Prof. Barrett Gritters, professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Hudsonville PRC
There exists among some a misunderstanding about the application of Matthew 18 to cases of sexual abuse so serious that it may be fatal. There, Jesus instructs one who has been sinned against to “tell him (the sinner) his fault between thee and him alone.” It is a wrong, dangerous, and maybe fatal application of Matthew 18 to require one who has been abused sexually to confront the abuser privately before reporting the sin to anyone else, if at all.
To address this shameful sin again on these pages is painful but necessary. We may be thankful that by church discipline the Lord is beginning to “cleanse from evil-doers the city of the Lord” (Psalter #271). But awful as it is to imagine, there may well be more perpetrators who must be brought to the light and more victims whom their church family may help to heal. A wrong application of Matthew 18 to sexual abuse will help neither victim nor perpetrator but could be deadly to both.
In the recent special issue of the Standard Bearer on sexual abuse,1 both Rev. Nathan Decker and Rev. Joshua Engelsma wrote that Matthew 18 may not be used to exhort a victim to confront—by herself—the perpetrator of the abuse. In this editorial, I want to repeat their contention and further justify that view both historically and exegetically.
The need for reporting sexual abuse
Even though reporting is another aspect of the excruciating pain that a victim endures, reporting is essential. Because perpetrators may not be allowed to continue their fornicating and murderous ways. Because victims must be helped to heal—brought to life again. Because other victims must be encouraged to come forward so that their wounds may begin to be treated. And because the church must be a safe place for the people of God, especially for children. Hiding this sin makes the church a dangerous place, especially for children.
But asking sexual abuse victims to report their abuse and then deal with all the difficulties that it will involve is asking so much. It is something like asking a traumatized Vietnam war veteran to talk openly about the unspeakable horrors of his experience, or a child to relive the nightmare of seeing his father murder his mother. For some, even entertaining the thought of reporting brings panic. Ever present are shame and embarrassment. False guilt is involved: “I am to blame as much as he or she is.” Remembrance of threats may give them pause: “If you tell anyone, you will ruin my life, and I may ruin yours! No one will believe you.” The ferocity with which some victims want to hide the secret shows the continued influence and control of their abuser. Some victims have learned to cope with life and its difficulties and are convinced that dealing with it will only make life worse than it is now. Some would rather die than destroy their family, which they are convinced will happen if the truth is ever known. Or the perpetrator is dead.
Yet for everyone’s sake—their own, other yet-unknown victims, even the still-living perpetrator who must be brought to repentance and salvation—reporting and exposing the sinner is necessary. I hesitate to say ‘necessary’ because those who are not victims must exercise greatest care about how (and how soon) they press ‘necessity’ on those who have been so violated.
Our churches and other church groups are learning about sexual abuse. The lessons may be painfully slow to sink in, but I trust we are learning. What we have learned must become part of denomination-wide consciousness.
In the past, some were not aware of the nature of the sin.2 We did not fathom the incalculable and sometimes irreparable damage done to the victims.3 In the opening verses of Matthew 18, Jesus indicates just how horrendous is the sin of offending little ones when He says it would be “better that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were drowned….” Why? Because “little ones perish.” The damage done by sexual abusers is destruction of the greatest magnitude. In addition, we did not grasp sufficiently the devilish grip (see II Tim. 2:26) sexual sin has on perpetrators, and the fact that this sin often has grown to become such an integral part of them that it brings the highest likelihood of recidivism— falling back into the sin that they ‘confessed’ and of which they ‘repented.’ A sex-abuser has allowed the devil to shape him into such a deceptive creature—even a ‘machine of destruction’—that, although the grace of God can reform him, he cannot be reformed easily.
In the past some of us were ignorant. I grieve over the further damage to God’s people that this ignorance allowed. I am sorry daily over my own ignorance. But these days such ignorance becomes inexcusable, especially for officebearers and school communities.
Because repetition is one of the main principles of teaching and learning, it is necessary to repeat some of the important lessons. And some lessons may even be developed, as I try to do here.
