Matthew turns to the question of appropriate action to be taken in case a Christian is guilty of sinning against another member of the community. Jesus taught that in such instances the aggrieved party should first take it up personally and in private with the one who acted wrongly. If that does not clear up the problem, the next step is to take one or two others along, not to prove the other’s guilt but to help in reconciliation. If the person pays no attention to them, the matter should then be reported to the entire church. If this fails to bring about a satisfactory resolution, the person who has wronged should be excommunicated from the religious community.
In this section, Jesus provides an application to the parable of Matthew 18:10–14. He explains how to handle a sinning brother or sister in the community. 1
This lesson is all about confrontation, or better called “church discipline.” The primary passage is Matthew 18:15–20. Jesus wanted to us to possess clear steps for conflict resolution in the church. Jesus knew that it was inevitable that believers would sin against one another, Luke 17:1–3. In this passage Jesus prescribes a three-step process to deal with a sinning brother who won’t repent. There are five commands of Christ in this passage on confrontation. The key character quality needed to confront a brother in a sin is gentleness, Galatians 6:1. Restoration is the goal of this church discipline process and it takes the gentleness of the surgeon attempting to set a broken bone.
Jesus and his disciples returned from Capernaum from the Mount of Transfiguration. On the way, the disciples debate about which one of them is the greatest. The debate on who was the greatest is the first of three such arguments, Matthew 20:20–28, Luke 22:24–30. What makes matters worse is that each time it follows on the heels of a significant prediction of Jesus suffering. So while Jesus is talking about laying down his life, these guys are promoting themselves. In this passage Jesus talks about the Christ likeness of the believer. The first point in this passage is that everyone who enters the kingdom does so as a child, Matthew 18:1–4. Jesus then teaches that all of us in the kingdom must be treated as children, Matthew 18:5-9, cared for as children, Matthew 18:10–14, disciplined as children, Matthew 18:15–20, and forgiving as children, Matthew 18:21–35. The focus of this small group lesson is that we need to be disciplined as children. The church that is unwilling to discipline church members promote hypocrisy instead of holiness.
The commands we find in this passage: Matthew 18:15, (go, reprove,) Matthew 18:16, (take), Matthew 18:17, (tell, let), Luke 17:3, (be on your guard, rebuke). It is also illustrated in the book of Acts, (Acts 5:1-11) and the letters, (1 Corinthians 5:1–13, 2 Corinthians 2:6, 12:14, 13:2, 10, Galatians 6:1–2, 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15, 1 Timothy 5:19).
What is our natural response when someone sins against us? Gossip, slander, revenge, dislike, hatred, malice, clam up, bitterness, resentment, holding a grudge. We do every thing except go to them to resolve the offense.
Does every offense need to be confronted?
- Proverbs 10:12 – hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions.
- Proverbs 17:9 – he who conceals a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends.
- Proverbs 19:11 – A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.
- 1 Corinthians 13:7 – Paul says that love bears all things.
- Colossians 3:13 – this verse teaches forbearance.
- 1 Peter 4:8 – Love covers a multitude of sins.
1. Who in the church should be confronted? Matthew 18:15. “if your brother sins, go…” We are to confront fellow Christians in the family of God who have sinned against us and have not sought out our forgiveness or God’s forgiveness. This confrontation is over the offending brother because he has fallen short concerning God standards. These moral standards are clearly defined in God’s Word. No confrontation should occur if others are going to question whether the action of the offending brother is sin.
2. What is the first step in the discipline process that you should take? Matthew 18:15. “go and reprove him,” so, confrontation is the responsibility of every believer and not just church officials. The word “go” is a command in the present tense. We cannot wait for this person to come to us, we must go to them. This first step in the discipline process involves making an effort, on several occasions, to restore the sinning brother. The word reprove has the root meaning of bringing to light or exposing. Vincent says it means to cross examined with a view of convincing or refuting. The aim is not to score points over him but to win him over. Behind this verse stands Leviticus 19:17, “do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.” The aorist tense of this imperative denotes the “urgency of exposing his fault so as to bring conviction.” Rebuke of a sinning brother should be undertaken as soon as the offenses known, in order to turn the sinning believer from his sin as soon as possible and also to help head off resentment and bitterness the one offended.
