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The Forgotten Gem of Church Discipline | Matthew 18:15-17

March 19, 2017 Preacher: Ryan Gilbert Series: Misc.

Topic: Correction, Discipline, Church, Accountability Scripture: Matthew 18:15–17

Excerpts

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Today I want to talk about something called church discipline. Now, some of you may have no earthly idea what that even means, and that’s ok. That’s why I want to spend today looking at it. Carl Laney defines church discipline in this way: It is broadly defined as the confrontive and corrective measures taken by an individual, church leaders, or the congregation regarding a matter of sin in the life of a believer. Even more broadly, there’s actually two different types of church discipline: 1) formative church discipline, which is just teaching and learning and growing like what we’re doing right now, actually. And then, 2) corrective church discipline, which is actually what we’re focusing on today. Corrective church discipline is when one member of the body admonishes or corrects another member for sin. Now I know that already might make us uncomfortable thinking about that. Before we get into the reasons why this might make us uncomfortable, I just want us to read directly from Jesus what he has to say on this topic. Matthew 18:15-17. Page 10 in blue New Testament under the seats.

“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. 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. 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.”

Jesus lays this out. As clear as can be. We see it commanded and practiced in multiple other New Testament passages. And yet, I’m betting some of us or even many of us have never even heard this before. And the Christian church broadly does not practice this at all. Why? It’s offensive. We don’t like correcting each other; we don’t like being corrected! We don’t want to hurt feelings. Which is a good thing, if you like hurting feelings, then come talk to me, because that’s not good. But, sometimes, feelings need to be hurt for the glory of God, and for the building up of one another. We don’t realize that what Jesus says here carries with it so much potential for the protection of the purity and witness of the church, as well as unmatched restorative power for the individual that is in sin and doesn’t want to get out of it. Today, I want us to look at the purpose, the necessity, then a few prelimary questions, then the four steps that Jesus lays out. 1st:

 

The Purpose of Church Discipline

The broadest purpose for corrective church discipline is love. Biblical correction is a sign of love. This might be the most misunderstood aspect of church discipline. Even though this form of correction is something that happens directly between God’s people, it was established by God as one manifestation of his love for us. The writer of Hebrews makes this point in Hebrews 12:6: “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” He goes on to point out that it is this very discipline that affirms the fact that we are his children, verse 7: “For what children are not disciplined by their father?” We know that it’s out of our love for our own kids that we correct them, right? It’s not a mean or hateful thing to correct your children.

In the same way, it is out of God’s love for us that he gives us these instructions to practice loving correction. In the New Testament, the primary goal of church discipline is to correct, not to punish. That is probably another one of the biggest misunderstandings of church discipline, because when we think of discipline we think of punishment. But that’s not the goal of church discipline. The goal is not punishment, the goal is restoration. Christians are to love the church enough not to let one another just live in sin that damages both our own walks with Jesus and also damages Jesus’s reputation in the world. Even in the more advanced steps of church discipline, that we’re going to talk about in a few minutes, they are TRULY acts of kindness and love. That’s the purpose.

 

The Necessity: Ignoring Matthew 18 is a sign of lack of love.

Perhaps a common reason given for pretty much ignoring Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 is that it doesn’t fit within the church’s primary mission of reaching the lost and making disciples. In fact, couldn’t corrective church discipline even become a distraction from the Great Commission, especially in an age when this type of practice is viewed as antiquated and offensive? “If the ultimate goal is to reach people with the Gospel, we can’t do something that might distract from that!” What’s the problem with that reasoning? We’re putting pragmatics over God’s truth. We’re putting what we think will be effective over simple obedience to God’s Word. That’s a dangerous precedent to set. We’re to obey everything in God’s Word as Christians.

It is the Great Commission itself that requires the nurturing of believers. God calls Christians not only to reach people with the saving message of the gospel, but also to teach all that God has commanded (that’s straight from Mt 28:20). Without teaching and showing one another the need for holiness and purity, we cannott teach each other all that God has commanded.

