We have spent several studies in Matthew 18 for the purpose of focusing on four nonnegotiables of church life. The Lord taught His disciples that the church which He builds is characterised by humility (vv. 1-4), honouring others (vv. 5-14), holiness (vv. 15-20) and harmony (vv. 21-35).
We have learned that those who humble themselves will honour others by helping them to be holy and this will create harmony in the church. We need to love the Shepherd and the sheep and prove it by seeking to help those who stray. The following little anecdote might prove to be a helpful illustration.
Sandy began a job as a primary school counsellor and was eager to help. One day, during break, she noticed a girl standing by herself on one side of a playing field while the rest of the kids enjoyed a game of soccer at the other.
Sandy approached and asked if she was all right. The girl said she was. A little while later, however, Sandy noticed the girl was in the same spot, still by herself. Approaching again, Sandy offered, “Would you like me to be your friend?”
The girl hesitated, then said, “Okay,” looking at the woman nervously. Feeling she was making progress, Sandy then asked, “Why are you standing here all alone?”
“Because,” the little girl said with great exasperation, “I’m the goalie!”
Well, you’ve got to love the compassionate zeal of this well-meaning teacher! Would to God the church were filled with such Sandys, who have a concern for others and who are willing to come alongside others who appear, for whatever reason, to be cut off from the rest.
It was this very concern that the Lord Jesus addressed in this passage. That is, when a sheep behaves contrary to the standard for the flock—laid down by the Shepherd—then the sheep are to notice and to seek to restore such to the fold. We call this “church discipline.”
The concept of discipline, especially in our very permissively individualistic society, is not a popular one. A. W. Tozer lamented many years ago, “We must face the fact that many today are notoriously careless in their living. This attitude finds its way into the church. We have liberty, we have money, we live in comparative luxury. As a result, discipline practically has disappeared. What would a violin solo sound like if the strings on the musician’s instrument were all hanging loose, not stretched tight, not ‘disciplined’?”
We would do well to remember that discipline is a means of grace. The writer to the Hebrews tells us so in 12:5-14:
And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.” If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed. Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.
The Lord expects for us to be holy (1 Peter 1:15-16) and He will continue to discipline us towards this direction, whether such discipline is formative or corrective.
The writer of Psalm 119 noted, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word” (v. 67). The true sheep will identify with these words: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant, for I do not forget Your commandments” (Psalm 119:176). Note that the psalmist was asking for restoration. As a sheep he was seeking discipline; he wanted to return to order.
Though we have been saved by the grace of God, and though the old man is dead, his old habits are not. Yes, the compulsion to sin has been crucified but all too often we feel the urge to stray back to his ways. In the words of the psalmist, we sometimes “go astray.” But God loves His own too much to lose any of us (v. 14) and therefore He uses means to bring us back to the still waters and the green pastures. His major means are fellow sheep.
Those who are not wandering are called by Christ to go after the one who is. When the fellowship sees a fellow-sheep depart from the Shepherd, then the fellow-sheep are to use the biblical means to bring them back to the fellowship.
Without doubt, many in the history of the church have abused this concept. Much harm has been done. “But the abuse of Scripture truths must not tempt us to neglect the use of them,” warns J. C. Ryle. “We must not turn away altogether from any text, because some have perverted it, and made it poison.”
Some 50 years ago New Testament Greek scholar H. E. Dana observed (with particular reference to Baptist churches in the USA),
The abuse of discipline is reprehensible and destructive, but not more than the abandonment of discipline. Two generations ago churches were applying discipline in a vindictive and arbitrary fashion that justly brought it into disrepute; today the pendulum has swung to the other extreme—discipline is almost wholly neglected. It is time for a new generation of pastors to restore this important function of the church to its rightful significance and place in church life.
Brackenhurst Baptist Church is committed to practicing this biblical nonnegotiable of church life. We desire to grow in holiness and thus in spiritual health. We are desirous to grow in our love for the Shepherd and for His sheep. Therefore when we see our fellow-sheep harming themselves we will do the biblical thing to deliver them.