3. What kind of offenses necessitate a confrontation? Matthew 18:15. “and if your brother sins against you…” A confrontation is necessary when we cannot “forbear” the sin against us, Ephesians 4:2, Colossians 3:13, and we know we will lose sleep over it, Ephesians 4:26–27. If the sin is big enough to remember and repeat to others, it is big enough to confront. The phrase “sins against” you helps narrow the responsibility of obedience to this command. It is not God’s intention that we act as Matthew 18 detectives, busily looking for an opportunity to identify an expose the faults of others. God calls these types of people “busybodies,” 1 Thessalonians 4:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:11, 1 Timothy 5:13.
The scope of our responsibility is toward those who offend us personally and those caught in a trespass that God providentially brings across our path. No one is disciplined because they sin, they are disciplined because they refused to listen, repent, and take steps to stop the sinful behavior. Discipline is reserved for those people who have a life-dominating sin that causes others to label them as an immoral person, a thief, a drunkard, or a swindler, 1 Corinthians 5:11.
Some people may say that if we confront people in their sin, people may leave the church. The reality of the nature of sin is that it causes people to withdraw from the fellowship and ostracized themselves. So, they are going to ultimately leave either way. It is far better to obey God and confront them while the Christian community is still dear to them and the mere suggestion of their exclusion makes them think twice about their actions. If sin isn’t dealt with it will eventually isolate the person from the community of believers and he will leave without receiving help. Jesus still put this by warning us about the leaven of the Pharisees. A little leaven will affect the whole lump.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: “Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of the person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession, the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness in seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted, but God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron” (Psalm 107:16).
“Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders, he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother. The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder. Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother. He is no longer alone with his evil for he has cast off his sin from him. Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ. The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham. The sin confessed has helped him define true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ.” (From Life Together, 1954, pp. 112-113).
4. What is the purpose of confrontation or church discipline? Matthew 18:15. “To win your brother.” The word when was originally a term of commerce referring to financial gain or profit. The sense is that no brother is worthless. Every string brother is up infinite value and can once again become an ass set if restored, Matthew 18:10–14. The goal of discipline is not to throw people out of the church or to feed the self-righteous pride of those who administered the discipline. It is to bring the sending brother back. The goal is restoration.
5. What must you do before you confront anyone else about his or her sin? Matthew 7:5. “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brothers eye.” Before we confront others, it involves self-examination. Church discipline was intended to have a self purifying effect.
6. In what attitude should a person be confronted, according to Galatians 6:1? You should “go in a spirit of gentleness” realizing it could’ve been you who was tempted. You don’t go in a pious, self righteous manner giving the impression that you are beyond succumbing to such a temptation. Galatians 6:1 says, “brethren, if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.”
7. Is God more concerned about unity or purity in the church? 2 Corinthians 2:6. The church at Corinth disciplined the incestuous man of 1 Corinthians 5. Paul’s second letter reported that the disciplinary actions were inflicted, but only by a majority of the members of the church. This discipline was adequate to bring the incestuous man to repentance. The text says, “sufficient for such a one is the punishment which was inflicted by the majority.” God is more concerned about purity than unity. An unrepentant brother in the church may have some sympathetic friends who disagree with any disciplinary action by the church. This shouldn’t be reason to withdraw the discipline. We should always strive for unity and purity but if the church is unable to achieve unanimous support to discipline and unrepentant brother, all you need to proceed is a majority of the church to support the action. Practically, it’s wise to postpone the discipline if you cannot obtain a majority. The church may need some instruction concerning a biblical definition of sin and the importance of church discipline before proceeding.
8. What is the second step that you take if the sitting brother does not repent? Matthew 18:16, Deuteronomy 19:15. Jesus said, “take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.” Moses wrote, “a single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed, on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.”
The basic procedure for confirming the facts in a dispute or in an allegation of wrongdoing has been set forth by Moses and therefore familiar to every Jew. To guard against a person becoming slanderous or spitefully accused of a sin, crime, or other offense he did not commit, the Mosaic law required that at least two or three witnesses be present to bring any charge against a person. That was an important protection against the false accusation of an innocent person. It is important that people who are selected as witnesses possess a genuine concern for the one being confronted. Don’t use people that dislike the accused lest he feel that people are ganging up on him.
9. What must be confirmed by one or two more witnesses? Matthew 18:16, Deuteronomy 19:15. These additional witnesses are needed to confirm the fact that the sin was committed but, in addition, to confirm that the sinning believer was properly confronted and rebuked, and that he has or has not repented. It should be hoped that the one or two brought along will not have to become public witnesses against him (before the rest of the church) but that their added rebuke will be sufficient to encourage the sinning person to change his heart, something that the initial rebuke did not cause.
