Matthew 18:15-20

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Matthew 18:15-20

15 “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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

I used to enjoy reading the old minutes of the last church I pastored. They were full of fascinating characters and stories! Consider Hiram Wadsworth, who joined the First Baptist Church of Dawson, Georgia, on the first Saturday of November 1849, by transfer of letter. The minutes would go on to reveal that Mr. Wadsworth apparently struggled with alcohol and was repeatedly summoned before the church to answer for his behavior in the community.

In fact, Hiram Wadsworth was called to stand before the church and answer for his conduct on February 1852, November 1852, May 3, 1856, March 1857. These repeated summons to Mr. Wadsworth will sound alien to our foreign ears, and we might think that such actions were harsh on behalf of the church. However, in the minds of these Baptist Christians from long ago, the name of Christ and the witness of the church was at stake when a member lived an ungodly life. Furthermore, the church’s intentions become clear when we read on and see the verdict of the church once Mr. Wadsworth repented of his actions:

Date                Offense            Offender’s Response        Church’s Response

Feb. 1852        intoxication      repentance                            “forgiven”

Nov. 1852       intoxication      repentance                            “forgiven”

May 1856        intoxication      repentance                            “forgiven”

Mar. 1857       intoxication      repentance                            “forgiven”

This sounds so strange to us, does it not? What were these earlier Christians up to? What is this? They referred to this as “church discipline” and they looked to our text as the key text that led them through this process.

The “What” of Church Discipline

Matthew 18:15–18 is the classic biblical text of church discipline: Perhaps the rule of Christ may be most easily understood as a series of progressive steps or movements in, by, and through which believers hold one another accountable for their lives and behavior. While some see fewer steps, and others more, it is best to see the words of Christ in Matt. 18:15–18 as calling for four movements of accountability:

  1. a personal and private appeal (Matt. 18:15);
  2. an appeal with two or three witnesses (18:16);
  3. asking the church to appeal to the member (18:17a);
  4. placing the member outside the fold (18:17b).

Furthermore, in keeping with the redemptive nature of church discipline as attested to throughout the NT, it is widely agreed that a fifth step stands with Christ’s instructions in Matt.18:15–18, though it is itself located (possibly) in 2 Corinthians—

  1. forgiveness and restoration upon repentance (2 Cor. 2:6–8).

As can be seen, then, the rule of Christ presents us ultimately with five steps that operate within three expanding circles of involvement. The circles move from private to public: private admonition (Matt. 18:15), admonition with one or two witnesses (18:16), the involvement of the church itself (18:17).

The third circle of involvement encompasses steps three, four, and five mentioned above: the church appealing as a body to the wayward member, the church placing the member outside of the fold if he or she does not repent, and the church forgiving and restoring the wayward believer upon his or her sincere repentance. The act of placing a member outside the fold is called excommunication.

When we say “the five steps of church discipline,” we mean the five movements of love that a church embarks upon when it becomes necessary for that church to call a wayward brother or sister back home, out of the rebellion in which they have fallen. It is worth repeating again that we are technically speaking here of “corrective church discipline.” Remember that corrective church discipline is actually just one component of the overall general ministry of church discipline that includes all the actions a church takes to build and nurture the body in the ways and discipline of Christ. For the purposes of this study, we have been using the term “church discipline” to mean “corrective church discipline,” though we are aware of its broader definition.

I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that Matthew 18 provides an exhaustive formula that takes into account every foreseeable situation. I agree with Ralph D. Mawdsley’s contention that “Matthew 18:15-17 leaves much interpretive latitude to individual churches.”[1] However, that latitude must never allow us to violate the spirit of the steps that Christ has laid out. Stuart Murray wisely notes: “We must be careful. Flexibility is important, but so is the framework. Normally the steps outlined by Jesus should be taken one by one. The principles are clear and consistent throughout the New Testament, even if their practical application requires wisdom and sensitivity to each situation.”[2]An exception to this would be the situation in Corinth that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 5, a situation by that time so public and so scandalous that private admonition would have been almost meaningless.

