Sometimes, systematizing Scripture and Christian beliefs can be very beneficial. It is beneficial to know what Scripture teaches and what Christians general believe about a certain topic. But, occasionally, systematizing Scripture into topics and themes unintentionally damages or undermines the original context. I think this often happens with Matthew 18:15-20:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20 ESV)
Today, if you pick up a book or read an article about “church discipline”, the author will probably include a discussion of Matthew 18:15-20. In fact, the “three step process” of church discipline originates from this passage: 1) confront someone who sins alone, 2) confront someone who sins with two or three others, 3) present someone who sins to the church. Of course, the final stage of “church discipline”, if the person does not repent, is to treat that person like “a Gentile or a tax collector” – whatever that looks like in a particular context.
Church discipline is a very important topic. I think that misunderstandings about “church discipline” have caused some to overreact to sin, and others to fail to act when a brother or sister is sinning. I also think that this is one topic where systematization has caused a misreading of this particular text. Often, Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, and a few other passage are chunked together into a “church discipline” manual without much consideration of the original context of the individual passages. Thus, the narrative effect of the Scripture is lost in the theological grouping.
Over the next few days, I am going to discuss this passage (Matthew 18:15-20) both in its original context and in the context of church discipline. I hope that this turns into a valuable discussion, and I encourage you to take part. This will not be a comprehensive study of the topic of church discipline, nor will it be a comprehensive study of Matthew 18:15-20. However, I hope that through this study we will all look at this passage in context and try to learn what Jesus was teaching his original hearers – and us through the Gospel of Matthew.