The church family can be an unruly sort, from time to time. This comes with no surprise given the extent of the depths of depravity in which our world has fallen. When a lost soul is found, there is often quite a mess to clean up after. Along with that, once in awhile those that were found find themselves lost in sin again. As such, God has implemented into the church the ministry of restoration. If something is in need of restoration, it necessitates the idea that it has become tarnished, fallen into disrepair, or become incomplete in some way from its former condition. With Christians, this happens when they choose to fall out of communion with God and His ways; choosing instead a wide path which ultimately ends in destruction. (At this point, I should say that this view is not always interpreted universally by God’s church, but I do believe most have some kind of biblical view of apostasy.) As such, our Lord has outlined for us in His word the process for seeking and restoring the soul that has been lost to sin. One of those processes is what is often referred to as church discipline.
In my ten plus years as a pastor and being involved in other various ministries, there have been a few instances where I was aware that church discipline was necessary. Unfortunately, most of those, in my opinion, were handled with neglect and abuse. In fact, of all the times where I have seen church discipline implemented, I can only remember one time where this process was actually carried out in a biblical, God-honoring way. It is because of this I believe that the people involved are faithfully serving the Lord today.
From what I have seen, these abuses usually show up in four basic ways. First, discipline is not implemented in the first place. It is viewed as something not applicable to the New Testament church in the 21st century. Secondly, it is done in such a way that is inconsistent. What is good for the goose may not be good for the gander. Therefore, there often aren’t any clear guidelines that are used to determine what healthy, wise practices for discipline are. Often gut instinct is the rule of thumb. This happens when the scriptures are ignored for the sake of man’s wisdom. Thirdly, discipline may happen in a somewhat biblical way, but it is cloaked in bitterness and resentment or self-righteousness towards the individual who is receiving the correction. Love is the last thing motivating the action. I think we all understand what this looks like. Fourthly, discipline is done out of order from what the word instructs us. Instead of being long-suffering (love that KJV word) with others in their sin, we immediately want heads to roll so we bypass the process the Lord laid out for us.
I do not want to spend any time arguing whether or not church discipline is still relevant to the New Testament church, we will just assume that it is (and if you have doubts, I believe this blog will serendipitously confront those) and move on to the biblical attitude and procedure for such things. While church discipline is one of those areas that may not be easy or enjoyable to wade into, seeing a restored soul is maybe the most rewarding thing we can experience on this planet. But only if discipline is done in a healthy, well balanced, biblical way with great wisdom from the Father who gives generously and without reproach to those who ask.
Order in the Court…
The Lord is not the author of confusion. In the Corinthian church, Paul addresses their great and varied use of spiritual gifts with the warning that all things be done in an orderly fashion so as to accurately represent the Father. In the same way, other areas of church life are expected to be done in similar fashion; with order not chaos. The matter of church discipline is one of those areas. We see this in Matthew 18:15-17, where Jesus addresses the issue along with the steps involved in a very systematic way.
But before we look at these famous verses, it is important to uncover the context leading up to these verses. As we will see, the context teaches us what the ultimate goal of such actions are as well as the manner with which we should approach such a serious matter.
Starting at the beginning of Matthew 18, we see Jesus is approached by His disciples and they are wondering who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Good question, right? Jesus responds by using a small child as an illustration and saying,
“Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3–4 (NASB95)
He then moves on to discuss stumbling blocks and the woes to the world along with those who would cause His spiritual children to stumble. Along with this, He points out that it is imperative for those stumbling blocks to be removed. Why? Because they will prevent us from entering heaven. What are those stumbling blocks? He says they are those things that our hands and feet do, or what our eye looks at. Furthermore He states that it is better to cut off our rebellious hand or foot and pluck out our offensive eye than to let them keep causing us to stumble. Why? Because they have the ability to prevent us from entering into life. In fact, He states that if we leave those things intact, we will enter hell. This reminds us of what He taught earlier in Matthew in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7). Point being that it is vitally important for us to remove any and all sins that have gained a foothold in our life no matter how painful it may be because they will cause us to stumble, missing out on eternal life. Furthermore, John tells us that those who practice sin are of the devil and do not know God. The stakes are high and cannot be ignored.
Therefore, Jesus goes back to the small child and says make sure no one despises one of these little ones. Point being, do not despise the child of God by overlooking your spiritual duty to them in protecting them from the stumbling blocks of the world, which Jesus just addressed. Ignoring the public practicing of sin in a brother when we have the opportunity to do something about it is equal to despising that brother.
Then Jesus says an amazing truth.
“For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” Matthew 18:11 (NASB95)
It is His ministry, by His authority, through His power, according to His righteousness, to deliver us from the sins of this world. The ways of this world will cause all to be spiritual lost to the kingdom of heaven, but glory to God, Jesus has come to find us.
To expand the details of this one-line nugget of truth and drive the point home, He uses another illustration as His teaching point. This time He uses an analogy from farming – an unfaithful sheep and a faithful shepherd.
O Where, O Where Have You Gone?
Jesus says this concerning the lost,
“What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.” Matthew 18:12–14 (NASB95)
What an amazing analogy! What tremendous security! What an amazing heart! What great joy to know we have a faithful Shepherd like this! He asks the question, if you have a hundred sheep and one comes up missing, would you go get it? Well, I suppose that depends. What are the risks? Are there other options? How much will it cost me? But in the illustration, He makes the point that, yes, of course you will go looking for it. Why? Because we are talking about the Good Shepherd who is faithful even to the one who goes astray. He is not willing that any should perish.
