Church discipline

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will bebound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven. 19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)

Who understands verse 19 of our Gospel passage to mean that if you and someone else agree about something here on earth it will be done for you by God?  For a long time, I thought that if I asked for something of God and someone else agreed with me then it would be done for me by my Father in heaven.

As I have journeyed with Christ over many years I have grown to understand that God doesn’t quite work like this!  I can’t give Him a shopping list of wants or desires, even if I have found someone who agrees they are good for me, or good for others. 

Actually such an understanding of verse 19 is completely wrong.  This verse can so easily be taken out of context, because it is tied up with the verses that come immediately before it.  Which are all to do with church discipline. 

Here, Jesus is teaching His disciples, who became the Apostles of Christ, the first leaders of the church, how brothers and sisters in Christ are to deal with those who sin against each other.  Therefore, verse 19 is all about discipline.

So how is church discipline to work? If a professed Christian is wronged by another, they are not to complain of it to others.  In other words, they are not to gossip, as too often is done.  Instead they are to go to the offender privately, and state kindly the matter.  This should resolve things.  But Jesus knows that because of our human frailty it won’t always work like that.

So if the first approach does not work you are to take one or two others along with you.  These are not necessarily eyewitnesses of the sin, but those who can testify as to how the attempt at reconciliation goes. If the reconciliation fails, we are to treat them as an unrepentant sinner.

Paul commanded the Thessalonian Christians to observe this principle, saying, In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

The church is to relate to the rebellious person as an outsider, a person of no faith, – spiritually dead.

Therefore, we have to understand three things about this teaching of Jesus…

  1. That it is for Christians, not unbelievers
  2. That it is for sins committed against you, and not against others
  3. That this is how we are to resolve conflict in the church, not the community at large.

It would be difficult to resolve issues between people using Christian principles, if they don’t subscribe to such concepts.

The first recipients of this Gospel were Jews, and this would have reminded them of passages in Deuteronomy, concerning the law.  Deuteronomy 17 and 19 speak of 2 or 3 witnesses gathered to testify in court.  The witnesses were necessary to establish a case in court.

So we need to know our Scripture, because when you read these 6 verses from Matthew chapter 18 we find that this whole chapter is about Jesus teaching His disciples how they should handle situations of interpersonal sin and conflict.  These instructions from Jesus immediately follow His parable about the lost sheep (which emphasises restoring someone who has gone astray) and precedes the parable of the unmerciful servant (which is about being willing to cancel and forgive an outstanding debt). The themes that are present in these 6 verses are forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation with a brother or sister in Christ who has sinned against you or who has gone astray.

Therefore, when two of you agree, or have the same mind, feelings, and opinion, about the sin that has been committed, and if forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation has been achieved between the parties involved, whatever you ask of God in this situation will be done for you.  This teaches us that as Christians we have a responsibility to maintain the welfare of God’s church in a wholesome and life-giving way.  For such a way brings unity.

Our first reading from Act 1 shows the church putting these words of Jesus into practice.  The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15: 1-29 is another illustration of how the early church dealt with conflict.  And the common factor in these examples is prayer.

So to resolve conflict, prayer has to be at the centre, but those who pray must be gathered together in the name of Christ, for this means that they are doing three things:

  1. Trusting that Jesus is interceding for them
  2. Praying in a way that their words are not utterances of the natural but of the spiritual person
  3. Asking in entire, total submission to the will of their Father in heaven

If these three things are not there then such prayers are like the prayer of the sons of Zebedee, when their mother asked Jesus if they could sit at His right and left hand in Heaven.  Because this was not the will of God it would not be granted.  As followers of Jesus they would get to heaven but what they set their hearts on would not be granted (Matthew 20:20).

Praying in accordance with God’s will is so important, for when we do, our requests will be granted by our Father in Heaven. whether we pray as individuals or as a church.

Of course, this is to be understood with some restriction.  The request must be reasonable, good in itself, expedient for the petitioner; the prayer must be earnest, faithful, persevering and in line with God’s plumb line truth.  If such conditions are satisfied, the desire will be granted in some form, though, perhaps, not in the way or at the time expected.

So in all our proceedings, including church discipline, it is essential that we seek direction in prayer; we cannot prize too highly the promises that this brings us, because Jesus ends this teaching with a blessing, saying that He will always be with us.

Based on a sermon first delivered on Sunday 6th September 2020