Originally published on
(15) If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. (16) But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ (17) If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector.
(Matthew 18:15-17 – New International Version)
The Matthew Code, as the above quoted Bible verses have come to be known, was thrown at me and my fellow students at Principia College time and time again, and is a part of the moral code that Principia students are required to abide by. Now, I read the above verses, and I clearly come away with a certain interpretation, and no, I do not need anyone else’s interpretation to gain what I feel to be clarity on what these verses say and mean. It’s simple: if you encounter someone doing something wrong, you go to them directly on your own and talk to them about it; if they don’t listen, and don’t acknowledge that they’ve done something wrong, you bring a couple of friends (preferably mutual friends) along; if that fails, then you go to higher authorities to have the situation corrected and ‘balanced’, so to speak. You do not go to the authorities first. Now, I’m talking of someone committing minor moral offenses. If I see someone robbing a house, assaulting, or murdering, I’ll go straight to the police, no questions asked.
In the context of being a Principia student, I saw it as: if I encountered someone breaking the rules, I’d confront them myself first and seek to redress the situation that way, and if that didn’t work, go up the Matthew Code ladder from there. That’s how I saw it when I did have my own encounter with rule-breakers while I was at Principia. In practice however, the administrative authorities at Principia had a different take on the Matthew Code, and most of us students knew that, and many of us saw it as hypocritical. They wanted you to skip past the first few steps.
My Matthew Code experience
For two semesters, I worked weekends on night security patrol at Principia College. I took the job for two reasons: (1) it paid double the normal hourly wage of other student jobs, allowing me to pay off my tuition reduction work obligation for the quarter in half the normal time, allowing me to start banking actual cash sooner; and (2) I was saving up for a study abroad in the United Kingdom, and this was the perfect way for me to do that. Otherwise, I hated the job mainly because I knew it could potentially put me in an awkward situation if I encountered students doing things they shouldn’t have been doing, and owing to the small size of the student body (around 500 or so at the time), there was a decent chance any scofflaws I encountered would probably be friends or at least acquaintances. Most of the time, all I ever encountered were couples making out in the chapel, and all I ever did was nicely ask them to move along, and I never said anything more than that, although I was required to document any and all encounters. I usually noted those encounters simply as “encountered students in chapel” or something like that.
One evening while I was on mobile patrol duty my partner, who was a regular employee of the college, came over the radio, reporting what he called ‘gunshots’ behind one of the mens’ houses, which happened to be the house I was a member of myself. I went to investigate, dreading the worst (considering that all I was armed with was a MagLight flashlight), hoping I would find nothing. What I did find, was a group of my housemates playing with firecrackers, which were not only against Principia rules, but also illegal under Illinois state law, but not a felony–more on the level of a speeding ticket. According to how I saw my obligations under the Matthew Code, I talked to my friends, explained why they couldn’t be doing what they were doing, that not only was it against Principia rules, it was illegal, and they agreed not to continue with their activities. In turn, I agreed not to report them by name. They lived up to their end of the bargain. There were no more firecracker incidents on-campus. I planned to live up to mine. I reported to my co-worker that I had spoken to a group of students who were playing with firecrackers and that they would stop. I left it at that. Problem solved as I saw it.
The following Monday, I was called into the office of the director of Community Safety–the department I worked for as a night watch security patrol. In a southern drawl I vividly recall to this day, he began to interrogate me about the firecracker incident, demanding names not long into the conversation. I initially resisted, but he pressed further, insisting it was my ‘obligation’ to report the lawbreaking students. I tried to say that it was dark, and that I couldn’t readily identify them, and that I had asked them to stop what they were doing or I would have to report them, and that they complied. Mr. Community Safety would not accept that explanation. He pressed me, figuring that since I was a member of the house adjacent to where the incident happened, and the scofflaws likely were members of that house too, that I definitely did know. “Don’t lie to me now,” I remember him saying in that dripping southern drawl. He also insinuated to me that my future at Principia could hinge on my level of cooperation or lack thereof. I was beginning to get scared, and I’m ashamed to admit that I caved. I saw my study abroad, and my chance at completing my education in a timely manner potentially disappearing, and I acted in my own self-interest. I gave up one name, insisting that I couldn’t 100% identify the others. It was dark after all, I said.
I went to my housemate whom I’d betrayed and told him everything that happened, and apologized. I felt defeated and ashamed. He and the others had understood that they could not do what they were doing, and they stopped. They kept their end of the bargain. I broke my promise to them. I was the stoolie that sang like a canary. My friend was surprisingly understanding and wasn’t angry at all. He seemed to understand completely what had happened to me. Most of us students knew what the administration at Principia was really all about; they actively encouraged students to ‘rat-out’, and didn’t hesitate to apply pressure on those who resisted. Evil, after all, had to be rooted out at all times and at all costs.
