Child Abuse and Matthew 18: The Dangers of Distorting Scripture

GRACE is often encountering professing Christians who quote Matthew 18 as the biblical process by which child sexual abuse must be addressed within the Christian community.  As a consequence, this passage is used as a justification for 1) not reporting abuse disclosures to the civil authorities and 2) convincing sexual abuse victims to privately confront their perpetrators.  Needless to say, this misinterpretation of Matthew 18 is hugely destructive on a number of fronts.  More importantly, this misinterpretation is simply not biblical.

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus prescribes three progressive steps for handling personal offenses within the local church: 1) a private confrontation, 2) a witnessed confrontation, and 3) a wider confrontation before the church.  At each step, the goal is repentance by the offender as a basis for reconciliation with the offender, so that fellowship may be restored with the victim.  If all three approaches are rebuffed, then the offender is no longer part of the fellowship on earth (Matthew 18:17b), becoming instead an object of evangelism.

A fundamental point that must be understood early on in this discussion is that the crime of child sexual abuse is not merely a personal offense, but rather it is a urgent public concern.  Child sexual abuse does not even fit into the paradigm of which Jesus was speaking in Matthew 18.  Jesus never intended his statements in Matthew 18 to be twisted into the required method for handling murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, or genocide.  Child sexual abuse is not a private matter but rather a public and civic one, rightly under the sword of the civil authority.  All are endangered by this crime against a little one.

Matthew 18 is important for local church life, because Jesus commands us there how to deal with sin.  But it is not the only passage in which Jesus tells us how to deal with sin.  It must be properly synthesized with others that address the same subject directly and/or indirectly.  It is critical to remember that all passages are regulated and interpreted by the balance of Scripture.

There is another teaching of Jesus that regulates how child sexual abuse is to be handled procedurally.  In Romans 13, Jesus tells us through the Apostle Paul that believers are to be subject to the civil authorities.  They swing the sword as God’s ministers, bringing wrath upon evil- doers (Romans 13:1-4).  Child sexual abuse has been deemed to be criminal by the civil authorities deserving of just punishment.

The scourge of child sexual abuse is not just a sin violating the 7th Commandment in Exodus 20:14 and Matthew 5:27-30, but it is also a criminal offense in all 50 States.  It is not a matter which can be handled quietly between two persons or between two families, as was misguidedly done in Genesis 34 and in many churches today.  It is a matter of public alarm, because of its pervasive, extensive, and expansive nature, causing a cascade of misery in countless lives.  Additionally, the God-ordained civil authorities in virtually every jurisdiction mandate in some fashion that suspected child abuse be immediately reported to law enforcement.

Thus, any claim that we must follow the Matthew 18 progressive confrontation process before reporting disclosures of child sexual abuse to the civil authorities is simply wrongheaded: God’s minister’s—the civil authorities—must be informed first!

In this, child sexual abuse is like murder or any other crime.  Anyone who would demand that the family of a murder victim must first follow the Matthew 18 process before calling the police could be criminally charged themselves for being an accessory after the fact.  John Schuetze, professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, puts it this way, “Let’s assume you are driving by the local convenience store and notice a fellow member of the congregation holding up the attendant. In that scenario it would be ludicrous to have  a conversation with the parishioner. Your obligation instead is to call the police. To say otherwise is to conclude Christ was devoid of common sense.” What kind of twisted mind would reason that kidnapping or rape ought to be concealed from the civil authorities while a process of church discipline is pursued first?

Furthermore, proper respect for the civil authorities as commanded in Romans 13 also demands that we not disturb their investigation.  Paul says they are due taxes, custom, fear, and honor (Romans 13:5-7): a broad enough set of categories to call us all to not impede their process of inquiry.  The believer must stand back while the freight train of the state runs its investigation through the station of life.  The church must pause until the civil process is finished, before commencing its own.  Nothing in Matthew 18 demands that pursuit of personal offenses within the local church must trump reporting criminal activity or the proper civil investigation thereof!

Let’s remember that the common thread running through Matthew 18, 1 Peter 4, and Romans 13 in the life of the believer and church is something most fundamental of all: love from God, for God, and for His image in humankind (Deuteronomy 5:1-21; Matthew 5-7; 1 Corinthians 13; and Colossians 2:6-19).  The distorted interpretation of Matthew 18 commonly lacks this Christ-like virtue.

It is imperative that we not misinterpret and misapply Matthew 18:15-20 to the sin of child sexual abuse.  “Let the disclosing little child come forward privately and accuse me!” the powerful one protests.  That monstrous interpretation has not one leg to stand on before Jesus.


This post is an excerpt from our recent interview with Rachel Evans. For the full interview, go to No More Silence