by Al Maxey

Issue #442 ------- May 7, 2010
To spare the guilty is to injure the innocent.
Publius Syrus {85-43 B.C.}

Tell it to the Church
A Study of Matthew 18:15-17

It is never an easy matter for an assembly of godly believers to discipline one of their fellow disciples. By the time a situation has evolved (or perhaps we should say: devolved) to this level, there are already broken hearts, wounded spirits and endangered souls. Yet, we know from the teachings of Scripture that we have an obligation to the Lord, to the church, and even to the individual in need of said discipline, to proceed with this process, painful though it may ultimately, and inevitably, prove to be. Further, this is a corporate responsibility that will often generate a good many difficult questions from both sides of the process. When should discipline be given? To whom should it be given, and for what offenses? How should this be handled, and by whom, and how frequently? What results should we expect to achieve by this process? These are all legitimate questions, each deserving of a reasoned response. I've sought to provide biblical answers to each in Reflections #245 -- Divine Design for Discipline: Pondering the Purposes and Parameters of Punishment for the People of God. Therefore, during the course of this present study, I'll not attempt to address these various concerns, as the reader may simply examine the above treatment (and I would urge the reader to do so prior to continuing with this current article).

In any study of church discipline, one of the major texts to be considered is Matthew 18:15-20. Typically, we do not associate the latter half of this passage with the first half, however that is probably not overly wise exegetically, for the "binding and loosing" have both a legislative and judicial force, and thus are relevant to the directives of the first half of this passage. I would refer the reader to my following study for a much fuller treatment: Reflections #237 -- Binding and Loosing: Does Heaven Defer to Human Decree? "By removing an unrepentant sinner from Jesus' community, believers merely ratify the heavenly court's decree. To borrow Johannine language, they merely remove branches already dead on the vine (cf. John 15:2, 6). 'Binding' and 'loosing' refer to the judicial authority of gathered Christians to decide cases on the basis of God's law" (Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 455). Many feel "the treatment of the incestuous Christian by St. Paul is a practical comment on this passage" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 213). He binds him over to Satan in 1 Cor. 5:1-5; he later looses him in 2 Cor. 2:10. Thus, excommunication and restoration are perceived as being vital aspects of the "binding and loosing."

In the first half of this passage, however (vs. 15-17), one perceives a punitive/restorative process promoted by our Lord Jesus. The tragedy is that it is so seldom put into practice by His disciples, with the inevitable result being severed relationships between spiritual siblings. "The wise advice which our Lord here gives is very rarely followed, and yet it's not at all impracticable, and if obeyed it would prevent an immense amount of distress and ill feeling" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, pt. 2, p. 226]. Most disciples of Christ tend to shy away from confrontation, even when such may be sorely needed. It's often an "unpleasant business," and so we hope that by ignoring the problem it will simply "go away on its own." Such rarely happens however; usually a problem left unconfronted and unresolved escalates, leaving us wishing (in hindsight) that we had dealt with it when it may have been far more manageable. Why must we seemingly always learn too late that it is always better to implement the processes provided by inspiration?

On the other hand, we at times rush headlong into the discipline of a brother without fully appreciating the parameters of the process specified by our Lord, with the end result being equally devastating to all parties concerned. Have we truly perceived, for example, what the Lord Jesus is asking of us in Matt. 18:15-17? What is the "sin" of which Christ speaks that requires such a process? Who are the "witnesses," and what is their true function? What does Jesus mean by the term "church," and what is the proper methodology for "telling" them whatever it is we are to tell them? These are each legitimate questions that have troubled the people of God for centuries. Let me illustrate: A couple of weeks ago I received a letter from a brother in Montana who wrote, "Bro. Al, In Matt. 18:17 Jesus tells us to 'tell it to the church, and if he refuses to listen even to the church...' What do you personally believe the Word to be telling us to do here? Is this a public (congregational) process of laying out the charges/concerns against a brother or sister at an assembly of the church? Do both sides have the right to present their 'case'?! We have recently administered church discipline at our local congregation, but this final step was relatively one-sided, with the man who was 'charged' not even present (although he would gladly have been there had he been allowed to be). We do not operate with an eldership (although I hope this comes about before too much longer), so this step of discipline was administered by our preacher with the support of several of the more mature men here. I would appreciate your thoughts!"

