Church Discipline and Forgiveness
The primary focus of Matthew 18-20 teaches on the kingdom of heaven. In previous verses, Jesus answers the question who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He answers that everyone who faithfully follows him is the greatest in the kingdom. Matthew 18:15-35 teaches on the responsibility of kingdom-citizens to exercise church discipline when necessary, and to forgive those who sin against us when they repent.
The Church’s Responsibility to Confront Unrepentant Sin & to Forgive
Church discipline should not be limited to excommunication. Excommunication is part of the church disciplinary process, but it is the last resort when the disciplined church member does not repent. There is a process that should be followed when we exercise church discipline against someone who lives in unrepentant sin.
When someone commits unrepentant sin against us or another within the community of faith, we have a responsibility as Christians to privately confront that person with love and compassion. Private confrontation also avoids unnecessary public shame. We should not gossip about a brother or sister who sins, which is much easier to do. Instead, we should pursue that brother or sister’s restoration. In my view, men should confront men and women should confront women in love.
Take One or Two Witnesses with You and Confront Again If He Doesn’t Repent (v. 16): The second step that Jesus offers is necessary only if the private confrontation doesn’t result in repentance. In keeping with Deut. 19:15, Jesus says that we should take witnesses with us, if our initial private and one on one confrontation fails, so that our efforts to restore the fallen brother or sister would have valuable support if a private confrontation does not work.
The one or two witnesses that accompanies should be credible witnesses, who have lived exemplary, godly lives before the church. These witnesses should not be gossips, slanderers, or ungodly busybodies. But they should be repentant sinners, who are faithfully following Jesus Christ.
Let the Church Know (v. 17): If a one-on-one private confrontation fails and if a second private confrontation with witnesses fails, then you must make the church aware of this unrepentant sin.
On Informing the Church
Churches in the first century were small and intimate gatherings that met in the homes of its members. There were no radio or TV services, and there were few if any unbelievers who attended these meetings. Jesus does not specifically state how you should make this known to the church. That is, he does not give any specific instructions other than he informs us to tell the church, which implies informing the church when the church is corporately gathered.
Informing the church is not the same thing as excommunication from the church. Instead, letting the church know is a means to provide the body of Christ the necessary information that they need about an unrepentant brother or sister, so that the church can pray and minister with the intent of evoking a response of repentance. Jesus does not provide a timeline by which to do this. Thus, modern day churches should practice prudence when selecting the appropriate way and time to inform the church about unrepentant sin amongst the body.
I think these points are supported by Jesus’ remarks in the second part of verse 17 when Jesus says “If he even disobeys the church, then let him be as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” In other words, if the unrepentant brother or sister refuses to repent when confronted privately with one, two, and three witnesses and even refuses to repent after the church seeks her or his restoration, then the church has a responsibility to excommunicate the unrepentant person from the church. This step of excommunication is what Paul urges in 1 Corinthians 5 regarding the immoral brother in the congregation.
In Matthew 18 verses 18-19, Jesus asserts that when the church follows Jesus’ instructions regarding restoration, yet fails to convince the unrepentant to repent, all authority in heaven agrees with the church’s decision to excommunicate the unrepentant brother or sister from the church (vv. 18-19; cf. 16:19; 20:23; 28:18).
Binding on earth and in heaven=the authority of heaven is behind the church on earth when it obeys Jesus’ instructions and appropriately seeks the restoration of its members. In Matt. 16:19, Jesus says the same thing in relation to Peter’s confession of him as the Christ and his authority as the rock upon which the church would be built. Jesus’ presence amongst two or three witnesses gathered=the authority of Jesus being present within the context of the church when the church decides to pursue the restoration of unrepentant members.
Jesus concludes this section in Matt. 18:21-35 with a parable about the importance of forgiving those who repent. Just as the master harshly judged the unjust slave, because he refused to forgive a fellow servant (Matt. 18:21-34), thus also God will harshly judge those who will not forgive from their hearts (Matt. 18:35).
Jesus doesn’t call Christian communities to be the legalistic sin-police. But he does call us to hold each other accountable within our own Christian communities. When unrepentant sin is present amongst the members of local churches, those who witness the unrepentant sin have a responsibility to act in accordance with Jesus’ instructions. This includes private confrontation, 2 and 3 witnesses privately confront, and the church seeks restoration by means of prayer and confrontation.
If these things do not lead to repentance, the church has the responsibility to excommunicate the unrepentant member from its midst (cf. 1 Cor. 5). If someone sins against you, lovingly confront that person with a spirit of wisdom, so that the person would see the error of his or her ways and be sanctified in that area of his or her life.
Pray for the members of your local churches to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Pray for members of your churches who have left the fold to return; even go after them with Spirit-empowered love. If they don’t want to return, congregations have a responsibility to remove them from membership of their churches.
May God help Christian communities to hold each other accountable.