In order to understand Church discipline, it is perhaps profitable to define what we mean by “church.” Today when we hear the word “church” it means many things to us. But it is unlikely it means to us what it meant to the earliest Christians. For us it may mean things like a building, a service we attend and so on. We say things like, I attend “Such-and-such Church,” or “My family and I went to church on Easter.” We may also say, “I have to pick up the kids from church.” While none of these are mortal sins, they are actually misuses of the word Church.
The term “church” in the New Testament (ekklesia) literally means the “called-out ones.” Only people can be “called out”—especially by God. You must of necessity be a human being to be part of this phenomenon called “the church.” The “called-out ones” are a people who are called out by God to live as the people of God.
There are three basic truths behind the idea of Church discipline. First, God loves his Church, so much, he sent his son to die for her. He shed his blood for the Church (Acts 20:28). Second, There is nothing that God wants more than a unified Church. In John 17 Jesus offers his high-priestly prayer of intercession for the unity and love of the Church. God’s Gospel vision is a unified Church, unified in fellowship with the triune God. Third, sin destroys the unity of the Church. Sin always separates and alienates. That is what happened in the garden of Eden (Gen 3). It is what happens in every relationship where sin is allowed to go unchecked. Church discipline is designed to restore unity in the visible Church, as much as possible.
Matthew as a Book of Discipleship
The book of Matthew likely hails from Antioch in Syria, the hub of the earliest Church. The book served the Church catechism—a book for training Christians in the normal Christian life. Thus we find within it various and sundry practices designed for organizing and managing the early church.
These practices are usually referred to by sociologists as “social controls.” These are elements that create healthy structures and boundaries for preserving group health and unity. All communities, organizations, clubs, and nations have “social controls.” There is only anarchy without them. One that perhaps stands out the most in Matthew is chapter 18:15–20. This is the halackha on how to handle community conflict.
Matt. 18:15 “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.”
Oh wait… What is a halackah you ask? Well that is a rabbinic term for a ruling or process on how to apply God’s commandments within the community. Basically it is an interpretation of how to obey God’s word. The word halackah is derived from the Hebrew Term halak meaning “to walk.” So to perhaps oversimplify a bit, it is a ruling on how to “walk out” your faith. Matthew 18:15–20 is for instructing them how to deal with conflict and sin. Basically Matthew 18:15–20 is a halakah on Church discipline. Lets look at 7 key principles and processes we can derive from it.
1. Christians still struggle with sin — There is no pretending that Christians are perfect or without sin — The halackah on conflict starts with the fact that “your brother” has sinned against you in some way. In its biblical and social context “your brother” actually implies a baptized member of the church (see also 1 Cor. 5:11–12).
2. Go toward your neighbor — This is perhaps the most simple and critical of all the principles we find here. When we have a problem in relationships, the natural tendency is to cut off. What is cut-off? It comes in various forms ranging between the basic “silent treatment” upwards as far as refusing to talk to someone for years, divorce, and so on. In the Church we are called to stay in relationship and work toward reconciliation.
3. Deal with your neighbor directly first — If you feel your neighbor has sinned against you, go to him directly (and nobody else at first). We are to maintain an open, neighbor-facing posture at all times. I like to call this a “covenant facing” posture. This means reconciliation is central. Relationships and churches implode only when people quit and cut-off. It is sin. God will requite it.
When someone feels hurt, that is when gossip and slander begin. Jesus is emphatic about approaching the other party alone. Discretion pervades Jesus’ teaching here.
However typically, instead of going to the person in question and clearing the air, most people go to someone else. When we are hurt or offended, our natural (and sinful) inclination is to find an empathic ear. We rarely want an objective person who will point out where we may be wrong. So we triangle in another person to listen to us, take our side, and become a cheerleader who says, “Yeah, that’s right, they were really bad to you!” This is because we seek self-justification. We are by nature more concerned with “being right” or at least feeling as though we are in the right, than actually doing the right thing.