The passage in question begins, "If your brother sins against you..." (Matt. 18:15, NIV). Although several versions and translations have the phrase "against you" in the sentence, many do not. The NASB, for example, reads, "If your brother sins..." Obviously, there is a rather significant distinction here. Is the brother engaging in sin in general, or is this brother sinning against you? Which reading one chooses will greatly impact the application of the entire passage. Scholars are divided as to whether the phrase is legitimate. Dr. Bruce M. Metzger observes that it's possible that these words "are an early interpolation into the original text, perhaps derived by copyists from the use of this phrase in vs. 21" [A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 45]. "The words 'against thee' are omitted within the Sinaitic and Vatican manuscripts, and by some modern editors, on the ground that it is a gloss derived from Peter's question (vs. 21). The words are retained by the Vulgate and other high authorities. Without them, the passage becomes one of a general nature, applying to all offences. Retaining them, we find a direction how to treat one who offers personal offence to ourselves -- which seems to suit the context best" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, pt. 2, p. 212]. R.C.H. Lenski, in his commentary on the passage before us, declares this phrase "is textually very strongly assured" [The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 698], whereas Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll characterizes it as being "doubtful" [The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 239], although he does admit that "the reference appears to be to private personal offences." Contextually, I believe this to be the correct view.

Therefore, it appears, at least in this particular context, Jesus is speaking of what steps should be taken by the offended party so as to bring about a restoration of right relationship with the offending party. If a brother or sister has sinned against you, whether that sin be known to them or not (intentional or unintentional), it is best for all concerned to work this out just as quickly as possible. If such offences be allowed to remain unresolved, they will in time grow to become foul, festering open wounds upon the precious Body of Christ. "When offence is given, the evil we must dread is the disposition of each to stand aloof from the other. This can soon widen into hopeless separation. In common life it is the work of friends to bring such separated ones together; in the Christian life we find Christ expects both the offended and the offender to be seeking each other. Talk in a Christian spirit will often correct misunderstandings, smooth difficulties, and put things straight. But Christ puts the chief burden of seeking reconciliation on the injured one. The one against whom the trespass is committed is to act" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, pt. 2, p. 239].

It would be wise to insert a word of caution at this point. Before one ever begins to take steps in a process that could well lead to the public exposure of a brother, and even church discipline, one should be very certain that the matter in question is one of sin that has been committed against him, and not just some difference of opinion or preference. "We must not put in force the process indicated by the Lord until we have discovered that our brother is really in the wrong" [ibid, p. 226]. R.C.H. Lenski writes, "It is necessary to note that only a real sin is referred to ... this excludes what a sensitive brother may deem a sin without due warrant that it is such" [The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 698]. "Sins they must be, not personal peculiarities" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, the NT, vol. 1, p. 100]. "Jesus has in mind graver sins such as all brethren would be compelled to consider too serious and too dangerous to allow them to pass without plain evidence of repentance" [Lenski, p. 699]. Differences of opinion, differing personal perceptions, preferences and practices, are NOT in view here. Someone may differ with you without sinning against you!! Just because you may not like something does NOT mean that you have been personally sinned against. Challenging your "comfort zone" is not the equivalent of "sin." Frankly, too many brethren have tried to drag Matthew 18:15-17 into some personal or party squabble in an effort to "cast out of the church" one whose views or practices they regard with personal disfavor. To be blunt -- such people, by such attitudes and actions, become the offending party!!

