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II. WHO'S AT THE BENCH

Definitions

     The first article we should examine in the "Joy of Justice" is one written by John Hopler. Hopler is listed as a pastor in a GCI church in Silver Springs, Maryland. He is also an attorney. It would seem appropriate then that he has written the article entitled, "When God Takes the Bench." In his article, Hopler discusses the matter of church discipline, looking at five New Testament passages on the subject.

     Very early in Hopler's article we confront the very problem of semantics which we discussed in chapter one. At the outset of his piece he is considering the passage in Matthew 18:15-17, and he is describing the first encounter between one who has sinned and the one who is seeking to correct him.

"If the offender acknowledges that he was wrong, there would be no reasons for others to know about the matter. That would be gossip."1
There are two major flaws in this statement. The first has to do with the definition of the word "gossip". The word is not used in the passage in Matthew 18. Some modern translations, such as the New American Standard, do use the word in which the NAS translates "gossip". I have included charts on page 18 and 19 which give us the clear meaning of the various words which are translated as gossip or whisperer. By carefully examining these charts, the reader can see that the biblical method of the word gossip always includes the concept of deception or falsehood.

However, Hopler makes the unsupported statement that for anyone else to be told of a person's sin, if that person has acknowledged wrong, would be gossip. This can not be supported from the biblical meaning of the word.

In fairness to Hopler, however, it should be pointed out that the word "gossip" has a somewhat different meaning in common English usage. According to Webster's Dictionary, gossip is merely "idle talk". Or, in other words, it would be talk which had no worthwhile purpose or redeeming value. If Hopler had determined to use the word in the English, rather than the biblical sense, then we come upon the second flaw in his statement.

Is it true that it would always be wrong to tell others that someone had sinned, if he had repented? Would that always be "idle talk"? According to Hopler it would, and perhaps in many cases he would be right. Yet, there are many other cases in which it would not be gossip. Consider these examples:

1. The prophet Nathan reproved King David for his sin with Bathsheba, and he repented (II Samuel 11, 12), but because of the public nature of his sin, and his leadership position, the Holy Spirit "discusses" his sin with us to this very day. Why? Because it serves a constructive purpose to do so.

2. Peter was guilty of two very serious sins. He denied the Lord (Matthew 26:69-75), and was hypocritical (Galatians 2:11-14). He apparently repented of both, as is evidenced by how God used him later and included two of his letters in the canon of scripture. Yet God, through Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul repeatedly brings up Peter's sins, in books or letters written during Peter's lifetime. Why? Because the Body of Christ is helped and edified by the knowledge of Peter's failure.

These illustrations clearly demonstrate that it is not always gossip, even in the English sense, for others to be told of the sin of one who has repented and acknowledged that sin. Yet it appears Hopler is attempting to put a lid on all further discussion of anyone's sin, as long as they acknowledge it. Such a "lid" is not warranted from Matthew 18, and as we shall see as we proceed, it is not supported elsewhere either.

The Roots of Matthew 18

It is important to note that Jesus' teaching in Matthew 18:15-17 is deeply rooted in Old Testament law regarding the resolution of disputes. It is actually in the Old Testament that we can find much help and clarification in learning to apply Matthew 18. The importance of this fact becomes apparent when we read another statement in Hopler's article:

"What would happen if he decides that he committed the act and the person who originally reproved him is the only witness. In such a case, that would end the process. Why? Because there would be only one witness, and two or three witnesses are required to confirm a fact (II Corinthians 13:1). Therefore there should be no further action in the matter."2
The problem in Hopler's statement lies in the remark that there should "be no further action" if there is only one witness. If we go back to the Old Testament law regarding such things, which Jesus quotes in Matthew 18, we will discover that there is a format laid down to continue the matter further. There may be occasion when only one witness comes forward due to fear or for other reasons. Hench, in Deuteronomy 19:15-21 [2], the Lord stipulates that if one witness brings a charge against someone, then the judges were to thoroughly investigate the matter to determine if the witness were a false one. So we learn from the Law that the fact that there is only one witness does not necessarily mean that "no further action" is called for in the matter.

So, according to Deuteronomy 19, if one witness brings a charge against another, a process is set in motion to determine if others witnessed the same event, or similar actions. Why does the Lord establish such a process? I would suggest a couple of reasons.