The omission of passages like Matthew 18 in the Christian life does not reveal a meekness or grace for those of us who decide not to be part of that. Instead, really, we’re missing out on one of the greatest ways that we can love one another. If the very purpose of Christ giving himself up for the church was to sanctify her and present the church “without spot or wrinkle” (Eph 5:27), and if sin often deceives us as human beings, then a brother coming to us and showing us our sin, and even trying to correct us, is one of the best ways we can love each other. And not doing this, just letting each other live in sin, that’s not love. That’s a lack of love.

 

Preliminary Questions

Who is Confronted? Short Answer: Christians

This process that Jesus lays out is for believers in Jesus Christ. It is expected that people that don’t believe in Jesus, they’re going to sin and sin openly. They have no reason not to do exactly as they please. But, in Scripture, we see a very different treatment for believers who are sinning openly. There is very clear and decisive confrontation. This makes perfect sense with Paul’s differentiation between those inside and outside the church: 1 Cor. 5:12- “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” The implied answer is, “yes!” So, who should be lovingly confronted when their sin? Christians! 2nd:

 

Who Does the Confronting? Short Answer: Christians

The burden, the privilege of loving correction is for all Christians. Jesus was teaching all the disciples when he goes into his discourse in Matthew 18. Paul was writing to the entire church at Corinth when he writes to, “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor 5:13). If a believer sees another believer sinning, it is their responsibility to lovingly confront them. In fact, when sin clearly needs to be addressed, we cannot excuse ourselves for being silent. When a Christian is living in open sin, he is wounding himself and wounding the reputation of Jesus Christ in the world. We all are called to deal with that, not pretend like it’s not happening.

There is one other note worth making here. Galatians 6:1 gives a qualification of sorts: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Now, when we hear that, it would be easy to use this qualification of “those who are spiritual” as an excuse not to do what God has called us to do: “Oh gosh, I’m not spiritual. I have a long way to go, so I’m not going to confront anyone until I’m way more mature in my faith.” That is not what Paul was getting in Galatians 6. We see what he’s getting in the last part of the verse, his warning to “keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” In other words, we’re to confront and restore in a spiritual and gentle way. If we’re doing it because we don’t like them or because it’s going to make us feel better about ourselves or make us feel like we’re asserting yourself, then we shouldn’t do it. Let someone else do it. Perhaps go to an elder and talk with them about it. We’re all called to loving confront sin, but we’re also called to do it like a Christian, like a fellow Christian who has been saved from our own sin. We’re not above them, in other words. Last Preliminary Question:

 

What Sins Need to be Confronted? Short Answer: Biblical Sin.

This question, at least in some ways, is a little tricky, because any and every sin is uncharacteristic for a child of God, and because of that no sin is outside the bounds of this loving confrontation. This is especially true having the purpose of church discipline in mind, the goal of helping each other when we mess up; it’s really about helping each other follow Christ better, and if one of us finds ourselves tolerating sin in our own lives, just being ok with it, there is clearly a problem.

But even though no sin is outside the bounds of loving confrontation, does that necessitate that every single sin be confronted? The simple answer is, no. We see this in Scripture; Proverbs 19:11- “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” This can be a healthy thing to overlook a grievance, especially one that is personally inflicted, as long as it can be truly overlooked, and you can truly forgive without confronting them. But if it makes you feel different about them for more than just a moment, you need to bring it up with them.

Now, without getting into too much detail about how to think through what needs to be confronted and what doesn’t, let me give you a simple answer in two parts: 1) We are to confront according to God’s standard and not our own. Personality differences or personal clashes based on preferences or other differences should never be the basis for biblical confrontation, nor ever should it be labeled as sinful. Only sin according to Scripture should ever be confronted. 2) It must be demonstrative, meaning that it is visible and verifiable. Otherwise, there will be no way of knowing if someone has truly sinned, nor whether they have truly repented. In other words, you can’t really confront intentions. You can ask someone why they did something. But there’s no way to prove the reason why someone said someone. That’s the short answer, and I hope as we get into Jesus’s four steps, that that will be answered even a bit more.

