"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." Matt. 18:15-17 (ESV)
I shall now plunge into a brief discussion concerning the responsibility of the believer with regard to church discipline. Specifically, I shall look at the passage from Matthew 18:15-17. While deliberately avoiding a detailed discussion on corporate church discipline, I would like to focus upon the individual responsibility each believer has towards his brother-in-Christ. The subject of excommunication will be left for another day.
I have stated in my previous post that, contrary to common secular perception, love is not a lovey-dovey sentimentalism, or the uncritical acceptance of sinful behaviors and erroneous doctrines. Our Lord in this passage of Scripture has given us a mandate to lovingly confront (Gal. 6:1) a brother who wrongs us. Verse 15 does not give us the detail concerning the kind of sin, but rather a general and broad description - "sins against you." Although there are some textual considerations with regard to the words "against you," which are missing in a few early manuscripts, we shall accept the translations of the KJV and the ESV as being accurate here. As the ingressive aorist subjunctive of hamartanō is used in verse 15, it would literally mean “if a brother commit a sin against you.” Such a sin is obviously a personal offense, but the verse does not specify what kind of offense. It could be in word or speech, or in some form of action. Also, such an offense can include grievous sins, or doctrinal errors. The reader is advised not to restrict such an offence to petty grievances.
Stage one of such a corrective confrontation is fairly straightforward. Blomberg laments that, "How often personal confrontation is the last stage rather than the first in Christian complaints! It frequently seems as if the whole world knows of someone’s grievances against us before we are personally approached." (Craig Blomberg, Matthew (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 278). The essence of such a confrontation is that it is personal and private. It is in fact sinful if we choose to gossip about our brother who has offended us, rather than approach such a brother to tell him his fault - provided that he is indeed at fault. Of course, there are cases whereby the brother has not committed any viable offence, but has only committed certain acts that are wrongly perceived as being offensive. These include, but are not limited to, matters of Christian liberty, or miscommunications and misunderstandings. In such cases, a private confrontation provides the offended person an opportunity to resolve the misunderstanding quickly and confidentially.
For example, in my previous church, certain young brothers were offended by another group within the church simply because those men were active in sports. The youths felt that Christians should not appear too athletic or physically fit (believe me; some Christians can be offended by many things!). The offended youths alleged that those men should have spent their exercising time on other "more" fruitful activities. But I reasoned with them that there is no biblical mandate for one not to be physically active or fit. Of course, a Christian’s priority should not be exercise or sports, but exercise per se is not sin. However, an obsession with physical appearance can become sinful, both for the man and woman. The youths were apparently put off by the men’s muscular and well-built physique. Ironically, the offended youths spent much of their time on computer games, shopping, and television, and had acquired a sedentary lifestyle. Such matters of Christian liberty should not be the cause of offense, but with that being said, we should be careful - out of compassion and Christian responsibility - not to offend our weaker brethren, or those with a weak conscience (Ro. 14:15-16). Likewise, with regard to matters of Christian liberty, those with a weak conscience (and in fact, all Christians) must avoid judging the motives of a person based upon mere superficial details or hearsay.
However, Matthew 18:15-17 has also been misused by others in order to avoid the correction of the sinning brother. Wrong doctrines being perpetrated by false teachers in Christian organizations, books, seminars, or the Web often go uncorrected by certain church leaders. Some have the erroneous notion that, in order to correct such a false teacher, we must follow the injunctions provided by Matthew 18:15-17, that is, they allege that we ought to confront the false teacher in a private capacity prior to correcting his false teachings publicly. This approach represents a gross misunderstanding of the meaning of the Matthean text.
Firstly, the false teacher is not a member of the local church of the offended brother. In this regard, we cannot fulfill the third stage of discipline i.e. "tell it to the church (Matt. 18:17)." Also, we are not the members of the false teacher’s local church. There is no possibility that the final stage of discipline can be performed if we are to understand the passage in this manner. Secondly, the Matthean passage elaborates how we should approach a personal, private offense. It does not specify that heresies or public sins ought to be dealt with as such. For example, if an adulterous couple’s sin is known to the church, the leaders of the church should exercise corporate discipline. The pastor should not come down to the member and say, "It is you who are offended. You should approach him privately, and only if he does not repent should you proceed to stage two and three of the Matthean text (Matt. 18:15-17)." The couple is committing adultery publicly; the man is showing inappropriate physical affection to the wife of another man. The elders of the congregation ought to confront this couple immediately, and not wait for some members to confront them privately. Furthermore, elders that are grievously or incessantly sinning should be publicly disciplined (1 Timothy 5:20).