First, as I alluded to earlier, other witnesses to the event may have been intimidated into not speaking up. This is a common problem in our civil judicial system, and it would be reasonable to expect it in the church as well. Also, other witnesses may have gone to another church or moved to another city, and are therefore not aware that charges are being brought, and that they can shed light on the truth of the charges. Therefore, it is important that a thorough investigation be made to find those other witnesses.

Secondly, it should be immediately obvious that a clever person could hide his sin simply by insuring that he only does it in the presence of one other person, whose charges he could always deny. By employing this technique, he could repeatedly sin, but never be brought to justice. For this reason, it is important to note that Scripture does not stipulate what the witnesses are to have witnessed. It does not say, as Hopler implies, that they might have witnessed the same event in time. It may be that they have witnessed similar actions on the part of the accused at other times, and their testimony would help to establish a pattern or likelihood which would lend weight to the testimony of the one who actually witnessed the event in question. Also, there may be other witnesses, who although they did not see the actual event, can give other corroborating evidence which will prove the charge.

The previous two points illustrate why it is important that there be a vehicle whereby further investigation can be carried out, even though initially there appears to be only one witness. It should be observed as well that if the charges cannot be proven true, that does not mean that they are false, unless they are proven false. Action against the accuser can only be taken if it is actually proven that he is a false witness, using the same biblical guidelines for determining the truth of a charge.

Justice in Judgment

It should be seen from the two previous errors which we have examined in Hopler's article, that he is structuring an excessively rigid format for justice. The thin ice upon which he walks finally gives way in the next statement we examine. In this statement he is discussing what the church is to do, or what action is to be taken, when charges are brought to it by two or three witnesses. He says:

"The church should accept the charge since it has been confirmed by two or three witnesses."3
In this statement the threat to justice should be obvious to the careful reader. Let us suppose for a moment that two individuals in a church wish to remove another from the church without due cause. All they need to do is contrive a charge, and both claim to be witnesses. According to Hopler, the church is obligated to accept and act upon the charge. Hopler leaves no room for further investigation by the church. A brother or sister's life could be ruined simply because the church failed to thoroughly investigate.

If the church is being asked to execute justice and judgment, then the scriptures which pertain to judgment would apply. These scriptures require a thorough and impartial examination of the facts:

"You shall do no injustice in judgment...you are to judge your neighbor fairly." Leviticus 19:15

"And the judges shall investigate thoroughly..." Deuteronomy 19:18

"The first to plead his case seems just, until another comes and examines him." Proverbs 18:17

"To show partiality in judgment is not good." Proverbs 24:23

"Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment." John 7:24

"Our Law does not judge a man, unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?" John 7:51

(See also, Deuteronomy 1:17; 16:19; and Proverbs 20:25)
The effect of Hopler's approach is that it effectively eliminates the third step of Matthew 18. The church does not hear or investigate, and then take action only after it concludes the charges are true. On the contrary, according to Hopler, it merely hears two witnesses condemn the accused, and then tells him to repent. If he fails to do so, he is excommunicated. No questions asked. Two strikes and you're out! Is this the "joy of justice"? Once again we see that Hopler is continuing to construct a far more rigid format for justice than is warranted biblically. He is exceeding what is written.

Please! No Controversy!

Departing from Matthew 18, Hopler then goes on to discuss other passages related to church justice. Among those he discusses are Romans 16:17,18, and Titus 3:10-11. Concerning Romans 16:17-18 he says:

"This is one of two commands given by Paul to turn away from those who cause division in the church."4
Then in his discussion of Titus 3:10-11, he makes another statement about those who cause divisions:

"Making a controversy of anything in the church is wrong."5
So then, according to Hopler, all division in the church is wrong, and we are to turn away from any person who causes division, regardless of the reason. These statements are unfounded biblically. The passage in Romans 16 does not say that we are to turn from any person who causes division. It is those who create a certain type of division that we are to shun. And what is that type of division? Those which are a hindrance to the teaching which we have learned. In the context of Romans, it is most likely that his readers understood Paul to mean the doctrines he had just laid down for them in the letter he was just bringing to a close. It is divisions which lead us away from the truth in Christ which are wrong, and must be restricted. However, all controversy in the church is not wrong. In God Tells the Man Who Cares, A.W. Tozer has a chapter titled, "Divisions are Not Always Bad". In it he says:

"When to unite and when to divide, that is the question, and a right answer requires the wisdom of Solomon.

