an answer or idea that was wrong.
At first, this didn’t feel right to me — I didn’t want to embarrass anyone or hurt feelings, after all. However, when later explained to me, it made sense. The rationale was this: Student B may hear the incorrect answer shared by student A in class, and without any indication from you that this was incorrect, they might walk away believing this answer or idea was actually true.
In the same way, it is important to critique the ideas of popular religious leaders when they are at odds with the type of love we see exemplified through Christ. To leave toxic or dangerous public statements unchallenged, then, is to aid in some people believing them — by way of passivity.
In addition, it is important to reframe most of these public exchanges to see why they don’t fall within Matthew 18. The vast majority of the time (at least with me), the public rebuttal is not an attack on the person (though it may be misinterpreted as so). What is actually being challenged is their ideas. For example, when I write a post for my series, “What Franklin Graham Is Wrong About Today,” I’m not “calling him out” about a personal sin against me — I’m simply challenging ideas that I think need to be challenged. The competition of ideas is not anything that falls within the reconciliation process of Matthew 18.
So, the next time you’re tempted to ask someone, “Did you go and talk to them before posting this?”, just remember that you’re citing a biblical process that is more personal and intimate for those within a local church together. Matthew 18 does not apply when continuing Jesus’s example of publicly challenging the ideas of dangerous religious leaders.
Benjamin L. Corey, an Anabaptist author, speaker and blogger from Auburn, Maine, is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus. This first appeared on his blog, Formerly Fundie, where he discusses the intersection of faith and culture from a progressive/emergent/neo-Anabaptist vantage point.