“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone…. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” -Matthew 18:15, 17b, 32, ESV
Was Jesus Being “Unforgiving” To Demand the Sinner Listen To His/Her Victim?
Christians often lose their commonsense when it comes to issues of forgiving infidelity. They are quick to point out Jesus’ command to forgive (e.g. Mt 6:14-15); but they fail to pay attention to this important passage from Matthew 18 about church discipline. Forgiveness seems to be mean treating the adulterous spouse as if they did nothing wrong. Certainly, this charge to forgive is utilized to invalidate even healthy and righteous anger in the faithful spouse. Then it goes even further. Forgiveness is often equated with relationship restoration, which it is not.
Jesus requires more than just a Christian telling another sinning Christian that they are forgiven.
He demands the sinner listens.
In fact, if the adulterous sinner does not listen even to the church, they are supposed to be treated like “a Gentile and a tax collector.” This is essentially Jesus teaching his followers to treat an unrepentant Christian as if they are social pariah while they continue to refuse to listen.
A good Jew would not fellowship with a Gentile. Plus, a tax collector was a traitor and often times a thief who used his position to pilfer from his fellow Jews to enrich his own pocket. These were not people one had over for dinner or with whom one spent anything except the most minimal time to do absolutely necessary business.
As a church, we have so messed up our Biblical understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation that we censure faithful spouses who treat their unrepentant, adulterous (ex) spouses in these Jesus-proscribed ways. The faithful spouse is told they have a forgiveness problem when they want nothing more to do with a spouse who continues committing adultery and lying even after confrontation. Perhaps the problem is not the faithful spouse’s lack of forgiveness but rather the lack of the adulterous spouse’s listening to the one they have greatly wronged?
Since we seem to have some confusion on the matter, let me be clear about what “not listening” may look like when adultery or infidelity has taken place:
-Continuing in committing adultery is not listening.
-Lying about the adulterous relationship(s) is not listening.
-Blaming the faithful spouse in any way for cheating and lying is not listening.
-Minimizing the damage they did through committing adultery and lying is not listening.
-Divorcing the faithful spouse against his/her wishes is not listening.
Finally, I say that the church has lost it commonsense on this matter because we do not treat people the same with under different sinful situations. We understand a wife’s need to ascertain that she is safe before we instruct her to return to her husband who beat her up putting her in the hospital. A reasonable Christian leader understands it is not a forgiveness issue on the battered spouse’s part that keeps her away from her batterer. It is a matter of wisdom.
Similarly, adultery is destructive to the faithful spouse. It comes with its own physical health risks not to mention the financial and emotional risks in addition to those. The adulterous spouse has already demonstrated they can and will rape their spouse’s soul. Commonsense says you do not re-enter this relationship without clear indications the abusive adulterous spouse has recognized they did something wrong and has taken steps to ensure it does not happen again. Pushing a faithful spouse back into a marriage with an adulterous spouse is like pushing the battered wife back to her batterer. It is not a forgiveness issue to stay away from one’s abuser. It is a matter of wisdom.
To use God’s name and command to forgive to pressure faithful spouses back into unaddressed adulterous situations is especially wicked in my opinion. It is an abuse of the concept of forgivness utilized to manipulate. Furthermore, it is a shirking of Christian duty to confront the spouse who sinned against the faithful spouse as outlined in Matthew 18:15ff.
Do I believe we need to forgive those who sin against us? Absolutely. We need to do this. But that might mean just giving the offender over to God to punish or forgive as God sees fit.
Forgiving the adulterous spouse does not mean we refuse to address and confront the sin as Jesus taught us to do in Matthew 18. Sometimes wisdom means we minimize our contact with an adulterous (ex) spouse who refuses to listen and repent. That is the Biblical response to such stubborn refusal to repent.
And it is commonsense wisdom.