A friend of mine taught me never to have a doctrinal discussion with a closed Bible. I would imagine I knew the passage well, but he was right. Memory shaded passages, and an open Bible could provide surprising context even for a familiar verse.

Then the history of doctrine would complicate things even more by using the same passage as a proof text for widely differing doctrines. This is true in our discussion, which touches on readings which in earlier times gave the pope power to unseat emperors, and kept the Missouri and Wisconsin synod churches out of fellowship with each other. When I stepped into this one, I imagined it would be an easy matter to discuss, only to find that there was a lot more at stake than I ever would have guessed.

With all that said, let’s open the Bible.

When the Smalcald Articles speak of the "mutual conversation and consolation of brethren," they cite just one Scripture passage, Matthew 18:20: "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst." This should therefore be our starting place for understanding the basis of the doctrine. In the context, Matthew 18 is discussing dealing with an erring brother. The one wronged is to take one or two others along so that they have witnesses to corroborate everything. If the brother still doesn’t repent they are to tell it to the church, and if the person is still unrepentant “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This is often used as a proof-text for excommunication even though the final exhortation seems to be individual. Let him be to you, singular, as a Gentile or tax collector. The congregation will let you cut yourself off from this person now and have nothing to do with them. Excommunication will more likely be proved from St. Paul. But it is interesting how the Smalcald Articles only talk about a small portion of this process.

The Smalcald Articles talk of this "mutual conversation and consolation of brethren" as being one of the gospel's remedies for sin. So let's consider that. If two or three are approaching an erring brother, how does that mesh with “conversation and consolation”? Let’s say that first they converse. If the erring brother repents, consolation comes into the picture. But what about the word "mutual"? Here I think perhaps the Smalcald Articles are reading the text in a way that suggests that both parties, and not just the one who began the process by deciding he or she was injured, may have things to discuss and be consoled about. With Matthew 18:20 as the basis, I am surprised Smalcald did not just call this the "confrontation and possible forgiveness of the erring brother," or "confrontation and excommunication of the erring brother." It is interesting that it is instead framed such that there is no assumption that one party is in the right.

I have to wonder if there are cases where party A brings party B to confront party C, only to have party B and party C tell the congregation about how abusive party A was during the confrontation. Then who is odd man out? Or maybe the person taken along as a witness prevents things from getting out of hand in the first place. We are shortsighted if we only see this as a remedy for sin when it works in one fashion.

When we picture this as a remedy for sin, we usually imagine that the identified wronged party is clearly in the right. But I've known many cases where that is not the case. Sometimes the so-called wronged party is less relational and wants to bring in an authority to squash the other. Bringing another peer into the situation first—rather than an authority figure—changes that dynamic. It’s like the playground. The kids who bring in the yard duty monitor won’t learn to handle things themselves if that’s always the first move. But bringing in a peer is different. The peer gets to watch how the two relate and can report back to the larger group. Maybe the wronged party does have a case. Or maybe the wronged party is an instigator seeking attention.

But better than any of these is when the discussion is mutual because what needs to be dealt with is a misunderstanding. There clearly are cases of one party victimizing another. But some situations arise because of lack of communication. Sometimes what needs to be restored before anything else is just contact. The matter gets talked out, and both parties are conversing and then consoling each other.

And think of how interesting the term "consolation" is in such a context. The word "consolation" is a word of comfort. It is not necessarily forgiveness. Now, forgiveness is a good and strong word. I like forgiveness. I want as much of it as I can get. But maybe when we use a weaker word like "consolation," the picture is that people at the end are realizing they are not speaking of sin. This might be a misunderstanding that goes away with a little conversation.

Some things do require forgiveness, too. In Matthew 18, Peter sees this and asks how many times he must forgive his brother. Jesus gives him an astronomical number. When I’m thinking about the passage in the abstract, I react like Peter. I imagine the brother who would kick me 490 times in a day and be asking forgiveness just to taunt me. But what I know from experience is different. There might be someone who would kick 490 times. That person rarely seeks forgiveness in the first place. Anyone who would has a different kind of problem, where the giving or withholding of forgiveness is not the issue.

And for those afraid that this leads to bad counsel in domestic abuse cases, it won’t if read in the light of the parable of the unforgiving servant which follows it. These passages are written so that people stop victimizing each other by their insistence of having debts paid. They must not be read in ways that sanction the creation of more victims. The spouse who would argue “You owe it to me to stay now that you’ve forgiven me” is extorting payment in a way forbidden by the parable.

Many of these passages could lead to evil if they were read in a stand-alone fashion as if all we needed to consider was found in one verse. But we know better. There is more to be said. What I like about Smalcald is that the label for the doctrine hints at further teaching. But it also narrows the focus to the earlier portions of the process, as that is where the most beneficial work can be accomplished.

Our own tendency left unchecked is the opposite of what Smalcald describes. Instead of the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, we want to practice the independent castigation and condemnation of the betrayer. Our minds run ahead to getting rid of the offender. But when we think like this, we are outside of the vision of the larger text.

Jesus' promise of his presence is interesting here. The New American Standard reads, “I am there in their midst.” The NIV has merely “there am I with them.” The Greek reads literally “There I am in the middle.” While the NIV gets the gist right, it loses the picture of the stance. The NIV might leave open the picture that Jesus is going along with the encounter as one of the confronters, facing the accused. But with Jesus in the midst, this is not such an easy assumption.

Some would read the counsel of Matthew 18 as a commandment. I think this is a mistake. A similar mistake was made by the Pharisees in Matthew 19 with regard to divorce. They read Moses as commanding divorce, where Jesus sees it as a concession to hardness of heart (Matthew 19:3-9). The harmony of a good marriage was God’s original intention, just as oneness in the church is. But reality can be messy, and sometimes we are allowed to follow less than ideal procedures so that we might not make things even worse. The Smalcald Articles seem to be based on reasoning that does not put all the emphasis on what is promised in the less than ideal circumstance. If Jesus will even be present in the middle of those pursuing a less than ideal course of confrontation, how much more will he be there with those who are working toward harmony with less contention?

Anyway, that is a start on the understanding of the doctrine from a textual standpoint. It would be worth opening your own Bible to see what comes before and after this. Try to picture the kinds of experiences Luther may have had which led to this passage getting this label instead of another. And consider what it may suggest a “disciplined” church looks like. More conversation. Less one-sided confrontation. Matthew 18 is best embodied when people are unaware that that is what they are doing. When conversation continues in such a way that misunderstandings have no place to arise. When people are keeping friendships in good repair. When we are discussing “doing Matthew 18,” it is a sign that conversation and consolation have broken down long ago.

The ideal should be lots of mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, with nobody being able to remember the last time anyone “did Matthew 18” to someone.