Now before we get into Jesus’s steps that we read at the beginning, I want to mention that not every single detail of this process is laid out in Scripture for us to follow. And there are different instances in the Bible that have different responses. And I cover at least a few of these examples in a paper I wrote for my seminar this last week. I printed off about 10 of those; they’re right up here. Feel free to grab one when we’re done today, and if we run out, I can print more, just mention it to me, or I can even email it to you. For the time we have left, I want us to focus just on Matthew 18, the most detailed explanation of how to implement biblical church discipline.

 

Jesus’s Four Steps

Step 1: Private Conversation

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.” This is, by far, the step that will be most common. Pointing out a brother or sister’s fault is something that should be a pretty regular thing in a congregation that is helping each other pursue Godliness. Not all the time, every little possible sin. But clear, visible sin, go and tell him!

Probably the most important part of this step is being sure that it is a completely private conversation. Jesus says to “go and tell him.” He did not say to talk to five other people about whether or not you should go to them. In fact, as we’ll see with the following steps, the goal is always to keep this apparent sin as private as possible, and only inform the necessary people to help bring about repentance. So, a private conversation between you and this individual. When we do this, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is the question of why we’re confronting someone. Are you confronting because you have a genuine desire to help them? If this is his your true intention, then personal grudges or personality clashes will not be part of it! Again: the only standard by which we confront is the Word of God.

The second thing to keep in mind: With this genuine desire to help your brother or sister should also come a spirit of gentleness. When you go to them, you should not start out with, “You’re in big trouble, mister!” No. That doesn’t not fit the spirit of gentleness that we see in Galatians 6:1. Instead, when you go to them, affirm your relationship, explain why you’re speaking with him, and even ask permission to share what’s been concerning you. “Brother, you know I love you, and that’s why I feel like I need to at least talk with you about this. I’ve been noticing you’ve been getting really angry a lot lately.” Or, “I noticed something on your computer the other day when you let me borrow it, have you been looking at inappropriate stuff online?” “Man, I’ve just noticed it seems like you’ve been joking around a lot more lately than you usually do, and it seems like you won’t take anything very seriously. Are you doing ok, spiritually?” That last one I got when I was in college, from a roommate, still one of my best friends to this day. It woke me up. I had become very apathetic in my walk with Christ, and I had begun to mask that with not taking anything seriously. So we go to them, and then listen to them. We should never assume that there isn’t a reasonable explanation for whatever we saw or noticed, especially for something less obvious.

The last thing to keep in mind is when to move on to the next step in this process. After giving them some time to consider what was said, and time for the Holy Spirit to move, it is important to follow up with them. While you’re talking with them, they may be defensive, and even hostile, but later they may realize their fault and repent. But, if it’s a visible, clear sin, as soon as it becomes clear that they are genuinely refusing to repent, even after being given some time, this is when we must move on to the next step:

 

Step 2: Private Conversation with 1 or 2 more

Verse 16: “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two of three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.” Now, many interpret these witnesses to be those who actually saw whatever sin you’re confronting, which is the reason why they’re being confronted. But Matthew does not really say that, that the “one or two” that you take with you must have seen the sinful act itself. This is also evident because they are called witnesses in this verse only after the person refuses to repent yet agin, after being confronted for the 2nd time. So, what are they “witnesses” of? They are witnesses to this second step. They’re witnesses of this second confrontation. Does that make sense?

So a few practical things. These one or two others that we bring with us should not be people on “our side.” If that’s the mentality you have—“I’m gonna take my two best friends because they’ll side with me”—you’re missing the point of this, and you should pull yourself back of this thing altogether. In fact, probably the best thing to do is choose 1 or 2 in whom the person you’re going to talk to has confidence! The goal here is what is best for this person you’re confronting, that they may be brought back into an unhindered relationship with God and his people, that they get out of this sin that’s holding them back from growth in Christ. A church leader like a pastor or deacon or other leader would be a great option to think about going along with you.

After these one or two others are chosen, to completely avoid gossip, you should all go together as soon as possible. And when you meet, the goal is to get to the truth, and not already have all the “truth” in mind before you even confront them. Give these 1 or 2 the tiniest bit of info, then go talk with this person. Again, if the goal is restoration and to help, then doing it this way will go a long way in helping someone not be stubborn or unnecessarily defensive.

