Private Conversations First?

by Matthew W. Bassford

Recently, I posted a critique of John Mark Hicks's book Searching for the Pattern. This generated a number of interesting responses, one of which came in a private message from a good-hearted brother. He asked me if I had gone to Hicks privately with my objections before raising them publicly. He implied that if I had not, I should have.

This belief is widespread among Christians. I've encountered it several times in several different fusses over the past year. In fact, it is commonly deployed against critics of some new teaching. Before you can criticize the teaching either publicly or privately, the argument goes, you must have it out with the teacher.

As far as I can tell, this position is founded on two passages: the withdrawal context in Matthew 18 and Priscilla and Aquilla’s approach to Apollos in Acts 18. However, neither passage really fits the fact pattern of disagreements like mine with Hicks’s book.

Note, for instance, that in Matthew 18:15, the context begins with the words, “If your brother sins against you. . .” It's about matters of sin and righteousness, not scriptural debate. I certainly do not believe that everyone who holds a different doctrinal position than I do is in sin! In fact, I try always to keep in mind that I may be the one who is mistaken.

Furthermore, the rest of Matthew 18 presumes that both the sinner and the accuser are members of the same congregation. Even supposing that I “Matthew 18” Hicks, what's the outcome? Does the Church of Christ denomination withdraw from him? Using Matthew 18 in circumstances like these is like trying to hammer in a screw. The tool doesn’t fit the situation.

Similar problems arise with applying the Apollos story from Acts 18. In Acts 18, Apollos’s problem is ignorance. He is only acquainted with the baptism of John. It wouldn't have made sense for Aquila and Priscilla to oppose him publicly, any more than it would make sense for me to call out a young preacher who doesn't know any better. In situations like that, a quiet conversation is best.
However, once again the fact patterns don't line up. Hicks is hardly a novice, nor are most of those proclaiming novel teachings on Facebook. Frankly, it would be condescending of me to take such brethren aside and explain the way of truth more accurately. They are experienced teachers who have offered their views up for public discussion.

Why not engage in the discussion they clearly have intended to provoke? Surely they don't expect everyone to agree with them immediately, do they? I know I don't expect everyone to immediately agree with my writing.

There was considerable discussion and debate in the first-century church. It's easy for us to tell who was right back then because of authoritative statements from inspired apostles that precisely answered each question.

Today, we only have the record of apostolic teaching, so right and wrong are often murkier. Paul is not going to show up and settle our doctrinal arguments. All we can do is put both sides before the people of God plainly and fairly and let them make up their own minds. When we require doctrinal discussions to be conducted in private first, even when a public discussion may help others, we don't aid that process. We hinder it.

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