As we return to Matthew 18:15-20 I trust that we will learn the method our Lord laid down for the pursuit of holiness and thus the rescuing of those who harm—both us and themselves. May the Lord of the church help us to grow in our love for our church and to prove it “in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
We looked previously at the Author of church discipline. We should note that the Head of the church, who is Lord of lords and King of kings, has given the church this mandate. Verse 16 should be noted in that Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 19:15—the law—and applied it to the church. “In conformity with his customary interpretation of the Scriptures, Jesus perceives the link joining his messianic community with ancient Israel” (Carson). In other words, Jesus viewed the church as the Israel of God. This is important, for it helps for us to see that the church is the new theocracy. Jesus Christ is this “nation’s” King (see Matthew 21:43). Hence church discipline is not an option, but an obligation. The King has given us this law. We must obey it. We should heed the words of John Dagg who wrote, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”
Previously, we also began to consider the aim of church discipline. Reconciliation of brothers in the church is the main aim of this passage.
We noted with particular emphasis that the goal is to “profit” our brother. G Campbell Morgan is unmatched in his observation that this passage teaches us that “our responsibility against our sinning brother is not created by the fact that he has wronged us, but by the fact that he has sinned and harmed himself.”
We are to humble ourselves when wronged, and for the sake of winning our offending brother/sister, we are to confront them seeking restoration of relationship. Rather than sitting and stewing we are called upon to take the initiative to have fellowship with our fellow-sheep. The aim is relationship. But let’s pause and ask the question, why is relationship so important?
It is important because the church rolls on the wheels of relationships, and so when a relationship is derailed in a local church then the entire local church is affected—negatively. However, when believers are living together in harmony, then the church enjoys such spiritual health by which she is strengthened for the task of the Great Commission.
When such action is pursued, and reconciliation is achieved, everybody wins; the whole flock is enriched and ultimately the kingdom will be enlarged. No wonder Solomon said that he who wins souls is wise. Believer, are you wise?
Those who are wise understand the big picture. They know what is at stake. They know the standards of the Shepherd. They observe the straying. They care for the straying. Matthew Henry observed two centuries ago what must be repeated today: “How careful should all Christians be to preserve the peace as well as the purity of the church! But how few try the method which Christ has expressly enjoined to all his disciples!”
The Aim of Church Discipline
Let’s now explore some related aims of church discipline.
As a church we are called to help the spiritual health of each other. When one sins then something needs to be readjusted in their life. Yes, we are to forgive those who sin against us but further, we are to be committed to their sanctification. We are to help to restore them to this path. John Calvin observed, “Christ enjoins his disciples to forgive one another, but to do so in such a manner as to endeavour to correct their faults.”
John Macarthur adds, “The spiritual Christian neither condemns nor justifies a sinning brother. His concern is for the holiness and blessing of the offended brother, the purity and integrity of the church, and the honor and glory of God. The person who claims to be too loving to rebuke his brother or sister in Christ is simply deceived. He is not too loving but too uncaring.”
We are called to “tell him his fault.” Our goal is to convict his conscience so as to correct his character. Yes, such confrontation may be painful but it is also purifying. MacArthur highlights this truth by drawing a comparison to the blood family: “Human parents know that instruction to their children without enforcement is futile. Children not only must be told what is right but must be led to do what is right, by correction, rebuke, and often punishment.”
Biblical church discipline is not retributive but rather restorative.
The New Testament often refers to the need to “restore” a sinning brother. In the original language, the word translated “restore” is translated variously: “restore” (Galatians 6:1-2), “mending” (Matthew 4:21), “joined” (1 Corinthians 1:10), “equipping” (Ephesians 4:12) and “made complete” (2 Corinthians 13:9). The word was used of setting a broken bone. Of course, when an orthopaedic surgeon sets a bone, he does no actual healing himself, but rather places the body in a position to heal itself. That is really the goal of church discipline: to help the church heal itself. Consider some of the biblical injunctions toward this end.