"Some settle the problem by rule of thumb: All union is good and disivion is bad. It's that easy. But obviously this effortless way of dealing with the matter ignores the lessons of history and overlooks some of the deep spiritual laws by which men live."6
Gaius was a New Testament believer in a church which apparently had a high degree of unity. But it was a coerced unity. A man named Diotrephes refused to allow anyone in the church who threatened his control or influence. There is no indication that Diotrephes was necessarily a heretic, espousing strange doctrines, but he was attempting to maintain total control of the church. Apparently he was quite adept at doing this in an obscure manner, for Gaius was not aware of Diotrephes' actions, and had to be told of them by the Apostle John in a letter (III John). John stated that he had the full intention of making an issue of his deeds in the church if he had the opportunity to do so.

"For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does..." III John 10
It is hard to imagine, if Diotrephes was the kind of man John described, that John's intended actions would not cause a very intense division within that church, at least temporarily. According to Hopler, who declares that it is "always wrong to make a controversy", the Apostle John was wrong in writing such a "divisive" letter to Gaius, and his intended actions were even more wrong. According to Hopler, Gaius had the obligation to "turn away" from the Apostle John.

The absurdity of Hopler's position is also apparent if we consider the history of the Reformation. What if Martin Luther had not nailed his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg? What if the other reformers had shunned controversy and refused to stir debate within the church? Where would we Evangelicals be today?

And what of the New Testament examples of controversy? In Acts 6:1 we read:

"Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food."
Notice the word against. That is a strong word. The Hellenistic Jews were complaining against the native Jews. Though it does not appear from the context or the wording that it had as yet grown into a full blown scandal, there nevertheless was a significant controversy brewing, and the Hellenistic Jews were the ones who were stirring it up through their complaining. But, remarkably, the Holy Spirit gives no indication of His displeasure with those who were complaining. Neither do the apostles. Why? Because their complaint was just, even if it did "rock the boat".

Two other passages in Acts reveal marked controversy. One is the dispute about circumcision in Acts 15:1-31. We should note here that once again the Holy Spirit does not condemn those who were party to the intense controversy. He merely records that the church laboriously worked through the controversy until it reached a satisfactory resolution. The controversy itself is not condemned. If God hates controversy in the church so much, then why does He not take action against it in Acts? We should remember that in Acts the Holy Spirit records severe displays of God's wrath at sin in the church, such as with Ananias and Saphira. Yet no similar action is taken against the parties to a controversy.

The final example of controversy I wish to cite is also in Acts 15. In verses 36-41 we find Paul and Barnabas in a "sharp disagreement." Again the Holy Spirit neither takes sides, condemns the controversy, or disciplines the men who are party to the controversy. Instead, He merely records for us how a compromise was achieved. Some mistakenly assert that because Barnabas seems to fade from the picture at this point, and the Holy Spirit chooses to follow Paul's life, that God apparently was on Paul's side in the controversy. Such an argument based on the silence of Scripture is totally unwarranted.

All of these examples from the Word are not intended to imply that the church is to be a free-for-all of controversy, but rather to establish quite clearly that, contrary to Hopler's contention, all controversy in the church is not wrong. There will be times in the life of a church when controversy is necessary to resolve nagging problems. At such times it would behoove the leaders of such a church not to condemn those who are party to the controversy, nor to excommunicate them, but rather to seek a just and righteous resolution of the matter.

In conclusion then to this point, we are not to turn from everyone who causes a controversy, but, according to Romans 16:17,18, from those who do so to the hindrance of the truth of the Gospel, or the clearly established truths of the Word of God.

As Smooth as Butter

In the context of his discussion about divisive people, Hopler makes the following remark:

"Divisive people usually have the ability to talk "as smooth as butter" (Psalm 55:21). They usually use the scripture."7
I certainly would not suggest that this is never true. But by saying that it is "usually" true, Hopler is building a framework by which those who effectively handle the Word of God and speak kindly in a controversy are labeled as divisive because they "use the scripture" and "talk as smooth as butter". The fact that a particular enemy that David had in mind in Psalms 55:21 talked as smooth as butter has nothing to do with the divisive person of Romans 16.

