Great Article on Matthew 18 and Public Discourse

D. A. Carson weighs in on theological controversies and the consequences of blowing the whistle, and why people are often wrong in positing a necessity to “follow Matthew 18” before publishing. In the PCA’s Book of Church Order, we have clear distinctions between personal and general offences, and then a further distinction between public and private offences.

The first distinction is between personal and general offences. A personal offence is something that is committed against nameable people, whereas a general offence has no such reference (BCO 29). The distinction between public and private is equally important here. “Private” means an offence known only to a few, whereas “public” means an offence known to the public.

These distinctions are important when it comes to the accusations of Ninth Commandment violations that are constantly being thrown about in the PCA these days. It is often assumed that because person A didn’t go talk personally to person B about person B’s public teaching, that therefore person A violated the Ninth Commandment. As Carson says, this is a methodological question, not a question about Matthew 18. When Peter was violating the gospel by his practice in Galatians 2, Paul did not go to him privately, seeking to make sure he fully understood him. No, he rebuked Peter to his face without any sort of preamble whatsoever. I might also add here that if it were necessary to talk to a theologian to ensure that one understood him, then we could never understand dead theologians. One’s teaching is, as Carson notes, a general thing. It is not private, and it is not personal. Therefore Matthew 18 does not apply. One could, out of mere courtesy, go to the theologian to seek to make sure one understood him, but this is not required either by the Ninth Commandment, or by Matthew 18.



  1. Darrell Todd Maurina said,

    May 5, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    I ran into this nonsense all the time in the Christian Reformed Church. The Bible is so plain about the distinction between public and private sins, and the historical record of theological controversy is so obvious, that I can’t even begin to understand why anyone would think that it’s a violation of Matthew 18 to publicly criticize theological statements made in public. If that’s wrong, not only did the Westminster Assembly sin by rebuking Roman Catholic, Arminian, and other errors, but also the apostle Peter was sinning in rebuking Peter to his face.

    Can anyone cite anybody prior to the development of a liberal “culture of niceness” who advocated this view of Matthew 18?

  2. jedpaschall said,

    May 5, 2011 at 5:36 pm


    You should have consulted me before you responded, because now I am deeply wounded. I have set up a PayPal account so that you can pay for my therapy expenses.

    Kidding aside, one of the hot buttons the Carson hits, and this post touched on it as well is how (alleged) 9th commandment violations are thrown around with some frequency in Reformed blogland. Is there some way we can agree on basic, even if informal, standards to keep from dropping the 9-bomb prematurely, or even as (gasp!) a power-play to win a disagreement without having to make good arguments? I have done it myself in the past, and it seems silly in retrospect.

    I guess it would be helpful, since it does get so much unnecessary play, to indicate the proper use and prosecution of the 9th command in the blogosphere.

  3. Darrell Todd Maurina said,

    May 5, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    The short answer would be that the biblical standards for the blogosphere are identical to that for any other speech.

    The real issue, and it’s one I deal with constantly in my work as a media professional, is that the internet has created a communications revolution which is not much smaller in its effect than the invention of the printing press. The printing press made it possible for one publisher, if he had enough money to buy a printing press and a bookselling system to distribute its products, to disseminate books to thousands of people in a few months to a year which previously would have been disseminated to a few dozen people in the same period, and then only at tremendous expense in labor-intensive scribal hand-copying.

    What the internet has done is made it possible for virtually anyone to communicate virtually any message with a potential audience of virtually the entire technologically literate world, and to do it with no middleman whatsoever.

    I deal constantly in my world with libel issues and copyright issues, and I have to spend significant amounts of time trying to educate the posters on a community message board run by my business partner about what they can and cannot write or copy. I realize that there are things which are biblically sinful but not legally libellous, but the issues are similar — for many years, newspaper editors and reporters were carefully trained in how to recognize potential libel and steer clear of it, or if the subject of an article warranted taking the risks, how to be very sure the newspaper would not get sued or could defend itself from a lawsuit.

