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A man of the nations, a tax collector

AS A MAN OF THE NATIONS AND AS A TAX COLLECTOR — SHUNNING OR NOT FRATERNIZING?

—REVIEW—

Matthew 18:17 explicitly says that the offender should be as a man of the nations and as  a tax collector only for the offended one and not for the whole congregation. For 16 years, from 1938 to 1954, this was the view that was expressed in the Watchtower literature. And the verse does not speak about disfellowshipping.

In 1954, the new view that was presented was that the expression about a man of the nations and a tax collector referred to disfellowshipping. The basis for this view is circular arguments.

A discussion in The Watchtower of 1 March 1974 showed correctly that because there was not yet a Christian congregation, the words in 18:15-17 referred to the Jewish nation, the Jewish congregation. By implication, the words could later be used by the Christian congregation. Jewish tax collectors were not disfellowshipped from the Jewish nation, and Jesus treated both the tax collectors and the men of the nations with courtesy. Therefore, verse 17 cannot refer to disfellowshipping.

Because the belief is that verse 17 refers to disfellowshipping, the sins—that are not specified by Jesus—must be so serious that they can lead to disfellowshipping. Only two sins that are supposed to be disfellowshipping offenses but that can be forgiven by Christians could have been in the mind of Jesus, is the argument. These sins are slander and fraud. But the problem is that slander and fraud are not shown to be disfellowshipping offenses in the Bible.

The conclusion is that the view of the Watchtower literature since 1954 that 18:17 refers to disfellowshipping is wrong, and the view between 1938 and 1954 that the verse tells the offended one that he should not be fraternizing with the offender is correct.

The text we will study is found in Matthew 18:15-17, and NWT13 is quoted below.

15  “Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go and reveal his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16  But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, so that on the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17  If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.”

There are two issues that we must consider, 1) How were a man of the nations and a tax collector viewed?, and 2) Should the sinner be treated as a man of the nations and as a tax collector only by the man he had sinned against or by the whole Christian congregation? The maxim of the discussion is seen in the frame.

“Holding to the Scriptures, neither minimizing what they say nor reading into them something they do not say, will enable us to keep a balanced view toward disfellowshipped ones”The Watchtower 1974, page 472

THE EARLY COMMENTS ON THE PASSAGE

The Watchtower of 1 August 1938, page 238, quotes Matthew 18:17 and says:

“If he neglect [sic] to hear the congregation [assembly or organized company of obedient servants of God], let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” (Matt. 18:17, margin) Those who were once in the organization of the Lord and who put themselves in opposition thereto put themselves outside of his organization and are classed with and are such as the opposing clergy.

The comments suggest that the man who does not want to listen to the congregation has put himself outside the congregation. However, there is no mention of the disfellowshipping of this man, so the question is open whether this was the meaning.

The Watchtower of 15 May 1944, page 154, discusses Matthew 18:15-17:

If now the offender refuses to heed this second and reinforced admonition to a right course, then the offended one may tell it to the “church.” According to Theocratic order, this would not mean to a congregational meeting with all present, but telling it to those charged with the care of the congregation and representing it in special service capacities. If he refuses to hear the church through its representative servants, then what? Does the Lord say the church or congregation should excommunicate the offender? No; but the Head of the church says to the offended one, whose efforts at reconciliation have failed: “Let him bee unto THEE [not, unto the church] as a heathen man and a publican.” The offended one may refuse to have anything further to do with such one until he comes for a reconciliation. Only where the peace and unity of an entire congregation are involved, and its activity in the Lord’s witness work is being disturbed and hindered, there the theocratic organization steps in and must take action in behalf of the congregation, as illustrated in the words and actions of the apostle Paul… The servant acting for the Theocratic organization  would give no assignments of service to such disturber of unity. (brackets in the original)

The quotation has two important points: 1) Verse 17 says that it is “to you” (THEE, singular) that the person must be as “a heathen man and a publican” and not to the congregation. 2) The words about “a heathen man and a publican” does not mean that the offender will be disfellowshipped. But the offended brother will not have anything to do with the offender. The book This means Everlasting Life, (1950) page 90, does not speak about disfellowshipping:

