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The Life of Jesus - Series 7: Episode 9

Dealing with sin in the church

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 18:15-20

There needs to be clear discipline procedures in the church community to deal with Christians who continue to sin.

There needs to be clear discipline procedures in the church community to deal with Christians who continue to sin.


Hello and welcome to Series 7 and Episode 9. This is entitled ‘Dealing with Sin in the Church’. We're continuing our studies in Matthew 18, and if you've been following the last few episodes, you'll realise we're working through this chapter systematically and trying to link together all the different themes within the chapter.

Introduction and Recap

This is a very important topic and a very important teaching that Jesus gives on this occasion. Matthew 18 is the fourth out of five major blocks of teaching, or discourses, that Matthew records. Matthew's focus in his Gospel is to provide discipleship, or training, or teaching resources for the Church, by recording as much of Jesus' teaching as he can. These five blocks are clearly defined in the text. I've mentioned them on a number of occasions and I'll repeat them again here. First of all, in Matthew 5 to 7, we have the Sermon on the Mount, which describes the ‘Lifestyle of the Kingdom’. Then in Matthew 10 we have the description of the sending out of the Twelve, and lots of instructions to go with them about mission, and so this is the topic of the ‘Mission of the Kingdom’. In Matthew 13 the topic is the ‘Growth of the Kingdom’, and Jesus chooses to develop this theme by using seven different parables about how the Kingdom of God will grow over time, between his coming and his return, his Second Coming, and the final judgement. This now, in Matthew 18, is the fourth out of those five sections, and I've entitled it the ‘Community of the Kingdom’, because it describes the dynamics of relationships within the Church community. The fifth block of teaching or discourse is about the ‘Future of the Kingdom’, the end of the age and the return of Christ in Matthew chapter 24 and 25, which we'll come to in due course.

The ‘Community of the Kingdom’, the Church community, is in embryonic form at this particular stage. Jesus has his twelve disciples; he has a wider group of disciples around them, and he is preparing the way for this relational network of those who follow him to become a more specifically constituted Church community, which we see taking place during the early stages of the book of Acts, after the day of Pentecost. It's very important teaching and 2000 years later, the teaching of Matthew 18 is just as important as it was then. Jesus is here consciously laying down foundations for the future and he's doing so at a very important time in his ministry, where he is literally changing direction.

He spent the first part of his ministry, the majority of his time, possibly over two years, in Galilee. We've described his various tours around Galilee in some detail in the earlier series of this production of the life of Jesus. Now we've come to a point where Jesus is going to leave Galilee. He's going to head for Jerusalem. It's his own decision. The process by which he came to this decision about timing is described in the earlier part of Series 7, where we looked at the discussion between the disciples and Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, where Peter confesses Christ, and then Jesus starts talking about the principles on which he's going to build the Church. Then on the Mount of Transfiguration, where Peter, James and John experience the glorified Christ, they hear him talking to the returning Moses and Elijah about going to Jerusalem and departing this life. Very shortly after this teaching we are looking at today, we'll find that Jesus sets himself very firmly to go south, go to Jerusalem, leave Galilee permanently, leave behind the ministry that he has been conducting there in the northern part of the country. This teaching is laying down principles for the future Church. Jesus is looking way beyond his own life and his own ministry. He's preparing his disciples for building that Church community. They will be the first builders of that community - they'll form it; they'll create its structure; they'll create its ethos; they'll create its values; and its methods of dealing with the relational challenges that will come. Matthew 18 is incredibly important.

Let's quickly recap some of the things that we've learnt already in the last three episodes and then we'll look at this very challenging and important topic of dealing with sin within the Church community. We started at the beginning, in the first 5 verses, with this very moving account of Jesus explaining what appropriate attitudes in the Kingdom should be - what greatness in the Kingdom really amounts to - by taking a young child, maybe about 6, 7 or 8 years old, and placing that child in the middle of the discipleship group, and then talking to them about what they learn from children. We find the attitudes of the Kingdom, which bring greatness in the Kingdom, are attitudes that we can see operating at a human level in the relationship between a child and adults and parents, and others responsible for that child. We see trust, we see receptivity, and we see humility. Those are the three things, I think, that come out of that particular passage. We need to transfer those characteristics and attitudes from human relationships, to our relationship with God our heavenly Father. We need to trust him with active faith, we need to be receptive to his guidance, and we need to be humble in our attitude to him and his authority in our lives. That was the first section; a very powerful orientation of the disciples towards inner attitude. It appears then that the kingdom that's being established in the Church, is going to be based on good attitudes towards God. This reminds us of the priority of the Sermon on the Mount, which of course is the first block of teaching, first discourse, that Matthew records in his five-fold structure. It starts, in Matthew's version, with the Beatitudes, at the very beginning of Matthew 5, which describes the right attitudes for building community.

