Here’s what we know…Conflict is inevitable – it’s not about IF there will be conflict in our lives (or in this church) it’s more about WHEN there is conflict. Most churchgoers are familiar with the passage from Matthew 18 that I will be exegeting, but beforehand let’s climb up to 30,000 feet and look at the whole chapter. The passage in Matthew 18 concerning church discipline is almost always studied in isolation of the rest of the chapter and I would like for us to see some context. The theme of the whole chapter is God’s great concern for the spiritually broken, lost, and needy:
- God deeply cares about the powerless
- God deeply cares about those who have been victimized by sin
- God deeply cares about those who have victimized others
Verses 1-6: Addresses our status in the kingdom of God.
We are to become like children (child-like, not childish) and recognize our dependence on God and trust God like a child trusts a loving and attentive parent. V. 4 tells us very clearly that it is the truly humble people who are the most highly regarded people in the kingdom of God.
Verses 6-14: Tell us that the church is to be a place where the powerless are cared for, that the abuse of people will not be tolerated, and that God deeply cares for each and every person – and is willing to leave the 99 to go after the 1.
With that said, let’s look at Matthew 18:15-35, and consider what Jesus is saying to us:
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” 21 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven…
Then beginning in v. 23 we have the account of the Merciful King and the Wicked Slave. The King forgave the Slave a multimillion dollar debt, but the Slave would not forgive a fellow Slave a debt of a few thousand dollars. The highlight of this account is found in v. 33: Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?'”
Takeaway: The church is to be a place where sinners are mercifully restored and the church is to be a place where people are quick to forgive and quick to seek reconciliation.
I see this passage divided into three sections – each with a one-word descriptor. I will give them to you upfront and then we will go back and look at them one at a time. We will see that there is to be:
- CLARITY (vs. 15-20)
- FORGIVENESS (vs. 21-22)
- MERCY (vs. 23-35)
We could also view these as CLARITY (or a clear process) in the context of FORGIVENESS and MERCY (this is why it’s helpful to look at the whole chapter in order to identify the full context)
One at a time…
Vs. 15-20: CLARITY
When conflict happens it must be dealt with immediately. Our natural tendency to look the other way and pretend it’s not there – hoping that it will just go away. But it won’t. Conflict that is not attended to immediately is like a neglected infection, and sooner or later it will engulf the entire organism. Unresolved conflict can do great damage to us as a church as well as to our witness as a church. For that reason, Jesus gives us very clear and specific instruction. Jesus tells us with specific CLARITY what to do when there is tension between the church members. Our goal in resolving inevitable church conflict is never retaliation or vindication, but always reconciliation – we want to show and honor Jesus Christ in our healed relationships.
Step 1 – one on one (v. 15) “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.
I don’t circulate, I don’t inflate, I don’t inflame, but the first step is to go talk to that person. We will need to identify if we each have a clear picture of what happened, or what was said. I would like to point out that in these conflict resolution steps there is both an informal process as well as a formal process.
- Informally, we could engage Matt 18 in a home group if someone says something that hurts your feelings or that you think is untrue — or the church hallway if we were to overhear a brother speaking harshly to his wife or his kids. Again, informally we might come-up alongside the person from the home group and say, “You know, I have a different view of the circumstance you spoke about…” – or come alongside the brother in the hallway and ask, “Is everything okay, you seek a little bit uptight today??”
- A more formal process might occur if some habitual sin, like gossip, continues to surface in a person’s life.
The main idea of Step 1 (or v. 15) is, can we settle this at the lowest level possible? The goal is to establish a renewed “family” relationship with our brother or sister. It may take a little time and a little work. “Help me understand…” is a great intro to what could be a difficult conversation. This isn’t to be mechanical and reconciliation certainly isn’t automatic, it’s something to be done with great care.
But what if it doesn’t work?
Step 2 – Go in two’s (v. 16) 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.
**This is where it can get harder, or messier. Often times it “feels” so much easier to talk to someone we feel would be more on our side of the conflict than it is to actually talk to the person we are having the conflict with. This verse reflects the ancient Jewish standard of fairness. That everything would be established by one or two credible witnesses. The “witness” or “witnesses” are to delve into both party’s perspective of the conflict.
Illus – Perspective matters…If we were to ask the 12 disciples to submit to a battery of tests to determine their aptitude for management positions in a modern organization, we might find that: Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper, that Andrew has very little aptitude for leadership, that James and John tend to place their personal interests above company loyalty, that Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that may tend to undermine morale, and that Matthew had been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau – but that Judas Iscariot is found to be highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible…
What if Step 2 doesn’t work?
Step 3 (v. 17) 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.