I also learned a valuable lesson about the Matthew Code as it was applied at Principia. It really meant that you were supposed to skip the first couple of steps and go straight to the authorities and tell them everything. That’s what the authorities at Principia wanted. I hate rat-finks, and I became one. I honestly do not know what consequences my friend suffered. He and I never discussed the incident further, and our friendship didn’t change. He was never absent for any length of time, and graduated on-time, so I think at the most, he was probably talked to and perhaps threatened with some sort of consequence and that’s it. I would strongly suspect he was pressed to give up the names of his accomplices too. Whether or not he did, I don’t know. I’m now connected on Facebook to him and most of the others I encountered that night; and through reunions, we’ve had occasional personal contact. Some of us remain Christian Scientists to varying degrees, some do not. It’s about 50/50 as far as I can tell.
Now, one could legitimately say that since I was ‘on the job’ as a security guard, I was obligated to fully report incidents in which campus security and safety was at risk, and you could make the case that in this instance it was. Firecrackers were illegal under Illinois state law. What my friends were doing was wrong and illegal, and you could very legitimately say that they deserved to be punished. Looking back on this through the lens of a 40-something adult, as I do now, I think maybe they did deserve some punishment. However, at the time, I chose to use my own discretion, balancing my job-related obligations with my status as a student and housemate of my lawbreaking friends, and mitigated the situation as I saw fit. I saw my objective as stopping the students from playing with firecrackers, and in that objective, I succeeded. Legitimate arguments can be made pro or con whether or not I was right in what I initially did, and I welcome comments either way here. If you think I was completely off-base, please don’t be afraid to say so. I won’t be offended. To be honest, in some ways, as I look back now, maybe I was wrong, but my perspective now is very different.
However, what remains for me to this day as the core issue with this story, is the contrast between how the Matthew Code was applied by me initially with my friends, and how it was applied to me by those in authority at Prinicipa. I chose to take the steps exactly as they are outlined in the Bible verses. I went to my ‘brother’ mano-a-mano first. They realized that they were wrong, and they stopped what they were doing. I saw no reason to push the matter further, other than to report that I had dealt with the situation. The authorities however, wanted names. In other incidents around campus during my four years there, I heard similar stories. If someone was doing something wrong, the administrators wanted you to report the wrongdoers by name. Skip those first few inconvenient steps in the Matthew Code, and go straight to the authorities and sing like a songbird, please. That’s what any good dictatorship wants you to do. The cowed citizenry is the best source of intelligence, after all.
Hypocrisy at Principia
This all points up to what I see to be a part of a larger, systematic hypocrisy I saw at Principia while I was there. As a student, you were expected to be perfect, and there was little acknowledgement of the fact that we were all young adult humans, prone to failures and mistakes and the whims of hormones. But, that’s how you learn to be better, more perfect. If you don’t make a few mistakes, you don’t learn, and learning is what makes you better.
What galled me the most was how the very same authorities who demanded perfection and moral purity from us as students, often failed to live up to those standards themselves. At Principia, the house counselors in each dorm house were part of the Student Personnel Department (later Office of Student Life), the department charged, among other things, with enforcing the moral code at Principia. One thing this code forbade was any sexual activity outside of marriage. Over the course of my time at Principia, one of my house counselors, who was married at the time, had a sexual affair with a female student. He was quietly let go, and we never heard of him again. Another counselor, also in my house, who was later promoted to being a dean, had an affair with a female student (while he was still married), and eventually divorced his wife, and married the student.
You might ask why I sit in harsh judgement of these people. Simple, they were integral parts of an administrative system that demanded moral perfection from us as students. The administration’s response to infractions was usually ‘social suspension’ (a process by which a student is denied participation in anything but academic activities due to some infraction of the moral code), or expulsion; and expulsion is a black mark on one’s academic record that never looks good. Yet in some cases, as I’ve illustrated, these enforcers didn’t hesitate to break their own rules in much worse ways than any of us students had the ability to do. They were married, in positions of authority over students, in control of students’ futures, and shtupping students for crying out loud! I think I do have every right to sit in very harsh judgement of their actions. If you set yourself up as a high and mighty moral authority, you damn well better bet I’m going to hold you to a much higher standard than I would anyone else, and don’t expect me to be at all forgiving of your infidelities. I’ll show you as much mercy as you show me and others, which in the case of the administration at Principia, is none.
At Principia, it was ‘do as I say, not as I do’, and if you were on financial aid, and trying to save for an abroad program you wanted to be part of, you’d better toe the party line, or you might find yourself conveniently denied your opportunity; or worse yet, sent home and having your college education suffer a crucial setback. Hypocrisy is something I have no tolerance for, and I saw plenty of it at Principia. If you make the rules and beat everyone over the head with them, demanding utmost perfection and tolerating nothing less; obey them yourself! Be unimpeachably perfect, and apply the rules evenly, and as written. Otherwise, STFU (Shut The F*ck Up). If you’re not perfect yourself, don’t expect others to be! From discussions I’ve had with friends who are more recent Principia grads, I see that little has changed at my old alma-mater.
- A Principian’s Reflections on the Matthew Code: a post my friend, fellow blogger, and fellow Principia graduate at Kindism wrote about this subject.
- Principia College 2014 – 2015 Catalog: the latest Principia College catalog–of particular interest, the section, Principia Standards (p. 7), and the subsection, Matthew Ethos (p. 8).
This site offers support resources to help individuals negotiate a transition in a manner that best fits their needs and convictions. We do not advocate any one particular path but acknowledge that there are many legitimate pathways that can be personally and spiritually fulfilling.