Relationships are a fact of life and they are a huge fact of local church life. We have seen this thus far in our studies of Matthew 18. Each “little one” is valuable to the Father, to the Son and to the Spirit; thus they are to be valuable to us as well. We are to love them with care; without distinction or discrimination. Each sheep is important to the Shepherd and must thus be to us as well.
But sheep can at times behave in very offensive ways. They can cause hurt. They can harm. Sheep have been known to gossip, to utter harsh words, to lose their temper, to say nasty things, to write nasty things, to be selfish and thus to mistreat others in the process. In fact there were eleven sheep (and one goat) standing before the Shepherd as He uttered these words—sheep who were guilty of harming each other in their quest for greatness.
What are we to do when we are not the one causing offence but rather the one who has been offended? Should we write off such a fellow church member as one who is hopelessly lost? Should we wish the proverbial millstone upon him or her? Should we retaliate?
Roommates Chris and John were at home listening to the neighbour’s dog, which had been barking for hours on end. Finally, Chris jumped up and says, “I’ve had enough of this!” He rushed downstairs and out the door. Ten minutes passed before he finally returned.
After a moment, John observed, “The dog is still barking. What have you been doing all this time?”
With a smirk, Chris replied, “I put the dog in our backyard. Let’s see how they like it!”
What is the moral of the story? Revenge doesn’t pay!
Christians are not called to take revenge upon those who wrong them. On the contrary, we are called to restore.
Since, as we have learned, each little one is important, we should commit ourselves, not to retaliation, but rather to their restoration. And this is precisely what the Lord told us in Matthew 18:15-20.
This passage is well-known as “the church discipline passage.” But all too often this idea is seen as negative—heavy on the “discipline” and weak on the “church.” That is, not enough consideration is given to the immediate context in which we learn that the church is to be a family of tender because humble love. When this is understood then the phrase “church discipline” takes on a whole new meaning.
When we are harmed by a fellow sheep we need to feel their pain, for they are harming not only you but themselves as well. Let’s be committed to helping them to see that they are not the greatest. This will help them to stop harming you and from self-inflicted wounds of sin. Let us humble ourselves and love our fellow church member enough to help humbly confront them and bring them to the point of repentance. Their barking dog is probably annoying them as well. Rather than simply relocating the problem, let’s work together with them to solve the problem. We then can both enjoy the peace and quiet.
The Author of Church Discipline
There is no doubt from our text that Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, was Himself the author of church discipline. The words recorded in Matthew 18:15-20 were spoken by Christ.
William Barclay, whose historical comments in his commentaries are normally very sound, disagreed openly with this supposition. Commenting particularly on vv. 17ff, he writes,
In many ways this is one of the most difficult passages to interpret in the whole of Matthew’s gospel. Its difficulty lies in the undoubted fact that it does not ring true; it does not sound like Jesus; it sounds much more like the regulations of an ecclesiastical committee than it does like the words of Jesus Christ.
We may go further. It is not possible that Jesus said it in its present form. It is far too legalistic to be a saying of Jesus; it might well be the saying of any Jewish Rabbi. Jesus could not have told His disciples to take things to the Church, for the Church did not exist, and the whole tone of the passage implies a fully developed and organized Church with a system of ecclesiastical discipline. The passage speaks of tax-collectors and Gentiles as irreclaimable outsiders. Jesus was in fact accused of being the friend of tax-gatherers and sinners, and He never spoke of them as hopeless outsiders; He always spoke of them with sympathy and love, and even with praise (cp. Matthew 9:10ff; 11:19; Luke 18:10ff; and especially Matthew 21:3lff), where it is actually said that the tax-gatherers and harlots will go into the Kingdom before the orthodox religious people of the time. And, finally, the whole tone of the passage is that there is a limit to forgiveness, that there comes a time when a man may be abandoned by his fellow-men as beyond hope, a piece of advice which it is impossible to think of Jesus as having given. And the last verse, which deals with binding and loosing, actually seems to give the Church the power to retain and to forgive sins. There are many reasons which make us think that this, as it stands, cannot be a correct report of the words of Jesus, and that it must be an adaptation of something which He said, made by the Church in later days, when Church discipline was rather a thing of rules and regulations than of charity and forgiveness.
Barclay understands neither holiness nor love. His questioning of authority is the fundamental reason that many in the church today reject the principle and practice of church discipline. Where there is no authority you can be sure there is no accountability.
