Is Matthew 18:15-20 About Church Discipline?
A friend asked me how I would interpret the famous “church discipline” passage (Matthew 18:15-20) in light of my definition of ecclesia. In what follows, I will show you the difference between reading this passage through the lens of church and the lens of love.
But first, a confession.
Confession: I Was a Jerk
Before I start, I need to confess that as a pastor, I read and applied this passage in a way that I now despise.
At the time, I prided myself on not being a liberal, softheaded pastor who was unwilling to drop the hammer on sinners. It was a point of pride. I had the courage to discipline wayward sheep according to Jesus’ instructions. Yay for me!
I now realize that when I dropped the hammer on sinners I dropped the hammer on myself. To put this in Jesus’ words, the measure by which I judged became the measure by which I judged myself (Mathew 7:2). In the process, I excluded myself from the Kingdom of God.
By casting sinners from my church, I purified my church much in the same way that the Pharisees purified themselves by the ritual hand washing. I followed church protocol, not Jesus.
But if Matthew 18:15-20 s not about church discipline, what is it about?
Why Matthew 18 Is Probably Not An Authentic Saying of Jesus
I don’t give this passage as much weight as other passages in the gospel.
“But wait!” you say. “Isn’t all Scripture equally inspired?”
Well, no. Though many give lip service to such an ideal, no one lives by it. We memorize and repeat the great passages of Scripture, the ones that speak to us. We quietly pass over the rest.
Everyone does this. Otherwise there would be as many sermons on Leviticus as on Romans. There would be “Precious Moments” cups with all 23,145 verses of the Bible on them, including Leviticus 20:27.
“They shall be stoned with stones, their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”
Matthew contains the only two verses with the word “church” (ecclesia) in any of the gospels. Mark, Luke, and John never put the word “church” on Jesus’ lips. It is very likely that Jesus did not say it.
“But wait!” you say. “Are you saying the gospels are made up by Jesus followers?”
It is reasonable to believe that the sayings of Jesus are well preserved in the gospels. The idea that the gospels were totally fabricated by Jesus’ followers flies in the face of too much evidence. But the idea that Jesus’ teachings are recorded verbatim is equally unjustified.
John’s Jesus sounds different than Matthew’s, Mark’s, or Luke’s. Even identical sayings of Jesus are recorded with slight variations by the different writers. To me, the out-of-the-blue reference to the church in Matthew has the earmarks of a later interpolation.
But let’s assume I’m wrong. Let’s proceed as if Jesus spoke these words, verbatim. They still could never mean what they are assumed to mean.
Let’s start by outlining what this teaching is commonly assumed to mean.
How Matthew 18:15-20 Is Read as “Church Discipline”
Matthew 18:15-20 is usually read as a procedure follow when someone commits one of the church’s high profile no-nos. These usually have to do with sex or doctrine, typically Pharisaic obsessions. Sins of the heart fly under the radar. Gossip, greed, unforgiveness, being judgmental, and pride are rarely if ever addressed by “church discipline.”
When a sinner violates a high profile no-no, here is the procedure:
- Confront the person alone. (v. 15)
- If this fails, gang up on them. (v. 16)
- If this fails, apply group pressure. (v. 17)
- If this fails, shun them. (v. 18)
Whatever it means, it cannot mean this.
5 Reasons Why Matthew 18 Cannot Be About Church Discipline
There are at least five reasons why Matthew 18 cannot be read as “the church discipline” passage.
- Verse 15 reads, “If you brother sins against you.” This is not a teaching about sin in the church. It is a teaching about personal relationships.
- When Jesus spoke these words, there was no church. In my church we actually used this passage to write our church bylaws, as if Jesus was thinking of that. Such a reading is obviously anachronistic.
- The “church discipline” reading contradicts the teaching on forgiveness that immediately precedes and follows the passage. Matthew 18:10-14 is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. In it, God goes to extremes to redeem the wayward sheep. God does not shun the lost sheep. And if you wonder about the limits of of this, read on. In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus tells Peter to forgive, not seven, but seven times seventy times. This is followed by a stern parable on forgiveness, The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
- The “church discipline” reading contradicts Jesus’ teachings on judging others (Matthew 7:1-5). It turns us into the Pharisees, circling around those caught in the act, rocks in hand.
- Read as the “church discipline” passage, Jesus’ teaching is impossible to enforce. The earliest manuscripts read:
“If your brother sins, go and point out their fault…” (reflected in the NASB and NIV)
Later manuscripts add, “against you.”
“If your brother sins against you, go and point out their fault.” (reflected in the ESV, KJV, NLT)
If we must personally confront every sinner, when will we have time to sleep? Everyone sins. Even worse, how will we deal with the log in our own eye when we are obsessed with the specks in our brothers’?”
No doubt, this is why a later scribe added “against you.”
With or without “against you,” this is not a passage about sin in the church. It is about how to deal with violations of love between two people.
Matthew 18 Through the Lens of Love
Let’s take this passage a verse at a time and make it concrete by giving an example.
Imagine that I am having an affair and my wife discovers it. Note that this is not a “church” issue. It is a personal violation of love. That’s what Jesus is addressing here.
v. 15 If your brother sins [against you], go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.
Julie must not make light of my sin. It is a violation of love. She must force me to face this.
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.
What if I say my affair is no big deal? What is Julie to do? Go along and pretend all is well? No! Love must be true or it is not love. She should invite some friends into the mix. These people are brought in to shed light on the situation, not to apply pressure.
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.
Let’s say this fails. I tell my friends to go pound sand, that my affair is my own business. And anyway, it’s no big deal. Now what is Julie to do?
“Tell it to the church.”
If “church” is understood as a human institution, then this confrontation will take place in a duly called church meeting at which I will be excommunicated (and presumable bound for hell) if I do not repent.
But if “church” is understood to mean the love of God, drawing all people to himself and one another, then “tell the church” is a way of saying that Julie is under no obligation to hide my sin and go along with my charade. She is free to blow my cover and treat me in a way that matches my behavior, as a “Gentile and tax collector.” This is not a license for Julie to fill her heart with hate and unforgiveness. It is permission not to pretend.
v. 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.
The public acknowledgment of the facts is not a pronouncement that changes anything. It is the acknowledgement of what is already the case. In Greek, the underlined words are in a tense and voice (perfect, passive) that imply the reality is already the case in heaven. Julie is not putting me in chains. She is revealing my chains.
v.19-20 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. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
When Julie gathers together with her Kingdom-minded friends, Jesus is with them. And when they come together, what better than to pray for me, the wayward brother, the lost sheep?
Matthew 18:15-20 is sandwiched between teachings on love and forgiveness. These should always be read along with it. We should always read Matthew 18:12-35; never just Matthew 18:15-20.
Just as Jesus loves us and shines the truth on our relationship with Himself, so we must shine the light of truth in our relationships with each other. This is not the same as being judgmental. It is facing reality. Jesus never asks us to live in a lie.
If things degrade to the extent that we must treat another person as a “Gentile and a tax collector,” we must remember how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He loved them. He ate with them.
Sinful behavior may require that we shine the light of truth on those we love. It never allows us to stop loving them.