The local church is called to the corporate responsibility of the restoration of the Christlike character and conduct of its membership. There is no substitute for the (biblical) local church when it comes to constructive counselling. We live in a day in which “professional” counsellors abound, and it is sad to see that many churches relegate the task of counselling to these members rather than taking the task upon themselves. This stands in stark contrast to the apostolic understanding of the church which, in relation to counselling, might be summarised in the words of Paul: “Now I myself am confident concerning you, my brethren, that you are also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another” (Romans 15:14).
Sadly, many have replaced biblical church discipline with long term counselling. The result is professing believers who appear to be addicted to counsellors rather than to Christ. And even though no repentance is forthcoming, “counselling” continues for year after year.
But there is no indication in Scripture that God ever intended for long term counselling to have a place in the church. Obviously if one will be restored then they must repent. Biblical church discipline aims at repentance. “The important thing,” writes David Jackman, “is to have one’s overall aim clearly defined. Jesus does this for us in verse 15; it is to win your brother over to your way of thinking.” That is as long as our thinking is biblical.
We aim for genuine repentance: sorrow for sin, confession, restitution, and turning away from the sin. We must not confuse genuine repentance with what Paul calls “the sorrow of the world.”
For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.
(2 Corinthians 7:8-11)
The sorrow of the world is sorrow over getting caught out, or perhaps sorrow when one experiences the consequences of sin. But it is not genuine repentance, for there is no sorrow for sin itself, no confession of sin, no seeking of restitution, and no turning away from sinful behaviour.
The result of biblical church discipline is usefulness. The church is strengthened in its task of discipling the nations. Don’t ever lose sight of this! Church discipline is about us getting right so that others may be reached and the glory of God further revealed!
To reverse roles for a moment, when you are confronted over your sin, take the rebuke in the spirit it is intended and repent. Long term counselling is never envisioned in Scripture because the process of church discipline does not allow for it. Scripture assumes that believers repent.
Biblical church discipline aims to redeem. In writing to the believers in Corinth, Paul was forced to deal with a sin of a particularly stark nature.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
(1 Corinthians 5:1-5)
He added a little later, “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person” (v. 11).
Drastic action was required, but it was not retributive in nature. Paul’s desire was “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (v. 5). And our goal in confronting others with their sin is ultimately the same: to see them saved—either in the sense of regeneration if they are not in fact yet regenerate, or in sanctification if they are believers.
Solomon wrote that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Church discipline helps us to grow in wisdom. The living out of biblical church discipline increases our appreciation of the seriousness of sin because of a greater grasp of the holiness of God.
MacArthur warns against the opposite of this: “Removing God’s holy hatred of sin emasculates the gospel and hinders rather than helps evangelism. Christians can become ministers of holiness only as they themselves are holy.” Paul wrote quite clearly to Timothy that the aim of church discipline is reverence: “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (1 Timothy 5:19-20). And the same principle is wonderfully illustrated in the account of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-16).
You will remember that these two church members lied to the apostle Peter and consequently to the Holy Spirit about an offering that they brought after selling a particular part of land. Their sin was not withholding part of the price, but lying about the fact that they were bringing it all. God, in an unusual act of judgement, struck both Ananias and Sapphira dead on the spot.
News of the event soon reached the community, and the result was significant. According to v. 13, “none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly.” In other words, no one flippantly signed up for church membership. People understood that a commitment to a local church was a serious matter, and a decision not to be entered into lightly. The local church was seen to be a holy community, where sin was taken seriously, and the church had the respect of the community for it.
But this did not have a negative effect on church growth. On the contrary, “believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (v. 14). Whilst no one joined themselves to the church, God continued to join people to the church, and reverence within the assembly increased as people were confronted with God’s holiness.
A proper understanding and practice of church discipline will go a long way in helping a church to be an oak tree rather than a mushroom!
The Approach to Church Discipline
But Jesus detailed not only the aim of church discipline, but also the approach to it. He set forth the precise process by which discipline is to be carried out.
It should be noted from the outset that this is not the only passage in Scripture which deals with church discipline, and it is not the only process by which discipline may be carried out. This process is for a particular type of sin: a private sin by one brother against another. There are other processes by which other types of sins are addressed, but arguably this particular type of sin is the most common in the local church. Let’s examine the Lord’s words concerning the approach to church discipline.