If the offender refuses to hear the congregation, that is, what its representatives have to say with meekness, Jesus did not say to drag the matter before the worldly law courts of the land. The apostle Paul said it would be better to suffer injustice than to do that, as this spares bringing the Christian congregation into a bad light before the worldly public. (1 Corinthians 6:1-8) Jesus said to let the stubborn offender alone to take his worldly course, like a worldly Gentile or an oppressive tax collector.

The first detailed discussion of the different sides of disfellowshipping occurred in The Watchtower of 1 March 1952, page 147. It is interesting that Matthew 18:17 is not applied to disfellowshipping in this magazine. After quoting Matthew 18:15-17, the article says:

This scripture here has nothing to do with disfellowshipping on a congregational basis. When it says go to the congregation, it means to the elders or the mature ones in the congregation and discuss your own private difficulties. This scripture has to do with merely a private disfellowshipping…If you cannot straighten it out then with the offending brother, then it just means a personal avoidance between you two persons, your treating him like a tax collector or a non-Jew outside the congregation. You do what you have to do with him only on a business basis. It has nothing to do with the congregation, because the offensive act or sin or misunderstanding is not any grounds for disfellowshipping him from all the company…Matthew 18:15-17 has often been used in connection with disfellowshipping or putting such persons out of the congregation, but it has merely to do with personal avoidance.

In all the discussions of Matthew 18:17 between 1938 and 1952, the words that the offender shall be as a man of the nations and a tax collector is only said to relate to the offended one, and not to the congregation. And the words do not refer to the disfellowshipping of the offender, but that the offended one will have no social contact with the offender. This is, of course, what the text really says!

“All references to Matthew 18:17 in the Watchtower literature between 1938 and 1952 present the correct understanding of the verse—it refers to no fraternizing with the offender by the offended one and not to his disfellowshipping.”

THE NEW VIEW OF 18:17—DISFELLOWSHIPPING

A change of view occurred in 1954. The Watchtower of 1 December 1954, page 735 says:[1]

Jehovah will preserve the oneness and loving spirit within his congregation, and he will cause to be put out any who would continually disrupt unity and make divisions within it. There are occasions when members of a congregation are to quit speaking and associating with others, but the causes must be very serious, much more so than mere personal differences of no congregational consequence. Brothers were to separate from those who were disorderly, creating strife and rebelling against the truth. A congregation was to put from its midst unclean ones: “Quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner.” (1 Cor. 5:11; Acts 19:9; 2 Thess. 3:6, NW) For such serious offenses brothers would disfellowship and treat as “a man of the nations” the guilty ones, but not for trivial personal offenses. Such minor things were to be forgiven, covered over by love, mercifully dismissed, not being kept account of or being provoked over beyond sunset.

Hence we must view the sin mentioned at Matthew 18:15-17 as a serious one that must be terminated, and, if that is not possible, then the one so sinning is to be disfellowshipped from the congregation. If the sinning one cannot be made to see his grievous error by mature brothers of the congregation and cease his wrongdoing, then the matter is of such importance that it be brought before the congregation committee for congregational action. If the committee cannot induce the sinner to repent and reform he must be disfellowshipped from the congregation in order to preserve the cleanness and oneness of the Christian congregation. If the wrongdoer is wicked enough to be shunned by one brother he merits such treatment by the entire congregation. If it is not that serious, then the matter should be cleared up and all unite in love and in service, with no foolish personal feuds persisting within the congregation. If the text was merely about a personal matter of no serious sin and which resulted in one’s not speaking to another but both remaining in the congregation, then certainly Jesus would not have said one should view the other as a rank outsider, as “a man of the nations and as a tax collector.” They would still have to recognize each other, not as an outsider, but as brothers in the congregation, even if they did not speak. The final rating of the unrepentant offender is too severe to mean anything less than a disfellowshipped standing, and since there is no provision for individuals’ disfellowshipping other individuals in the congregation in what might be called a personal disfellowshipping, the disfellowshipping must mean it is a congregational matter.