The second stage of the confrontation would involve at least another brother in the discussion, thereby creating a group consisting of two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15). It is wise to acquire the assistance and advice of a mature Christian in good standing, or perhaps even an elder. The witness would provide a balanced assessment of the allegations brought against the offender, and at the same time, prevent unnecessary propagation of the confrontation to uninvolved members of the church. If private and loving confrontation at this level does not bring about the repentance of the offender, the issue is eventually brought before the church. The church now acts corporately in urging the offender to repent. Wiersbe rightly commented that, "The motive for church discipline is love: we are seeking to help a sinning brother. Since Christ is in the midst of the church (v. 20), it is also important that the church be obedient and pure. Our attitude should not be that of a policeman out to arrest a criminal, but rather that of a physician seeking to heal a wound in the body of Christ, a wound that will spread sickness and death if left alone." (Warren Wiersbe, Wiersbe's expository outlines on the New Testament (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books), 68).
While such discipline is not infallible due to the fallibility of man, and even cults such as the Jehovah Witnesses use similar methods of confrontation, the Christian must remember that he is indeed his brother’s keeper. True Christian love is exhibited by genuine concern for a brother’s spiritual well-being. Churches often emphasize the physical aspects of providing for one’s brethren, but many have failed to highlight the greater urgency and priority of spiritual welfare and mutual accountability. A Christian simply cannot claim to love his brother-in-Christ if he chooses to keep silent upon learning about the brother’s unrepentant sins. True Christian love is manifested by one who has a heart after God; he loves what God loves and hates what He hates. The true Christian cannot love both the brother and his sins. He must hate those sins enough to reprove his brother. He must love God enough to obey the mandate of Matthew 18:15-17. Otherwise, he is just a liar and a hypocrite; he is a deceiver and a deceiver of self. He claims to be loving and understanding, but all the while he is but a murderer of souls. He fails to understand what God demands of him, and follows the way of Cain who hates his brother, saying, "Am I my brother’s keeper?"
Do you take the time and courage to speak to your brother about his sins? Or do you choose to remain silent? If you do not lovingly confront your brother about his trespasses, you are doing him a disfavor. You are allowing him to slip deeper into a downward spiral of spiritual misery and disease. You have failed to care for his soul as a fellow Christian. Most of all, you will be accountable before God Almighty for his failure, because you are indeed your brother’s keeper.
From the perspective of the offending or sinning brother, it is paramount that he must continue to take Christian fellowship and accountability seriously. A backsliding or sinning Christian may withdraw himself gradually from fellowship and church activities. Conversely, a church leadership that fails to fulfill its roles as overseer, teacher, counselor, and encourager may inadvertently contribute to an exodus of its flock. But the sinning brother must remember to avoid any form of isolationism or social withdrawal. One danger of spiritual isolationism is the propensity it has upon the sinning Christian to isolate himself further from other believers.
Sin is shameful, and it inevitably propagates a self-perpetuating cycle of sin, avoidance and isolation for the Christian man who is already withdrawn from the community of believers. Sin is ultimately prideful, and sin causes the Christian man to establish himself as the final authority such that no other man can judge him. Sin and pride reject the discipline and reproof of fellow brethren-in-Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his little book Life Together, speaks of the need for Christians to dwell within the spiritual community of believers, and to confess their sins to one another. Within the context of Matthew 18:15-17, every offending brother who is genuinely sinning must consider confession as his spiritual responsibility whenever he is confronted by the church or individual believers (James 5:16a).
Let me end with the following words from Bonhoeffer:
"Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted. But God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107:16)…"
"The root of all sin is pride… I want to be my own law, I have a right to my self, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death. The mind and flesh of man are set on fire by pride; for it is precisely in his wickedness that man wants to be as God … In the confession of concrete sins the old man dies a painful, shameful death before the eyes of a brother. Because this humiliation is so hard we continually scheme to evade confessing to a brother. Our eyes are so blinded that they no longer see the promise and the glory in such abasement. …"
"Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother… Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.)
Note: In church discipline, I would like to understand the exegetical basis for extrapolating the meaning of the word "church" in Matthew 18:15-17 to include the Presbytery and the General Assembly. Any takers?