Lately, I’ve been musing on congregational life in the local church, both its immense privileges as well as its responsibilities. The following is a “first instalment.”
As a child, I did not always heed my parents’ admonitions. Though they spoke straight to me, and though my ears caught the sounds of their words, and though I understood what they were saying, my will was so disposed that I would not heed. At such times, they would say something like, “Douglas!” (It was always the full name with an exclamation mark when I was in trouble!) “Listen up!” or, “Listen well!” They expected compliance, and if I failed to “listen well,” well, unpleasant consequences followed—not because they hated me, but because they loved me. If I rejected their parental authority, there was a sense in which I would lose some family privileges—including being sent to my room away from the family dinner table, or curtailment of TV privileges, or exclusion from some event, or some other sanction. They were lovingly helping me to learn to listen well—the first time. They knew that obedience was key to real happiness. And so they were willing to do the hard thing.
I am not sure where they learned such wise and constructive parenting, but they could have learned it from Jesus; specifically, in His words as recorded in Matthew 18.
The disciples were having a bit of a tussle over who would be the greatest in the kingdom (v. 1). Sadly, the same kind of tussles continue to sow discord among Jesus’ disciples today. Jesus used the opportunity to teach them about humility. He expected them to listen; to listen well. And He expects the same of us.
Jesus took an infant, set the child on His lap, and proceeded to blow away the disciples’ self-exalting expectations (vv. 2–5). He told them that the greatest in the kingdom are in fact those who are the least in the kingdom.
Children were not highly regarded in Jesus’ day. In fact, they are still marginalised by societies that reject God’s truth. So Jesus’ illustration was counter-cultural. His point was twofold.
First, like children, those who are “greatest” in the kingdom are those who live most dependently on others. They need others. Rarely do children live as islands. They are social beings who realise, at least at a practical level, that they are dependent on others. That was Jesus’ point. Christians are to live with the mindset of dependence on Christ and of mutual dependence in relation to one another. Christians need one another, and therefore Christians both serve and are served within the Body of Christ. There is no going your own way. Like children, we all need to listen to Jesus. And we listen together.
But second, the use of the metaphor of a child highlights that Christians are a part of a family. This is indicated by familial terms found in v. 15: “Moreover if your brother sins against you … you have gained your brother.”
God’s design is that children live within the context of a family. The same is true for Jesus’ disciples. Christians are a part of the family of God. Now, stay with me: Jesus answered the disciples’ concern about who was the greatest by humbling them with the revelation that they were completely dependent, both upon Him and upon one another, just as a child. Therefore, their competitive talk about who was the “greatest” was deeply wrong. And unless dealt a mortal blow, it would grow into outward sin against another family member. When this occurred, a response from the family was called for. Hence, the teaching on church discipline as recorded in vv. 15–20.
When a fellow church member (a member of our spiritual family) sins, we are called to respond. We are called to confront the person with the goal that they will “listen well.” The first step is a private conference. The goal is restoration, without anyone else knowing about it. Surely this is the impetus behind, “love covers a multitude of sins” (Proverbs 17:9; 1 Peter 4:8). Love whispers as it pleads for an erring brother to “listen well.” As has been well said, we should aim to keep the circle as small as possible for as long as possible.
But if the guilty party does not listen well, then one or two others are to be brought into the “conference.” This helps to assure that all the facts are laid on the table, so that if the person is innocent they will not be falsely judged. But if they are guilty, then a duet or trio of voices will plead with the erring one: “Listen well; repent and obey.”
However, if the individual will not listen, then the entire church family is to be informed. But for what reason? So that the many-membered choir of voices will join in saying, “LISTEN WELL.” It is to be a deeply-concerned, family-wide appeal because of love for the welfare of an erring brother or sister. Their ongoing rebellion is dangerous, perhaps even damnable, and so drastic measures must be enacted. It is painful for all, but sometimes love hurts.
The words of Jesus in the middle of v. 17 are sobering. Jesus says, “But if he refuses even to hear the church.” Did you catch that? Let me restructure the sentence without reshaping the truth: “If he refuses to hear—even the church!—let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” That is, let the one who will not hear be treated as one who does not belong. There is no higher court of appeal on earth for the Christian than the local church; than the congregation of the local church. If a church member will not listen well to the voice of the family of God of which he or she is a member, then the only alternative is to cut off such a spiritually deaf person. Though the individual may in fact be a Christian (we don’t know the heart), nevertheless, their refusal to listen to the church leaves the church with no other option than to treat them in accordance with how they are behaving—as an unbeliever. (We are called to judge actions—see Matthew 7:6, 15–20.)
You see, when Jesus saves His people, they are given ears to hear. Those who behave as though they are unable to hear the voice of the Chief Shepherd, evidenced by their display of an inability to hear the sheep, are self-condemned as not being a member of the flock. If they will not listen, then the church treats their non-responsive response with integrity. We take their refusal to hear seriously. We take their non-compliance as a non-profession of faith. To use the familial metaphor, the church responds by no longer expecting them to fulfil family responsibilities, including the responsibility to listen to the family. But this, of course, also removes them from family privileges. This is sobering. For fundamentally Jesus is teaching that those who will not listen well may indeed be heading for hell.
Whole books have been written on the subject merely touched on in this article. But let me leave you with two important take aways.
First, listen well the first time. When confronted by a church member about some perceived sin in your conduct, then please, for your sake, for the church’s sake, for Jesus Christ’s sake, hear. “Get the wax out,” as my dad would sometimes say. Listen. Pay heed. Change direction. Be blessed.
Second, never minimise what it means to be a member of Christ’s church. Take seriously your church membership. Reflect upon the immense privilege and the sobering responsibilities that attend membership. In this passage, as in many others, it is clear that the local church is called upon to make affirmations, one way or the other, about admittance to membership privileges of the church. Yes, we are called as a community of faith to affirm or to dismiss one’s profession of faith. That is a deeply serious corporate responsibility. Therefore, may we all listen well.