The arguments in this article represent a clear example of reading into the text, something that is not there. This is done by circular arguments. For example, in the middle of the article, we read: “Hence we must view the sin mentioned at Matthew 18:15-17 as a serious one,” leading to disfellowshipping if it is not terminated. The word “hence” must have an antecedent telling the reason for the conclusion that the sin is serious. But there is no antecedent that represents an argument or a reason, only a claim. The article speaks of disfellowshipping, according to 1 Corinthians 5:11, and then it says without any evidence that those disfellowshipped according to Paul’s words are treated as “a man of the nations.” So the circular reasoning is: “The words of Matthew 18:17 that the offender must be treated like ‘a man of the nations’ means that he will be disfellowshipped because the verse says that he must be treated as “a man of the nations.” The next turn of circularity is: “The sin mentioned must be serious because he will be disfellowshipped because he must be treated ‘as a man of the nations’.” But Matthew does not mention any kind of sin!

We also note another example of the author reading into the text of the Bible something that is not there. We see the following clause in the middle of the quotation, “If the wrongdoer is wicked enough to be shunned by one brother he merits such treatment by the entire congregation.” The author admits that the text says that the wrongdoer shall be shunned by one brother [you, singular]. But the author rejects this without any contextual evidence and applies it to the whole congregation. So, the author reads something into the text that is not there.

[1]. The Watchtower of 15 November 1952 seems to conclude that Matthew 18:17 refers to disfellowshipping. But the text is not clear.

MATTHEW 18: 15-17 REFERS TO THE JEWISH NATION AND NOT TO THE CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION

The article in The Watchtower of 1 March 1974, page 463, correctly shows that Jesus’ words were uttered before any Christian congregations were formed, and therefore must refer to the Jewish congregation, the Jewish nation. A Jewish man who had offended a fellow Jew was neither killed nor disfellowshipped from the Jewish congregation. Therefore, Jesus could not have had disfellowshipping from the Jewish congregation in mind, and by implication disfellowshipping from the later Christian congregation. Jews would fraternize with other Jews but not with the people of the nations. So the words of Jesus naturally mean that the one who is offended should treat the offender, who was a part of the Jewish congregation, in the same way, that he treated a man of the nations—not fraternizing with him.

The last text in red in the quotation above from The Watchtower of 1954 denies that Matthew 18:15-17 deals with a personal matter. But that is exactly what the text deals with, something that all the articles in The Watchtower from 1938 to 1952 have stated. The conclusion is that the new view of Matthew 18:17, that the verse refers to disfellowshipping from the Christian congregation has no Scriptural or logical basis whatsoever.

The Watchtower of 1 August 1972, page 466, also expresses an erroneous view:

If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.” (Matt. 18:15-17) Jesus’ listeners, being Jewish, knew that for others of his people to look upon a Jew “as a man of the nations and as a tax collector” would mean his being viewed as cast out of the Jewish congregation.

The claim in the red text is wrong—a man of the nations and a tax collector were not cast out of the Jewish congregation. Many tax collectors were Jews, and they were, of course, a part of the Jewish nation, the Jewish congregation. And as The Watchtower of 1 August 1974, pages 463, 464, correctly shows: Jesus had dealings with both tax collectors and men of the nations inside the Jewish nation.

No evidence from the Bible is given in the Watchtower literature that Matthew 18:17 refers to disfellowshipping. The arguments given are circular.