    Now, however, I have to deal with people who have absolutely no training or experience whose actions, if I don’t deal with them very quickly, could land me in court defending myself against a libel lawsuit. There’s little doubt that I will win any lawsuits against my work under the standards of New York Times v. Sullivan (the key case in modern libel law), but it’s not so clear that I won’t have to spend five-digit sums of money to a lawyer to extricate myself from a nuisance lawsuit against me because I didn’t act quickly enough to delete a libelous comment on the web forums I administer.

    I love covering court cases as a reporter, but unlike a criminal court case, a civil lawsuit can be filed by virtually anyone with enough money to pay the filing fee. Sitting on the stand as the defendant in a nuisance lawsuit filed by somebody with a deep pocketbook because I didn’t hit a delete button quickly enough is not my idea of a fun time.

  4. Stuart said,

    May 6, 2011 at 8:48 am


    I agree the ninth commandment is thrown around far too easily these days. I do have one question, though.

    If I read an argument of some theologian, posted a critique on a blog, but then found out later I had totally misunderstood the theologian’s actual position, would my blog critique be a violation of the ninth commandment since I attributed to that theologian a view he himself did not hold?

  5. greenbaggins said,

    May 6, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Stuart, to attribute to a theologian a view he does not *actually* hold would definitely be a violation of the ninth commandment. However, whether this has happened or not cannot always be determined by whether the theologian in question *says* he has been misunderstood or not, simply because *he* may be lying. For instance, heretics have almost always claimed to be misunderstood throughout history. The Remonstrants almost universally claimed to be misunderstood, as just one example.

  6. Darrell Todd Maurina said,

    May 6, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    My thought is that the Ten Commandments deal with sins — things you either knew or should have known not to do. In most cases criticisms based on honest misunderstandings are not sinful.

    The exceptions would be when you didn’t make reasonable efforts to verify the facts before attacking someone in public, or where the public attack was totally out of proportion to the offense. An honest and sincere desire to get the facts right before attacking avoids most of the problems and helps make sure people are much more likely to make honest mistakes rather than be sinfully negligent and acting, as the libel laws state, “with malice aforethought” and “reckless disregard for the truth.”

    And yes, I’m well aware that the devil is in the details.

  7. May 6, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    I agree. The Ninth Commandment is thrown around far too often. One especially aggravating use of it I’ve experienced is when someone will use the Commandment as a weapon to shut down legitimate discussion of a legitimate topic, just because the individual doing it personally dislikes either the topic or the discussion, for whatever reason.

    …sort of like how some Christians will pretend to be “weaker brethren” in order to stop someone else from doing something with which they disagree.

  8. Steve M said,

    May 8, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    I agree with Carson’s points in the article, but I have a question regarding Matthew 18. I was told by a certain elder (the single elder of a small congregation) that Matthew 18 only applied to perceived sins by one member of congregation against another member and did not apply to a perceived sin of a lay member against an elder. In other words, an elder who believes he has been sinned against is not required to consider Matthew 18 at all. Has anyone encountered this view before? To me it seems indefensible. Perhaps someone else has heard a defense of this position. The elder did not defend his position, he simply stated that Matthew 18 did not apply.

  9. May 11, 2011 at 8:56 am

    Can we all agree to refer to confronting others with their duty under the ninth commandment as either:

    (1) “Dropping the 9 Bomb,” or [thanks to jedpaschall @ #2 for this one]
    (2) “Playing the 9 Card”

  10. Jeff Cagle said,

    May 11, 2011 at 9:35 am

    For me, the line is drawn at ideas v. people. We can talk about ideas, even their tendencies, even the heretical tendency of certain ideas. But when we shift over into labeling individual people as “heretics”, we’re crossing the line. That decision is and should be left to church courts.

