Matthew 18 is Not Instructive for Book Reviews, But Much of the New Testament Is
“Did you contact the author privately before you posted the review?”
I’ve received this question several times over the last couple weeks, following my review of Rachel Hollis’s most recent book, Girl, Stop Apologizing. The question invokes the well-known, but oft-misunderstood, church discipline passage in Matthew 18:15-20.
The wider context of Matthew 18 is that Jesus is teaching his disciples how to function in a local church. The NIV Application Commentary on Matthew says that here Jesus “enunciates four steps for dealing with a sinning member of the discipleship community” (p618, emphasis mine). These verses are meant to instruct a local church body in confronting a specific person’s widely unknown sin. The commentary says, the encounter should be “undertaken with privacy, so that if it is resolved, no undue attention will be given to the tragedy or sin committed by a member of the community” (p 618).
As you likely know, Jesus goes on to say in this passage, “if he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you” (Matthew 18:15-16) and then, “if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).
A real life example of this might be a woman who is a member of a local church knows that her friend and fellow church member is using her business’s credit card to purchase personal items here and there. As this is a largely unseen, private sin that likely no one else in the church knows about, the first woman should go to the second alone and confront her friend with the hopes of “gaining her,” convincing her that she should stop this immoral practice. In this way, the sinning woman is spared public shame, receives accountability and equipping to stop her sin, and is restored in her relationship with Christ and the church without added and unnecessary public drama. Of course if the sinning woman doesn’t listen to her friend, then two or three more should be added to the conversation, and then the wider church as well (this third step varies from church to church, but likely involves the elders or leaders).
Reviewing a best selling book written by a widely known Christian author does not fit this scenario. When a public book is written (or a conference is held or a blog post is published—anything public) a public response is appropriate. The response—or review—is not church discipline.
Church discipline was appropriate somewhere back in the erring author’s journey when she began to deviate from sharing a message that, as a self-proclaimed Christ-follower, was inconsistent with scripture. Church discipline in a public writer or speaker’s life is a blessing, if conducted swiftly and in real time, when the author/speaker first shares a message that contradicts the Word of God. It’s important that all Christians submit to their local body of believers. None of us are exempt from the protective and instructive covering of our elders and leaders. If I write something contrary to God’s Word, it’s right and good and helpful if the other women in my church, or my prayer partner, or my elders address it right away. Right then, at the genesis of the bad teaching, within the context of a healthy, God-honoring local church, is when Matthew 18 applies.
But Matthew 18 is not the instructive context, nor the motive, for a public response to a publicly proclaimed message. Rather, a book review or similar public response is for the purpose of protecting, warning, and equipping the wider body of Christ.
It’s an effort to carry out Paul’s instruction to the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
In fact, one of important patterns of the New Testament is the writer warning the readers of present, threatening, false teaching either within the church or within the wider community. Paul said to the Romans, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (Romans 16:17-18). Indeed, one can see Paul warning the church in nearly every epistle that he penned.
A critical book review is an appeal, a call to watch out for smooth talkers who create obstacles contrary to good doctrine. It is an effort to protect the hearts of the naive. It is an appropriate means for instructing the church to avoid the book or speaker or instruction.
Did you know that I review and recommend hundreds of good books on my website? (Click “Book Reviews” on the Menu) I love to read books written by and for Christians and recommend them to my readers in the wider body of Christ. It’s a joy for me to know what’s out there and to pass on work that is consistent with scripture and will edify the recipient. That is my habit.
I have only ever shared two negative reviews. The recent review of Girl, Stop Apologizing is one. The other was back in 2015 after I attended the Belong Tour (the headline speakers were Jen Hatmaker and Glennon Doyle Melton) and wanted to sound the alarm to my Christian sisters that the tour’s message was inconsistent with God’s Word. Like Hollis, Hatmaker and Doyle Melton were reaching hundreds of thousands of women in the church with a message that was opposite of the good news of Jesus Christ and I wanted my sisters to know and to be prepared.
I rejoice when a review reader responds and says something like, “Thank you for bringing clarity to an age of confusion,” or “I knew something was off here, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” or “I was attracted to this teaching, but now I see the error and I’ll proceed with my eyes open.” Those comments summarize my goal in a critical review—to protect, to warn, to build up the body of Christ, insofar as God enables me and allows me, and insofar as it honors him and serves my readers.
Matthew 18 is not instructive for book reviews, but much of the New Testament is. Critical reviews are not my pleasure or my habit. But I am committed to writing them when it’s useful and constructive and edifying for the body, especially for women in the church.