Personal Offenses vs. Public Error

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Matthew 18:15-17 is a passage of Scripture that is often misunderstood and abused.  I would like to provide some excellent quotes from respected men who give a good analysis of this passage.  The first is by Wendell Winkler, A Study of Jesus, the King, As Developed in Matthew 18 in the Book of Matthew, edited by Garland Elkins and Thomas Warren, pp. 470-486. “(7) A special note: an abuse of this test.  Some use this text, when public ungodliness is rebuked (I Tim. 5:20), and written and spoken false doctrine is taught, by asking, “Have you been to see the brother?”  Such is not required, since this text is dealing with personal offenses, not public ungodly living and public proclamation of false doctrine.  Based on this reasoning Catholicism could not be rebuked unless one first went to see the pope, nor Baptist doctrine as taught in his column, “My Answer,” without first going to see Billy Graham!”
Consider this quotation from Terry Hightower, Jesus’ Teaching on Offenders, Offenses, Forgiveness, Divorce, and Riches (Studies in Matthew, edited by Dub McClish, The Fourteenth Annual Denton Lectures, November 12-16, 1995, pp. 224-254).  “The foolish notion that the Lord’s first step goes beyond personal offenses to apply to those publicly teaching error is patently absurd in the light of Christ’s controversial dealings with His own disciples (e. g. a “Get thee behind me Satan” Peter or a “cumbered about much serving: Martha), the temple moneychangers, Pharisees, Sadducees, entire cities (e. g., Matt. 11:20-24; imagine His having to go to every resident first before He could publicly rebuke them!).  He felt no compulsion to seek a totally private audience with a Herod or a Pilate (Luke 13:32; John 18:33-38).  John did not feel compelled to refrain from calling Diotrephes’ name in 3 John 9-10.  Paul did not misapply Matthew 18:15 in dealing with Peter’s sin in Galatians 2:14, nor in operating upon what some today would call “hearsay” or “rumor” in I Corinthians 1:11 and 5:1-13.  Is it not the case that those most prone to “eisegete” verse 15 are the very ones who will ignore it and criticize the criticizers without first going to them? (pp. 233-234).
Those who publicly declare false doctrine (either verbally or in writing) are rightly subject to public rebuke and exposure.  This solemn charge is given by the apostle Paul in II Tim. 4:1-4, “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.  For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”

False Doctrine Divides

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The apostle Paul declares, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.  For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Rom. 16:17-18).  David Lipscomb remarked concerning this passage that ,”No greater evil, according to the Scriptures, could befall the churches than the divisions arising from the introduction of teachings and practices not required by God.  The fundamental truth of the Bible is that God alone has the right to direct and guide the faith and service of his children” (Commentary on Romans, pp. 275-276).
False Doctrine Produces Division
False doctrine challenges individuals to either defend the truth or else to abandon the truth for a lie.  Lovers of truth will defend it against false teachers.  I Thess. 2:13; Jude 3; I Pet. 3:15.
False doctrine will lead to the damnation of the souls of men.  II Thess. 2:11-12. False doctrine seriously undermines the spiritual well-being of men and women.
False doctrine fundamentally changes the gospel of Jesus Christ.  But, there is only one gospel (Gal. 1:8-9).
False doctrine undermines the credibility of the Bible.    False doctrine discredits what God said.  The Bible is called into question and doubted as a result.  “…let God be true, but every man a liar…” (Rom. 3:4).
False doctrine undermines the faith of those who are weak and ignorant.  As Paul said, it beguiles the hearts of the innocent (Rom. 16:18).  The hearts of the innocent are beguiled by the smooth and fair speech of the false teacher.  He charms.  He uses his reputation to deceive.  He lies to cover up his lies.
False doctrine does not originate with God, but with Satan.  Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44).  The false teacher is not aligned with God, but with the god of this world.
False doctrine does not unite the church, but divides it.  False doctrine will  produce a spiritual struggle within the body of Christ forcing those who love the truth to take a stand against the false teacher and his/her doctrine.  This violates the law of love and the imperative to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace (Matt. 7:12; Eph. 4:1-3).  Who is the troubler of the church?  The false teacher is, of course.
False doctrine (the substance of what is taught) is what defines a false teacher.  False teachers should be warned and marked (Rom. 16:17-18).  In marking a false teacher, Paul says that we should not fellowship him/her.  The false teacher is disqualified from receiving help/support from those who love the truth.  The warning of the false teacher is an effort to call them to repentance and recover them from the error of their ways.
False teachers give the appearance that they are serving Christ when, in fact, they are serving themselves.  “These makers of divisions and offenses, however fair and fine their pretensions and speeches might be, were not sincerely serving Christ, but rather serving their own sensual and selfish ends, and the aim of all their kind and plausible words is only to deceive those innocent ones who are slow to suspect it in others” (David Lipscomb, Ibid., p. 277).
False doctrine abounds and appears in many forms.  “…the only sure way of spotting counterfeit money is not by spending time studying counterfeit money, but carefully studying the real thing.  If you know the real thing, the counterfeit is obvious” (John Otis, Theistic Evolution, p. 4).  By studying God’s Word carefully, you will be able to spot a fake when you see or hear one.  Studying the creation account in God’s Word will help expose the fallacies of every form of evolution.