What is Church Discipline?
There is hardly a practice in the local church that is misused more than “church discipline.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have many answers and its misuse is understandable. I think there are three primary ways that we can find it misuse: 1) It is never used at all, 2) it is misused in an unbiblical way, and 3) people are brought in for discipline for “sins” that don’t require its use.
Matthew 18:15-17 is the primary passage that speaks to the practice of church discipline (even if we are still left with a lot of questions).
First, let’s say this: the purpose of church discipline is the restoration of the brother in sin (Matt. 18:15), to bring recognition to the seriousness of sin (1 Tim. 5:20), and to protect the church from the influence of sin (1 Cor. 5:6). This much is clear.
Here is what Christ has to say about it in Matthew
15 “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.
16 “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.
17 “And 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-gatherer. (NAS)
Let’s try to take this step by step.
1. Discipling Every Time Your Brother Sins at All
If Your Brother Sins [Against You] (Matt. 18:15)
The very first thing that must be realized here is that this does not say, “If your brother sins, go reprove him in private.” Wait . . . I suppose it does. Reread the passage about. I added the text in brackets. However, while this is how it reads, this is not what is meant. To make a long story short, this here are the options of translation:
“If you brother sins . . .”
“If your brother sins against you . . .”
See the difference? It is quite significant. The NAS, HSV, NIV, and NET all have the unqualified “If your brother sins . . .” The ESV, NAB, KJV, and NLT qualify it with ” . . . against you.” The best and earliest manuscript evidence points to the unqualified version: “If your brother sins . . .” Ouch. So, any time my brother or sister in Christ sins at all, I am to go through this process? Not only would that be an impossible task for anyone in church (can you imagine having to go take someone through this process any time any other Christian sinned?—that is all we would be doing!). However, I do believe this needs to be interpreted with the qualification “against you” due to Peter’s follow-up question in Matt. 18:21 (“Lord, how many times can my brother sin against me . . .). Peter obviously understood Christ as qualifying it, so should we.
Further Reading on this Subject: “Textual Problem: Matthew 18:15”
Therefore, this is a sin against you. Thus the process begins.
2. Do Not Talk to Others About the Problem
Go to him in private (Matt. 18:15)
Let me say this as emphatically as I can: Don’t get this wrong. Incredible and sinful damage will follow if you do. God is very concerned about protecting people. The first engagement of the sin in question is one of privacy. Rumors spread, grow, evolve, and damage people faster than anything on earth. James said this about the ability of the tongue to destroy a person:
And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (Jam 3:6 ESV)
Just think about this . . . whatever sin your brother may or may not have committed against you would be be hard to compare to you spreading this offense to others (even one person) before you go to your brother in private. In this context, you discuss your problem, where you believe they sinned against you, and listen to the response.
Maybe after he or she explains themselves, you have more understanding and your anger either dissipates or is seen to be unwarranted. This is why private conversation is so important. Or, conversely, he or she may recognize their sin and repent. If so, case closed. You have won your brother. And the matter always remains between you and him or her.
However, their explanation may not be satisfying, they don’t repent, or they just don’t care about your problem with them. Then you take it to the next level.
3. Do Not Bring Your Wingmen to the Confrontation
Take Other Neutral Parties with You (Matt. 18:16)
Here, Jesus is taking from the Law of Moses (Deut. 19:5). The sin must be confirmed to be sin by others. There are a couple of things that must be kept in mind here. First, the issue is still private. You don’t go public with the sin. We are still protecting the accused if the sin has yet to be established. The second issue is that those you take with you on this next encounter are not your wingmen! They are not those who you have talked to, made sure they are on your side, then bring them with you to the confrontation. What good would that do?
The two or three witnesses are neutral parties, ready to listen to both sides (see 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). They are there so that they can make an unbiased judgement. If, having listened to both sides, they determine the brother has not sinned and the one making the accusation is in the wrong, then you do not repeat the process until you find those who will take your side. The matter is over. Leave it with the Lord. However, if the brother is judged by the others to be in the wrong and repents, rejoice! You have won your brother. But, still, keep it all private, not even telling your closest confidant about the proceedings.
However, if this person is determined by these neutral parties to be in sin, yet he or she remains stubborn and obstinate in their wrongdoing, then and only then is the next step is ready to be taken.