Let it also be known that the very first step in the process laid out by our Lord is as follows: "Go and show him his fault, just between the two of you" (Matt. 18:15). Notice that Jesus Christ commands the sinned against brother to GO and SHOW. And, yes, these are commands -- both words appear in the imperative mood. Literally, we are to "depart, begone" from wherever we are and whatever we are doing, as there is something more important -- making right your relationship with your brother. This same thought is presented in the Sermon on the Mount. "If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering" (Matt. 5:23-24). In this case, we see that a brother has something against you (i.e., you are the offending brother). Basically, Jesus is urging both sides to seek out the other (both offender and offended); as one leaves whatever he is doing to seek out his brother, his brother should be doing the same. With this attitude on the part of both, a reconciliation is much more likely.

But, the "GO" is only the first part of the command. When we meet with our brother we are to "SHOW" him precisely the nature of his SIN against us. The Greek word the NIV translates as "show" (and which some other versions render "tell") is elegcho, which means "lay bare, prove, expose; convict as to the facts." It is one thing to tell a man he has sinned against you, but it's quite another to prove it. There were many, for example, who felt Jesus and His teachings were quite offensive, and even sinful. Thus, He challenged them, "If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness of the wrong" (John 18:23). In other words -- prove it ... show Me. Put up, or shut up! Dr. Charles Ellicott points out that "tell" is simply insufficient to convey the true intent of the term Jesus employed. "The Greek is somewhat stronger: convict him of his fault, press it home on him in such a way as to reach his reason and his conscience" [Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 112]. I can't even count the times I have seen some brother "throw a fit" over something, even declaring that others had sinned against him, and yet when he was confronted he was unwilling and/or unable to provide any proof at all. I have had people actually say to me, "I can't show you in the Bible where you are wrong, but I don't like it." Sorry, friend, but that is insufficient grounds for your rant against a brother! If your brother has SINNED against you, then you should be able to prove it by an appeal to the facts and the Scriptures. If you can't or won't, then all concerned might be far better off if you simply kept your mouth shut!! Our Lord Jesus Christ commanded, "Go and Show," not "Go and Blow." Some, however, are more storm than substance!! Or, as the old Indian chief said of one of his critics, "Him heap big thunder, no rain!" The verb used by Jesus (elegcho) suggests that one is to "'convict' the brother, not by passing judgment, but by convicting him of his sin" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 402].

Not only is the "sinned against" brother to "go and show," but he is also to do so privately!! This injunction also is far too frequently overlooked. Rather than going at once to the one who sinned against us, and seeking to settle the matter apart from the gaze of the crowds, some will go to anyone and everyone BUT the brother who sinned against them, starting a campaign of verbal attacks against this "enemy" of theirs. "Meet with that person?! Talk to him?! Never!" If this is your attitude, you are not subjecting yourself to the teaching of Christ, nor are you evidencing the leading of His Spirit. You are not contributing to the healing of the relationship, but are rather perpetuating the rift. Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll stresses that "it is a personal affair to begin with," and that a person must always "try first a minimum of social pressure and publicity" [The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 239-240]. "Speak to him secretly, do not publish his transgression, do not make a talk of it" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, pt. 2, p. 221]. Lenski opined, "Jesus enjoins strict privacy and forbids blurting out the matter in public, or spreading it in secret by telling one or the other, or at once lodging complaint before the church authorities. This direction intends to shield the sinning brother and is prompted by love. It also makes it as easy as possible to confess the sin and to ask for pardon" [The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 699]. "Observe that our Lord gives no liberty to omit this step, or to exchange it for either of the following steps" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 184].

