“Tell It to the Church”
Last Sunday we began the final leg in our series on the church. In these last ten weeks of this series we’re going to visit a number of New Testament passages, starting with several in the gospel of Matthew, which will round out our study of the church, bring us back to the basics, and hopefully help our understanding of the church get even closer to what God has revealed in Scripture.
Last week we talked about the way that many of us are used to the church. We’ve either grown up in the church, or we’ve grown up in towns that have churches, and we’ve been building our understanding of the church from a really young age. That can be a good thing, but it can also be really dangerous if we never stop to check and make sure our assumptions and intuitions and hidden beliefs line up with what God has revealed to us.
So that’s our plan in these weeks. We want to really make sure that our idea of the church is lining up with what God has told us. And we started last week with the very first place in the New Testament that the word “church” is used. And we learned that “church” is not a new word. “Church” comes from a Greek word that basically means “assembly,” and it was used for hundreds of years in the political world and over a hundred times in the Greek Old Testament.
The word was used of citizens of a city gathering to exercise their democratic powers, and it was used of the people of Israel assembling before the Lord. And just like Old Covenant Israel came together as the “assembly of the Lord,” so Jesus says that He will build His New Covenant assembly upon the foundation of the apostles who confessed His name, and promises that the power of death itself will not overcome his church.
Turning to Chapter 18
And so with all of that in mind, we’re turning today to the second time in the New Testament that we find the word “church” or “assembly” or εκκλησια (ekklēsia). And it comes in Matthew 18, not far from where we were last week.
And it would actually be important to trace out what happened in between last week’s passage and this week’s passage. After those states on the church, Jesus told His followers that He was going to Jerusalem to die, and that if anyone wanted to follow Him they needed to take up their crosses and follow. There’s the confrontation with Peter, and after that is the transfiguration in chapter 17.
Coming down from the mountain, Jesus casts a demon from a boy, and then we hear Him tell again about His coming death in Jerusalem. Then there is the conversation between Jesus and Peter about paying the temple tax, and Jesus again affirms that the kingdom of God is a real kingdom—not just a symbol.
And then we get to chapter 18, where Jesus’ disciples ask Him about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And we’re tempted to roll our eyes, but in truth they may have understood some things better than us. The Kingdom of God was a real kingdom, and in a kingdom, there were ranks.
Levels of importance and authority. Think about David’s mighty men and how they were put in different categories of greatness depending on their exploits. And the disciples are maybe thinking, “How do we stack up?” None of them were great warriors or generals, so what criteria was Jesus going to use?
And this question prompts Jesus to begin a series of teachings. He starts by calling a child into their midst and saying that we have to humble ourselves like that child to enter the kingdom.
Comparing his followers to children, he goes on to talk about how big of a deal sin is, and how serious it is to cause one of his followers to sin. He pronounces woe on the world and says that if our hand or foot causes them to sin, it would be better to cut it off then to keep sinning and go to hell.
And right after this he tells the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd left behind the ninety-nine to go find the one who had been lost.
This cluster of teaching in chapter 18 has been telling us how precious God’s people are, how awful sin is, and the lengths that Jesus will go to rescue His people from their sin.
“If Your Brother…”
And that’s the setting for our passage. Beginning in verse 15, Jesus prepares His followers for living out what He’s just been teaching them after He’s gone back to heaven. When He returns to His father, what does it look like for His church, His assembly, to care for one other and deal with sin in their midst? And the answer begins in verse 15: “If your brother sins against you” (Matthew 18:51a). Now, if you have an ESV translation, those are the words you are going to read.
If you read this passage in other translations, like the NIV or the NASB, you’ll see that those words “against you” are missing. The NIV simply says, “If your brother or sister sins” (Matthew 18:15, NIV).
And there is a question here, and scholars disagree here about which reading is closer to what Jesus originally said. Is Jesus telling us only to respond when people sin against us, or is he telling us to respond when we see sin, period?
I would suggest that both are true. However we take Matthew 18:15, it would include cases of sin against us. And when we look elsewhere in Scripture, we find Galatians 6:1, which says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness…” So right there we see that we also have a responsibility towards a sinning brother or sister, even if they have not sinned directly against us.
But let’s make sure we notice that this is talking about sin. Jesus did not say, “if your brother annoys you,” or “if your brother does things which you personally wouldn’t do,” or, “if your brother does something which you disagree with.”
