“If your brothersins 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.”
I have spent all of my professional years in service of Christian Institutions. I consider it a great honor, privilege, and challenge to do so. There ARE MANY benefits and good that Christian Institutions do and the stability of an institution is a great benefit to a society that suffers the corrosive effects of sin.
And ALL of the institutions I have served in or visited contain policies that refer to the ‘Matthew 18 Principle’ of resolving conflicts or disputes.
The “PRINCIPLE” is sound and I will explain it. The problem is that like any good tool, it can be misapplied or misused. A good tool used in an improper way can have the unintended effect of a weapon… and this is where we have to be SO CAREFUL and thoughtful in working through conflict.
FIRST… THE CONTEXT OF THE ABOVE PASSAGE
A survey of the entire passage puts this text right in the middle of teaching on temptation, stumbling blocks, forgiveness, and mercy.
This is just a ‘guess’- but the fact that Matthew is the only gospel that records this specific teaching may be due to Matthew’s background as a tax collector. He understood temptation, sin, and mercy in a VERY personal way and he had great love for the tenderness that Jesus granted towards him!
All of this started with a ‘rivalry’ among the disciples on the question “who is the greatest in the kingdom”… might be good to study that at some point. Did the other disciples feel left out at times, like when Jesus took the top 3 to the mountain and they are being really quiet about it?
Jesus answers all of them by pointing out the innocence and humility of a child. He follows that with a big WOE… to anyone who causes one of these to sin. He comments on the inevitable nature of temptation and He teaches a fierce fight against personal sin.. using language like He had used in the Sermon on the Mount (cutting hands and gouging eyes). Sin is nothing to play with!
But as serious as sin is… God’s mercy is always greater. God’s grace is greater than dark sin! So Jesus follows up this condemnation of sin with the Parable of the Lost Sheep… God rejoices when a sinner is found and returned!
That leads us into Matthew 18…. the context is that the goal of this process is grace and restoration…not to the extent of excusing continuous sin…. but erring on the side of grace and letting the consequences grow out of an ever widening effort to restrain it.
AFTER THIS PASSAGE… THE CONTEXT STILL MATTERS.
Peter comes and asks about ‘often to forgive’ and Jesus gives His famous ‘seventy times seven’ response. He follows that up with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The one who was forgiven, but refuses to show the same mercy to others- and then is thrown into prison. Jesus closes the account with “So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The BEAUTY of Matthew18
God is EXCEEDINGLY GRACIOUS: Not only does He seek the restoration of sinners, He prescribes a process to protect the accused and the guilty. Notice the process…. it keeps the sin and information in the smallest possible circle it can.
If I go to my brother or he comes to me and there is confession, forgiveness...it should end right there. And the reputation of the offender is protected for the good of all.
This is why the sin of gossip and rumor spreading is extremely egregious. Notice, it is one on one… then 2 or 3 on one. The goal here is to protect the accused, even if he is guilty.
The Consequences Come in Time and Through a Process of Turning Points: We never go to the most extreme consequences at the beginning. Each step along the way is a loving confrontation and a chance for repentance.
The HARSHNESS of Matthew 18
There is ultimately a consequence for a sinner who will not repent. And if the process was pure, the punishment is proper. Notice, what the consequence is… the person in question is regarded as an unbeliever- and is not considered to be a part of the body of Christ.
Like all ‘unbelievers’ the offer of the gospel remains, but the fellowship is now broken with the community of believers.
Hard…but necessary for the purity and protection of the gospel.
This is how Paul stated it- pulling no punches:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13 ESV)
So, now that we have looked at this in concept and context….. how do we get this wrong?
#1 If your brother sinsagainst you..... Some people use Matthew 18 as an excuse to file a grievance, or a personality conflict, when ‘sin’ is not clearly in the picture.
Matthew 18 is not meant to be a 'search out sin in a person to cleanse the church' text. This is in the matter where a sin has been committed against another Christian. It is a process for a remedy of restoration. It is about relationship more than righteous living. This doesn't mean that a church is not to practice discipline.... and there are 'principles' here for a wise process for going to someone privately and discussing differences. But this passage is about confronting sin… not a personality clash or difference of opinion.
I get frustrated at the small things that cause such big upheavals in supposed ‘christian’ relationships.
John MacArthur has written a helpful guide when considering whether to confront someone or ‘bear with it”.
Whenever possible, especially if the offense is petty or unintentional, it is best to forgive unilaterally. This is the very essence of a gracious spirit. It is the Christlike attitude called for in Ephesians 4:1-3. We are called to maintain a gracious tolerance (“forbearance”) of others’ faults. Believers should have a sort of mutual immunity to petty offenses. Love “is not easily angered” (1 Cor. 13:5). If every fault required formal confrontation, the whole of our church life would be spent confronting and resolving conflicts over petty annoyances. So for the sake of peace, to preserve the unity of the Spirit, we are to show tolerance whenever possible (see 1 Pet. 2:21-25; Mat. 5:39-40).
I wrote about this on May 18, 2014
And the ONLY way to maintain unity is a willingness to ‘bear with one another”.