I'm convinced that most brethren would probably be very surprised to find that the vast majority of such situations are quickly solved by two brethren simply sitting down with one another and discussing the matter in Christian love and respect. Communication "in a Christian spirit will often correct misunderstandings, smooth difficulties, and put things straight" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, pt. 2, p. 239]. "In nine cases out of ten, where one supposes that he has been injured, a little friendly conversation would set the matter right and prevent difficulty" [Dr. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, via e-Sword]. There are times, however, when this first step fails to bring restoration of the relationship. At times, in fact, the brother who sinned against you may become even more obstinate and objectionable, and may actually increase his sinful behavior toward you. If this should prove to be the case, then our Lord provides a second step toward healing the relationship: "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" (Matt. 18:16).

Who are these one or two individuals? To what are they "witnesses"? What specifically is their function as they accompany you to this meeting with this brother who has sinned against you? Some feel they're persons who are aware of the sin committed against you, and thus can attest to this brother's iniquity. Perhaps the brother previously refused to accept your account of the event. Thus, these are brought along to confirm that which you alleged. Others suggest they merely accompany you to serve as witnesses to the further exchange between you and this brother who seems reluctant to acknowledge or repent of his sin against you. Still others feel they may be spiritual leaders of the congregation, or at least spiritually mature and trusted individuals, who may be able to serve as arbitrators or mediators between you and this brother. "It is, of course, implied that they are not partisans, but disinterested representatives" of the church in that location [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 112]. John Gill (1690-1771), in his Exposition of the Entire Bible, wrote that "they are members of the church, and perhaps of weight, reputation, and character, who either know something of the matter, and thus can confirm, by their testimony, what has been alleged, in order to bring the person to conviction and acknowledgment; or, if they do not, and which seems rather to be the sense, that they may, by hearing what is said on both sides, judge where the truth lies," and thus help settle the matter for one party or the other, thus bringing healing to the relationship and peace to the church. "It is not at first clear whether the function of these witnesses is to support the one who confronts his erring brother by bringing additional testimony about the sin committed (which would require at least three people to have observed the offense) or to provide witnesses to the confrontation if the case were to go before the whole church. The latter is a bit more likely" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 403].

If, however, even these attempts at reconciliation of the relationship, by bringing this brother to repentance for his sin against you, result in continued obstinacy and resistance by this person, "the worst contingency, the third and final step" [Lenski, p. 701] must be taken. Jesus said, "And 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 unto you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer" (Matt. 18:17, NASB). The final step, before this person is removed from Christian fellowship and regarded as an unbelieving pagan, is to bring the matter before the "church." Some find it somewhat strange that Jesus should be talking about the "church" here when it had not yet been established. In Matt. 16:18 Jesus spoke of building His church, but that would not take place until after His passion and resurrection. Although some speculate He may have been speaking prophetically, others feel He was speaking more of a "brotherhood of believers" in Him, a called people, whether before or after the cross.

But, in what sense is the sinned against brother, and his witnesses, to "tell it to the church"? What does this mean, in practical terms? Is this to be a congregational gathering for the purpose of watching these two brothers argue their respective perspectives of the matter? Do both sides call witnesses, and then the congregation takes a vote on who they believe is the more truthful? This seems a rather certain recipe for division. More likely is that by the time the matter is brought to the body of believers (the whole ekklesia) the offending brother's guilt in the matter has been confirmed (which is likely the purpose of the witnesses). This brother, however, absolutely refuses to repent. Thus, in order to maintain the purity of the church, and also to bring the obstinate brother to repentance, the other believers are brought together and informed of the sin of one of their number, and of the steps that were taken (to which witnesses can attest) to bring about his change of heart. It is then their responsibility, collectively, to bring the force of their number to bear upon this wayward brother in the hope of convicting him of his sin. "The public opinion of the Ecclesia is to be brought to bear upon the offender" [Ellicott, p. 112]. Obviously, in a congregation of any size, there will not likely be 100% agreement on the matter. The sinful brother will very probably have supporters. However, the power of the overwhelming majority should be exercised in order to (1) call the brother to repentance, or, if he refuses, (2) to expel him from the fellowship of the Family of God in that location. In 2 Cor. 2:6, the apostle Paul spoke of the "punishment which was inflicted by the majority." That may be the best we can hope for in such a setting.

