the weblog of Alan Knox

Matthew 18 and Discipline

Posted by on May 1, 2009 in discipleship, discipline, fellowship, scripture | 21 comments

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”.

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Matthew 18 and 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.


21 Comments

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  1. 5-1-2009

    This is a really interesting passage. What I find most interesting is the bit that says “let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector” – I wonder if Jesus did that deliberately, knowing that he had already set the example for how those people should be treated?

  2. 5-1-2009

    That is crazy Alan. Church discipline is all about catching someone doing something wrong and then punishing them. How else can I feel good about myself if I am not pointing out the sins in others?

  3. 5-1-2009

    Bro. Alan,

    Awhile back, Lionel sent me some questions about the meeting in my house. One question included the subject of discipline. I couldn’t answer because I didn’t agree with the normal handling of this text. As a matter of fact, the view you expressed is what I saw! I’m so glad that someone with your knowledge and skill in the Word has come to the same conclusion.

  4. 5-1-2009

    Thats funny Alan, I am actually going to do a piece on Church discipline and this is one section that I am going to focus on.

  5. 5-1-2009

    Good Morning Alan,

    Maybe you could flesh out how you see 1 Corinthians 5 working in this too.

    Thx… MIke

  6. 5-1-2009

    In making the same point, I would not only point to the verb inflection, but also to verse 17. It’s an obvious reference back to the keys of the kingdom back in chapter 16, which belong to everyone who is truly redeemed, not just those who have received the apostolic succession through laying on of hands.

  7. 5-1-2009

    And, nowhere are Pastors, Clergy or even elders in view. Brother B might ask an elder along, but he might not.

  8. 5-1-2009

    Rachy,

    While Jesus loved Gentiles and tax collectors, I do think he treated them differently that he treated “brothers”. What do you think?

    Arthur,

    I like sarcasm. Thanks. :)

    Lawrence,

    One thing that I’ve noticed is that in Scripture it is impossible to “discipline” someone apart from a relationship with that person.

    Lionel,

    I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on this topic.

    Michael,

    There are certainly instances in Scripture where a church would decide to distance themselves from someone who calls themselves a brother or sister but lives contrary to the gospel. 1 Cor 5 gives us one example. However, this is not the point of Matthew 18.

    Talloaf,

    I agree that this passage helps us understand what Jesus means by “the keys of the kingdom” and by binding and loosing.

    Art,

    Give the focus on relationship, it seems best to bring along people with whom both parties have strong relationships, whether those people are elders or pastors or not.

    -Alan

  9. 5-1-2009

    It’s kinda sad: I’ve studied that passage a number of times and totally missed all the 2nd person singular pronouns. Shame on me.

    Thanks for unpacking the passage!

  10. 5-1-2009

    Laura,

    I can tell you why I interpreted this as a “church-wide” discipline instead of personal reconciliation for so long: because that’s the category that I placed this passage in. Right? Everyone knows that Matthew 18 is about church discipline.

    -Alan

  11. 5-1-2009

    Alan,

    I agree; the context obscured personal responsibility for me as well.

    Even with this new insight the communal context must not be dismissed, for the individual person approaches the offender for the sake of the Body and the Body provides support for the sake of the person.

    As a friend of mine said in a discussion of this on Facebook, the offense affects the offended and the Body. After all, we are members of one another.

  12. 5-2-2009

    Laura,

    Absolutely! There must be a community aspect because we are part of a family. Forgiving or refusing to forgive a brother or sister affects the entire community.

    -Alan

  13. 5-2-2009

    I met an individual last week and he asked me where I attended church, I told him a bit about who I met with as the church.

    He asked me if we were elder rule, I told him we recognize mature servant leaders as examples to teh flock.

    He then asked me if we practiced church discipline and if we banished, shunned or excommunicated people from our assembly.

    He indicated to me that was one of the benchmarks of a biblical church!

    I told him we believe that people should be reconciled with each other when personal offenses are given as we are now ministers of reconciliation.

    He asked me if we put people out of the church.

    I finished the conversation by asking him how we should treat one who we regarded as a tax collector and reminded him how Jesus treated tax collectors.

  14. 5-2-2009

    Anonymous,

    I’ve heard and read people who say that “the ban” is a mark of the church. There are certainly times in Scripture when the church chooses to separate from someone because their life does not match the gospel. However, I’ve always thought it was the Holy Spirit that was THE mark of the church.

    -Alan

  15. 5-2-2009

    Alan-

    I agree. But Matthew 18 is not the passage dealing with a factious man or someone in an unrepentant incestuous adultery.

    The offenses that some people are being excommunicated for in some of the SGB “churches” is more a symptom of immature authoritarian top down leadership and a failure to walk with people through their maturing process in Christ like love.

    BTW: How do you understand considering one/treating one as a Gentile or a tax collector?

  16. 5-2-2009

    Anonymous,

    You’re right, and I do know of authoritarian leaders who use these passages to their own advantage.

    I think that Jesus wanted us to love “tax collectors and Gentiles”, but there is a difference between the way we love them and the way we love and fellowship with brothers. I think Paul’s instructions at the end of 1 Cor 5 is a good example of this.

