"If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church."
I have heard this passage often. It is our Lord's directives regarding how to handle disputes, or more specifically, how to deal with serious sin within the Church. There is a process, which if it does not result in repentance on the part of the individual, can lead to excommunication. The purpose is to be one of redemption; of reconciliation. Some people abuse this process. Others ignore it altogether. Still some others take exception with various aspects of it. But, as with everything else, we are really called to a simple, faithful, obedience. But the thing that has my attention today is the last part: "Tell it to the Church." What is meant by "the Church"?
Is the Church the local assembly one attends? Is it a broader Church? Is it even a visible Church? Let's take it back to its original context and the context of Matthew's original audience. Our Lord gave this directive before He had actually constituted a Church. There were allusions to such an entity as, for instance, when He told St. Peter that He would build His Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. For Matthew's original audience, they lived in the context of one Church on various levels. There was the universal Church, and there was the local Church. The local Church probably was even broken down into smaller units which we might today call parishes, cells, assemblies, or even house churches. But even though there were various levels of the Church, there was still only one Church.
For our Lord to say that the Church was the final court of appeal presupposes that the Church is a visible entity. It means that if such a problem arose, everyone knew where they were to go to have it resolved. This was not like our current context where we have literally thousands of organizations claiming to be the Church of Jesus Christ. In their view, the Church, as it is alluded to here, is the composite of all of these entities combined. It is an "invisible church" if you will. However, the great problem with this is that if one church enacts such a level of discipline then the person simply goes down the street, or to the next town, and is usually welcomed with open arms into that church. This is so because these various churches are not in union with one another and there is no clear authority.
The Church that our Lord founded is a visible entity. It subsists most fully in the Catholic Church (see the Catechism and Vatican II). Today, as in times past, if someone has a case to take to the Church, they know where to find it. Because it is unified, a decision made in one part of the Church will be held in any part of the Church.
This Church that our Lord founded is called the "pillar and ground of truth", (1 Tim. 3:15). Our Lord has given the Holy Spirit to Her to guide Her into all truth (see Jn. 16:13). She is our Mother (Gal. 4:26). All of this means that we can trust the Church to guide and direct us. We need not be afraid She will err and lead us astray. God works and speaks through Her. To trust Her is an act of obedience to our Lord.
It is true that there are now, and have been in the past, those within the Church, even among Her leadership, who go astray and lead others astray with them. But when one knows what the Church truly teaches, they are safe. The truth of the Church is unchangeable. It remains the same as it always has been.
I say all of this to encourage each of us to come to the Church without fear. And as we do so, to learn of Her teaching and obey it. We will find, as we do, that we are being led nearer to our Lord and made ready for heaven.
It has been a little over two years since I was received into full communion in this Church. I am continually amazed at the great riches that are found here. There are prayers, devotions, customs, and practices that are deep, mysterious, and spiritual. I once feared this Church, but now no longer. Now I love Her and I yearn for others to discover the hidden treasures to be found here.
Today let us heed the voice of our Lord as He directs us to take the hardest cases to the Church. Let us come to her with our questions and misgivings as well. Whatever is on our hearts, tell it to the Church. May we not be surprised when we hear clearly the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through Her.