So it is with those who reject accountability in the local church. They behave as goats. The principle of accountability is the cornerstone of biblical church discipline. The aim of church discipline will never be achieved without an appreciation of and a commitment to accountability. And accountability can only be appreciated when there is a biblical understanding of authority.
The Principle of Accountability
Accountability speaks of being bound to give account; of being responsible (for things or to persons). The idea behind this concept is that of “reckoning.” Hence, we have a responsibility to give a reckoning for that with which we have been entrusted.
In church life, we have been entrusted with a relationship (1) with the Shepherd, and (2) with the sheep. This means that to “go it alone” is sinful, for it is bad stewardship. Since the health of the flock depends on the health (holiness, harmony) of the individual sheep, we are to hold each other accountable to the Shepherd’s standards. Mark Dever has defined biblical church discipline as “simple obedience to God and simple confession that we need help. We cannot live the Christian life alone.”
Church members are in a covenant relationship with each other, and this demands accountability. We cannot maintain our covenant commitment if we harbour a lone ranger mentality to the Christian life. This, of course, highlights the importance of local church membership. Jay Adams was asked many years ago whether church discipline could be exercised upon non-church members. His reply was instructive: “Of course not. Church discipline is for Christians.” Adams was simply highlighting a biblical truth: True believers are members of a local church.
We need to repent of mere lip service when it comes to the issue of “accountability” and “covenantal relationship.” God takes this seriously. The nation of Israel was brought into a covenant relationship with God, and this by definition placed individual Israelites in a covenant relationship with one another. Speaking of this relationship, God said, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbour, and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17).
Accountability is to be taken seriously—both the offender and the offended.
The Principle of Authority
If a person does not understand authority then they will never function well under the exercise of accountability. Without authority there is only autonomy; autonomy and accountability are mutually exclusive.
Adam and Eve plunged the human race into sin when they rejected God’s authority, ignored their accountability and chose autonomy. They found that, ultimately, “self as law” was more binding than “God as law.”
The quest for autonomy has remained with humanity ever since the sin of our first parents. Al Mohler, commenting on the decline of the exercise of church discipline, writes, “Individuals now claim an enormous zone of personal privacy and moral autonomy. The congregation—redefined as a mere voluntary association—has no right to intrude into this space.”
This mindset of “voluntary association” annihilates any concept of legitimate authority and measurable accountability. Mankind, in short, has an authority problem.
Some years ago my father-in-law, who pastored the same church for over 35 years, was asked by a particular woman in the church, “Why are you such a dictator?” Never without a quick response, he replied, “So you won’t be.” He was not being unkind, but was simply making the point that somebody had been appointed by God to lead, and it was not her!
The authority in the church is Christ, revealed in His Word, administered by His undershepherds. To the disciples, led by Peter, Jesus said earlier, “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). He used similar words in our text passage when He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (v. 18). This language clearly points to the authority of the disciples, and as the passage in Matthew 18 indicates, to the authority of the church as well.
As we will see, the local church congregation is the final court of appeals. Jesus Christ has given authority to His church. That authority is clearly His own, for when things are done His way, “I am there in the midst of them” (v. 20).
The apostles understood this principle well. They led with authority in all areas—including that of church discipline. When the Corinthians entertained sin in their congregation, Paul did not hesitate to speak with authority: “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 5:4-5). Notice again that, although Paul spoke authoritatively to the church, it was “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and ultimately the authority of church discipline was to be carried out, not by Paul himself, but by the church.
You will never function “happily” in the local church unless you understand biblical authority. God’s authority in the church is regulated by His Word. We might say that God rules by His rules—by the Word of God. The Word is an absolute standard. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you,” clearly highlighting the fact that there was an absolute standard that could (and would) be breached.
The word “sins” means “to miss the mark.” The offender might miss the mark in his mistreatment of a brother, in falling short of God’s standard, in deviating from God’s truth, or in dismissing God’s authority. But the root of the sin is the same: It is to miss the mark, to miss the target, to have our aim askew. The aim of church discipline is to help our fellow church members to realign the aim of their life. They are to live under God’s authority. Our helping them to do so is called accountability.
But God does not rule arbitrarily. He rules by His rules, but those rules are administered through His rulers, through His appointed authorities. Scripture could not be clearer that God has ordained spheres of authority in this world. Political leaders are to exercise authority over citizens (Romans 13). Employers are to exercise authority over employees (Ephesians 6:5-8). Children are accountable to parents (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1-3) and wives to husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24). Church members are accountable to each other (Ephesians 5:21; Matthew 18:15ff), and also to the elders of the church (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12).