Tell it to the church. This DOESN’T mean that we talk to all our friends in the church! We are to speak to those who represent the authority in the church. Ultimately this would be the elders in the church. The role of the elders is primarily 3-fold: Doctrine, Direction (vision), and Discipline – yet after steps one and two have been unsuccessful. The goal is always to help people build a holy consensus and unity that will express the reconciliation that God has brought to us in the Person of Jesus Christ. As Christians we have been reconciled to Christ and there are times when we need to be reconciled to one another. Again, conflict is inevitable. The gospel is to be expressed in the way we deal with one another. Sometimes the elders need to get involved. Sometimes it can get really messy and difficult. And sometimes we need to involve outside Christian arbitration. Sometimes it is necessary to inform someone they are in great spiritual danger.
The NT describes three categories of sins that reach this level of seriousness:
- Major doctrinal error (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:20)
- Major moral failure (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:5)
- Persistent divisiveness (e.g., Titus 3:10)
You may be denied access to the communion table – and your fellowship at this church will be in jeopardy. No one likes talking about this – until it is your reputation that has been smeared… Or your family has been cheated… Or your marriage has been shattered… Or your church leaders have been scandalized in some way. What Jesus is saying here is that to protect His Church, He has given us a clear guiding process. God protects His Church by providing a process. What is the purpose of this process? We are not to be mindless or automatic… Why would we bother to do this? The primary reasons are rescue and reconciliation. We are willing to engage in uncomfortable conversation in order to rescue and reconcile people due to their own sinful behavior OR from being victimized by other people’s sinful behavior. The whole purpose of this process is to gain a brother or a sister.
We go back to vs. 12-14 Parable of the lost sheep…
We sometimes think that Matthew 18 is there to protect and vindicate us – but it’s really about caring for those who need rescuing and reconciling…
Verse 17: What does it mean to treat someone as a Gentile and a tax collector?
What Jesus is saying here is that an unwillingness to see and own our sin – even after the highest authorities in the church have weighed in — causes the church to no longer view them as being part of the Christian “family” and, possibly, in need of conversion. (e.g., 2 Corinthians 13:5: Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.)
We are to cut off the unrepentant from access to the sacraments as well as from social relationships.
The Westminster Confession (30.3) explains: “Church [discipline is] necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offenses, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof [the sacraments] to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.”
The purpose of church discipline in all its forms is not to punish for punishment’s sake, but to call forth repentance in order to recover the straying sheep. Ultimately, there is only one sin for which a church member is excommunicated — an unwillingness to repent. When there is genuine repentance, the church is to declare the sin forgiven and receive the offender into fellowship once again.
We have one more question to ask of the text in this section. What is Jesus saying in Matt 18:18? Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. [This verse is VERY often taken out of context!]
The ruling authorities (usually the elders) pray a prayer that removes the church’s covering from the unrepentant sinner/s. Paul applies this disciplinary action in both 1 Corinthians 5 and 1 Timothy 1:20. There was obvious and blatant sin in both Corinth and Ephesus and Paul was admonishing each of the churches and their leaders to address it.
- “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 5:5:
- “Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.)” –1 Timothy 1:20
This is not an angry, reactive, pugnacious determination, it is a humble and sorrowful response to sin with a longing for full and complete repentance and restoration.
Matthew finishes this section of his Gospel by emphasizing the need for church discipline to be exercised in the context of continuous forgiveness and extravagant mercy…
Verses 21-22: FORGIVENESS
We see Peter attempting to be generous by offering to forgive someone seven times (he doubled the Jewish standard of three times and added an extra). Then Jesus lovingly says, “Not exactly Peter – it’s seventy times seven times.” The idea is that if we actually tried to keep track we would lose track along the way.
Forbearance is a word found mostly in the King James Version of the Bible. The idea is that God has show great forbearance with us and we are to show forbearance with one another. We find a good example of this in Colossians 3:12–13: “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another” (KJV). The New Living Translation words it this way: “Make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive anyone who offends you.”
Here is something you may not have thought about before: The goal of this biblical process is ultimately about our mission as a church. That others, even outside the church, would see the gospel in operation as we continually pursue healing and reconciliation with one another. We want to make the gospel known by the witness of the church. The separation that can happen in church can have eternal consequences for some people when we don’t follow the biblical processes laid down by Jesus for His Church.
Verses 23-35: MERCY
We are to extend the mercy we have received from Jesus Christ at the cross to one another. Luke 7:47 tells us that those who have been forgiven much will love much.
Here is something that is continually surprising to me…In almost every church there is a person, or group of people, who want to be regarded as church leaders – or, people who regard themselves as gatekeepers in the church who often cause the most damage and strife through gossiping and triangulation (explain triangulation). These people can even have a strong understanding of the Bible and be very gifted in many areas, but in the end they disqualify themselves because they cannot hold their tongue – or they cannot take their concerns to the people who actually need to hear them. The rest of the church needs to lovingly stand up to these people and point them to the people they are complaining about or gossiping about.
 D.A. Carson, Editorial On Abusing Matthew 18, Themelios, May 2011, Vol 36, Issue 1.