So you meet, show them in the Word of God where his actions are clearly offensive to God, and plead with him to repent and be restored to an unhindered relationship with God. Give him time to consider what you’ve said, and for the Holy Spirit to move. Then, after some time, follow up again. If he still hasn’t repented, or decided to try and get out of this sin, then the process must move on to step three. And this is when we get to something that is especially controversial:

 

Step 3: Public Confrontation

Third step, Matt. 18:17- “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” Ecclesia, assembly, the church. This is a command from Jesus himself. It cannot be ignored. This isn’t some obscure teaching, and now we’re a weird church for believing that we’re to do this. This is Jesus Himself. “Tell it to the church.” What does that mean? It means we do just that. Now, this isn’t something that happens Sunday morning, because on Sunday mornings we have those who are not coveannt members of the church, and perhaps not even Christians. We have guests every week; we don’t know where everyone is spiritually. So what does it look like to “Tell it to the church.” Here’s what it will look like at Raintree if we ever have to do this, and I pray we never will, or at least very rarely:

In one our Family Meetings that we have usually every other month, which are meetings for covenant members only, we would tell the congregation the name of the person living in open sin and his refusal to turn from that sin. Depending on the situation we may not announce what the specific sin is, because this verse seems to hint that what we’re announcing is the refusal to repent, because that’s the reason the church is being involved in the first place. So, it seems best that we would give as few details as possible, but enough details to still allow for the church to do its job of loving confrontation and prayer for whoever this person is. That’s the goal! Again, this isn’t punishment, even though it may seem like that. The goal is to help this man that’s been cheating on his wife to repent, turn, be broken, and be reconciled to God. So the church prays desperately. The church pleads with this individual to stop what they’re doing and again find the joy and satisfaction of living for Jesus. That’s the goal, which is also why “public” confrontation may not be the best term for it, because we’re not putting this out on our Facebook page. In fact, we’d be very clear with the church members that this is not for people to hear outside of that meeting, nor is this for gossiping amongst yourselves. This is so that the church can be praying fervently and pleading with this person to repent.

 

An Added Step: Tell the Elders.

That’s step three. Now, I want to mention this because I think it’s important: It seems wise to add a step in this process that was not given explicitly by Jesus. He commands to “tell it to the church.” But, it’s not far-fetched to assume that the church leadership, those who represent the church as a whole, might be included in this command. Perhaps a wise added step would be for anyone, after having gone through steps one and two, to bring this matter directly to the elders of the church. In your notes: Added step- tell the elders. This would not be to replace the step of telling it to the church, but instead to provide some guidance for you to make sure that it’s necessary to bring it before the church, and honestly because I think it’d be best for the elders to be the ones to announce it if we get to step 3. Honestly, bringing in the elders could also help avoid unnecessary embarrassment or pain for the one’s who’s confronting, as well as the one who’s being confronted, if it does not end up needing to come before the church to be resolved. Just have that in mind if we ever get to this point, which I hope we never do.

At this point, though, if we have to tell the covenant membership about this person who refuses to stop cheating on his wife or whatever’s going on, again, the purpose of the church hearing about it is to pray, and to plead. The purpose of this is not to punish or embarass, but to help, to restore, to love, ultimately. I love the way Harry Coiner puts the purpose of the whole church knowing about it: “Let the church speak with united voice so the sinner will hear.” Now, step four, the next step, by God’s grace, we never have to do, or at least it will be a rare, rare thing. The 2nd half of Matthew 18:17- “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (ESV).

 

Step 4: Public Excommunication

That word is so offensive to our sensibilities. Wait a minute, Ryan: “Excommunicate?! Cut off? Exclude?” Is that not the opposite of Christian grace and love? No, it’s not. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is angry with the church at Corinth because they’ve let this man in their fellowship just go on in sin. He’s been sleeping with his father’s wife. Apparently, the Corinthian church was even proud of their response to this man, maybe because they even thought they were showing grace to him by letting him stay as part of the church. Paul says decisively in 1 Corinthians 5:2, “And you are proud? Shouldn’t you rather go into mourning and put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?”