In years past I knew someone who seemed to view themselves as the world’s police officer. And if you disagreed with them about anything, you were on the wrong side of the law, and you’d better duck. If you did something that they thought could have been done better, you’d find out. And that’s not what Jesus is describing here. He said, “if your brother sins.” If they have done something which is clearly, obviously sin. Which clearly goes against Scripture and is clearly in the sin category.
And so if that happens, what should we do? In this passage Jesus outlines a four-step process for how to respond to a sinning brother or sister, which means, a fellow follower of Jesus. A fellow citizen of the kingdom.
This process is so wise, and so loving, and so gentle. It’s built on the principle of minimum exposure, giving them multiple opportunities to turn from their sin in private before it goes public. The goal of this process is not to get people in trouble but to be the hands and the feet of the shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep, and continues to seek out wandering sheep in order to restore them and bring them back into safety.
And so the first step is that we would go and tell them their fault. Just between the two of you. No gossip, no public shame. This is very respectful.
At the same time, it’s also very straightforward. The word for “tell him his fault” is the same word used in Luke 3:19, when John the Baptist “reproved” Herod for having his brother’s wife. It’s used in Ephesians 5:11, which says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Jesus is telling us to speak plainly to our brother or sister and show them what they did.
Now that doesn’t mean that we just walk up to them and say “you did this and you were wrong” like we’re handing out tickets. I’ve found that very often the best way to help someone see what they did is by asking lots of questions. “What was going on back there? Here’s what I saw; was I missing something?”
You want to be open to the fact that maybe you’ve misunderstood what happened. And you want to make sure there’s no logs in your own eyes before you go talking about the speck in theirs.
But like Jesus said, the point of removing our own logs is to help our brothers with their speck (Matthew 7:3-5). And so while we want to be humble and open to the possibility that we might be mistaken, we might not be. Maybe they really have sinned. And if so, we have a responsibility, given to us by Jesus, to help them see their fault.
That’s kind of awkward, isn’t it—going and helping someone see what they did wrong? Canadians don’t really like that sort of thing. But we should know that this is how citizens of the kingdom act and treat one another. What Jesus tells us to do here is hard but good. It’s tough but necessary.
Disobeying Jesus at this first stage is easy in the short-term, but in the long term is creates Christian communities that are full of bitterness and ugliness and and the destructive effects of un-checked sin.
So we we start by going and talking with them, one-on-one. And what does Jesus say at the end of verse 15?
“If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” That’s the goal here. Not to punish someone but to gain our brother back. To help people not wander off like those sheep in the parable he just told.
But what if? What if the person doesn’t respond well? What if they tell you to mind your own business and get out of their face?
Verse 16 tells us that if they won’t listen, we don’t throw up our hands and say, “Well, I tried.” We move on to the second step in the process. “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” (Matthew 18:16).
This second step is so important, because it protects the first party against a false accusation. One person isn’t able to make an allegation that destroys someone’s life and reputation. Just like in Old Covenant Israel, every charge needs two or three witnesses.
So you go back, with one or two others, and you have another conversation. And hopefully things are dealt with there. Hopefully the person who sinned sees it now. Perhaps one of those other people can help explain it in a different light, or perhaps their very presence helps the first person see how serious this actually is.
But that might not happen. Maybe their heels dig in even further. And so the third step in this process is in the first part of verse 17: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
There’s our key word. Church. Assembly.
Does it surprise you that the second time the word “church” comes up in the New Testament, it’s in this setting—of being told about a case of sin among one of its members?
This verse is very often a hard pill to swallow for those of us who grew up in North America and have very North American assumptions about the church.
Our attitude tends to be, “Who are you to tell me what to do? What place does the church have in my personal business?” Those are almost exact words I’ve heard more than once from people as these kinds of situations have unfolded. And if we assume that the church is just a religious club that we choose to join, then this whole process, and especially this part here about telling the church, does sound a little crazy.
I was a member of the Regina Wildlife Federation for a year, and if someone from the Wildlife Federation called me up to confront me about how I disciplined my son when we were at the archery range together, I would probably tell them to mind their own business.
But the church is not just a religious club. Like we heard last week, the church is the assembly of the citizens of the kingdom. In the ancient world, this is what assemblies did. They gathered to hear and decide on cases like this. And so this language of “telling it to the church” would not have sounded strange to the original hearers. This was totally normal to them.
