Friday, September 02, 2011

Matthew 18:15–20

Matthew 18:15–20 (ESV): If Your Brother Sins Against You


This passage continues on with Jesus talking about sin, but he changes the focus now: What if your “brother” (meaning another believer not just your actual biological brother—and not necessarily even male) sins against you? What should you do? Yes, of course, you should forgive him—we all know that—but that’s not Jesus’ focus in this passage, he actually has some very practical advice. (Not that forgiveness is somehow impractical, but modern-day Christians, myself included, have a habit of putting the word “practical” in front of things that we can do, and somehow implying that things we don’t physically do—like when we are to pray and wait for God to act—are somehow not “practical.” Anyway…)
  1. We should go to the person, privately, and tell them their “fault.” If s/he listens, then great! Or, as Jesus says,

    “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (verse 15b (ESV))
  2. If they don’t listen—i.e. if they refuse to repent, or maybe they are continuing in the sin, whatever it is—then take one or two others with you and talk to the person again. Jesus adds, “… that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (verse 16 (ESV)), which is an allusion to Deuteronomy 19:15 (ESV)—which shows that even though we’re not under Old Testament laws (especially the civil laws handed down to the nation of Israel), many of the principles still apply. If we get to the next step of the process—if the brother or sister being corrected still refuses to listen—this should not become a simple personal disagreement between two people.
  3. If they still don’t listen, then take it to the church. Jesus doesn’t specifically outline how one is to do this, but by the context it seems that the entire church should somehow be involved in telling this person that what they are doing (or what they have done) is wrong, and needs to be repented of.
  4. And finally, if the person still doesn’t listen, they are to be to the church “as a Gentile and a tax collector”—that is, they are to be like an unbeliever, which is to say that it is not to be assumed that they really are a Christian.
Jesus then finishes the passage by telling us why the church has this kind of authority:

“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (verses 18–20 (ESV))


The actual text of the passage keeps using the masculine; if your brother sins go talk to him and if he doesn’t repent bring others to talk to him, etc. etc. I’m using gender-neutral wording, not because I’m trying to be politically correct but because I don’t want people getting the impression that this passage only applies to men. (Let’s be honest, there are a lot of strange ideas about gender in the 21st Century Church.) But it really reads so much easier if we just use the masculine and be done with it…

Let’s go through Jesus’ advice, piece by piece.

First of all, our first action should be to talk to the person directly, one-on-one, and try to sort the matter out privately. Remember, Jesus started out the passage saying “If your brother sins against you,” (verse 15 (ESV), emphasis added)—if at all possible, we should try to fix things privately. This isn’t about getting holier-than-thou, it’s not about making yourself look good in front of others (or making your brother or sister look bad), it’s not about our seemingly endless hunger for gossip. It’s about “winning your brother.” It’s about genuinely caring about the spiritual well being of this brother or sister in Christ, and wanting to help. If we always approached things this way, I’m sure people wouldn’t mind being corrected as much as they do. (They still wouldn’t like it, but it wouldn’t be as bad.)

The next stage in the progression, if the person doesn’t listen, is to bring one or two others with you and try again. Again, we’re trying to keep this as private as possible—we’re not bringing in the whole church (yet)—we’re just trying to get this person to see the error of his or her ways. The ESV Study Bible points out (and it makes sense to me) that the “witnesses” mentioned here are not witnesses to the sin that was (or is being) committed, but witnesses to this confrontation; if things still progress, and the next phase has to occur, it is better to go to the church with these two or three people who can all say together, “we talked to the person, and s/he wouldn’t listen, and refused to repent” or whatever the situation is. Deuteronomy is talking about witnesses in a legal case; according to Old Testament law, the testimony of one witness is not enough evidence to convict someone of a crime, and similarly, if we need to bring things before the church, the testimony of one person is not to be enough for the church to kick that person out. Jesus doesn’t want us to get into situations where one person can decide to get another person kicked out of the church; there has to be evidence. It is, of course, still possible for two or three people to concoct a story to get someone kicked out of a church—we’re fallen people, and even Christians are not above this—but this isn’t meant to be foolproof; it’s a simple guard against one person arbitrarily trying to start calling the shots. In any case, if we are to get to the next step in the progression, the church has to show care, compassion, and fairness, but also take God’s Word seriously; we have to try and ensure that innocent people are not punished, and that guilty people are—or, to put it another way, we are to value justice. (“Justice” in the proper sense of the word, not meaning “vengeance”—we are to be just, as God is just.)

The next stage is to bring the matter before the church. (I keep saying “church,” not “Church” with a capital C, because this is a matter for the local church to handle—it’s not like all believers everywhere are going to weigh in when your brother or sister sins against you.) As mentioned above, Jesus doesn’t say how this is to happen, but somehow the church is to try and get across to this person that sin is being committed, and needs to be repented of. (By the time it gets to this level it seems like an ongoing sin that’s happening, not a one time thing that happened and needs to be repented of.)

Finally, if the person won’t listen to the church, they are to be treated like a non-Christian, which would usually involve removing them from church membership, having them no longer have any kind of leadership role they might have had, and whatever other disciplinary action might be in the local church’s constitution (assuming it has one). In our post-modern society, this might seem harsh—not the part about removing them from church membership, but the part about assuming that they’re not Christians. “Surely people make mistakes,” we think. “Who are we to judge?” But Jesus’ answer would be that yes, people do make mistakes, but if you are truly saved, you will repent of your mistakes. Again, that’s the whole point of this progression: not to put on our executioner’s hats and look down our noses at someone, but to lovingly bring someone to repentance. After all, if sin is being committed, it is damaging that person’s relationship with God, and that needs to be fixed. But if that person doesn’t repent—not after confronted about it, still not after being confronted again by a few people, still not even after having the entire local church tell them that what they’re doing is wrong—then this is no longer a case of “people make mistakes;” this is serious grounds for assuming that this person is not saved at all, because they’re showing evidence to the contrary. Of course the hope is always that the person will repent, and come back.

The last part of the passage, quoted above, takes care of the second part of the hypothetical question I just asked, the “who are we to judge?” part. In short, the answer is that we are the Church of Christ. We are believers, endowed with the Holy Spirit. What we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Jesus takes the words he’d said to Peter in Chapter 16 and expands it to include the entire Church—God has extended His authority to us. We have His Holy Spirit, and are to be attentive to His justice here on earth. To ask “who are we to judge?” is not to be wise, seemingly leaving it up to God to decide—it is, instead, simply being cowardly and shirking our duties as Christians. It may be that we’re sometimes reluctant to get involved in a situation like this because we don’t know our Bibles well enough, and don’t feel competent to judge a matter such as this—but there’s an obvious fix for that problem, too.

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