Matthew 18 misunderstood
What must never be done in the case of sexual assault is to demand that the victim “follow the way of Matthew 18,” if the meaning is “go by yourself to rebuke your abuser, and if he repents, this is the end of the matter since you have ‘gained’ him.” The result of such advice will be further, maybe irreparable, damage to all the parties, even to those who were traumatized decades before, perhaps especially for them.
Simple, biblical wisdom ought to be enough to make this clear. Christian common sense would never instruct a child to confront her rapist father by herself. No one would require a 7th-grade boy to confront his predator-teacher alone. Being alone with them is what made the sin possible! What sane parent would instruct their children that if “Uncle Bob” ever does something unseemly to them while he’s babysitting, they should “go the way of Matthew 18” by talking privately to the wicked uncle? “Don’t tell us; just go to him. If he’s sorry, you don’t need to tell anyone.”
This ‘common sense’ is in fact the Reformed tradition and biblical doctrine.
The Reformed tradition
In the early days of the Reformation era, pastors and elders in the Netherlands faced difficult questions regarding Christian discipline, specifically whether all sins that are known only to one or a few must be kept private. Repeatedly, the churches concluded that some private sins were of such a nature that they must be treated publicly.
Some examples. The assembly of Wesel in 1568 decided that “someone who secretly…disseminated strange teachings… shall be reported…to the consistory.” In 1571, the Synod at Emden concluded, “but hidden sins, those which might bring harm and ruin to the general welfare or to the churches, such as treason or the seducing of souls, shall be reported….” At Dordt, 1578, again: “In answer to the question which sins are public: A public sin is one which…because of its grossness is deemed worthy of public punishment. Thus the sins of David against Uriah, of Ananias and Sapphira against the Holy Spirit were made public and punished as public sins” (emphasis in all quotations added).
In other words, the question whether all private sins must be kept private between the accused and accuser alone was answered with an emphatic, “No!” Some sins are of such a nature that they may not be kept private. Sexual assault is one of them and fits in Dordt’s description of a sin that “because of its grossness [so ‘weighty’!] is deemed worthy of public punishment.” Thus, even if a victim today will not file charges with the police, which is often the case, the consistory deems the sin “worthy of public punishment” and makes it public. A sexual abuser fits in Emden’s description of a sinner who “might bring harm and ruin to the general welfare or to the churches.”
These young Dutch churches were following the pattern set by their Swiss neighbors led by John Calvin (Calvin died in 1564, only a few years before these synods met) and the consistory in Geneva who demanded public treatment of certain gross, private sins.4 It is not surprising then that in the 1940s, almost 400 years after the young Reformation churches faced this question, VanDellen and Monsma took a similar position. In their treatment of the Church Order’s Article 72 (“as long as the sin is of a private character…the rule clearly prescribed by Christ in Matt. 18 shall be followed”) they clearly qualify the rule in this way: “Sins that are not generally known shall not be revealed unless the nature of the transgression should require such….”5 The nature of sexual abuse requires that it be revealed, not kept private. This is Reformed tradition, and the Reformers were not ignoring Jesus’ prescriptions in Matthew 18.
“The rule of Matthew 18” (Church Order, Art. 72)
Matthew 18’s rule to keep private sins private is a vital part of the passage, but it is not the main point Jesus is making there. If we may speak of ‘first principles,’ Jesus’ primary doctrines here are two: 1) the calling to protect the sheep (the “little ones” referred to in the earlier part of the chapter), and 2) the calling to seek the well-being of a sinning brother who may be harming the sheep. Both must be kept in view in our understanding of the text.
With regard to the wayward brother, our motive is love and the aim his salvation. The controlling thought is “gaining” him (v. 15).
To work this out practically, start at the lowest level of sin’s severity. Charity requires that some sins not be confronted at all. Peter says that the manifestation of love in some cases will be to “cover” the sin (I Pet. 4:8). Every parent and every spouse knows that wisdom often is to ignore lesser offenses. Making an issue of every fault will hurt, not help; it is not needed to “gain” the brother.