The second section of Matthew 18, which we studied two episodes ago, talked about protecting believers from danger, Matthew 18: 6 to 9. Jesus spoke very forthrightly about the danger of people coming in from outside the Church principally, to disrupt the lives of those who simply follow Christ with humble, simple faith, to tempt them, persuade them, pressurise them, to modify, or compromise, or turn away from their Christian belief. He also warned of the danger of nominal belief, where huge sins appear in people's lives, but nothing is done about it. He said something really drastic needs to happen there. That nominal faith needs to turn into profound, real, living faith with repentance.

Then, in the last episode, Matthew 18: 10 - 14, Jesus took up the theme of wandering believers and the need to protect them, believers who wander away from the church community relationally. He told the parable of the lost sheep as a means of illustrating this particular theme. We noted that the parable of the lost sheep also occurs in Luke 15, in a different context, which we'll deal with later, and that Jesus often teaches similar material in different contexts. In the context here, the parable of the lost sheep relates to the church community not to unbelievers and the wandering off of members of our church community, and the need to have a shepherding function within that church that mirrors the heart of God for those individual people, that reflects the heart of God. That shepherding function needs to try and bring those people back, whether that comes from the leaders, pastors, shepherds, elders, ministers, or whether it comes from church members, who just have a care for one another. That third section emphasises the need to maintain the integrity of the church by looking out for the people who are vulnerable and wander off, for one reason or another.

Unresolved Conflict

Now Jesus turns his attention to another significant problem. Whereas churches may disintegrate through people wandering off, as in the last episode, churches can also end up in great difficulty if there is unresolved conflict and division within the church community that is based on obviously sinful or negative behaviour on the behalf of individuals, whoever they are in the church. Jesus, in this passage that we're going to read now, Matthew 18: 15 - 20, identifies a very particular process by which to address sinful actions that take place in church communities. What we're going to do is to read this passage through and then try and work out exactly what Jesus meant and how it might apply to us 2000 years later. Matthew 18: 15 to 20.

"If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you've won them over. 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’. 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. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 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. For where two or three gather in my name there am I with them."

Matthew 18:15-20, NIV

Let's work through this passage.

Underlying Assumptions

First of all, let's look at some of the assumptions that underlie the passage, before we look at the actual process that's described within it. The assumption here, that is foundational, is that a formal church community has been created. You'll notice the word church is used here. The Greek word ‘ekklesia’, the gathered community. This is only the second time that this particular word - so common in the book of Acts and in the letters, and Paul's letters in particular - has been used in Jesus' teaching, as recorded anywhere in all the four Gospels. Both of them are in Matthew's Gospel, as it happens, and we'll refer to the earlier one in a moment. We are assuming here a formal church community. The Christian faith only functions effectively when there is a formal church community, a gathered community, constituted around faith in Jesus Christ. This isn't random individuals just living their Christian lives all on their own, as rugged individuals, or privatised Christians. No, we live in community. That is obvious through the whole of the New Testament and Jesus makes that very clear here. That community not only exists, but Jesus cares about the integrity of that community; he cares about it, which is why he's teaching about it. The implication here is there must be some leadership structure, not formally described, but it is implied in this text, because none of these methodologies of dealing with sin could possibly work unless there was some organisational principle that made it happen.