4. Do Not Announce the Sin from the Pulpit
Bring it Before the Church (Matt. 18:17)
Bringing to the “church” is the final step. Exposing the sin to this larger gathering of believers is still to be seen as a somewhat private engagement (at least in modern terms). In other words, I don’t think we should see this necessarily as an announcement made from the pulpit (although that could be the case in smaller churches). The hope is still repentance as can be seen in the statement “and if he refuses to listen to the the church . . .”
This is only the second time the word “church” (ekklesia) is used (the first was in Matt. 16:18). Christ had in mind a small gathering of people (house church type). He may have only been thinking about the eldership of the church (those in authority), thereby upping the ante of non-repentance if guilt was found.
5. Do Not Kick the Person Out of the Church
Let Him Become as a Gentile and Tax-Gatherer to You (Matt. 18:17)
This is the final step if the accused is deemed guilty by the “church” and remains unrepentant. However, like so much of this passage, I think there are so many ways to go wrong here. For starters, what does it mean to be “as a Gentile and tax-gather.” This was a common Jewish idiom which simply means “unbeliever.” Christ was not affirming the idiom. In other words, he did not see Gentiles or tax-gatherers as unbelievers. This was just a common expression that Christ used that would have been well understood by his listeners.
To be treated “as if he were” or “just as” (hosper) an unbeliever is not affirming that the person was an unbeliever, but that he was to be treated as if he were. In the church, the implications would be severe for one who is involved in the church, but negligible for those who are merely pew-sitters.
What did it mean then? What are churches actually supposed to do when we have gone through these steps and the person is unrepentant? What do we do with those who are to be treated as if they were “Gentiles and tax-gatherers”?
First, we must realize that in the there was always a place for sinners and Gentiles in the synagogues (i.e. “church”). Even in Herod’s temple, there was a very important place called the “Court of Gentiles (seen below) for Gentiles to “attend” services and engage with God.
So Christ was not saying that (except in extreme circumstances) there was to be a security usher at the door of the church making sure that said sinner could not get in. I think this has more to do with positions of leadership, influence, and authority. The guilty sinner could not hold such positions, exercising their spiritual gift. They could, however, attend church services. After all, don’t we let those whom we consider to be unbelievers into our churches? What better place for them to be!
Further complicating the matter are the words “to you” (Gk. soi). “Let him be considered as a Gentile and tax-gatherer to you” (not, as we like to say here in the south, “to y’all”). This is a singular, most definitely referring back to the person against whom the sin was committed. It is possible that it was only to this person that the sinning party was to be considered a “Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”
Either way, how to we treat “Gentiles and tax-gatherers”? Do we shun then, speak ill of them, say vile things about them behind their back, ruin their reputation, and never speak to them again? Far from it! We love them, care for them, and treat them with grace and mercy. Isn’t this what Christ did? Wasn’t he called a friend of sinners, tax-gatherers, and prostitutes? How did he engage unbelievers?
Book Recommendation: What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey
While we have not even touched upon the hardest question (what sins are worthy of this kind of discipline?), we have seen that this type of process has great value in the church. In fact, this is how we should approach anyone who has wronged us, in the church or not. Unfortunately, so often we go the opposite direction, bringing the sin to everyone’s attention and then ganging up on the suspected wrong-doer after his reputation has already been stained (often beyond repair). The sinfulness of going in this direction, not approaching someone in private, as I said before, rivals just about any sin that could be brought against the accuser.
I have had the reverse process happen to me twice. Once with a group of elders who called me into a meeting, all having come to agreement that I was in the wrong based on the testimony of one person. None of them approached me privately and I was not given a chance to explain myself. This was not too damaging due to the nature of the sin I was being accused of. The second was much worse. Again, no one approached me privately about the accusation that was being brought against me and none of the parties present were neutral. I was brought into a surprise meeting and given no chance to explain myself. And even after I had repented of a wrong that I had done (though nothing to the degree that I was being accused of), there was nothing private about it. The rumors had already spread and there was no way for me to get the toothpaste back in the hundreds of tubes that had been let out. It was very hurtful.
But, this process is a wonderful process when done according to the steps that Christ put forward here. Keep it private, listen to the accused, bring neutral parties, and make restoration the goal.