Other sins, weightier, must be addressed but kept private. To publicize them would be to violate Matthew 18. According to Calvin, Matthew 18 warns “that no man bring disgrace upon his brother by rashly and without necessity divulging secret offences.” For example, it would be unnecessary and even rash to divulge to others that my brother lied to me and repented. What does not need to be known by others may not be known. Privacy is “the rule of Matthew 18” with which we are so familiar.
And yet, other secret sins must be made known. Divulging the rape of a student by her teacher is neither ‘rash’ nor ‘without necessity’ (remember Calvin’s words). In this case, secrecy would be sin. The well-being of the student demands that it be known. The protection of other students demands publicity. And the well-being of the rapist—his or her repentance and salvation—mandates that the sin be brought to light.
Yet there is something more important to consider about the sinner. Jesus is teaching us that we seek to “gain the brother” by calling him to repentance. But everyone knows that a private admonition of a sex abuser by his victim is woefully insufficient to lead him to proper repentance, just as it would be insufficient (even sinfully negligent) to rebuke an alcoholic or porn addict once and believe that he will properly repent with no further action. He needs help! Yes, happily, with some sins gaining the brother is simple: rebuke, repent, forgive, forget. But with sins like sexual abuse gaining the brother or sister is painfully difficult, complex, time-consuming, exhausting. This sin is usually so much a part of his life that his repentance must be multifaceted, as well as deep, broad, sincere, and “sufficiently evident” to a consistory before he is restored (see Church Order, Art. 75). The roots of this sin go very deep. Restoration may take a long time. A very long time. The sex-abuser whose repentance is a mile wide but only an inch deep is not repentant and will perish. The one who truly “hears thee” and is “gained” (Matt. 18:15) is a fully repentant, humbled, broken, and radically changed man. He is a new creature. To gain him takes more than any individual, much less the victim, is able to do.
With regard to the abused sheep, even when the sin was committed decades ago (perhaps especially then), love for the sister or brother will not say, “Now you are mature enough to go to him by yourself.” In fact, our love for the abused will compel us to learn how deeply scarred, damaged, wounded, injured, broken, and shattered she is. Maybe more damaged by the passage of time. The spiritual scar tissue that may be visible actually covers a more serious wound that never healed and has become worse.
In sum: 1) Not only may we not ask a victim of sexual abuse to go to her abuser alone—the need to keep her safe forbids this. 2) But no victim is able to do what Jesus says in Matthew 18 is the main thing to be done: gain the brother. This takes the work of the consistory and many others.
To drive this point home, to ask a victim to go privately to her molester to gain him would be sin against everyone! Sin against the victim who likely would be re-victimized (murdered again). Sin against the molester who without a massive amount of help will perish spiritually (Matt. 18:9 speaks of “hell fire”). Sin against others inside and outside the church who may become additional murder victims. And sin against the church that will come under the judgment of God (die!) for allowing sin to be treated superficially (Jer. 6:14; 8:11).
Simplistically to apply “the rule of Matthew 18” in the case of sexual abuse, therefore, is to do the polar opposite of what Jesus was teaching in the chapter: Love your brother. Seek his salvation. Protect the sheep. (Next time: If not Matthew 18, what is the way to confront/report sexual abuse?)
1 May 1, 2022; extra copies are available by writing to the RFPA or the SB’s editorial office.
2 Please re-read the powerful articles in the May 1, 2022 special issue.
3 I have read many books on sexual abuse, and the best I have read that describes the awful damage done to victims is Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. It is a must-read for those who may think that ‘murderous’ is too severe to describe the evil of sexual abuse.
4 See John Witte, Jr., and Robert M. Kingdon’s Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage. vol. 1. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005. My thanks to Prof. Cory Griess for this resource. He is preparing to lecture this fall on the treatment of sexual sins in Calvin’s Geneva.
5 The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1941), 301. Emphasis added. See also their treatment of Article 73 where they also speak of the “common sense” requirement to report “very grievous and dangerous sins” (302, 303).