Remember that this chapter is in the context of how to behave as and treat “little ones.” When it comes to church discipline, then we ought to approach the task as a little one. We ought to view the offender as “greater” than us and must therefore approach them with humility. “Jesus assumes,” writes D. A. Carson, “that the individual . . . who personally confronts his brother will do so with true humility (vv. 3-4): if it is hard to accept a rebuke, even a private one, it is harder still to administer one in loving humility.”
William Hendriksen noted, “Self-discipline, which if properly performed always leads to humiliation, must precede and accompany mutual discipline.” Calvin wrote, “It is no small matter to gain to God a soul which had been the slave of Satan. . . . Nothing, therefore, is more appropriate than meekness, which reconciles to God those who had departed from him.” And John Newton observed, “When people are right with God, they are apt to be hard on themselves and easy on other people. But when they are not right with God, they are easy on themselves and hard on others.”
With Propriety and Caution
What I mean by this is that we must do so according to our Lord’s commands. We must follow proper procedure. And the procedure is detailed quite clearly for us.
Jesus said, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (v. 15). “Such private reproof is hard to do,” admitted A. T. Robertson, “but it is the way of Christ.” We are to be careful that we keep the matter a private one to begin with. If we fail here then Matthew 18 must then be applied to us!
A commitment to private reproof would surely relieve a lot of tension in our local churches. Jackman writes, “Can you imagine the confidence and relaxation that would prevail in a fellowship, if we all knew that talking about others behind their backs was ‘out,’ because none of us would allow another to do it?”
Failure to follow this stipulation can be very destructive to the whole intention of such discipline. “The more a person’s sin is known and discussed by others,” writes MacArthur, “no matter how well-meaning they may be, the easier it is for him to become resentful and the harder it may be for repentance and restoration.”
We should here pause to note that there are exceptions to this rule simply because Scripture never contradicts Scripture. We can never interpret one text in isolation from other texts. Let me illustrate,
God has given headship of a husband over his wife and headship of parents over their children. These are Scripturally-entrenched principles. Therefore, when it comes to reproving another man’s wife, or the child of church member parents, we are on solid ground to do so via the husband or parents. We must not overstep our boundary as determined by Scripture. This does not mean that you cannot tell Johnny to stop swinging on the bannister, but it does mean that if Johnny gives you attitude in return then you need to speak to his father. This principle needs to be respected.
It is our prayer that personal confrontation results in repentance—“If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (v. 15)—but if this is not the case then a second step is added. “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established’” (v. 16). The circle is now a bit wider, but it is still private.
Of course, Jesus quotes here from Deuteronomy 19:15, a concept firmly entrenched in the Jewish mind. It is far too dangerous to acknowledge an accusation in isolation, and so there must be witnesses present who can verify that sin has been committed, that restitution has been sought, and that the offender has either repented or refused to do so. Such an approach protects all parties involved. William Barclay explains,
The taking of two or three wise people is meant to help the process of reconciliation. It may well be that it is we, and not the other man, who are in the wrong. . . . The Rabbis had a wise saying, “Judge not alone, for none may judge alone save One (that is God).”
But the witnesses also add to the urgency of the matter. The offender now sees that sin is a serious thing, and he is encouraged in a greater way than before to behave like a sheep and repent of his sin. “After a first failure try again, with added influence,” writes Robertson Nicoll. “Consensus in moral judgment carries weight with the conscience.”
Once again, it is our desire that the private rebuke results in repentance. At every turn our prayer is that we might gain our brother. Sadly, there are times when the offending brother still will not hear, even before witnesses, and so the matter must be taken to a larger body of witnesses. “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church” (v. 17).
This is painful, but necessary. “Blows that hurt cleanse away evil, as do stripes the inner depths of the heart” (Proverbs 20:30).
We must note that telling it to the church—at least at this point—is not for the purpose of excommunication. The desire is still to win the straying sheep. The church is called to pray for the brother and to call him to repentance. This step brings the prayerful pressure of the body on the individual. It is a positive example of peer pressure. This also helps to curb gossip, and promotes the fear of God. It serves to protect from the bandying about of false charges.