So, to summarize, the points we can glean from the context so far are these:
- The greatest in the kingdom are those who humble themselves like little children; overcoming and removing the stumbling blocks of the world.
- Do not despise/neglect those who have humbled themselves as little children and have become citizens of the kingdom yet who have found themselves stumbling over their feet, hands, and eyes, but instead honor your duty to restore them.
- Jesus is the answer to stumbling blocks that cause children to go wayward because it is His ministry to seek and save the lost as the faithful Shepherd of our souls.
- It is not the will of the Father that any of His little ones perish, but He will do whatever is required to find the lost sheep and bring it home.
Therefore, because of these things, we have the following verses, 15-17, that teach us the practical process of restoring, in Jesus’ name, those who have found themselves stumbling onto the path of destruction because of their sin.
Steps for Restoration
After gaining the proper context, Jesus gives us three basic steps to employ as we seek to find and restore our lost brothers and sisters.
First of all, Jesus says,
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” Matthew 18:15 (NASB95)
Essentially, the first step is fairly obvious. If your brother sins (some manuscripts add the words ‘against you’ but either way the principle is the same), go to that person, one-on-one, privately, with love, and seek to win him over from his sin. Even though this seems straight forward enough, it is amazing how many times this step is rejected for the pseudo-spiritual discipline of gossip and complaining.
If this initial one-on-one meeting doesn’t work (which I would argue that 9 times out of 10 it will work), then Jesus gives us step two.
“But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.” Matthew 18:16 (NASB95)
For whatever reason the first step didn’t achieve the desired results of repentance and forgiveness, then we are told to take along one or two others. I would point out that those we choose to take along with us should be those who are spiritually mature, as Paul points out in Galatians 6:1. The reason we are to take along other witnesses is for the reason of accountability, credibility, and integrity in the process. Remember, we are dealing with eternal souls here.
And finally, in extreme situations of hard-heartedness and sin-loving rebellion, Jesus says there is a third step – public awareness and excommunication.
“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.” Matthew 18:17 (NASB95)
Up to this point every measure possible has been employed to keep the matter private. But if the rebelliousness persists, then it becomes an issue for the church to be aware of. Funny how we often get this process backward. Often an issue is made public within the church first, then we try to work backward to try to reconcile the matter. Oh, how many difficult issues could be avoided if we just learned to put a muzzle on it!
I think it is important to have the discussion in our churches of what does this last scenario look like? Does excommunication mean being driven away from the church all together? If so, then it seems their opportunity to hear the truth of the gospel and find grace for repentance is limited. Or does it mean that they are restricted from celebrating communion as Paul is probably referring to in 1 Corinthians 5:11? Of course, since we have such a low understanding of what communion is, this probably wouldn’t mean much in most churches.
Secondly, it is important that the church define what Jesus means by “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Essentially, I think He is simply saying “unbeliever.” If so, then the question becomes, “How are we supposed to treat unbelievers (Gentiles, tax collectors)?” Well, Paul dedicated his life to sharing the gospel with pagan Gentiles and seeing them converted and establishing churches among them. Matthew, who was himself a tax collector, held a party at his house for all of his fellow crooked tax collectors so they could come meet Jesus and hear His words.
I find myself getting really upset with those religious snobs who believe they aren’t supposed to interact with the world around them, as if they will become terminally tainted with the black soot of the ungodly. By all means, we are warned to “look to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted” but in no way are we to ever avoid those who love the world, being separated from God. We are the only hope they have of hearing God’s truth! Paul points out the silliness of this way of thinking.
“I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.” 1 Corinthians 5:9–10 (NASB95)
Maybe this would be a good place to pause for a moment and reflect on the question, “Where are you at with this?” Is there an individual or group of people that you know who have fallen outside of fellowship with Christ’s church because of their unwillingness to repent of their sin? How are you reacting to those people? Are you actively reaching out to them as the Lord leads? Do you engage them whenever the opportunity arises? Let me help point you in the right direction in case you are on the fence on this issue, God wants you to reach out to those people. Continually offer them grace, offer them love, offer them peace. By all means be firm in your stance of the clear teaching of God’s word concerning their sin, but be just as firm in His offer of forgiveness and restoration. Who knows, you may just win your brother and get to share in the rejoicing that Jesus described when referring to the shepherd who finds his lost sheep. Time is short, we must not waste a moment that God gives us.
The Father’s Heart, The Church’s Heart
It is important at this point as we consider what Jesus has said that we revisit the heart of the Father which we saw earlier in this chapter. He has an unwavering, unflinching desire to seek and save lost sheep. If a child has stumbled, it is His nature to pursue and restore that child. As His people, we are called to serve the Lord in this process.
The apostle Paul affirms this in Galatians when he said,
“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” Galatians 6:1 (NASB95)
Again, in an example of extreme discipline that became necessary in the Corinthian church, Paul says this about the man who was in an adulterous affair.
“In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” 1 Corinthians 5:4–5 (NASB95)
The conclusion then is this – the purpose of church discipline is always restoration of the individual’s soul who has fallen, never for condemnation, and the means by which we are to do so have been clearly given to us in scripture. May we never have to be involved with the discipline of a brother or sister, but if we are, may it be done with the utmost of biblical integrity, avoiding any unnecessary sins along the way.
“And have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.” Jude 22–23 (NASB95)