For the last few days, I’ve been examining 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)
I suggested that the surrounding context for this passage tells us that it is about forgiveness in spite of sin. The surrounding context does not make light of sin. In fact, we are reminded of the seriousness of sin, and the steps that God will go to bring a “lost sheep” back from sin – assuming that the “shepherd” in the story refers to Jesus or God the Father.
Similarly, as I examined the passage itself, I pointed out that the focus of this passage is on reconciling a broken relationship. One person has offended another person, and the offended person goes to the offending person in order to reconcile. The passage is not about kicking someone out of the church. In fact, in this passage, there are no commands given to any one or any group except the person who was offended. In keeping with the surrounding context, this passage further illustrates the importance of forgiveness in spite of sin.
It seems that the disciples and Matthew understood the implications of Jesus’ teachings. They understood that if someone offended them, they would be the ones who should humble themselves and go to the offending party and seek reconciliation. How do we know this? We know this because of Peter’s follow-up question: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)
Peter understood that if his brother sinned against him and then reconciled, sinned against him and then reconciled, sinned against him and then reconciled… he may have to continue to humble himself and go to his brother and seek reconciliation… how many times? Surely seven times would be enough. Surely, Jesus, if I do this seven times, doesn’t this show that my brother really isn’t concerned about me and that I shouldn’t forgive him any longer?
Jesus’ response shows the seriousness of relationships to God: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22) The following story underscores that importance: just as God has forgiven us – and continues to forgive us – a huge debt – one that we cannot repay – in the same way we should forgive others. We should continually seek reconciliation with our brothers and sisters – even if it means setting ourselves up to be offended again.
Unfortunately, when this passage is included in a thematic understanding of “church discipline”, the importance of forgiveness and restoration of relationships is usually lost. Instead, the focus turns toward correction, rebuke, instruction, protection, etc. Those may be important in other situation. But, in this passage, the focus is on relationships and the importance of forgiveness. Each of us are responsible for maintaining relationships among fellow believers – as much as is in our ability – even when we did not cause the rift in the relationship. This passage is not about “church discipline”. Instead, it is about community, fellowship, and love.