Matthew 18:15-17a is one of the most important passages in the Bible on the matter of church discipline. It’s also one of the most abused passages in all of Scripture (outside “Judge not” in Matt. 7:1). The passage reads as follows:
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.
While there’s a great deal that could be said about this passage, but there are a few important elements to note:
1. The passage deals explicitly with personal sin. According to this passage, personal sin is to be dealt with personally—”between you and him alone,” Jesus says (v. 15). The big idea here is that if you can resolve something quickly, without rumors starting to swirl, then do it. “You will have gained your brother,” Jesus says. In other words, the whole point is reconciliation.
2. Personal sin sometimes requires mediators. When you can’t get something resolved one-on-one, you need to bring in some help; “take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (v. 16). Personal issues should never devolve into a nasty game of one person’s word against another’s. Having someone else work with us to settle a dispute is often the thing we need to actually get it resolved.
3. Unrepentant sin is a matter for your community. There’s not really such a thing as “personal, private business” within the church—specifically our local congregations. Our sin affects everybody in our local church, whether we admit it or not, because we are all responsible to (and for) one another.
However not every sin falls into the Matt. 18 model.
Corporate sins, public sins, are handled differently. We see numerous examples throughout Scripture—Paul publicly rebukes Peter for falling back into law-keeping and causing confusion among the gentile believers and he rebukes the Corinthian church for, well, pretty much everything. Jesus rebukes the Laodiceans for being lukewarm, the Ephesians for abandoning their first love and the church at Sardis for being dead, although they had the appearance of life.
Over and over again, we see public sin being confronted publicly.
In these cases they weren’t handling things in the same fashion as you would personal sin. There were no mediators, no private approaches that we’re aware of—it’s just a loud, clear “repent!”
But something that’s important to note here, too:
The whole point of dealing with public sin publicly is reconciliation.
Yesterday Tim Challies publicly pleaded with Christians to stop giving airtime to “discernment bloggers/watchbloggers.” In recent weeks, he’s come under heavy criticism, particularly from those impacted by the ongoing issues within Sovereign Grace Ministries. His comments, naturally, caused even more insanity (as evidenced by the comments section).
While I’m not going to get into the particular issues surrounding Sovereign Grace, and I want to respect the feelings of those impacted, the direction I’m seeing in all of this (particularly in the way people went after Tim and Cruciform Press) should be cause for concern.
When we scour the Internet looking for “dirt” or something we can spin to continue to feed our injuries… the Bible has a name for that: malice.
Malice is a desire to do evil against another, a desire that grows out of bitterness. For a Christian to harbor bitterness, to let it fester and grow into malice—to begin intentionally plotting evil against others—that should cause us great concern as we look at ourselves.
Why? Because it’s an indication of our heart—it’s a warning that not all is right in our standing before God, even that our profession of faith may be a lie (see Acts 8:21-23; Rom. 3:10-14).
Simply, bitterness is incompatible with Christian character—and Paul commands us to “put it away” in Ephesians 4:31.
Before it’s too late.
When we look at the harsh words we see in Scripture, even the fiercest rebukes that come to God’s people—they’re motivated by a desire for one thing:
That’s the point of all biblical confrontation. It’s why we see in Matthew’s gospel, immediately following Jesus’ commands surrounding personal sin the parable of unforgiving servant (Matt. 18-21-35). It’s why we see Jesus give the Ephesians and Laodiceans and the rest of the seven churches an opportunity to repent. It’s why Paul says he handed Hymenaeus and Alexander “over to Satan”—that they might learn not to blaspheme and would repent (1 Tim. 1:20).
But bitterness is the enemy of reconciliation.
If you find yourself reading a particularly critical blog, ask yourself: is the goal of this rebuke to see people reconciled to Christ and/or to one another? Does it create a desire for promote forgiveness?
Does it feed bitterness—or choke it out?