An autonomous culture, like an autonomous individual, will reject the teaching of Matthew 18. But these may in fact be goats.
If you don’t submit to biblical teaching on authority and accountability, then you will be frustrated sheep—at least in a biblical local church. On the other hand, if you do submit then you will be a fruitful sheep in a frolicking flock!
Fathers, teach your children, and husbands, lead your wives, in mutual submission to the body of Christ. Church, if you understand authority then you won’t view those who hold you accountable as your enemy. You will count them as your friend. Church members, you must hold each other accountable for you are under authority to do so. As Robertson Nicholl correctly says, “The phrase [‘tell him his fault’] implies that some one has the right and duty of taking the initiative.”
The Aim of Church Discipline
What is the aim of church discipline? Speaking to this issue, David Jackman writes, “The important thing 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. It is our responsibility before God to practise these principles, yet in so many church fellowships they seem to be seriously ignored.”
Note the Context
Jesus speaks here of someone putting an offence before another brother. In the preceding verses, He spoke of causing offence to a little one. Nicholl notes that “the transition here is easy from warning against giving, to counsel how to receive, offences.”
Remember that the offending brother, according to v. 9, is in danger of “hell fire.” He is in a perilous position. G. Campbell Morgan thus observes, “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.” Those who cause offence are not behaving as sheep, and it is our responsibility to show them the reality of this.
Note the Concern
Biblical church discipline (particularly in this passage) aims at relationship. The Lord Jesus was concerned that we be concerned about holy harmony between one another in the church.
There is an emphasis here on a personal offence: “If brother sins against you.” R. V. G. Tasker notes, “It is not every kind of sin that is here under consideration, but the personal wrong done by one brother to another.” Or as Barclay writes,
What Jesus was saying was, “If anyone sins against you, spare no effort to make that man admit his fault, and to get things right again between you and him.” . . . Suppose something does no wrong, what are we to do to put it right? This passage presents us with a whole scheme of action for the mending of broken relationships within the Christian fellowship.
“Contentions among Christians set the world against the gospel,” observes Matthew Henry. “As they must arise in this world . . . our Lord prescribed some rules for stopping the progress of these contentions, and preventing their effects.” Jesus’ concern was that when difficulty and division exists between sheep, there must be a desire by the offended sheep to seek to win the offending sheep. The goal is not to win the argument, but to win the brother.
When sheep cause offence to other sheep, both the offended sheep and the entire church are impoverished. In confronting others over their sin, we are seeking ultimately to profit them (and the church). Jesus said that, if the offending brother responds biblically to the confrontation, “you have gained your brother.”
The word translated “gained” means “to make a profit” or “to win.” It is used in Matthew 16:26 to speak of a man who “gains the whole world,” and in Matthew 25:17, 20, 22 of economic gain by investment. Paul used it in Philippians 3:8 to speak of dismissing interest in all earthly things “that I may gain Christ.” James spoke of those traded to “make a profit,” using the same word. And Peter exhorted Christian wives to submit joyfully to their husbands so that the husband “may be won” by the godly conduct of the wife.
Where there is “gain,” somebody is enriched! Somebody wins! In fact, everybody wins when the sheep returns, for the Father’s will is done in the church (cf. v. 14; see also 1 Corinthians 9:19-22).
In sum, biblical church discipline is God’s method of helping the health of the flock by helping the holiness of the individual and the harmony of all. To cite Morgan again,
We are personally to attempt to gain our brother, because we have lost him as a brother through his sin. If he will not hear us, we are to take two or three with us, because by persisting in sin, his friends have lost him, he is lost to comradeship. If he will not hear them we are to go to the Church, because the Church has lost him; by his sin. The Church is to take the matter to heaven, because heaven has lost him by his sin. It is the great tragedy of a man lost which colours all this instruction; and the purpose that is to be in our heart when we deal with a sinning brother, is that of gaining him.
The product of biblical church discipline is the peace of the church. Henry wrote, “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!”
Biblical church discipline aims at reaching others. We are to be concerned about this because Christ is committed to reaching the nations (Matthew 28:18-20). Do we understand what is at stake? It is doubtful that we will profit the nations with the gospel if we are unresolved in our problems with others. Yes, how you live as an individual sheep affects how well we function as a flock.
The church is to make the nations glad with the gospel, but the nations will never be glad if the church is not glad. Our relationships locally will affect the church globally. There is something bigger here than merely how we get along as church members.