The simple fact of the matter is that frequently divisive people use speech that is anything but smooth, and often times they are not skilled in using the scriptures.

The charges, claims, and doctrines that are promoted by anyone, even in the heat of controversy, should be examined in the light of the truth or falsehood they contain, not on the basis of the skill, or lack of skill employed in the delivery. But Hopler begins a trend here, which develops more as we progress through the magazine, of emphasizing the way certain things are said, more than the truth or falsehood in them. Such a distortion can lead to serious injustice.

Bypassing the Church

Another serious problem in Hopler's article surfaces as he continues his discussion of Titus 3:10,11. He says:

"God says to reject a man who causes division in the church after he has been warned twice. In other words, if his communication is divisive and he repents after being warned, he may remain in fellowship. If he communications divisively a second time and repents after a second warning, he may still remain in fellowship. But if he communicates divisively a third time, he is to be rejected, no matter how repentant he may seem."8
The first striking thing about this statement, is that Hopler seems to have answered the question that troubles so many Christians. What is the unpardonable sin? Apparently it is division. A person who communicates in a divisive way a third time, after being warned the previous two times, is to be rejected "no matter how repentant" he seems. Such a man could never again be admitted into Christian fellowship, according to Hopler. Consider, too, that we are not discussing unsaved reprobates here, but simply someone who is guilty of "causing a controversy" in the church. This is an extremely harsh and unbiblical extrapolation from Titus 3.

Another question which naturally arises is: "What are the two warnings in Hopler's mind when he makes the above statement?" He never says explicity, but some idea can be gleaned from another remark in the next paragraph:

"Note how much God hates division in His church. A person could commit other sins many times and repent each time and still not be the object of church discipline. But a factious person is allowed only two verbal repentances. After that he is to be rejected. (Titus 3:10)."9

As Hopler contrasts divisiveness with "other sins", he states that a person may sin repeatedly, repenting each time he is confronted, and never be the object of church discipline. These confrontations do not take place before the church, for that is church discipline, of which Hopler states the offender has not become an "object".

So then, the two warnings which are permitted the "divisive" person are not before the church or by the church. Once again we see that the church, in Hopler's thinking, serves merely as a rubber stamp to excommunicate an accused person without investigation. But here it becomes even more serious, because the church is not even involved in the process at all. The factious person receives two warnings, not in the context of church discipline, and then he is out. Just like that. The church is completely bypassed. This is a grave disregard of Matthew 18.

Cumbersome

Hopler's doctrine concerning reproof and discipline becomes so rigid and cumbersome, that even he becomes lost and confused. At one point he says:

"A person could commit other sins many times and repent each time and still not be the object of church discipline."10
But this statement directly contradicts one he makes earlier:

"A third case would be a person who verbally repents whenever he is confronted, yet continues to practice the sin. After a while, the genuineness of his repentance would be questionable and he would have to be judged as a wicked person."11

So which will it be? Hopler leaves us wondering. Perhaps he is also wondering. This is hardly the kind of careful presentation that one would expect from an attorney.

Ignoring Relevant Texts

In conclusion, it should be noted that Hopler examines five passages in his article that deal with justice in the church. While those passages are indeed relevant to his subject, it is of interest to this author that he fails to examine some other, equally relevant passages. Two of them (Galatians 2:11-14 and III John 10,11) I have already mentioned as disproving some of Hopler's fundamental conclusions. Another one (I Timothy 5:19,20) he also ignores. I will discuss each of these passages at greater length later.

1 Hopler, John, "When God Takes the Bench", The Cause, p 8, June/July 1985.
2 Ibid., p 9.
3 Ibid., p9.
4 Ibid., p 11.
5 Ibid., p 11.
6 Tozer, A.W., God Tells the Man Who Cares, Christian Publications, Inc., Harrisburg, Penn., 1970, p 45.
7 Hopler, p 11.
8 Ibid., p 11
9 Ibid., p 12
10Ibid., p 12.
11Ibid., p 10.

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