Matthew 18: Keys & Sword

Matthew 18: The Keys and the Sword

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God filled his creation with duality–black and white, day and night, spirit and flesh. Duality provides texture to the world and without contrast, we have no beauty. Duality serves to reveal the complexity of a mysterious and wonderful God.

Duality also marks God’s governance in the world. In the United States, we see this duality in the separation of powers. Specifically in the separation of church and state. In the Bible, we see duality in the form of two realms –– the spiritual and the civil. Christians have dual citizenship, we are citizens in the civil realm, and we are citizens in the spiritual realm. Our spiritual citizenship is lived out as members of the church community. Therefore, Christians are part of two equally real and overlapping realms. And both these realms are under God’s sovereign jurisdiction.

Moreover, God delegated degrees of authority to powers within each realm. The church has the role of governing the soul. The church is called to teach, encourage, evangelize, discipline, and judge in matters concerning the soul. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6, declared that one day the redeemed will judge the world.  But followers of Jesus must wait until the eschaton for that. The church oversteps its authority when it tries to assume power not delegated to her domain.

Nevertheless, for now, the church is tasked with the charge to judge its own. Jesus provided instruction to the church for ruling over its own in Matthew 18. Jesus pointed his disciples to the Old Testament law code in Deuteronomy 19:15-21. Here the scripture requires that accusations must be made before spiritual leadership with two or more witnesses. Remember, Israel was a nation with no separation between church and state. Spiritual authorities also served as judges in civil matters.

But in the new order that Jesus called the “church,” leaders are to follow the steps laid out in Deuteronomy. All authority is delegated authority, and Jesus delegated the authority to judge spiritual matters to church leaders. Jesus appointed the church to judge matters of spiritual sin, property disputes, and grievances that do not directly violate civil law.

Moreover, Jesus delegated authority to qualified church leaders to bind or loose according to their best judgment. He used the analogy of binding and loosing synonymous with the concept of administering justice. Jesus said, “I am among them” (meaning he will affirm their best assessment of the situation). Matthew 18:15-20 are procedural steps to judge matters of spiritual sin in the church. Therefore, in cases involving spiritual matters, the church is to judge its own.

Nevertheless, one must not untether Matthew 18 from the duality of the two-realms. Matthew 18 rests alongside Romans 13. In Romans 13, St. Paul says that God delegated authority to the state to judge matters that may violate civil law. The state has the power of the sword, and the state is given the authority to determine what is a civil violation. And if civil law is broken, the state is delegated as God’s agent to administer justice. Coercion (the ability to use legal or physical force) is a power given to the state. God appoints the civil authorities to judge matters of physical or sexual abuse, harm to the innocent – especially minors, property rights, matters of public health, and any violation of civil law. While the church is entrusted to protect the spiritual life of “the least of these” (remember Matthew 18 begins with care for children), the civil authorities are entrusted to protect the innocent in matters of physical harm and civil law. Therefore, a properly functioning court and social service can be mercy given by God.

So how do these two entities live into the beauty of duality? First, the separation of church and state does not mean there are no overlaps. The church has been given the role of informing the conscience of the state. The church proclaims God’s will and desires so that the state may create just and equitable laws. Separation does not mean isolation. The state is given the role of judging and executing matters pertaining to civil law, public health, and general social order. Religious liberty is ordered liberty. Daniel Heimbach notes that religious liberty is liberty “for” not “from.”[1] Therefore, there are times when these two dual realms will intersect.

Second, it is important to recognize God’s beauty in duality. The church has not always been good at this. When the church tries to judge civil law using the tools of Matthew 18, she confuses her role in the two realms. The church is not called or equipped to judge matters that violate civil law, including sexual abuse and harm to minors. The police, social workers, and judges are God’s appointed agents to judge matters pertaining to public law. The church is equipped with scripture to judge issues of spiritual sin, doctrinal integrity, disputes among members that do not rise to the level of criminal offense. When one is confused regarding the line between criminal and spiritual, it is best to work in duality with civil authorities.

Our days will become perilous if we do not recapture the beauty of duality. When the church and the civil government act like kids on the soccer field, all chasing the same ball, we are bound for a catastrophe. Religious freedom for all requires that both the church and the state recognize their appointed roles. When the state attempts to meddle with doctrine, the church’s authority is violated. And when the church tries to administrate civil law, it goes beyond its boundaries. Jesus also said, “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” Jesus confidently understood that both Caesar and the church have their place because both are under the sovereign rule of God.


Additional Resources:

How Should Churches Handle Reports of Abuse: Matthew 18 in a #MeToo Age by Casey Hough

Why it is Inappropriate and Dangerous to Alert an Alleged Offender of Abuse Before Calling CPS and/or The Police by Brad Hambrick

When Discussing Parables About Forgiveness by Brad Hambrick

The Becoming a Church that Cares about the Abused (Chapters 2,5,10)

[1] Daniel R. Heimbach, “Natural Law in the Public Square,” Lib. Univ. Law Rev. 2.3 (2008): 685–702.


Dan Trippie


Dan Trippie is a native of Buffalo, NY. He received his Ph.D. in ethics from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration is in Political Theology with a focus on religious liberty.
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