10. How does the role of the witness change if the offender is unwilling to clear up the offense? Matthew 18:17a. “And if he refuses to listen to them.” Initially these witnesses are neutral observers of the confrontation. When it is obvious that the brother is unrepentant and refuses to listen, the witnesses cease being neutral observers and begin expressing their mutual concern that the offending brother repents.
11. What recourse does a person have if the sinning brother does not heed his words and those of the witnesses? Matthew 18:17. The only biblical recourse is step three of the discipline process, “tell it to the church.” Each church should have a specified procedure establishing how these issues are brought before the elders in a church court. These matters are never to be brought before a civil court, 1 Corinthian 6:1-8. If the elders have heard the case and decide that the sinning brother is guilty, then they will encourage the church to try to win their brother back. If they are unsuccessful after a designated period of time, the individual is disfellowshipped. If you’re going to act like an unbeliever, we must treat you like an unbeliever.
Take a moment to ponder the true nature of the church. The word church is the Greek word “ekklesia” which was used among the Greeks as body of citizens gathering to discuss the affairs of the state, Acts 19:39. In the gospels, the word occurs only here and in Matthew 16:18. In the Septuagint it is used to designate the gathering of Israel, summoned for any definite purpose. In Acts 7:38 it is used of Israel. In Acts 19:32, 41 it was used for a riotous mob. Vine’s goes on to say that ekklesia is most commonly used in the New Testament church both Universal and local. When used of the New Testament church in reference to a called out body of believers. Jesus promised that he would build his church, Matthew 16:18. The church was started at Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit and will be removed from the planet during the rapture. Universal Church is that invisible body of truly redeem believers throughout the church age, Ephesians 1:22 5:23–24, 25, 27, 29, 32, Colossians 1:18.
The local church refers to local expressions of the body of Christ and communities all over the world. For example to church which was at Jerusalem, Acts 1:8, 8:1, 3, 11:22, Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 1:2, 16:1, 19, 2 Corinthians 8:1, 18, 19, 23, 24, 11:8, 28, Galatians 1:2, 22, Colossians 4:15–16, 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 4, 1 Timothy 3:5, 16, 5:16, Philemon 1:2, James 5:14, 3 John 1:6, 9, 10, Revelation 1:4, 11, 20, 2:1, 7, 8, 11, 12, 17, 18, 23, 29, 3:1, 6, 7, 13, 14, 22, 22:16. Local assemblies had ruling elders, Acts 14:23, 20:17, James 5:14, and gathered on the first day of the week, Sunday, for worship.
The biblical nature of the church is important because without a clear understanding of what constitutes a real New Testament church, the concept of putting people out of the church through church discipline makes no sense. Many churches today want to be a church for the unchurched. This is an oxymoron, a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms. It’s like we want a church, (called out ones,) for those who are not called out. One author calls this a church for the tares, Matthew 13:24-30. It is great that churches want to reach lost people but in the process we have compromised the church. There’s a huge difference between being seeker sensitive, 1 Corinthians 14:23–25, and being a church for the unchurched. In the modern church’s attempt to reach the world we have actually become the world. This is why most churches are not respected and her congregants are called hypocrites.
When the early church practiced church discipline like Luke’s describes (Acts 5:1-10) the reaction from unbelievers s interesting, “and a great fear came over the whole church and over all who heard these things. At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people, and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico. But none of the rest dare to associate with them, however, the people held them in high esteem. And all the more believed in the Lord, multitudes of men and women were constantly added to their number” Acts 5:11-14.
12. What is the purpose in telling to church about the offense? Matthew 18:17. So that they can attempt to win him back. Noticed at the circle of confidentiality is very small with step one. It is in private. But with each additional step at there is greater exposure. What we are unwilling to deal with in private, God has to ultimately exposed in public.
13. What standard of discipline do pastors and other church leaders have applied to them? 1 Timothy 5:19. Pastors and church leaders have the same rights as any other believer, “do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” If a church leader sins, he deserves the same opportunity as any other member in the church to deal with his sin in private.
14. How should the church treat an unrepentant member who won’t even listen to the church? Matthew 18:17. “Let him be to you as a Gentile and text collector.” He is to be treated like he is acting, like an unbeliever who hears the word of God, but does not listen to it when he is confronted about his sin. The only recourse is to disfellowship him rather than pretend nothing is wrong when you break bread together, 1 Corinthians 5:11. The final step of discipline is not optional. “Let him be” is a present imperative and is therefore a command.