Allow me to make one final observation on this matter, and this is a very, very important point to keep in mind. You cannot cast from your midst a person who has already removed himself from your midst. Let me state this truth once again: if a brother or sister has declared that he/she no longer wishes to be a part of the body of believers in a particular location, if he/she has stated that they have removed themselves from the fellowship of that congregation, then they are no longer proper candidates for "church discipline" (i.e., expulsion, excommunication, disfellowship). You cannot cast out what is already gone! That individual has removed himself. We may need to "tell the church" of his/her decision and action, and even urge the brethren to pray for the ultimate restoration of that person, but to "remove" them is no longer an option for us. They have taken that action themselves. Yes, we may need to regard them as "outside of our circle of fellowship" (a Gentile and a tax-gatherer, figuratively speaking), but beyond that we are largely powerless to act. This is where a number of congregations have made horrendous mistakes, and it has quite rightly (in my own view) led to lawsuits against them. After a person removes him/herself from their fellowship, they go ahead and proceed with "telling the church" (and anyone else who will listen to them) the perceived sins of this individual. They have then proceeded to "mark" them in public! I am sure many of us still remember what happened 25 years ago in Collinsville, OK when a congregation went after Marian Guinn, even though she had resigned as a member. A similar case took place more recently (2008) in Jacksonville, FL when Grace Community Church went after Rebecca Hancock, planning to "tell her sins to the church," even after she resigned as a member. Let's be very careful that we don't seek to hide behind Matt. 18 while trying to "get even with" and "inflict harm upon" those who have offended us. The purpose of our Lord's instruction here is to bring a brother or sister to repentance ... to restore them ... NOT to punish them for daring to sin against us. God help us to be more Christ-like than that!!

A Very Special Readers' Update On:
Issue #440: "Communion at a Union"

Most of you will probably remember the concerned mother who wrote to me a few weeks ago about her daughter's desire to partake of the Communion during her upcoming wedding ceremony. If you haven't read her email to me, or my response (which may be found in the above referenced issue of Reflections), I'd urge you to do so now. Many readers responded to that article, and I placed a number of your comments in the readers' section of my last issue. The next day, I received a very moving email from the mother of the bride-to-be -- the woman whose concerns had prompted me to do the above study. Not only did she have some positive comments regarding the article, as well as the readers' responses, but she shared with me a letter she had just sent to her daughter. The letter to her daughter was so touching that I wrote and asked her if I could share it with my readers. She wrote back -- "Al, you have my permission to share my letter; I simply ask that you not include the names. I feel the readers should know the conclusion we have drawn after much thought and prayer and 'reflection.' I thank you, and the many readers (through their comments), who have helped us with this matter. Perhaps this may serve to help others to realize that we are all still learning and growing daily, striving to be more like Christ in our walk while here on this earth. Thank you, Al, for everything!! You have greatly encouraged me and inspired me, not only with this particular Reflections article, but with all of the articles you share weekly! Please realize that you are loved by so many of us who are trying so very hard to be what God wants us to be so that others may witness our lives and thus desire to be part of His Family." This sister-in-Christ has genuinely encouraged me by her attitude and actions, as well as her willingness to change! May God bless her, and also her family. Below you'll find her email to me (which also includes her email to her daughter). May our God raise up more fine men and women like her in the Family.

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

A 200 page book by Al Maxey
Publisher: (301) 695-1707

Readers' Reflections

From an Elder in Missouri:

Dear Brother Al, It was a genuine pleasure to get to hear you, and also to get to speak to you, at The Tulsa Workshop. I was just going to shake hands with you, but when you said, "May I give you a hug?!" I replied, "Sure!" So often, people who have become well-known get too "high off the ground" and lose their humility, and also their ability to truly relate to common folks. You're doing well in this respect! In fact, you are in person exactly what you are on the Internet. Thank you so much for not being too busy or too "above us" to give some personal attention to a stranger who was just looking to see God and His grace. I appreciate the love that is so obviously in you for God and for people around you. Thank you for not being aloof. Brother, I have met a great many well-known leaders in our heritage who were so busy and so shallow that they "had no time" for me and for others. We were beneath them. However, you do not appear to be like that, but are what God has called us all to be. Also, your writings and explanations of the Scriptures have really helped me better understand God's Word. Thanks again for being such a blessing to us all.

