Church discipline is not a fun topic. When a brother or sister in Christ chooses a path of sin, nobody enjoys implementing the disciplinary steps given in Matthew 18:15-17. In that text Jesus gave the following instructions:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
All too often, I think we’ve implemented these steps harshly, lovelessly, and mercilessly.
Many years ago, I was in the Army serving overseas. I was part of a small international church and served as an elder—though in all honesty, I was far too young and inexperienced to do so. A couple other young soldiers served as elders with me.
One Sunday, our church was devastated by the news that our pastor planned to run away with one of the married women in the church. The other young elders and I immediately implemented the steps from Matthew 18 in a hard, condemning manner and things did not go well.
Fortunately for the church, an older seasoned missionary couple stepped in and helped us deal with the situation much more relationally and lovingly. The result was reconciliation and restoration. The pastor and his wife returned to the States and set about putting their marriage back together again. The same was true for the other couple.
In the text on church discipline, I think we misunderstand what Jesus meant when He said, “If they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” How would Jesus want us to treat a pagan or tax collector? With love, humbly and gently trying to bring them to the Lord. Instead, I fear that we’ve often treated them hatefully and spitefully.
Another way that I think we’ve misused and abused this passage and these instructions is by separating them from the context of the rest of the chapter.
Immediately prior to giving these instructions, Jesus told the parable of the wandering sheep. Look at what He said in this regard:
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier bout that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.” (Matthew 18:12-13)
Jesus is using sheep as a metaphor for people and applies it to us. What I see here is that when a brother or sister wanders from Christ, we need to doggedly pursue them until we can bring them back. And when they return, we should rejoice and celebrate! This is very relational. It is very loving and caring. And it stands in contrast with any harsh approach we might otherwise be tempted to follow.
In the same way, the verses that follow the church discipline instructions shed more light on what our approach should be. Right after Jesus told His disciples how to handle discipline in the church, Peter asked Him, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21
Peter probably thought he was being generous with his forgiveness, but Jesus countered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) And then Jesus went on to tell the parable of the unmerciful servant. This parable emphasizes that if God has forgiven us the immensity of our sin, He expects us to forgive the sins of our brothers and sisters. We are to extend mercy to each other generously, just like God has done for us.
If we’ve been overly harsh, unforgiving, uncaring and unmerciful in the past, we don’t want to swing the pendulum to the opposite extreme either and treat sin in a nonchalant, tolerant way. (See 1 Corinthians 5 and Revelation 2:20ff.)
Instead, we want to use the full approach that Jesus laid out for us in Matthew 18 to help restore a brother or sister who has fallen into sin:
- Lovingly and doggedly pursue a wandering brother or sister to bring them back to Jesus.
- Confront each other about our sin and engage other followers of Christ and even the church if there’s no repentance. The goal is restoration.
- Seek to win those who don’t repent as we would a non-believer.
- When our brother or sister repents and returns, generously extend them mercy and forgives.
- Rejoice and celebrate when they return.