15. After a person has been disfellowshipped or excommunicated, what is our responsibility toward him? 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15, 1 Corinthians 5:11. These verses tell us to not associate with such a person. We do not regard him as an enemy, but we admonish him as a brother. The verses teach us that we should not have social contact with the unrepentant brother which includes eating with him. This would include breaking bread from house to house. When there’s an opportunity to admonish him and try to call him back, the opportunity should be taken.
A man was apparently put out of the church at Corinth after he caused a great sorrow to Paul and the others because of his sin. “But sufficient for such a one is the punishment which was inflicted by the majority.” Paul said, “so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, less somehow such a one to be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him” 2 Corinthians 2:5–8. When a believer repents, he is to be welcomed back into the fellowship and not held at arms length as a second class member. He is to be forgiven and embraced.
16. What authority do we have to carry out church discipline? Matthew 18:18–20. Our authority to do church discipline has been given to us by the Father who is in heaven, and Christ who is in our midst.
17. Explain what it means to be bound with sins or loosed from them? Matthew 18:18. Christ was not teaching that the church, or any of its leaders, possesses the authority to absolve the sins of its members. We don’t have the authority to judiciously forgive a person for his sins. Christ is empowering to church to hold its members accountable by God’s standard in heaven. The grammatical construction of this verse teaches that a church’s discipline received heaven’s approval and authority when it comes to what has already been bound, forbidden, loosed, or permitted in heaven. It is not suggesting the idea that God is compelled to conform to the church’s decisions.
The Williams translation is helpful, “I solemnly say to you, whatever you forbid on earth must be already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth must already be permitted in heaven.” Church leaders must decide at this last step in the discipline process whether heaven should have them bind a person in their sin and put them out of the church, or loose them from any further obligation and welcomed back with open arms into the church. Their decision is not binding on heaven but is dictated by heaven. The elders are simply praying, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
18. What are the issues that are being agreed-upon in Matthew 18:19 on the basis of the context? In Matthew 18:19, Jesus assures his people that the Father acts with them when they work to purify the church. “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth, (referring back to the two witnesses of Matthew 18:16), about anything that they may ask, (in seeking the purity of the church), it shall be done for them by my father who is in heaven. When the church acts on God’s behalf and in accordance with his word in matters dealing with sin, he acts on their behalf by confirming and empowering their faithful decisions and actions. When the tough call has to be made, Jesus is right there.
The word “agree” literally means “to sound together” and is the term from which we get symphony. If even two of Jesus followers are in agreement with each other that a sinning believer has either repented or refuses to repent, they can be sure that they are also in agreement with the Father who is in heaven. It is hermeneutically incorrect to interpret this verse as promising believers a blank check for anything they might agree to ask of God. Such an interpretation does not fit the context of church discipline and does violence to the rest of Scripture. Such an interpretation is tantamount to magic, in which God is automatically bound to grant the most foolish or sinful request, simply because two of his children conspire to ask him for it. The idea flies in the face of God’s sovereignty and completely undercuts the countless scriptural commands for believers to be submissive to God’s will, 1 John 5:14 (this is the confidence which we have before him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us).
19. How does the promise of Matthew 18:20 fits into this context? Although Matthew 18:19-20 appears to be speaking of corporate prayer, the context suggests that the agreement reached relates to the matter of church discipline mentioned in Matthew 18:17. The Greek text of Matthew 18:19 opens with the connective word, “again.” When “two or three come to agree on earth” (literally, “to produce a sound together, “symphony”) has to do with the decision concerning an unrepentant member of the believing community. God will answer the united concern of praying people. In fact, wherever two or three come together earnestly desiring to know the will of God in this difficult matter, God himself will be “right there with them.” 2
So, this is not a proof text for small prayer meetings, but rather it is a wonderful promise that reassures the two or three witnesses involved in the process of church discipline that Christ is in their midst when they make these difficult decisions. “For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there I am in their midst.” The context demands that Jesus is speaking about the two or three witnesses in the process of church discipline. To ask or do anything in God’s name is not to verbalize his name but to ask and to work according to his divine will and character. For the witnesses to have gathered in his name is therefore, for them to have faithfully performed their work of verifying the repentance or non-repentance of a sinning brother or sister on the Lord’s behalf.
1 Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible (Mt 18:15–20). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
2 Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew (p. 177). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
[Based on my classes with Richard D. Leineweber, Jr. c. 2000]