Concerning the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile wrote, “Our Reformation forebears understood clearly that the church constantly needed reforming according to the Word of God. Their rallying cry became ‘Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda’ (‘the church reformed, always reforming’). Reformation was their goal and their strategy, all in accord with the plumb line of God’s infallible Word.”
Our lives are to be molded by the infallible Word, not just in theory but in faithful practice. Believing right is living right. Furthermore, we are to believe right and live right together. There is no other way. Jesus didn’t come to redeem a loose association of individuals. He came to redeem a people. We are the Lord’s body and our spiritual union with Christ means spiritual union with one another.
We were created for community, but the truth is that community can be messy at times. Building healthy relationships exposes us in a way that is designed to build us up. We are limited in our perspectives and as the Lord works within us to conform us to the image of Christ, we also need our sisters and brothers around us to graciously rebuke us when necessary. No one is above this.
Restorative confrontation or church discipline is a difficult issue for a number of reasons. Due to biblical illiteracy and improper practice, it has been abused. People have been wounded and driven away from Christian community unjustly due to a misrepresentation of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Due to biblical illiteracy and improper practice, church discipline hasn’t been exercised or taught on at all which creates toxic environments where sin goes unchecked and again, Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God are misrepresented.
Finally, restorative confrontation is difficult to understand where there is a lack of teaching and understanding on the nature of salvation, healthy church membership, and healthy church leadership. This is an issue that requires us to take our time and proceed cautiously, prayerfully, patiently, graciously, and truthfully. Jesus provides us with a framework for seeking restoration in Matthew 18:15-20.
First, let’s take a look at the immediate context in which Jesus addresses this issue. In verses 1-5, Jesus teaches on the necessity of conversion and humility as we enter the kingdom of God. In verses 6-9, Jesus gives a serious warning to anyone who would cause one of his little ones to sin and he reiterates that we should not tolerate sin in our lives. In verses 10-14, Jesus gives the parable of the one sheep that went astray. The shepherd left the rest of his sheep to go after it. Once he found the lost sheep, he rejoiced. Jesus used that parable to teach about his faithfulness and that not one of his sheep will be lost.
In verses 21-35, Jesus teaches on the necessity of forgiveness by those who have been forgiven. (We will cover this in detail in my next post). The context of Jesus’ teaching on this issue reveals what the condition of our hearts should be when we are seeking restoration. Seeking restoration is not about winning arguments, it is about winning people. It is about pursuing what is just in the sight of God.
In this text, Jesus teaches what we should do if we are sinned against. This is key because sometimes we have the tendency to treat others as though they have sinned against God when that is not the case. If someone disagrees with us that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have violated divine law. It’s not a sin to have a different opinion.
We are taught here to go to the person who has sinned against us in private. We are not to make the gossip and slander circuit before we talk to the person. Half the church and several social media groups should not know what’s going on. The truth is that the person who has committed the sin may not even know that they have sinned. If the person who has sinned listens and receives correction, there can be restoration. We can move on and it should still remain a private matter. There is no need to discuss the matter with anyone else. The goal is to win our sister or brother. If our hearts are not right, we should not engage in this process. (Please note: Any type of abuse or sexual assault should be reported immediately. In these matters, law enforcement and/or child protective services should be notified as soon as possible).
If the one who has sinned does not listen, then a small group of believers should be brought in. In other words, we’re still trying to keep the matter as private as possible. The dignity of everyone involved needs to be protected. This is not about shaming people. If this effort is unfruitful the issue needs to be brought before the church. Again, this is not about public shaming. Also, this doesn’t mean that every single detail of the matter is made public. The church is brought in so that more saints would join in praying and reaching out to the person who is straying off course. This is not a witch hunt. This is a compassionate rescue mission.
If there is no response to the church, the person in question should be considered as outside of the covenant community. This individual is not to be seen as a brother or sister in the faith. The purpose of this process is to expose sin, warn the sinner, save someone from a path of destruction, protect the church body, and present a good witness for Jesus.
We have been born again and redeemed to love God and love one another. If love for God and love for one another isn’t our motivation, then we run the risk of misrepresenting God and causing great pain and confusion. This is about living according to the gospel we preach, walking according to the profession of faith in Jesus Christ that we have made, living in submission to the authority of Scripture, and pursuing the spiritual health of our churches. As Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, we should do all that we can to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.