Another assumption here is that there is a need to resolve conflict and difficulty, and indeed a need for a church discipline process. That's quite a big assumption, but it's clear. The other assumption in this passage is that when a brother or sister is described as sinning, that this is not just some petty difference, some matter of opinion, some cultural difficulty that they're experiencing. This is a sinful action that could be biblically defined, for example, lying, committing adultery, stealing. I've just given you three random examples, things that are biblically defined in the New Testament as things that we should turn away from. Then those are the things that are in view here. This isn't about people just having a different opinion about something, just being annoyed with each other because they have a different opinion. We're talking here about a sin which is a deliberate action that is biblically definable as a violation of God's will in the New Testament context. The other thing that is assumed here, is that the two or three witnesses are a very important part of the process, and that they have a role of ensuring objectivity and the accurate use of evidence. We'll come back to that later on. The two or three witnesses is a principle that we see in the Old Testament, before we see it in the New Testament.

The Process of Dealing with Conflict

Now let's look at it more closely in terms of the actual process. I've given you some assumptions that we can reasonably make, about what underlies this story, of a process. We need to look at the process itself. If somebody is causing a direct offence, that can be described as a biblically definable sin, shall we just assume it's regular lying - telling things that aren't true, that are disruptive to human relationships? Let's assume that might be what's in mind here. Then what happens first according to this teaching? Verse 15 is very clear.

"If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault just between the two of you."

Matthew 18:15, NIV

This is a contrast to what most people do when they have difficulty in human relationships. They go and talk to all their friends first. This is very counter-cultural. The instruction here is to go to that person and say, “Look, what you're doing is offending me, can we talk about it?” just between the two of you! If that fails, and sometimes that will succeed in the person saying, "Sorry, I didn't realise I was upsetting you." That's quickly resolved and that's anticipated as an outcome in this process. But if that person is not willing to agree that they're at fault, then it describes here in verse 16, "take one or two others along." These are the two or three witnesses, and here Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 19: 15. I'm going to turn to that verse directly now, because the context in which it is used in the Law of Moses, is to do with offence and criminal activity in the community of Israel. It's a community principle. Deuteronomy 19: 15,

‘One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offence they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

Deuteronomy 19:15, NIV

Just as in ancient Israel you weren't allowed to make an accusation against anyone that was unsubstantiated, so in the church the same thing applies. The main reason these extra people are drawn in, is to ensure that the accused person is defended against an unreasonable or malicious accusation, which has no basis in fact. Those two witnesses, whoever they are, are to bring an external view. We'll describe some possibilities as to who those two or three witnesses are, in just a moment. Then if the person resists the two or three witnesses, they resist the individual person, it says they must tell it to the church, so the whole community becomes involved at this point. This would involve the leaders of that church, who would have to negotiate and oversee that process; the pastors, the elders, the leaders, the ministers. Then if that person doesn't listen to the church then it says, ‘treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector’ .That means to exclude them from the church community, and treat them functionally as an outsider. That doesn't mean they've lost their faith, but it means in functional terms they're no longer participating in the church community.

Then we have a very interesting statement, verse 18, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” What does that statement mean? Binding and loosing is an expression that Jesus has used once already, in Matthew 16: 13 - 20, in an occasion I mentioned earlier at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus is talking to his disciples about his identity, and then about the future Church, and Peter makes his confession of Christ. The basic meaning of these words to bind and loose is: to forbid or to allow, to bind, to forbid; to loose, to allow. The application here is the declaration of guilt or innocence in the case of church discipline. This is not a reference to some other form of spiritual warfare, or prayer, or anything like that. The context is completely different. The context indicates that the church, through its leadership, has the authority to declare a particular person accused of doing something sinful, is in fact innocent or is guilty. When they are unwilling to respond, the church leaders can ultimately say, ‘We hold you accountable for not responding to correction, and encouragement, and exhortation, and ultimately we have to remove you from the community, because you're disrupting the community.’ The implication is that church leaders make these decisions. Then in verse 19 and 20, Jesus says,

“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. For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.”

