Jesus says that if someone sins against you, you’re to go to the person when you can be alone and point out that person’s fault. This seems clear enough, even if we’re not all that happy about it. But how might we apply the teaching of Jesus in a digital age?
Jesus’ instructions about what to do if someone sins against you were issued in a time when a net was something you used to catch fish, a web was something spun by a spider, and digital media meant communicating with one’s fingers. The teaching of Jesus was intended for a small community of people who shared life together in the flesh. Thus, when Jesus said that the victim of sin should go to the perpetrator, he was envisioning a short walk at most, so that the two could meet face-to-face.
Today’s world is substantially different from the world of Jesus, though the core issues are much the same. People still sin against each other, and are still in need of reconciliation. Yet, these days, the person who sins against you just might live on the other side of the world. You might never have met that person and never have any reason to meet that person. Moreover, these days we don’t tend to walk over to someone’s house for a conversation, let alone a confrontation. We are much more comfortable communicating through some sort of electronic means, be it the Internet or a cellular network.
Given the extent to which our relationships today are mediated by electronics, we might wonder how this impacts our application of Matthew 18:15-18. When Jesus says that if someone sins against us, we should go and point out the fault when we can be alone, can this mean that we might use electronic means of communication? Would it be okay to “go” by calling someone up on the phone, or by sending an email, or by Skyping, or by texting, or by tweeting, or by sending a message on Facebook, or . . . .
Certain kinds of digital communication are clearly inconsistent with the sense of Jesus’ instruction. We are to confront one who has sinned against us “when the two of [us] are alone.” Tweeting and posting public messages on Facebook would not in any way reflect the intentions of Jesus. The same would be true for communicating through blog posts or blog comments. So we can safely rule out many popular kinds of electronic communication as incompatible with the teaching of Jesus.
But what about confronting through phone calls, emails, or text messages? These can be private, including in the conversation only yourself and the person who sinned against you. Would calling someone on the phone count as going to that person, in faithfulness to Jesus’ directive?
For many of us, there is an inherent attractiveness in such electronic communication. It feels much safer. After all, if I sin against you and you call me on the phone to “point out the fault,” you’re protected from seeing my anger or even being struck by my fists. If I don’t accept responsibility for what I did to you, and if I begin to speak meanly to you, you can simply hang up. Email would be even safer than a phone call, of course, because you wouldn’t have to hear my voice or respond to my defenses.
Tomorrow, I’ll offer some thoughts on the appropriateness of using private electronic communication for the purpose of confrontation and reconciliation. For now, I’d be interested in your thoughts.