If we think of the church as an assembly of kingdom citizens, then if one of the citizens is acting like they are not a citizen—if they are not following the laws of the kingdom, but are consistently acting like they actually belong to a different kingdom, even after being warned twice, then that is the church’s business.
That person’s persistent sin is going to damage their own life. And it is going to reflect poorly on the name of Jesus. The assembly has a responsibility to protect it’s members from sin and to protect the reputation of Jesus. Remember, we’re His embassy, His ambassadors.
And so verse 17 tells the person who has been sinned against, or seen this sin being committed, to tell it to the church—the assembly. And this will obviously come with the weight of the two or three witnesses.
And at this point, the assembly can hear the case and say, “This is ridiculous. There’s no sin here. You hand-picked your witnesses, and this person has done nothing wrong.” Or they can say, “Yes, this is a case of sin, and we together are going to urge this person to repent.”
That is implied by the next phrase in verse 17, which says, “if he refuses to listen even to the church.” This means that in this third step, the church is going to go talk to that person to encourage them to repent of their sin.
The whole church is being the hands and feet of Jesus the good Shepherd, pursuing the wandering sheep and encouraging them to come back to safety.
I’ve heard some wonderful stories about this stage in the process and how it’s changed things for people. I remember hearing about one guy who was leaving his wife for another woman, and he wouldn’t listen to anyone until it was told to the church. And then he started to get phone calls from his friends in the church saying “What are you doing, man?” And God used the church to break his heart and bring about repentance.
I’ve heard other stories where the threat of their sin being told to the church made them turn from it and repent. And so in many ways, this third step is very important. The assembly hears and the assembly together calls this person to repent of their sin. And the church longs and prays for a good conclusion at this step. They want the person to be restored.
Now I’ve head of some great stories. I’ve also seen a lot of disasters in this process. And most of those happened because this stage is skipped. I think of a friend of mine was attending a church when his wife decided to leave him for another guy. And his church did step one and step two of confronting her privately and then with one or two others. But they didn’t go all the way to telling the church.
And they had great-sounding reasons. They said they wanted to protect her reputation in case she did repent, and protect my friend from the embarrassment of everybody in the church knowing his business.
So they let her resign from membership and only a few people knew why. But guess what happened? People missed her. And every Sunday my friend had people coming up to him asking him about his wife saying to “tell her we miss her.” And having to deal with that week after week after week literally gave him a nervous breakdown. He totally cracked and pulled out of the church community completely.
It would have been so much more loving for both of them if the church had just obeyed Jesus and did what verse 17 said. Yes, it would have been hard for everyone to hear all at once, but not near as hard as what ended up happening. Instead of my friend dreading church because he didn’t want to tell the story one more time, he could have looked forward to people who already knew and could just say, “I’m praying for you.”
Anytime we take shortcuts on Jesus’ directions, any time we think we know better, we get into trouble.
Now like I’ve said, the hope is that, at this third stage, the sinning brother or sister listens to the church and they repent. But what if they don’t? What if the sheep says, “No thanks, I’m not coming back to the fold. Leave me alone”?
Jesus tells us in the final sentence in verse 17. “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Some of you may know that Jesus welcomed Gentiles and ate with the tax collectors, and you might wonder if he’s telling them to continue to be compassionate to this person. But that is not the sense of what Jesus is saying here. He is using a common Jewish idea to say that we should break off our relationship with this person. As long as they are saying they are a Christian, but refusing to act like one, this person cannot be a part of the church, and we can’t have a normal relationship with them. And we see this when we compare this passage to the many other New Testament references to this stage in the process.
- “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17).
- “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14).
- “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:2).
- “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
- “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13)
- “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10).
Does it surprise you how often we encounter this language in the Bible? And that’s not every case at all. Scripture consistently shows us what the church is supposed to do when one of it’s members persists in acting like they are not a part of the kingdom and not a follower of Jesus.
That’s what this final step in the process is really about. It’s about making a public statement that this person is not living like a citizen of the kingdom, despite what they say. Because real followers of Jesus, real citizens of the kingdom of God, repent of their sin. Someone who persists in their sin after multiple warnings is not living like a follower of Jesus, and the church needs to protect the reputation of Jesus by making that clear.
You might wonder how all of this jives with “do not judge.” Personally, as individuals, you and I don’t have the authority to walk around like judge and jury and executioner. We are not to condemn others and decide on their heart and motivations. But the assembled church does have the authority to make these judicial decisions on cases like this. They do the real work of a judge, who does not decide what’s right and wrong, but makes a ruling on what is right and wrong in this specific case.