Going directly to your neighbor brings insight. Most of the time people are honored by just the effort. This often gives the opportunity to just remove misunderstanding and dispel assumption. Thousands of miles of disagreement can often be crossed simply by talking to the person directly.
4. If you are not heard, bring others to hear and try the situation — At this point others are brought in to help reconcile the matter. The goal at this point is to reconcile as brothers without more formal church proceedings. It also goes without saying that the guilt of the accused is not necessarily assumed. The parties are brought in to hear the matter and give an opinion. If the accused is found to be in the wrong, he is called to repent and make amends. If the accuser is, after cross-examination, found to be in the wrong, she or he is called to make amends.
5. If your neighbor still does not take responsibility, tell it to the church — Now this is important because we need to define “the church.” This is not the whole body of believers. The issue is brought to the leadership of the Church to hear and adjudicate the matter. They are to hear it in private and provide a ruling on the matter. Then they are to decide on whether the issue should be made more public than that. But the assumption is that it will be rectified privately.
If the accused is found to be in the wrong, she or he is gently called to stop and turn away from those actions and make amends to the offended party. This is the process of reconciliation. And here is a key point: If the accused is found guilty but is repentant, then the issue is not made public. The only time when sin is brought public (and still with much discretion) is when two criteria are met (1) she/he is found guilty of an objective, black & white commandment of Scripture, and (2) he/she refuses to take responsibility for it and restore unity.
So as an example, a man is having an affair on his wife. She addresses it with him, but he does not listen. Then she gets some other men from the church, but he still does not listen. Finally they bring in the Church leadership. They address the issue. If he swallows his pride, repents, and submits pastoral guidance, the matter is kept private. If on the other hand, he still refuses, then the Church has to excommunicate him, which makes it a public issue. The goal is always to deal with sinners and their sin in gentle and discrete ways—not to publicly put people in pillory.
Also there are many times when an accusation is brought against someone, and as it turns out, it is unfounded. What does the Church do then? If the witnesses/officers from the church find the accusations unfounded, the accuser is corrected and the matter is closed. The accuser may not take it any further or take it public. To do so is reviling and slander. If he or she ignores the decision of the church and willfully takes it public independently of the church leadership, then the process of discipline outlined in Matt. 18:15–20 is then started with him or her. Paul goes as far as to put “a reviler” (someone who brings false public accusation) in the same category with the worse offenders—idolaters, adulterers, thieves, and so on (1 Cor. 5:9–13).
6. If he refuses to listen to the Church, don’t continue to entertain his disunity — “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” This of course does not mean one is uncharitable or cruel. But it does mean that the Church must not allow itself to get bogged down with hard-hearted folks who will not take responsibility for they’re actions.
Sin is divisive to the Church. That is what the halakah on church discipline in Matthew 18:15–20 is addressing. The path to peace and nurture in the church is by addressing and stopping destructive sinful behaviors.
Some people love fights and controversy. Paul observed this on more than one occasion. In Titus 3:10 he says, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.” The community is to keep a warm and compassionate posture, but not to entertain the immature behavior of the divisive person.
This of course also applies to one bringing an accusation in the first place. If it is unfounded, then the matter is quickly put to rest. If he or she tries to press the issue further, it is not to be tolerated because it is extremely destructive to the local church.
Many today are falsely under the impression that Church discipline is a small category in a collage of other practices. But the Gospel IS Church discipline. Church discipline is designed to be healing, unifying, and restorative for the Church. God’s missionary movement in the Gospel is the same—healing, unifying, and restorative. It was both the love and justice of God that put the Son of God on the Cross for the Church of God.
In the cross, the Son of God took the discipline of God in the place of the Church so he could send us the Spirit of healing in our midst. Then that Spirit who convicts the world of “sin, of righteousness, and judgement” leads her in all truth (John 14:17; 16:7–15; & 1 John 4:6). The Church is then to walk in that same healing and restorative pattern.