The process is a norm. We must avoid legalistic rigidity, on the one hand, and taking reductionist liberties with the text on the other. In this matter, the witness of the Holy Spirit, the prayerful consideration of the church and her leadership, and pastoral sensitivity and caution need to be appealed to and cautioned.

It also needs to be pointed out that these steps would likely have sounded somewhat familiar to many in Jesus’ original audience. Robert Mounce has noted that aspects of these first four steps from Matthew 18 harmonize with both Qumranic and Mosaic legislation.[3]  Craig S. Keener has shown that they are consistent with rabbinic tradition.[4] This consistency is understandable, for the presence of witnesses to establish guilt, for instance, is crucial in any sort of disciplinary action.

Yet these points of similarity do not mean that Christ was merely rearticulating common law or extending Mosaic legislation into the life of the church. On the contrary, the rule of Christ is seen in the New Testament as the unique and radical manifestation of the love of God dwelling among His covenant people in the light of Christ’s redemptive work. Church discipline never appears in the New Testament as a purely punitive act, but rather as a restorative act of family love and concern. The presence and nature of these steps should be seen not in a cold or mechanical light, but rather as steps of progressively greater expressions of love and concern, each with an eye toward the wayward brother or sister’s ultimate restoration to God and the family of believers.

The “When” of Church Discipline

This first step of church discipline involves two components: (1) the recognition of sin and (2) our initial response to sin. Corrective church discipline begins when we see our brother and sister fall into sin. It begins when we become aware that they are harming themselves and the body. This recognition does not mean that we are to become “the sin police,” waiting and watching to catch somebody in sin. Philip Yancey has captured the essence of “the sin police” idea very well: “Now I worry that the prevailing image of Christians has changed from that of a perfume atomizer to a different spray apparatus: the kind used by insect exterminators. There’s a roach! Pump, spray, pump, spray. There’s a spot of evil! Pump, spray, pump, spray. Some Christians I know have taken on the task of ‘moral exterminator’ for the evil-infested society around them.”[5] No, this is not what “the recognition of sin” means. It does not mean that we are to start watching each other with self-righteous attitudes. It does not mean that we are now to become preoccupied with each other’s sin.

All of these things are legalistic parodies of what Jesus meant by, “If your brother sins against you.” There can be no doubt that many churches have made serious and damaging missteps at just this point. In the name of church discipline they create controlling, cult-like atmospheres of fear. They begin witch-hunts and an oppressive legalism hangs in the air like a sickening fume. In fact, as C.J. Dyck has observed, it is actually our failure to follow this initial step that creates oppression: “It is unfortunate that the first steps of the procedure outlined by Christ are so frequently omitted from our thinking concerning church discipline. This error has led to a very primitive concept of church discipline as the “big stick” method in the minds of superficial Bible readers and has corrupted the beauty and redemptive power of Christ’s own method of education and winning love.”[6] If we will be more faithful in this first step, we will not make mistakes in the others, and church discipline will “stay on track” as the ministry of grace that it was designed to be.

Christ has created us for joy and for freedom. We are to have life and have it abundantly. Churches that become pressure cookers of harsh self-righteousness violate the joy that we have been given in Christ. Who wants to be a part of such a body?

No, this is certainly not what Christ had in mind. Church discipline, lovingly and biblically adhered to, does not create oppressive fear and an environment of coldness. Rightly done, church discipline actually creates freedom and joy and love, for it is the cry of a concerned friend for a hurting friend, it is a church rescue attempt for a member hanging from a cliff.

What, then, does Jesus mean when He says, “If your brother sins against you”? It means that we are to love each other so strongly and walk together so faithfully that when we see our brother or sister fall we can begin the process of calling them back.

An Objection Considered

It is occasionally objected at this point that since Jesus says we are to go to a brother “if your brother sins against you,” we are not responsible for holding a friend accountable who does not sin directly against us. This objection, however, does not stand up to scrutiny.