Sadly, there are times when the offending brother refuses to hear even the call of the church to repentance, and it is at such times that the final step must be carried out.
The Awe-fullness of Church Discipline
The final step in church discipline is a serious one. “But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (v. 17). In other words, by his refusal to repent he is behaving like an unbeliever, and the church must therefore treat him according to his profession. He must be removed from the fellowship of the church.
This is often the step that people associate with church discipline. It is the “hiding” part that people fear. It is a serious matter. The church has a solemn responsibility to excommunicate the unrepentant church member.
Of course, this concept of excommunication was familiar to the Jews. Calvin notes, “Christ borrowed a mode of expression from what was then customary among his nation; and the meaning is, that we ought to have no intercourse with the despisers of the Church till they repent.” In the same way that covenant-breakers were “cut off” from Israel’s community in the Old Testament, so covenant-breakers are cut off from the fellowship of the church in the new covenant era.
The New King James Version tells us to treat the unrepentant brother as a “heathen,” which MacArthur informs us was someone who “had no part in the covenant, worship, or social life of the Jews.” A “tax collector” was similarly an outcast from Jewish fellowship, but he “was not an outcast by birth but by choice” (MacArthur).
Practically, this means that we will withdraw fellowship from such, for they are declaring themselves to be out of fellowship. In a sense the church is simply recognising what the unrepentant is professing: “Jesus Christ is not my Lord and thus I reject His theocracy.” This doesn’t mean that we stop loving them. After all Jesus was a friend of publicans and sinners. However, we are called to “carefully avoid fellowship with him in sin, and [to seek] his good only as one without” (Nicoll). We treat him according to the inspired words of Paul to the Thessalonians: “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).
Such a responsibility is placed upon each member in the church. When Jesus said, “Let him be to you like,” He used the singular form of the pronoun. Carson helps us to understand the significance of this: “This suggests that each member of the church is to abide by the corporate judgment and reminds the reader of the individual responsibility each believer has toward the others, already presupposed by the singular ‘your brother’ in v. 15.”
This is a serious matter. The church, with Christ’s authority (see below), has put the sinning brother out of fellowship. Don’t undermine the discipline of the church by an individualistic approach to one who has strayed!
The Arena of Church Discipline
Having noted all of the above, we must now come to the very important issue of the realm in which this discipline takes place.
Let us begin by noting that the local church congregation is the final court of appeals. First Corinthians 6 speaks clearly to the issue of taking sin out of the church and to civil courts.
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? If then you have judgements concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?
(1 Corinthians 6:1-7)
This highlights the importance of having a congregation that has been gathered by Christ. “When taking in new members,” cautions Mark Dever, “we have to consider whether those who are under consideration are known to be living Christ-honouring lives. Do we understand the seriousness of the commitment we are making to them when they join the church, and have we communicated to them the seriousness of the commitment that they are making to us?”
J. C. Ryle adds, “An increasingly high standard of qualification for full church-membership, will always be found one of the best evidences of a prosperous Church.”
How do we ensure this? How do we guard against a church membership bloated by unbelievers and dominated instead by true sheep? The best defence is to make clear the voice of the Shepherd. When a church clearly preaches Christ’s Word it attracts sheep rather than goats. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me,” said Christ (John 10:27). His sheep will hear and follow Him into His fold.
D. L. Moody was once walking with another man when they encountered a drunk on the street. “There goes one of my converts,” lamented Moody. “What do you mean one of your ‘converts’?” asked the other man, surprised. “Well,” replied Moody, “he certainly isn’t one of Christ’s converts!”
Only when a church comprises Christ’s converts will she be healthy enough to carry out the mandate of church discipline for the sake of the church’s holiness. But it will never happen if the church comprises goats rather than sheep.
May our churches continue to reform according to God’s Word, and to do all that we find in the Scriptures, so that, more clearly than ever, those sitting in our pews hear the voice of the Shepherd.