    -Alan

  17. 5-3-2009

    Alan, and Anonymous,
    I like to think that when Jesus called Levi (a tax collector) to follow him, he was making a conscious choice, to demonstrate that the so-called ‘outcasts’ of society were not only acceptable to him, but also allowed to be very close to him. Yes his message (in Luke ch 5) was about calling sinners to repentance, but I’m not sure that he meant we should give up on them or treat them as any less lovable if they refuse to ‘behave’. The trouble is that so many church ‘leaders’ use the Matthew passage as an excuse to chuck people out of their church because they don’t conform to their idea of what is right.
    Phew, didn’t mean to rant! But anyways, just some thoughts – I’d like to explore this further!
    Rach

  18. 5-3-2009

    Just as a Ps.
    It’s telling I think that the bit in question is followed by a significant passage where Peter asks about forgiveness (I think we know he didn’t mean just 490 times, right?), and a hard-hitting parable on the same subject..

  19. 5-3-2009

    rachy,

    I do not think that God intends for us to stop loving and serving anyone. However, there are certain instances in Scripture where believers separate themselves from other believers. The reasons for separation are few in Scripture, much fewer than the reasons that we use to separate today. This separation does not mean that we stop loving or serving these people, but it does change the way that we relate to them.

    -Alan

  20. 5-4-2009

    The following circumstances in the life of a fellow believer are specifically noted in scripture as requiring a response from other believers.

    These behaviors cannot be ignored and will likely not go away without loving intervention. Loving intervention requires the motivation to seek restoration rather than simple judgment (elevating ourselves), and while done in lovingkindness, sometimes our response should be ruthless in refusing to accept anything less than restoration, establishing and equipping a fellow saint further along in the path of walking with our Lord:

    1. Personal Disputes
    Matt 18:15-20
    Note: It seems that only at the third level–the whole body assembled–is there any involvement of elders, and that only because they are part of the whole assembly. Church discipline is every spiritual believer’s responsibility. Here, using the term “church” discipline, given our confusion about the word today, can lead some to conclude this is a church “corporate” (therefore, clergy) responsibility, rather than a church “believers” responsibility. The saints cannot hire or delegate the responsibilities of love for one other to a special clergy class. And, elders should not castrate the saints in our care by taking away their responsibilities as faithful servants. If the issue of sin cannot be resolved at the level of saint to saint, or saint-with-independent-witnesses, then it is something for the whole assembly to deal with together during public assembly.

    2. Divisions
    Rom 16:17,18; Titus 3:10; II Jn 10,11
    Note: this isn’t about doctrinal differences, it is about creating a party spirit that draws the saints to take sides and divide. The fundamental truth of God among us is evidenced by our unity, not by our doctrinal purity. We all “see darkly,” and as Peter said, there are some things Paul wrote that are hard to understand. There are non-negotiables on the gospel, but aside from proclaiming another gospel, we need to find ways to work alongside, and love, one another. Perhaps if the focus were on the everyday, here-and-now practice of Christianity, rather than just on mental exercises about Christianity, it would be easier. In focusing on practice, we are all humbled.

    3. Public Outrages: fornication, drunkenness, slander, greed, idolatry.
    I Cor 5:1-13; II Thess 3:6-8
    Note: another characteristic of the body of Christ is that we are to be robed in purity. Our love for each other should move us to want each saint to “succeed,” that is, to confirm/establish their life in Christ with actions, and that this demonstration would bring glory to God. So, we are jealous here for both the saint and for God. If this were our motivation, how heartbroken we would approach one involved in such sin; how sternly we would rebuke them; how quickly we would embrace their repentance.

    4. Unwilling to hold a job
    II Thess 3:6-15
    When a fellowship is functioning in love and caring for the concerns of all, it can be abused. It will usually be done for “spiritual” reasons, as the impending return of our Lord, supporting ministry, etc. What example are you setting as an elder?

    Note: Itinerants may not be able to hold a job, yet Paul worked so that he did not confuse the saints who would become elders. The practice of a clergy class who do not substantially provide for themselves by working, but instead claim to require (as an itinerant can) “full time” employment by the church, seems to me to be the issue here. Yes, it is tiring to be an elder and support yourself (as it for those in the world who pursue hobbies or other interests that require considerable energy and time), and while there are times this is exhausting, we should not become “weary in well-doing.” But we also should not quit our jobs and become “busybodies” who dominate the work of the saints.

    5. Deceived/deluded about sinful practice(s)
    Gal 6:1,2
    Note: It seems as though this person has logical justification about some value or activity and so does not clearly see their sin as sin. This isn’t about a questionable area, but one clearly sinful. We should approach this person not as someone blatantly sinning, but as someone confused by a distortion in their conscience. Their observable sin is real sin, and offends God, but it is a secondary sin–their real sin is that on this issue they are (self)deluded (but see Jer 17:9). We can easily delude ourselves to justify things we want to do/have, etc. We need to take care that their justification and excuse does not begin to influence our own practices and sear our consciences (considering ourselves). We are not above taking an easier road (everyone is doing it; it isn’t that important; etc.) than the relentless need to be vigilant and to ruthlessly apply the cross to our sinful/selfish desires.

  21. 5-4-2009

    Should have noted that the long post was an excerpt of a letter I sent to some elders. So it has that general focus as the recipient, not Alan or anyone else in particular was meant when I mention elders.