There is no passage in the Law showing that Jews could be excommunicated from the Jewish nation. W. Horbury wrote:

The failure of the subject [excommunication] to win attention doubtless owes much to the paucity of evidence. In post-exilic Jewry, even after Isa. Lxvi 5 and Ezra x 8, excommunication is notoriously hard to document; it is disputable whether Pentateuchal sources reflect any practice comparable with that envisaged in Ezra x. Various forms of excommunication are found in the Qumran sect, and among the Essenes, the early Christians, and the “Associates” of the Mishnah; but in each case it can be asked whether the custom does not reflect the exclusiveness of a close-knit minority group, rather than the practice of post-exilic Jewry as a whole.[1]

The Watchtower of 1 September 1974, page 544, shows that balanced Jews would not fraternize with persons of the nations and tax collectors but show them courtesy.

What is involved in treating an unrepentant sinner as a “man of the nations and as a tax collector”?​—Matt. 18:17.

True Christians would not fraternize with one who has been expelled from the congregation. But they would still show such ones common courtesy and consideration. And especially the elders in the congregation would be concerned about helping those who abandon any practice of gross sin and show a desire again to become a part of the congregation.​

The Watchtower of 1 March 1974, page 465, shows that there is no evidence that balanced Jews would not greet persons of the nations and tax collectors:

There is, however, nothing to show that Jews with a balanced and Scriptural viewpoint would refuse to greet a “man of the nations” or a tax collector. Jesus’ counsel about greetings, in connection with his exhortation to imitate God in his undeserved kindness toward “wicked people and good,” would seem to rule against such a rigid stand.—Matt. 5:45-48.

The understanding of the Bible will progress. A new understanding of prophecies may occur when particular world events occur, and these can be connected with particular prophecies. And the understanding of Bible passages may change when new data are discovered. For example, when the real meaning of the Greek word mnemeion was discovered, Jehovah’s servants realized that not all humans who had lived on earth would get a resurrection, but only those who were in the memorial tombs (mnemeion). However, new understandings that are presented without clear data from the Bible are humanmade.  In recent years, expressions like, “However, after carefully reviewing the matter, the Governing Body has determined…” “However, further study and prayerful meditation have led the Governing Body to conclude…” are more than questionable—these are human commandments. In such cases, the members of the GB, in reality, present themselves as prophets.  It is not the literal meaning of the text of the Bible, but the view of the GB that is the authority.

In my book, My Beloved Religion — And The Governing Body I show that first in the 21st century, the members of the GB gradually have given themselves dictatorial powers. And I also show that when the elder arrangement was introduced in 1972, the organization was theocratic and not autocratic, and there were freedom for the members. I have also shown with examples that I would not have learned to understand the Bible if experienced elders connected with the Watchtower Society had not given me interactive teaching. So I believe that Jehovah has used elders connected with the Watchtower Society to find Bible truth and teach it to others. But these elders have functioned as teachers and not as prophets, as the present members of the GB: they demand absolute obedience, and those who are disobedient will be disfellowshipped.

While the organization progressed in a theocratic way, some serious errors were also made. Several such errors were made in connection with disfellowshipping, and the application of Matthew 18:15-17 to disfellowshipping without any basis in the Bible was one such error.

[1]. W. Horbury, “Extirpation and Excommunication.”  Vetus Testamentum XXXV, 1 (1985) 13-38.

“All references to Matthew 18:17 in the Watchtower literature between 1954 and 2020 present a wrong understanding of the verse—that it refers to disfellowshipping rather than to no fraternizing. ”

THE NON-BIBLICAL VIEW THAT THE SINS MENTIONED ARE SERIOUS

The Watchtower of 1 December 1954, page 735, discusses the nature of the sins that are mentioned in Matthew 18:15-17.

A congregation was to put from its midst unclean ones: “Quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner.” (1 Cor. 5:11; Acts 19:9; 2 Thess. 3:6NW) For such serious offenses brothers would disfellowship and treat as “a man of the nations” the guilty ones, but not for trivial personal offenses. Such minor things were to be forgiven, covered over by love, mercifully dismissed, not being kept account of or being provoked over beyond sunset.

