Two years ago, I wrote a blog post called “Matthew 18 and Discipline“. I remember studying this passage and writing about it while our family was on vacation at the beach. I’m planning to teach from this passage again in a few weeks. I think this passage is about reconciling relationships between two brothers/sisters, not necessarily about “church discipline”.
Yesterday, in response to my blog post “Local church again…“, a couple of people brought up the question of church discipline as it relates to structure and leadership. As I was thinking through this issue, and as I was reading through several passages about discipline, I found something new – at least, new to me. Now, I am not supposing that this is new to everyone, but since it is new to me, I thought I would post it here in case it was helpful to anyone else.
Here is the Scripture passage:
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. (Matthew 18:15-17 ESV)
So, here is the interesting part… there are several commands given in this passage, and they are all given to the same person… that is, the person who is sinned against! (Now, before you ask about this, yes, I know that Jesus also says you should go to your brother if he has something against you.) Let’s step through this…
Brother A sins against brother B. Who is responsible for going to whom? Brother B is responsible for seeking reconciliation – that is, the one who is sinned against. In fact, brother B is commanded to go to brother A alone. (The commands that Jesus gives are 2nd person singular imperatives – “go and tell” – thus, they are given to the individual – brother B.)
If brother A does not repent, then who is responsible for taking two or three others? Again, brother B is responsible, and again Jesus commands brother B to carry out this step. (The command that Jesus gives is a 2nd person singular imperative – “take”.)
If brother A still does not repent, then who is responsible for telling the church? Once again, the command is given only to brother B, so the same brother who was sinned against is responsible for telling the church. (The command that Jesus gives is a 2nd person singular imperative – “tell”.)
Finally, if brother A does not repent when brother B tells the church, then who is responsible for treating him “as a Gentile and a tax collector”? Once again, it is brother B. Interestingly, Jesus does not say anything at all about how the two or three witnesses or the church should treat the unrepentant brother. Instead, the brother who is sinned against (that is, brother B) is once again given responsibility for how to treat brother A. (Jesus’ command is given to “you” as a 2nd person singular pronoun – “let him be to you”.) This is perhaps the most interesting point to me.
What does all of this tell me? It tells me that relationships with my brothers and sisters are MY responsibility. They are not the responsibility of other believers. If my brother or sister sins against me, it is MY responsibility (and no one else’s responsibility) to reconcile with my brother or sister. I would even extrapolate this to say that if my brother or sister feels that I have sinned against him or her, then it is MY responsibility (assuming the brother or sister does not approach me first) to reconcile with my brother or sister.
It would seem, if we take Jesus’ words at face value, that church discipline depends upon each believer – that is, discipline is all of our responsibility. Furthermore, neither structure, nor organization, nor leadership are necessary for effective church discipline, at least, not according to this passage. Perhaps, church discipline is not effective because I have not been upholding my responsibilities.