“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.  What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?  And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.  So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
 “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. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  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.”
(Matthew 18:10-20 ESV)
This past Sunday I had the opportunity to teach on this passage as we make our way through the gospel of Matthew. In studying for this passage I realized that what I’d been taught about these verses and what I’ve heard them used for seems to be different that what it seems the context actually was.
Throughout chapters 17-19 Jesus is teaching his disciples how to do life with one another. He knows that his time on earth is coming to and end, and by chapter 17, Jesus and his disciples begin making their journey to Jerusalem where Jesus will ultimately be crucified.
Right before this passage the disciples ask Jesus who among them will be greater when Jesus is no longer with them. Jesus then uses a child as a metaphor, points to the child and says, if you want to understand greatness look at this child. He is completely dependent on someone else. He has little to offer society and has no ability to give himself status. Everything he has and everything he is comes from someone else. Recognize how dependent you are on the Father.
In verse 10-14 Jesus talks about the one disciple who is wondering off. In his pastoral compassion, Jesus leaves the ninety-nine… the one’s who are safe, together, protecting one another, and he goes after the one who has wandered so that he may bring him back to the rest of the fold. This is a metaphor to the disciples of how they should care for one another. Jesus gives great value to even the one who has wandered and cares deeply for the one’s return.
He then moves to verses 15-20, how to deal with one another’s sin. This passage is often sited in church discipline cases as a means to excommunicate someone from the congregation. But a closer look would suggest something else may be intended. (NOTE: Paul does discuss the actions of Church discipline in the context of the church’s structure).
First of all, in our earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew, verse 15 does not include the words “against you”. These words were probably added later to provide a helpful bridge to verse 21. So, we should understand this passage as it speaks to sin in general, not just sins done against us, or personal grievances, if you will.
This is also speaking in the context of relationship. Jesus uses the familial language (“brother”) to emphasize his point. In other words, we are not seeking random strangers out at the grocery store with a “know Jesus, know peace” shirt and pointing out their sins to them. This is people whom we have developed a relationship with, a bond together through Christ.
Also, Jesus uses the word “church” (ecclesia). The simple definition of this in Greek understanding is an assembly. The Church has not been structured at the time Jesus spoke this. There are not yet officers and leadership roles. There is only the assembling of the followers of Christ. So when Jesus is saying this, he’s not referring to any kind of church leadership, offices, or structure, he’s simply talking to his followers, people just like you and me who bear the name of Christ.
So what does this mean?
Jesus is giving us a lesson in what it means to do life together. He’s given us a reference point of holding one another accountable with the goal of glorifying Christ and shaping one another to become more like him.
The instruction here is to those who first notice the sin. Go to that person in private. Let them know your concerns and call them to repentance. If they repent, you have gained your brother back! If they do not repent, go get another witness or two. The goal of these two witnesses is to hear your concern and then to get the other side of the story. Remember, there are always two sides to every story. The goal of these other witnesses is not to immediately condemn the other person as guilty, rather they are to observe for themselves and see if there really is any offense. If there is, then those witnesses should agree and call for the offender’s repentance. If at this point there is no repentance then Jesus says you take it before the rest of the assembly to call for repentance (remember, this is in the context of relationship. If the entire expression of the church does not have relationship with this person, it should be done in the context of those who do actually have a relationship with this person).
Here’s my favorite part. Verse 17 has done a lot of damage to people in the church because of a lack of understanding. The end of verse 17 has been used as a means to excommunicate someone from a church body, or at least ostracize them until they have repented. Here’s the verse:
 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Jesus says to treat them as a “Gentile and a Tax collector”. How did Jesus treat the Gentiles and tax collectors? Did he remove them from his presence? Did he avoid them? Did he ignore them? No. He pursued them! He preached the gospel to them. He called them to be his disciple. Jesus is not telling us to remove the Gentile and Tax Collector from our fellowship, he is telling us that the relationship may need to change. Maybe they don’t know Christ. Maybe they aren’t truly one of his disciples. Keep preaching the gospel to them. Allow them to understand the person and work of Christ.
Jesus goes on to tell us that our goal should be the standard of heaven. We should make the reality of heaven the reality for us. That’s done through sanctification, accountability, and humility. He should strive for holiness and spur one another on to holiness, our goal should be restoration, not destruction.
Again, Jesus mentions no church officers in this passage. I think that too many people have hid behind the authority of the church leadership rather than take responsibility to be their brother’s keeper. We “correct” one another in the wrong order. Instead of privately rebuking one another, we often go straight to the church leadership, make a public spectacle of it, and end up doing more damage to our brothers and sisters. The Church should seek to restore one another, to build one another up. Far too often we seek to destroy one another and entertain ourselves with the tragedies of others.
May we stop losing our influence with sinners. May we not forget our own capacity to sin. May we learn to deal with one another humbly, with the only goal to restore one another and glorify our Jesus.