Hence we must view the sin mentioned at Matthew 18:15-17 as a serious one that must be terminated, and, if that is not possible, then the one so sinning is to be disfellowshipped from the congregation. If the sinning one cannot be made to see his grievous error by mature brothers of the congregation and cease his wrongdoing, then the matter is of such importance that it be brought before the congregation committee for congregational action. If the committee cannot induce the sinner to repent and reform he must be disfellowshiped from the congregation in order to preserve the cleanness and oneness of the Christian congregation.

The argument is that the sins must be serious, because they may lead to disfellowshipping. I have shown above that the argument that the sins can lead to disfellowshipping has no basis in the Bible. But on the basis of the argument of disfellowshipping the following reasoning is found: Because most sins that can lead to disfellowshipping cannot be forgiven by individual members of the congregation, which is the case with the sins mentioned in 18:15-17, the sins in these verses must be disfellowshipping offenses of the kind that can be forgiven.  Only two such sins can be found, namely, slander and fraud.[1]

However, the first problem with this view is that which sins Jesus had in mind is not stated, so identifying particular sins is pure guesswork. The second problem with the view that serious disfellowshipping offenses are implied in 18:15-17 is that neither slander nor fraud is mentioned anywhere in the Bible as disfellowshipping offenses. This is one of the human commandments with no Bible basis that was invented by the GB. So we see that all the basic arguments in the Watchtower literature from 1954 on regarding Matthew 18:15-18 are wrong. But the basic arguments between 1938 and 1954 are correct.

[1]. Shepherd The Flock Of God 12.24 and How to Remain in God’s Love?, pages 253, 254.

All the basic beliefs regarding Matthew 18:15-17 from 1954 to the present are wrong. But the beliefs between 1938 and 1954 are correct: Verse 17 does not refer to disfellowshipping.

CONCLUSION

In the discussion above, evidence for the following points have been given:

The congregation mentioned by Jesus in 18:17 is the Jewish congregation. Jews were never disfellowshipped from the Jewish congregation, and therefore, Jesus could not be speaking about disfellowshipping, and by implication, he could not be speaking about disfellowshipping from the Christian congregation.

Jesus had dealings with tax collectors and men of the nations inside the Jewish nation, and this shows that these persons were not shunned by balanced Jews. Jesus shows that his followers should greet good and wicked persons, and this must also include the offender mentioned in 18:17.

Jesus’ words relate to a private matter between two brothers. The offender should not be viewed like a man of the nations and a tax collector in relation to the members of the Jewish congregation but only in relation to the offended one.

The arguments that 18:17 refers to disfellowshipping and that the sins implied are serious are circular without any basis in the Bible. The two sins that are claimed to be implied by Matthew 18:15-18, slander and fraud, are not disfellowshipping offenses according to the Bible.

For 16 years from 1938, JW understood the comparison of the offender with a man of the nations and a tax collector to mean that the offended one should cancel any social contact with the offender but not that he was disfellowshipped. The text literally says that only the offended one should view the offender as a man of the nations and as a tax collector and not all the members of the congregation.

The article in The Watchtower of 1 December 1954 expressed the new view that the comparison of the offender with and a man of the nations and tax collector referred to disfellowshipping. No Biblical reason for this change of view is presented in this article or in any other article until this day. Nevertheless, during the 66 years since 1954, JW have entertained this new view, and tens of thousands of Witnesses to whom 18:17 has been applied have been disfellowshipped and shunned.

CHALLENGING QUESTIONS

  • Since Jesus addressed Matthew 18:15-17 to the Jewish nation, and Jews were not disfellowshipped from the Jewish nation, how can we rightly apply the verses to disfellowshipping inside the Christian congregation?
  • Where in the Bible is it written that slander and fraud are disfellowshipping offenses?
  • What is the linguistic or contextual evidence that the whole congregation is to treat a person as a man of the nations and a tax collector when the text explicitly says that the words refer only to the offended one?
  • If 18:15-17 refers to disfellowshipped persons, why is it right not to greet them when tax collectors were greeted by the Jews, and Jesus even said that we should greet our enemies?
Rolf Furuli

Author Rolf Furuli

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