From a Ph.D. in Texas:

Brother Al, I had lunch the other day with ------ (the elder I had mentioned to you on the phone). He briefed me on The Tulsa Workshop, and stated that he had really enjoyed hearing you. On a different topic, I recently saw (on a youtube video) Dwight Yoakam (the country music superstar) singing at the funeral of Buck Owens. I noticed that at the beginning of the video he talked about the fact that he was going to use an instrument in the "house of worship," and that he hoped his dear mother would forgive him! Dwight was raised in the Churches of Christ in Kentucky (although I don't know if he still claims membership in this group or not). Interesting how his early upbringing still affects him in that he cared what his mother might think.

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Bro. Al, I appreciate your scholarship and the brilliance of light you shed on the Scriptures more than I can say. Keep up the good scholarship and keep shining!

From an Elder in Texas:

Brother Al, On the subject of recognition in heaven, I like what a wise old preacher once said when a member asked, "Will we know each other in heaven?" He answered, "We won't really know each other until we get to heaven!"

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Brother Al, I listened to your sermon "Marks of a Hypocrite" last night. Good stuff. I've just discovered your congregation's Sermon Page. Don't know how I had missed it all this time. Anyway, I plan to use these thoughts as a springboard for a sermon here in the future. Keep up the great work, brother.

From a Reader in California:

Dear Brother Al, A while back I got interested in, and even participated in, some of the online discussions in the "groups" area of Facebook with those preachers and members of my background church (the One Cup Churches of Christ). My family has been gone from this church for almost 30 years now. After a couple of weeks of reading every post on every subject, I found that I had become very depressed and agitated. Then I realized that it was the negative, know-it-all spirit of some of those on there (who were still holding to the old, hardline, erroneous church doctrines) who were still trying to impose their views on everyone else that was the cause of my growing depression. So, I quit reading and responding to all those depressing posts, and now my spirits have been lifted. I had forgotten just how damaging that legalistic attitude can be! It has reminded me: Christ died to set us free, so let's be free indeed and not become entangled with this yoke of bondage any longer!!

From a Minister in Kenya, Africa:

Al, my dear brother. I appreciated so very much today's Reflections on the woman who had outlived seven different husbands. I have realized that I did not know very much about the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Your article has given me deep insight into the whole event. Bro. Al, I have a dear brother here who would like to become a subscriber of your Reflections. He is also a minister here in Kenya. Thank you.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Brother Al, I so much enjoyed Reflections #314 -- A Disciple's Difficult Decision: Do I Shake Off the Dust and Leave, or Do I Stay and Fight On for Change? I am in the process myself of leaving a congregation for a much more grace-centered church. It has been a very difficult decision for me. I do believe baptism is not optional, yet I believe it is by grace we are saved through faith, and that out of the obedience of faith a person will submit to baptism. This makes me see salvation as not a point in time, but more of a journey. Why this insistence that someone has to understand everything exactly the same way to be your brother? Why this constant gossiping about and condemning of other brethren and groups of believers? I pray that God will lead me to a good church home where I can truly grow in "grace and knowledge." Again, I thank you for your great article. It hits the nail on the head for me, and it is a genuine comfort. I don't look forward to the pain ahead; to having people reject me as I try to act the way I believe Christ would have me act. But, neither can I remain in this church. It would not be personally honest. Maybe God will show me that I am the one who is wrong here, but then maybe He will lead me to a better place. We will see. I trust Him.

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