    What’s disturbing about the tendency to label people as “false teachers” or “heretics” is that it performs a public end-run around the church courts and their legitimate function as official arbiters of such matters. It tarnishes the reputation without the correct level of sanction.

    And what’s more disturbing is that the labelers often give themselves the badge of “defending the faith”, which acts like a trump card to deflect attention from the equally appropriate badge of “acting like a one-man church court.” And few are willing to call people out on this behavior. But if we are not diligent to police ourselves, we will end up denigrating the authority of courts of the church.

    So it’s appropriate to start talking the 9th Commandment talk when elder X is publicly denounced without the backing of a church decision.

    It’s *NOT* appropriate to talk 9th Commandment when view X is being discussed, which seems to be Carson’s focus.

  11. Hugh McCann said,

    May 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    What of 1 Tim. 5:19f ~ “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear”?

    Seems inoperative even among sessions, much less the lowly pew-dweller.

  12. Hugh McCann said,

    May 11, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Do not public sins require public repentance? Especially written errors.

    Example: John MacArthur’s clarification regarding his confusion over the gospel according to Jesus.

    On October 31, 2000, Phillip R. Johnson, aide and ghostwriter for John MacArthur, posted this notice to a small discussion group on the Internet:

    ”Several years ago I [John MacArthur] made some inaccurate statements that have unfortunately confused people about where I stand on the doctrine of justification by faith. While teaching a series on this crucial issue, I made the point that God does not justify anyone whom He does not also sanctify. That is true. Unfortunately, however, I also implied that God’s sanctifying work in us may in part provide the ground on which He declares us righteous. That is not true. I also suggested that God’s righteousness is infused into believers in a way that makes their justification something more than a forensic declaration. That is emphatically not true.

    ”This error was confined to a single series preached several years ago. But some of the misstatements were published in a study guide and in the first edition of my Romans commentary. When I realized my error, I withdrew the study guide from publication. It is no longer available. Furthermore, I immediately corrected the Romans commentary. Only a few relatively minor changes were necessary, and those revisions appear in later printings of the book.

    ”For the record, I have never believed that we can be justified because of anything good in us (Phil. 3:9). Scripture clearly teaches that God accepts us and declares us righteous only because of Christ’s perfect righteousness, which is imputed to us by faith alone (Rom. 4:1-6). God’s ongoing work of making us righteous is properly labeled sanctification–and should be carefully distinguished from justification. I hereby retract any earlier statements I ever made to the contrary.

    John MacArthur”

  13. Darrell Todd Maurina said,

    May 11, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    10.Jeff Cagle said on May 11, 2011 at 9:35 am: “For me, the line is drawn at ideas v. people. We can talk about ideas, even their tendencies, even the heretical tendency of certain ideas. But when we shift over into labeling individual people as “heretics”, we’re crossing the line. That decision is and should be left to church courts.”

    Okay, since homosexuality is in the news today, let’s put your approach to the test in dealing with a live theological controversy which is causing great damage in the church.

    If I read you right, apparently it is acceptable to say that the pro-gay theology which just caused the PC(USA) church courts to approve gay marriages is heresy. However, apparently you believe we cannot call its advocates heretics because few if any of them have been formally declared heretics by the PCA, OPC, or any other NAPARC denomination (no jurisdiction) and their own denomination obviously won’t do so.

    Should we perhaps wait for the New Wineskins churches to finish leaving the PC(USA), join the EPC, and get the EPC to formally declare individual pro-gay theologians to be heretics? I think there are some very angry female ministers leaving the PC(USA) for the EPC who might be willing to get the EPC to go formally and explicitly on the record declaring certain theologians to be heretics. After all, even though women ought not to be ministers, if the EPC made such a declaration it probably would be a valid declaration of biblical truth by the EPC General Assembly, a court of the church which most of us would consider “less pure” rather than a false church.

    It seems that your position is not tenable in dealing with the actual theological controversies we face today.

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