We should observe that church membership, when biblically enacted, does not have a negative effect in terms of growth. One of the reasons often stated to avoid church discipline (and here “church discipline” is normally misrepresented exclusively as excommunication, which is but the final step in biblical church discipline) is that the church will not grow. But when holiness is taken seriously, God blesses. No starker illustration of this can be found in Scripture than the account of Ananias and Sapphira.
You will remember that these two church members lied to God about their offering. As a powerful example of the seriousness of sin, God struck them dead during the worship service of the church. Whilst this did have the (desirable) effect of making people think twice about flippantly joining the church, Luke records an interesting statistic following this event:
And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them. Also a multitude gathered from the surrounding cities to Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
Pure churches are powerful churches. Responsible, restorative churches are relevant churches. Grieving churches (i.e. churches that grieve over their sin) are growing churches.
Biblical church discipline aims at revealing. We are to be concerned about the purity of the church. One of the aims of biblical church discipline is purity. Greg Wills has studied the history of the exercise of church discipline in Southern Baptist Churches. After reviewing this history and the steady decline of biblical church discipline in Southern Baptist Churches, Wills writes,
Many Baptists shared a new vision of the church, replacing the pursuit of purity with the quest for efficiency. They lost the resolve to purge their churches of straying members. No one publicly advocated the demise of discipline. No Baptist leader arose to call for an end to congregational censures. No theologians argued that discipline was unsound in principle or practice. . . . It simply faded away, as if Baptists had grown weary of holding one another accountable.
But this is a dangerous situation for any church to find itself in, for as John Cassian (360-435) noted centuries ago, “What is pure is corrupted much more quickly than what is corrupt is purified.”
Church discipline aims at separating sheep from goats. Church members profess to be sheep, but if they stray and persist in unrepentance, they are in fact behaving like goats. Of course, we do not know their hearts, so a most pertinent question is, how can we tell if a particular individual is a sheep or a goat. Church discipline aids in this assessment.
In assessing whether an individual is a sheep or a goat, there are some important questions to ask. How does this individual respond when confronted with his sin? Does he despise or receive the accuser? Does he humble himself and repent when sin is brought to his attention. Does he behave like one of God’s little ones? Does he always seek to be the greatest, and thus unrebukeable, or will he humble himself when confronted with the need to correct behaviour?
David proved that he was a sheep when he repented of his sin after Nathan confronted him (2 Samuel 12:1-13). On the contrary, consider Asa—in many respects a godly leader (1 Kings 15:9-11)—who was angered when confronted with his sin and placed the messenger in prison (2 Chronicles 16:7-12). His was not sheep-like behaviour. Nor did Saul behave like a sheep when he consistently rejected God’s truth (see 2 Samuel 13, 15, etc.). Jesus illustrated the difference between sheep-like and goat-like behaviour with one of His parables.
“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.”
We must learn and practice the biblical truth that Christ’s sheep hear His voice and follow Him (John 10:27). This will encourage us to go after them for, after all, we have God’s promise. It will embolden our prayers; after all, since His will is that they not perish, and since He promises to answer prayers that according to His will, we can be confident. It will enlighten us to realise that some who profess to be sheep are actually goats.
When you consider the goal of church discipline—to reorient our aim—it becomes clear that biblical church discipline is a nonnegotiable of church life. As Mark Dever notes, “We’re to practice church discipline because, with humility and love, we want to see good come.”
We ignore it to our own peril. We reject it perhaps to our eternal ruin. We embrace it to our everlasting joy.
Many of us—perhaps most of us—have probably been the blessed recipient of church discipline! Several years ago someone asked me how often we as a church exercise church discipline. My answer came as a surprise to them: “Every day!” You see, this person mistakenly believed that church discipline was about excommunication, but as noted above, this is only one step in church discipline—and one that, in the grand scheme of things—is rarely required, for sheep hear Christ’s voice and repent! But sheep also sin, and so the need for confrontation—church discipline—is a daily reality in any biblical local church.
Biblical church discipline is exercised to the glory of God. The Lord Jesus Christ loves His flock—every sheep in it. He loves it enough to confront it when it needs correction. He loves each sheep enough to seek it.
Sheep, let us be committed to restoring the straying. Let us humble ourselves when we are sought. By keeping the cross of Christ central we will repent and seek forgiveness and will be confident to seek the sinner. May we do so for the glory of God and for the good of His flock.