In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Notice here (a) that Jesus also calls for this process when “your brother sins” and (b) that Jesus does not seem to have in mind some great distinction between “if your brother sins” and “if he sins against you.” This is likely why some older manuscripts actually omit the words “against you” from Matt 18:15. J. Carl Laney explains:

Bible students debate whether the words “against you” are part of the original Greek text. These words are absent from several important manuscripts (Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus). Possibly the words “against me” in verse 21 led a scribe or copyist to personalize the matter in verse 15. On the other hand, the omission may have been deliberate in order to render the passage applicable to sin in general. While some important texts lack the words “against you,” Gundry points out evidence for their originality. The words “in private” and the next section, which speaks about forgiving a brother who has sinned against a brother (Matt 18:21-35), favor the originality of “against you.” However, Gal 6:1 indicates that believers have a duty to confront sin in general, not just when it is an offense against one’s own person.[7]

Estella Horning’s words are likewise very insightful at this point. She seems to suggest that the ipsissima vox of “the rule of Christ” speaks against an overly narrow reading that would limit it to only personal offenses:

Regardless of which was the original text of Matthew or which were the precise words of Jesus, the understanding that limits a believer’s responsibility only to personal offenses against one’s self violates the spirit of the context. Every Christian is to be concerned for the safety and well-being of every other Christian brother or sister. Therefore, if we hear about someone who sins, or if we observe sinful behavior, we are responsible to confront the person and seek to restore that person to the right path of self-discipline and humility. The goal is not to accuse, prove guilt, or to punish, but to set the brother or sister back on the right track of healing and wholeness.[8]

The “Who” of Church Discipline

As a rule, the NT instructions on church discipline appear to call for the involvement first of an individual then of a small group and then of the entire church of which the offending person is a member.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. (Matt. 18:17a)

When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:4–5)

The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. . . . (2 Cor. 2:6)

Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take a warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism. (1 Tim. 5:20-21)

Even a cursory perusal of these texts leads us to certain conclusions about the public steps of church discipline. It must be noted that whatever Christ’s reference to “the church” means for the practice of church discipline today, the NT calls for public action to be brought:

to the assembled body of believers7 (1 Cor. 5:4);

to a gathering of believers large enough to cause the offending member to feel sorrow and the weight of his or her offense (2 Cor. 2:7);

by “the majority” (2 Cor. 2:6); and

to a body larger than two or three (Matt. 18:16–17)

In most cases, when a situation reaches this point, “tell it to the church” will mean telling it to the entire congregation.

The “Why” of Church Discipline

Perhaps it happened after the initial step of private admonition. Perhaps it happened after private admonition in the presence of one or two witnesses. Perhaps it happened after the church called for repentance. Perhaps it happened after the church sorrowfully confirms the brother or sister’s removal from the midst of the family of faith by excommunicating him or her.

Regardless of when and at what point it happened, the prodigal came home, the offending brother or sister gave way under the pressure of God’s love working through the body of Christ, and the church is suddenly faced with a choice. Should she slam the door shut? Should she crack the door open and peer out with a scowl? Or should she do something else? Should she turn the keys of which she has become a steward[9], throw open the door, and embrace the returning member with joy and with tears? Of course, this last choice is the right choice. It is celebration time! It is restoration time! It is a time to rejoice!

Consider this real-life scene that Tony Evans has related for our encouragement:

One brother who went into wild living, divorced his wife, and refused to repent was removed from the church. His life fell apart, and after three years he called the church and said, “I want to repent and come home.” We met with him to examine his life and look for fruits of repentance, since we can’t read people’s hearts. When he demonstrated his repentance, he was brought back to church on a Sunday morning. He stood before the church and apologized to the people. He also said that if his wife would have him back, he would like to come home to her and make up for the years that had been wasted. The man’s wife had been praying for him those three years and had not given up hope. I called her forward on this Sunday morning, and performed the wedding right there in the middle of the service, amid a lot of crying and cheering.[10]

That’s it! That is church discipline at work! That is the love of the church rewarded with the repentance of a rebellious member. That is what it’s all about!

