One passage of scripture in Matthew 5 has been substantially misinterpreted by the Stanton churches, in my opinion, and I think it will be useful to provide an alternative point of view here.
Matthew 5:23-24 – Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
Stanton teaches that one must “take care of sin” (meaning confess it privately and/or publicly) prior to partaking in the Lord’s supper based partly on this passage, and partly on their out-of-context teaching about taking the Lord’s supper unworthily.
The passage in question was preached by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5 through 7), obviously prior to there being any “Sunday church services,” or Lord’s supper, or any other common practice in our Christian assemblies. There was no established Christian faith or church at this time, only the Law of Moses plus the traditional synagogue assembly on the Sabbath. (I think it’s important to understand that Jesus fully participated in these synagogue traditions, even though they were not part of the Law of Moses–they were purely traditions developed during the period of time between the Old and New Covenant scriptures.)
Whatever Jesus is saying to his audience assembled before him, we have to be careful not to interpret it as being a one-to-one application to us. We can draw some principles from it, which I believe is all Jesus was trying to teach in the first place–principles that would undermine the Pharisaic practice of relying on external law-keeping for one’s righteousness. It is absurd to suggest Jesus was intending to lay down a new set of laws and regulations for the church on how to properly “take care of sin,” to use Stanton’s terminology.
The context of the Sermon on the Mount
Let’s start off with the context of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ main method of teaching in this sermon is “you have heard this, but I say this.” The examples he used were hyperbolic ones meant only to illustrate the New Covenant’s focus on the heart rather than external law-keeping.
- You have heard that you shall not murder, but I say not to even be angry with your brother. Does this mean it will never be appropriate to be angry with a brother? Of course not, sometimes it’s both possible and necessary to “be angry and sin not.”
- You have heard not to commit adultery, but I say don’t even think lustfully after another woman in your heart. if your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.
- You have heard that it was said ‘an eye for an eye,’ but I say don’t resist an evil person.
I contend that it’s abundantly clear, if we read the full context of this sermon, that Jesus was not intending to create the Matthew 5 Chapter of Rules and Regulations For The Church. Instead, he was making hard-hitting points to the Jews of his day and their Pharisee leaders about how hypocritical they were in their external law-keeping. He is hammering home the point that God is more interested in the heart than the external keeping of commands, and consequently, that one must surpass this form of superficial righteousness of the Pharisees in order to see the Kingdom of Heaven.
Thus he’s not laying down new laws about gouging out one’s eye, or cutting off one’s hand, not resisting an evil person, or marriage and divorce; but bringing the listener to the understanding that abiding by the rules we think God has in mind for mankind is not the measure of righteousness we are to be striving for. Hear me carefully: God wants our hearts in the right place. Then and only then will we (a) understand God’s laws in the first place, and (b) bring our external actions into alignment with God’s nature in a meaningful way.
So with that as the backdrop, let’s look at what the verses in question actually say. Jesus said that if you’re on the way to bring your gift to the altar, but remember that your brother has something against you, first reconcile with your brother before offering your gift.
It’s important to note that Jesus said “if your brother has something against you.” He did not say “if you think someone MAY have seen you break a rule of the church by going into a movie theater,” or “if your brother MAY have possibly been aware that you sinned,” or “if someone, somewhere COULD have misunderstood you to be sinning or breaking a Church rule.” This is how Stanton interprets this portion of the verse, and this is completely foreign to what Jesus is teaching.
By contrast, he’s talking about an actual rift between you and a brother; hence the need to be “reconciled” with that brother. If there is no break in the relationship, there is no need for reconciliation. Calling someone on Saturday night to confess a supposed sin that the other person didn’t even know about or doesn’t even believe to be sin is not reconciling with a brother, because there was no break in the relationship. In Jesus’ example, you have genuinely wronged your brother.
To understand this fully, we need to understand the Greatest Commands…”love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The Greatest Commands are made up of a vertical expression of love: that between man and God; and the horizontal expression of it: that between fellow human beings.
Clearly, what Jesus is REALLY saying here is that worship is not purely a matter of our vertical relationship to God, as the Pharisees interpreted the law, i.e., performing all the commands just as we think God has prescribed them. The additional component is that God cares about our horizontal relationships with our fellow man, our brothers and neighbors. If those our broken, our relationship with Him is therefore also broken.
Maybe making the analogy as parents is easier for some to understand. If one of my kids has really sinned against another one and broken that relationship with his or her sibling, but continues to try to pretend that their relationship is perfectly fine with me, I’m not going to buy it. I want my kids to get along and to love each other. I’m going to tell the one, “go and be reconciled with your brother or sister,” then we’ll talk about all the fun things you want to do.
Jesus is simply pointing out how hypocritical it is for us to approach God in worship as if everything is just fine, knowing that there is a rift in our relationship with our brother that needs to be mended. THAT’s the real point Jesus is making here.
What does it mean to bring our gift to the altar?
The only other point I’ll add here is that it’s completely inconsistent to pick out the Lord’s supper as the only analogous “act of worship” to equate to Jesus’ phrase “bringing your gift to the altar.” I believe “bringing our gift to the altar” is a 24/7 action on our part involving virtually anything we do in expressing our love for God. We “bring our gift to the altar” when we pray, sing, serve orphans and widows, or do anything else that proceeds out of our love for God.
There is no reasonable way to interpret “bringing our gift to the altar” as simply taking the Lord’s supper. The principle Jesus is teaching is that we are not to pretend we’re justified by all of the external acts of worship we may engage in–even if those things are good things–while our relationship with our brother is broken. Said another way, we cannot justify an estranged relationship with our brother by the fact that we have a pristine record in all of these other external acts of worship. As soon as we recognize that our relationship with our brother is strained or broken, we need to stop what we’re doing, reconcile with our brother, and THEN “bring our gift to the altar.”
The major irony here is that Stanton appeals to this passage to justify its rules, yet their rules-based righteousness is exactly what Jesus was preaching against in the Sermon on the Mount.