Jesus says, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” What he is saying is treat them like they are not a Christian. Gentiles were basically pagan. Tax collectors were supposedly Jews but they took advantage of their fellow Jews by squandering money from them. Jesus is saying treat them like a non-Christian, because they’re living like a non-Christian. That doesn’t mean we treat them badly at all. It means we treat them like someone who needs the Gospel, because they’re consistently living like someone who has not truly accepted the Gospel by turning from being their own Kings and placing their faith in Christ, their new King.

What this last step honestly does is provide clarity for this person refusing to repent, for the church, and even for the world. This clarity is focused on the witness for Jesus Christ that the church provides. The church provides a witness not only for the outside world looking in, but for those that are on the inside, supposed believers and followers of Christ. For this person that refuses to repent, it would be a disservice to treat him as a follower of Christ if it is evident that he is not following Christ.

Just for clarity, because we don’t have time today to get into verses 18-20 right after this, we need to be clear: we’re not making a final judgment on this person if we ever have to do this. First, they’re always welcome to repent and be restored to the church. But secondly, the church cannot judge someone’s heart. We’re not trying to do that, because we can’t. But apparently, Jesus calls us to judge actions that likely reflect the heart. Again, the goal here is clarity for all, including them. 1 John 1:6- “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” The loving thing to do is to make sure that someone who’s walking in darkness, openly, shamelessly, and yet still claiming to be a Christian… the loving thing to do is help them see where they might be blind. There is no doubt that God teaches us to do this. This isn’t Ryan, this isn’t RCC. This is Jesus himself.

Now, what does this actually look like, if we ever have to do this last step? It involves no longer being a covenant member of the church, no longer being welcome to partake in the Lord’s Supper, because that’s for people who have partaken in the benefit of Christ’s death and resurrection, and it involves no longer being treated as a Christian, and therefore, actually, needing to be evangelized and loved just like anyone else that doesn’t know Jesus! We’re to care for them! And this actually does not mean that they’re not welcome in Sunday morning worship, because non-Christians and non-members are welcome here, right? But it does mean that the church understands them to be someone that does not know Jesus, at least as far as we can tell.

Yet again, the goal even of this fourth and most extreme step, is restoration. Being removed from the covenant membership of the church, ultimately, is designed to help them see their need for Jesus! Yet again, it helps to add clarity to how this person should see themselves. The church is serving them by communicating truth. Honestly, it’s the most loving thing we can possibly do. Instead of just brushing sin under the rug. Instead of just pretending like we’re all good and we’re all going to heaven and it’s just all fine and dandy, we should all just be really nice to each other and pretend like nothing is wrong, no matter how we’re living our lives. Instead of communicating lies, even when we don’t mean to be communicating lies, we deal with sin lovingly, gently, but with eyes open to the truth.

And when this person turns from their sin, finally, if they do. They realize their fault, they’re broken for their sin before God, and they come back to Him, we, the church, we respond like the father of the prodigal son. Overwhelmed with joy, running after them, embracing them, so happy that God has brought his child back to Him, first, and also back to us.

Without being honest with each other about our sin, this coming back to God, for the ongoing unrepentant believer, it won’t happen. Without loving confrontation, they won’t come back to God because they’ll sit here, thinking they’re fine, thinking they’re saved, maybe some of us are deeply concerned, but we never say anything. That’s not love, that’s not grace. Because love without truth is not love. I’m saying this as someone who’s been on the receiving end of this. Not steps 3 and 4, but steps 1 and 2. It’s a beautiful thing. I wouldn’t be as mature in my faith as some of you think I am if it wasn’t for these people willing to confront in love and honesty.

Corrective church discipline is an ignored and forgotten gem of Christian discipleship, at least for many, it’s forgotten or ignored. Clarity in what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus is crucial in a culture where self-delusion and suppression of truth is so rampant, and having Jesus’s own process of loving correction in the local church is a major step toward clarity with who, truly, belongs to God, and therefore is part of the church. This is not some obscure teaching in the Bible that needs no emphasizing because it’s so obscure. It is taught and exampled throughout the New Testament, and the clarity it provides for the church and for the world makes it a gospel issue.