And again, this would not be strange to Jesus’ first hearers. This is what εκκλησιας (ekklēsias), assemblies, did.
Please note that Jesus has given this responsibility to the gathered, assembled church. Pastors or boards of elders or deacons do not have the authority to remove people from the church themselves, or make decisions on church discipline themselves. That might be quick and efficient, but it’s also really dangerous for them to operate at that level without the accountability of the congregation. And the simple fact is that Jesus did not give them that authority.
1 Corinthians 5:4-5 says, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
Only the gathered assembly of the citizens of the kingdom has the important, heart-breaking work of removing someone from their fellowship, in the sincere hope and prayer that even this final step will jar them to their senses and bring them back to repentance.
Now I’m not sure how you react to all of this. Maybe the thought of removing someone from the church sounds just terrible to you. And it is terrible, but not as terrible as allowing sin to go on growing. Not as terrible as allowing the reputation of Jesus to get dragged through the mud.
And history shows us that obeying Jesus, even up to this point, is not the worst thing that can happen to the church. In fact, history would tell us that this is good for the church. In the years before the American Civil War, Southern Baptist churches did this final step and removed almost 2% of their membership a year. And yet, their churches grew at a rate of 2x the population.1Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, p. 192
And anecdotally, I’ve heard some wonderful stories of how this happens. How the pain of removing someone from the church causes the church to grow and thrive. And even how this final step makes someone realize just how important the church was, and that the church loved them enough to hold them accountable. And when they turned from their sin, even if it was years later, they knew who loved them, and they found that the church which removed them was thrilled to welcome them back with open arms.
And we shouldn’t be surprised by that. Because Jesus told us to do this. We can trust Him.
Why Don’t We Do This, and What Happens When We Don’t?
Now we are not finished with this passage today. Verse 18 and 19 say a lot more about the dynamics and even the mechanics of how and why this process works. But to really do those verses justice, I realized this week that they are going to need their own message. So next week, we’re going to go back to verse 19 of chapter 16, which we didn’t really touch on, and and take it up together with verses 18-20 in our passage today as we talk about the keys of the kingdom, binding and loosing, and what this all means for us today.
But I think it’s important for us not to rush past this passage. We should stop and think about this specific matter of the four steps and this idea of the church removing someone and breaking off relationship with them.
We commonly call this process “church discipline.” But that’s a bit of a misleading description. Like we’ve seen, this is really more about church restoration. Sin is destructive. It wrecks lives and it wrecks relationships. And when the church moves to address and correct it, reconciliation and restoration is what they are after.
And yet, in my experience, most churches don’t do this well, if at all. Many churches seem to act like Matthew 18:15-17 is either not in the Bible, or is just a nice set of recommendations they can adjust as desired. And so they tolerate sin among themselves. They turn a blind eye to people destroying their lives with sin and dragging the reputation of Jesus through the mud, and they end up with a weak church that looks more and more like the world instead of like Jesus whom we are supposed to be representing here on earth.
Often there are really nice-sounding words for why people don’t follow this process that Jesus gave us. Maybe we think that if we obey Jesus, we’ll just push that person away. Maybe we don’t want to be the one to upset the apple cart. Or maybe we’re just scared.
But whatever the reasons, we need to each answer the simple question: will we listen to Jesus and obey Him, or not?
That’s what I want to call us to this morning. I don’t know about you, and your history with these kinds of situations, but I want to call you this morning to commit yourself to obeying these words of Jesus. Commit that, when the situation arises, you will not act like you’re nicer than Jesus or know better than Him, but will trust Him and obey Him.
Let’s also commit ourselves to receiving this well when it comes our away. A healthy church should expect that the first step in this process, of one going to another, will be a normal and regular part of our life. And so we need to all cultivate the attitude of David, who said “Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it” (Psalm 141:5).
When a brother or a sister loves us enough to come to us and point out sin that we were either missing or ignoring, we should not respond like Canadians who get all offended, or crumple up like we’ve been victimized, or both. We need to respond like Christians and receive it as a kindness.
That doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. But real friends hurt each other. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” says Proverbs 27:6
So EBC, let’s hear Jesus, in His word, summoning us to this level of care for one another. And let’s commit ourselves to love one another enough to give and receive this if and when we need to, for the good of each other, and for the glory of Jesus.