What is the church to do when a person under discipline comes home?

What did the shepherd do after he found his lost and wandering sheep?

“And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:6-7)

What did the woman do after she found her lost coin?

“And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:9-10)

What did the father do when his prodigal son returned to him?

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:20-24)

They all celebrated! Church discipline begins with grief and it is hoped that it can end with joy! To be sure, we must have an accurate understanding of what this celebration means. “Note here that the call to celebration is contingent upon the demand for cleansing,” writes J.W. MacGorman, “No church can celebrate the deliverance from sin that Christ has made possible through His sacrificial death on the cross while sheltering or condoning evil in its midst. It is no less true today than it was in ancient Corinth.”[11] But once the threat of evil in the midst of the church has been dealt with, then celebration is not on necessary, it is natural.

There is no hesitancy when it comes to celebrating one who has come home. On the contrary, there is urgency! There is a bold reassurance that their forgiveness is complete. Churches that would institute some type of probationary period for a returning brother, or that would hold up numerous hoops through which that person would have to jump, do not truly understand biblical restoration.[12] The return of a prodigal member, just as the return of the prodigal son in the Bible, calls for grand overtures of love and grace.

To be sure, genuine repentance is necessary, but once one has repented before the Lord, why would we dare say, “No!” to them? To be sure, the nature of some actions might have lingering consequences that need to be dealt with, but if one who has rebelled comes home broken, why would we dare shut a door in their face? To be sure, habitual sins might reasonably need ongoing counseling or other safeguards to help the person in their battle, but if one has recognized their captivity why would we dare refuse them! Have joy, celebrate, when one who was lost becomes found!

Church discipline can be painful. It can be awkward. But it can also be an amazing blessing both to the one under discipline and to the church itself. Let us not spurn God’s difficult gift.


[1] Mawdsley, “The Modus Operandi of Church Discipline,” 22.

[2] Murray, Church Discipline, 52.

[3] Mounce, Matthew, 176.

[4] Keener, Matthew, 288.

[5] Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, 158.

[6] Quoted in Poettcker, “The New Testament Community,” 22.

[7] Laney, “The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline,” 358.

[8] Horning, “The Rule of Christ: An Exposition on Matthew 18:15-20,” 71.

[9] The notion of the keys has been too-often left unexplored by free-church Protestantism, yet it is crucial to our understanding and application of church discipline. Who can tell what damage has been wrought in the church by this Protestant neglect of a full theology of the keys? The biblical idea is that the church speaks with the authority of heaven when the church speaks in harmony with heaven. The church, therefore, does not hold its authority in and of itself. It rather has authority granted to its proclamations only insofar as those proclamations speak in accord with God’s proclamations. Nonetheless, when the church speaks thus, it does authoritatively speak a word of forgiveness or a word of condemnation, a word of loosing or of binding. As was stated before, we dare not discuss “discipline”  until we discuss “church.” It is precisely this neglect of a full theology of the church that has led to the disappearance of “discipline.” Owen has spoken of the church as the “steward” of the keys. (Owen, 159). For a very helpful essay, see also the late Anabaptist theologian, John Howard Yoder’s “Binding And Loosing” which is appended in White and Blue, Healing the Wounded, 211-234. For a Baptist perspective see Hammett, Biblical Foundations For Baptist Churches, 106.

[10] Evans, God’s Glorious Church, 234.

[11] MacGorman, “The Discipline of the Church,” 79.

[12] This may not necessarily mean the immediate reassuming of previous ministry positions in the case of ministers who are placed under church discipline. The question of reinstating pastors, for instance, who fall into gross, habitual sin is a proverbial “tough nut.” We will content ourselves, for the purposes of this study, with this observation: there are times, given the nature and dynamics involved in certain ministry positions, in which a period of time is necessary to rebuild the bridges of trust between the offending member and the congregation. We do not see this as conflicting with immediate forgiveness and restoration. There are times when restoration, while immediate in its pronouncement and intentions, must be worked out in a period of reconstruction.

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