Matthew 18:19-20, NIV

This verse is commonly applied to prayer but the context is not prayer. The context of the primary application of this, is to this church discipline process. The ‘two on earth who agree together’ are related to the ‘two or three witnesses’ and are related to the gathered community and its church leaders. Basically, it's saying that the Father will endorse the decisions made in good conscience by those with responsibility to make those decisions, in the context of church discipline. This leads us to a final question that we do need to resolve in order to understand how this passage actually might work out in reality. Who are the two or three witnesses? Their identity or function is not formally named. They could be people who've got evidence related to the particular issue concerned. That is a possibility but the two or three witnesses are more likely to be direct representatives, or leaders, of that church community. The two or three witnesses are involved in seeking to resolve the issue. They're involved in overseeing the church as a whole engaging with the issue, if it's still unresolved. They're involved in binding or loosing. In other words, they're involved in forbidding or allowing that person to remain in the church. It is those two people who, if they agree together about something, it will be reinforced by God in heaven as he gives the decision to support the integrity of the church, and blesses them in that process. That's the most likely use of the two or three witnesses in that passage.


What reflections do we have on this challenging teaching? An initial reflection that many of us may make is, churches don't very often operate in this way, and their church disciplinary procedures can be very often about the rules of the church, rather than about sin as defined as a biblical category. That's something that needs thinking about. This is the second time Jesus has used the word Church. He's establishing foundations for the Church that will emerge in the future. He's pointing out here, not just a procedure to deal with conflict and sin, embedded in the Church. He's pointing out also the seriousness of unresolved, sinful actions that take place habitually and disruptively in the church community. In doing so he is anticipating what Paul says about a similar issue when, in 1 Corinthians 5, he's dealing with a case which could easily fit into the category that we have just described. In 1 Corinthians 5: 1 he says,

‘It is actually reported that there is a case of sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate. A man is sleeping with his father's wife.’

1 Corinthians 5:1, NIV

He then goes on and describes the process by which this person, who's obviously persistently continuing in a sexually immoral relationship, should be removed from the church. In verse 5,

‘hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.’

1 Corinthians 5:5, NIV

The principle that Paul uses here in 1 Corinthians 5 verse 6 is

‘a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough’.

1 Corinthians 5:6, NIV

In other words, something negative or sinful embedded in the church and unchallenged, will eventually corrupt that wider church community. This teaching, in Matthew 18, goes against the more culturally liberal approach to human relationships that's predominant in the Western world, where people are basically free to choose how they want to live. The Christian community is not a reflection of those values.

The Christian community consists of those who have formally and specifically identified themselves as disciples of Christ. The way that is done in the New Testament should be followed by Christian communities today and that is by a very specific statement, an enactment of faith in Christ and his saving work, of turning away from things that are wrong in our lives that we've done in the past, repentance and thirdly baptism - believers baptism - preferably by immersion. If we add that framework into our thinking for looking at this passage, we realise the application of this passage is to people who have decisively, clearly declared their allegiance to Christ to say, I'm a disciple of Christ, I'm following him. I've given up my old life. I believe in him; I trust in him, he saved me, I've been regenerated, I've been born again, I've got the Spirit living within me, I've been baptised in water. When such a person has made that profession, and joined a particular church community, they are accountable for keeping away from habitual, sinful actions that are clearly defined as biblical categories of sin, which are disruptive to the church community. They're accountable in this way.

If somebody starts behaving in a way - they're habitually lying, or they're in a sexually immoral relationship or some other identifiable sin, biblically - if they're in that situation, then an individual person has a right, privately, to say, “What's going on here? I'm concerned for you. This is offending me; this is disrupting the church.” They have a right also to bring in church leaders, or their representatives as two or three witnesses. The church has a right, if that person is firmly resisting any correction, to say, “You can't be part of this living church community at this time, until we resolve this issue.”

This process makes for strong church communities. It implies a clear membership, a clear induction process by which you come in. It implies the significant role of believer's baptism as a foundation for membership. All those things are not stated here but they are stated in other parts of the New Testament. I think we need to add them all together, in order to understand this passage, and in order to engage with the fact that the integrity and discipline of the church really, really matters, because we're called to be salt and light in society. Thanks for listening.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. It is tempting to go to other people first rather than the 'sinner'. Why do we prefer to do this and why is it not fair?
  • Discipleship
    1. What should you do if you know of someone in the church who is ‘sinning’?
    2. How serious is it to leave conflict in the church, or in your private lives, unresolved?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Do you agree that the Christian faith can only function in a formal community? What does this mean?
    2. What is the context when it talks about 2 or 3 people gathered together? How does this change your understanding of this statement?
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