In this discussion the biblical approach (specifically as it is recorded in Matthew 18) to dealing with human error will be reviewed. It will be important for the reader to notice the synergistic effort in the area of human error, as it relates to the leader and follower. Many times the actions of one can negatively or positively effect another. In addition, it will be impossible to qualify or nuance every statement to the satisfaction of every reader. This discussion will be in multiple parts, so look for more to come.
In the Pauline epistle to the church at Rome Paul declares, "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find." (Romans 7:18 NKJV) Paul explicitly presents for us the dilemma of humanity. Man knows what is good and righteous yet fails, many times, to perform those acts and exhibit those attitudes. Cicero, an ancient philosopher who is often studied to understand Roman life and politics, once said, "It is the nature of every man to err..." (Cicero, 106–43 b.c.) In a practical sense we can surely find the words of both these men to be accurate.
Human error is so rampant and so vile that often times leaders of righteousness are at a loss of how to deal or confront error. In fact, human error literally frustrates the peace of our globe and supports the forces of darkness against the church.
During the life of Jesus Christ we see how God gifted humanity with instructions on how to deal with certain types of human error. The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, records these instructions with great detail. To understand these instructions we should analyze the chapter.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? (2) Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, (3) and said, Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (4) Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (5) Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. (NKJV)
Refutation of Human Exaltation:
In this pericope we can see the refutation of human exaltation--pride. In verse one the disciples begin to query Jesus to see who would be the "greatest in the kingdom of heaven". To refute this Jesus says that we are to be "converted and become as little children". If we fail to do this we will not even be able to "enter the kingdom of heaven."
In verse 3 Jesus uses strepho (stref-o), the Greek word for "converted" (NKJV). This word has to do with turning or twisting away from. A true conversion, much like genuine repentance, engenders a turning away from certain pre-conversion characteristics. Mark’s Gospel renders this story with some similarity. Mark informs us of some finer details by recording the fact that Jesus precipitated this conversation (vss. 1-5) by asking the disciples what they had been discussing among themselves earlier (Mark 9:33-34). It is interesting that the disciples reply with a question concerning who would be greatest. This is because they were possibly expecting a physical kingdom, probably even one of military dominance. The disciples then were driven by a selfish desire for position, power and fame.
Typically human error starts in pride. In fact, the biblical writer of Proverbs says that "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." (Proverbs 16:18 NKJV) Pride is typically the inordinate esteem for oneself. It is to think of one more highly than should reasonably be expected.
The words of Jesus refute such pride at its very core because he commands that we are to "become as little children", i.e. to think lower of ourselves. "Rank and status were issues that members of ancient society confronted daily." (1) Here Jesus is declaring that the traits often possessed by a child are the very characteristics needed for conversion or salvation. Such traits typically found in children are trust, obedience, and humility.
Ironically, the answer to the disciples question, concerning greatness, is answered by the command to be like children. In the culture of then and even of ours today this is totally against what we would normally imagine. However, to even enter the "kingdom" we must take on the humility, trust and obedience as a child.
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (7) Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! (8) If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. (9) And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire. (NKJV)
Occassions for Stumbling:
As in verse five, these little ones refers not just to children but to Jesus' "little ones"—the disciples. Children are trusting by nature and believers of all ages are to do the same. I believe the overarching principle relates to stumbling blocks placed before children and believers generally.
This pericope clearly indicates that there is nothing worse than leading another person into sin. In fact, Jesus says that it would be better to hang a millstone about one’s neck and be cast into the depths of the sea. There is more significance to this passage than we typically notice, possibly.
1. Jesus mentions the use of a millstone. This particular millstone was not a hand stone popularly used by Jewish women (2); however, scholars tell us that such a millstone would be about 18 inches in diameter and 3 inches thick--quite large. This method of punishment was a popular form of punishment by Syrians, Greeks, and Egyptians. The very fact that Jesus mentions this type of instrument of punishment demonstrates, glaringly clear, the severity of leading others into sin. A person with such a weight about their necks would be held at the bottom of the sea by the most awful and terrible weight of the millstone.
2. Jesus mentions Capital Punishment. Drowning is definitely a form of capital punishment used by various cultures. Drowning was not an not uncommon punishment in Greek and Roman society as well. "Though rare in Jewish circles, it was done at least once in Galilee (Jos. Antiq. XIV, 450 [xv.10])." (3) Therefore, the import of Jesus' words should be recognized as extremely severe. To drown a person would connotate a serious offense in the eyes of a Jewish audience.
At this point, it is quite obvious that Christ considers human error to be very serious--even to those who contribute to the development of such an error in another person. I believe this entire chaper teaches us how to avoid human error, in a general sense, as well as how to actually reconcile (see below) the error after it has come to fruition.
Often times church leadership struggles, even to the point of overreacting, with human error. Perhaps integrating the teachings of this chapter, fully, could deter future error. For example, there are various ways one can cause another to sin--yet many believers may not even realize such an offense is active in their lives. Here are only a few ways:
1. Perception is reality. If we, even slightly, appear friendly or neutral towards certain sins the reality is, then, that we are indeed approving of that sin--in a general sense. I will not take the time to nuance this statement completely (because there are so many variables) but many times this can be done by simply overlooking things, for too long perhaps, when they should be reconciled. Another way is to actually ridicule or laugh at the efforts of others who are doing right.
2. Examples. Regardless of what age or maturity level of an individual most followers, students, children, disciples or etc. will imitate what is being taught by example--the silent voice. Often times, the actual voice of a leader is not even heard, on occassion, whereas the import of their actions are well recieved.
3. Peresecution and berating. The scope of the author relates primarily to Pentecostal believers, of which a great many are concerned with Holiness and outward separation. As a consequence church leaders can place inordinate or unnecessary pressure upon believers to conform or adapt to traditions or preferences. Such actions can contribute to the loss of friendship, or acceptance, and even lead to abuse.
3a. For example, vow cards, curfews, certain residential restrictions, certain required clothing and etc. CAN be inordinately applied to a believers life by church leadership. If we cannot find scriptural support for an issue then it is best to teach by principle and not make claims that violate the biblical text. It is a travesty against Christ and His Word to use an implication or conclusion based upon an implication to place a believer outside salvation.
Often times church leadership can or fail to place levels of priority and acceptance upon new believers. This is not always unacceptable. However, no matter how young or immature, the new believer has “obtained like precious faith with us.” Standing before God, such a believer is on equal footing with all others, including leadership. This should go without saying, however, this does not mean they are to be given positions of leadership while they are young or immature believers (1 Tim. 3:6, 10). Quite simply it means that they are to be treated fairly. They are to be focused upon and developed in the Body of Christ. Often times a young believer will not "appear" as "holy" (pun intended) as other, more mature, believers. They should not, by default or without reason, be overlooked because they cannot yet contribute much to the work of God’s kingdom neither should they be viewed as "less saved" than others. Each of us are saved by grace through faith--regardless of gender, ethnicity, or culture (c.f. Galatians 3:27-28).
1. IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig S. Keener Copyright © 1993 by Craig S. Keener. Published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved.
3. Expositor's Bible Commentary, NT. Gaebellein, Frank E. General Editor. Copyright (c) 1976-1992. Zondervan Publishing house