The means sometimes we ‘overlook an offense’ or as I Corinthians 13 says “… Love does not take into account a wrong suffered”.
I was told that the way porcupines are able to sleep together is they ‘pull in their quills’.
In the goodness of the gospel, we need to be willing to lift up others, accepts others, encourage others, bear with one another- and we live with a mission to encourage others- even to the point of great hospitality.
I also believe this is in keeping with the CONTEXT of Matthew 18- forgive, show mercy… seventy times seven.
At the same time, I Corinthians 13 has a balancing verse regarding ‘love”.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV)
This is what seems to be ‘counter-intuitive’ about the gospel. The good news is good news in the LIGHT of bad news… sin is serious and it causes serious problems. Lack of conformity to or transgression of God’s Holy and Moral Law causes pain, regret, emptiness, shame, and broken relationships. Though some may try and pass a blind eye to ‘victimless’ sins… there is no such thing.
This means that a loving confrontation of sin is NOT a lack of love or mercy… applying a process of discipline is a loving act if done in accordance with God’s Word. This leads to a second way we get Matt. 18 wrong.
#2 Matthew 18 requires initiation of the process in humility, love, and prayerful wisdom.
If you KNOW of a brother or sister who is sinning openly with no evidence of even a desire to struggle or seek help and you do NOT privately talk to them about the sin, you are enabling the sin as a co-dependent.
NO ONElikes to do this. And often this initiation will be received with anger and a charge of hypocrisy or ‘you think you are holier than thou’ attitude. It can mean the loss of a friendship or isolation. It may result in persecution.
But the entire passage is based on a premise that unrepentant sin has possible deadly and eternal consequences. Sin IS SERIOUS.
#3 Matthew 18 is misapplied when we use it as a springboard for launching gossip and rumor.
Sadly, in Christian circles, bad information travels with the speed of the internet and the accuracy of a weatherman. I am saddened to have men and women express concern that a prayer meeting is just a mask for the current gossip line.
If you find yourself getting energized by rooting out sinful behavior and you HAVE to know all the details…. then you ought to be VERY concerned that you are just a busy body and by sticking your nose in all kinds of other’s business… you are only making things worse. You do not have love, mercy, and restoration as your motive.
I wish I could go into detail more about this- I’m just saying that anytime I get involved in a discipline case…the information that ends up going around about the case is almost always incorrect. The worst instances have been when a disciplined student or family goes out and tells their version of the information, but because of confidentiality requirements, I am not able to set the record straight.
We do this with public/media cases as well. Remember, if you do not have all the facts you need to restrain from taking strong stances or voicing strong opinions.
#4 Seeking a confidential counselor or taking an intermediary to make the initial confrontation is NOT a violation of Matthew 18.
In fact, for protection sake, it is sometimes a very wise thing to do.
I get frustrated over this one. If someone comes to see me for advice on how to approach someone, they are not violating the Matthew 18 principle. No, the principle is violated when a conclusive verdict or decision is made before the one accused of sin is approached with the information in a timely and humble way, which allows the opportunity for the accused to explain, defend, or confess.
This is especially true if the one about to be confronted is older, powerful, or a potential threat. When Jesus says to go with you and him alone, it does not cancel out his advice to be ‘shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves’.
I believe an explanation is due if the first approach in not one on one. But for the sake of security and common sense, it is always admissible to seek confident counsel or have a mediator(s) present if there is concern about security or safety.
#5 There can be NO fellowship breaking without giving the time to have solid evidence presented, a chance for response, and a chance for change.
Unfortunately, this goes with the nature of my job as I am charged to bring consequences of violations to our school’s handbook. The biggest issue is that I cannot give consequences without solid proof or reliable, eyewitness testimony. I say “there is what I think I know, and what I can prove”. And though it may not require a standard, beyond any reasonable doubt, I do believe that I need to err on the side of patience and precise information.
A rule of thumb is that if a person is bent on violating laws, standards, policies… they will give more evidence in time.
But I have people express frustration over the TIME it takes to bring meaningful consequences into a situation. Matthew 18 provides no framework for TIME except the process needs to move to each successive step.
Seventy times seven is a long time… but God has been patient with humanity for over 2,000 years.
#6 When the proper procedure has been followed, extreme consequences are NOT a lack of mercy.
When a church discipline committee has properly acted in doing due process, due diligence, and prayerfully seeking reconciliation, they are NOT violating gospel love if they give serious punishment.
I get asked many times after giving a punishment, “Where is the love? Where is the grace?”
And in my mind I say, ‘I just did it’ BECAUSE sometimes punishment is the only chance of seeing repentance take root.
The Psalmist says it well:
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes. (Psalm 119:71 ESV)
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV)
If I suspend someone, or even in the event of an expulsion…yes, that is serious punishment- but nothing like the real world punishment that will come if that person does not change their attitude or behavior.
The failure of Bible believing and gospel preaching churches to practice church discipline has had tragic results in our society. No doubt, when we practice Matthew 18 in an incorrect way, we also do much harm.
My prayer is that we will faithfully support and humbly work through these important issues for the purity of the Bride of Christ and the honor of Christ’s name.
Here are many good resources regarding this issue: