Date: July 29, 2018
Speaker: Erik Raymond
Category: Biblical Exposition
Scripture: Matthew 18:15–18:20
When we come to hear the words of Jesus we quickly realize that his kingdom is quite different than the kingdoms of this world. We have seen that Jesus values humility over pride, weakness over perceived strength, and childlike insignificance over a power grab for significance. And, instead of accommodating sin, Jesus calls his followers to radical removal of it.
He also shows us that God values all of his disciples—even to the place of lovingly pursuing them when they are wandering. This is to be the model for us. We are also to lovingly pursue our brothers and sisters who sin.
This is something that really looks different than the world around us. Jesus’ kingdom requires his people to deal with sin in the church and even gives them authority to discipline its members.
Church discipline is one of the most important things a church does.
I don’t believe this is an overstatement. I’ll say it again, I believe that church discipline is one of the most important things a church does.
With a topic like this there are bound to be some here who have little to no familiarity with what we are studying.
This may be completely new to you.
That’s okay. I hope that this morning, by the time we are done, you will have a better idea of what the Bible says about this important aspect of the church’s life together.
This morning, Lord willing we will ask and hopefully answer, five key questions about church discipline.
And as we do, I want you to keep this central: Jesus institutes discipline in his church in order to promote their holiness and preserve their witness.
So, let’s dig in with our first question, what is church discipline?
Historically the term discipline has been used in a broad sense.
So we might say generally, that discipline is everything that a church does to help its people grow in Christlikeness. This includes preaching, teaching, Sunday gathering, small groups, prayer, and accountability.
This type of discipline is referred to as formative.
But there is another type of discipline that we are focusing on today. This is called corrective discipline.
This discipline happens when church members speak to one another about their sin and call them to repentance.
If the person refuses to repent of their sin this discipline results in the church excluding them from membership and participation of the Lord’s Supper.
The passage we are looking at today in Matthew 18:15-20 compliments other passages in the New Testament that outline the same process; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 2:6, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15.
At this point, I just want to walk through the passage and make sure we have our bearings and are synced up with what we are talking about.
Look with me, if you would at verse 15 of Matthew 18.
In verse 15, we read, “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.”
This should seem pretty straight forward.
This is a situation where there is sin witnessed in the life of a brother and sister. One would simply go to the individual, in private, one on one, and explain to them about what happened.
If they receive what you say and listen, or agree, then they will repent of their sin.
This is the goal of the whole interaction: glorify God by lovingly pointing out the sin in their brother or sister’s life.
If, however, they do not listen, we see Jesus continue, in verse 16, “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.”
Now the small circle has expanded to include another brother or sister to go and try again.
You’ll notice there is a reference in this verse to Deuteronomy 18-19. This provision was put in the OT law in order to protect the people and the witness of the people.
It is not reduced to a matter of “he said she said.” The matter must be confirmed and two are agreeing about this sin.
Then we see, if the matter continues without repentance, it escalates to a broader circle, the entire church.
Look at verse 17, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
This is an appeal to the congregation, the members of the church, to broaden the circle out to go and talk to their brother or sister, appealing to them to repent of their sin and submit to the Lord Jesus.
If they repent, then the matter stops.
But, as we see, in the second half of verse 17, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
If the sinning brother or sister refuses to listen to the church together, then the one who remains persistent in their unrepentant sin is to removed from the fellowship.
Or, more literally, excommunicated from the church.
We are going to get into the why and how in a few minutes, but for now I want to make sure you see the process. Step 1, one on one. Step 2, two or three to one. Step 3, entire church talking to them. Step 4, excommunication.
We could say in summary then, that church discipline is the deliberate process of correcting sin in the life of the congregation.
It can be done in private through a word of admonishment or rebuke.
Or it could be done formally through the public removal of one from the membership of the church.
Okay, this is the what of church discipline. Let’s think together about the who.
This responsibility that Jesus gives to his people is very important.
And it assumes that we are going to have the type of relationship where we can know one another well enough to witness sin and also to be in close proximity so we can go and talk to each other.
So, who are you responsible to and for?
If you are a Christian here are you responsible for watching the lives of every single Christian on the planet? No, of course not. That would be impossible.
Instead, what Jesus is describing here is a practice for the universal church that will be carried out on the local church level.
These two terms are important to understand when you think about church discipline so I want to define them.
The universal church refers to every Christian who has ever lived.
Anyone who has been born-again, they have confessed the name of Christ and repented of their sins, they have been placed into the body of Christ.
This is the universal church. It includes people from all of history and all over the world. This is the universal body of Christ.
But then there is the local church.
This is the local and expression of the universal church. It is the local gathering of believers.
So while there is one universal church there are many, many local churches. As the Apostle Paul would say in Ephesians 4:4-5, there is, “one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism” there are many local expressions of this one body.
In the New Testament there are local churches in Colossae, Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia, and Rome. And today, here in Boston, we have RFC in Watertown, Hope Fellowship in Cambridge, Tremont Temple downtown, City on a Hill in Brookline, and others.
Now let’s get back to responsibility.
Are you responsible to carry out the steps of Matthew 18 on Christians living today in Omaha or Ontario? No, of course not.
Similarly, are you and I to carry out this responsibility upon those at Hope Fellowship or Tremont Temple?
No. Our responsibility relates to our accountability.
We understand accountability through the lenses of church membership.
It is through church membership where we unite together with other believers for the purpose growing together in Christ and working to advance his kingdom.
It has been said membership is not just about joining a church but submitting to a people.
Through church membership we unite together around a common confession that Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 16) and a common accountability to live according to his rule together (Matthew 18).
There are a few reasons why this seems to make sense in light the New Testament:
Therefore, I believe the Bible teaches that church discipline is reserved for members of a local church who have covenanted together or pledged together with accountability and shared mission.
I don’t see a category for excommunicating members from other churches.
Nor do I think you can excommunicate unbelievers, since they have obviously never been communicated in the first place.
Finally, I don’t think the Bible makes a case for the discipline of a non-member regular attender.
Instead discipline is reserved for those who are pledged together with accountability through membership in a particular local church. The responsibility is tied to our relationship together.
Let’s be honest, this is not the type of thing that we are particularly inclined toward.
Most of us don’t gravitate toward uncomfortable conversations.
But we mustn’t forget: being a Christian is not primarily about being comfortable but being conformed to the image of Jesus.
This is by nature uncomfortable—and often unpleasant—for us.
The first reason we must practice church discipline is that God tells us to.
Right there in the text in Matthew 18 we have the command by Jesus for setting up his church.
This is his plan. It is his church.
If we wanted to make up our own thing and call it a church, we could do it, it’s a free country.
But we can’t call it Christianity, that name is already taken. Jesus tells us how we must conduct ourselves.
We are also given a glimpse into how God feels about churches who do not deal with sin the way he wants us to. In First Corinthians 5 we in verses 1-2,
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
And then in verse 6, we learn that they were boasting in what they were doing.
Likely this was an expression of pride or tolerance.
Your boasting is not good
And then in verse 12-13 we read about how the church at Corinth had abdicated their responsibility to discipline the sin in the church but instead had given themselves to judge the sins of the world outside them.
Paul clarified that they had flipped the script.
They should have been policing themselves rather than worrying about those outside.
God will judge those outside.
Paul is saying, you need to do your job. Do what God told you to do.
The second reason is that it is good for us.
God disciplines his children for the sake of our holiness, love, and health: “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). It’s not easy or pleasant, it might even be painful, but it pays off: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). God harvests righteousness and peace through his discipline.
This demonstrates a love for the one who is in sin.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul knew the most loving course of action was to exclude a man from the congregation “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5).
It is loving of God to use other believers to admonish us and lead us back onto the path.
It is loving of God to point out something that we are doing that does not conform to his word.
The third reason is that of our witness
Jesus asks a question in Matthew 5:13-16. What good is salt if it loses its saltiness? Or, what good is a light that is hidden under a basket?
One has observed, “Western culture increasingly pushes against Christianity. Nominal Christianity is withering. Christians need to know who ‘they’ are. And the world needs to know who ‘we’ are. Discipline helps to draw the line between church and world. It clarifies the witness of the church and its power as a distinct society and counterculture.” (Jonathan Leeman)
In other words, if we live together as a church in such a way that we tolerate sin in one another’s lives then we are basically blurring the line between the church and the world. What is the distinction?
Discipline draws and reinforces the line through excommunication. Following Jesus means obeying Jesus’ words.
When the church fails to practice church discipline they fail to prioritize love.
Does that sound strange to you? It might. Love today is often expressed in terms of being made much of. If you make much of me then I know you love me.
But, in the Bible, we understand love to be primarily about making much of God.
Therefore, if a church in the name of love decides to not line up with what God says about this or that, is it really love? Or is it something else?
Love cares about the reputation of Jesus. We know that living as a Christian in this world means we are representatives of what it means to name the name of Christ.
If we live in or tolerate sin then we are saying that Jesus is okay with sin.
This is as foolish as it is idolatrous.
Jesus rebukes the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira for their licentious living. Their winking at and approving of sin was the occasion of their rebuke from Jesus.
If we care about the reputation of Christ then we care about other members of his church.
As Christians, we want to look and live like Christ. Church discipline helps to keep us on track.
When churches fail to practice church discipline, they begin to look like the world.
They are like salt that has lost its saltiness, which is only good for being trampled upon (Matt. 5:13).
They are no witness at all to a world lost in darkness. We cannot witness to a world about deliverance from sin when we are tolerating sin.
Why should a church practice discipline?
Because God commands it, because it is good for us, and because of our witness before a watching world.
Once convinced of what church discipline is and why it must be practiced, there needs to be careful consideration given to when it should be practiced.
You might push back here and say, ”This is easy. You practice church discipline when someone sins.
Well, this is true, but I don’t think it’s that simple.
This requires some care. There may be sins or traits that we might bring up to one another over the course of our lives together that don’t rise to the level of church discipline.
For example, someone might seem to be really greedy. Is this something we would excommunicate them over. Probably not. But, would this be something you might talk to another about privately. Probably.
So how do we navigate this?
Does the Scripture give guidance? I think it does. Some people have broken it down into three categories.
For there to be church discipline, sin must be outward, serious, and unrepentant. In order to discipline —ultimately excommunicate, all three must be true, outward, serious and unrepentant.
By outward I mean that the sin can’t be something that’s simply subjective and inward.
That is, it must have an outward manifestation. You can see it or hear it.
If someone is anxious that’s tough to pin down. How are they anxious? What are they doing?
If they are prideful. How are they expressing the pride?
We know from Scripture that real heart problems don’t stay down, they bubble up to the surface and make their way out (Mark 7:21).
In order to discipline a sin must be serious.
Let’s say someone is insensitive and short. Is this something that should be brought to the level of church discipline?
It would be much better to spend time talking through love, patience, and humility rather than putting them out of the church.
Personal discipleship would likely help this brother or sister far more than excommunication.
Also, if the church is running around like special counsels gathering evidence of everything we do then the church culture will likely become very legalistic and full of backbiting.
There must be a place to cover in love (1 Peter 4:8) and personally disciple. Instead, we see discipline with things like the man in 1 Corinthians 5 that we referenced earlier.
Finally, a sin must be unrepentant.
If the person repents then the discipline stops. It is not necessary to excommunicate someone who has repented because they have been, as Jesus said, won.
However, if after hearing the words of Scripture and the loving rebuke of their brothers and sisters in the church, they persist in the sin without repentance, then this would be considered for church discipline.
To summarize then, while we might have all kinds of conversations as Christians about what we might perceive in one another life, those sins that rise to the level of formal discipline and excommunication should be sins that are outward, serious, and unrepentant.
We are given instruction by Paul in Galatians 6:1-2, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
The believer who pursues his brother or sister is not doing so as a private investigator, FBI or some other form of law enforcement.
No, they are a loving brother who comes in a posture of humility with a spirit of gentleness.
They are aware of their own sin and they are burdened for the glory of Christ and the good of their fellow church member.
I think this is a key point.
We are not coming to one another to render judgment per se. Rather, we are going to help one another to grow in Christ-likeness. It is a community growth project.
Part of the New Covenant life is to help one another to change.
It is also important to come to one another with the Bible and show how what we are doing is spoken of in the Scripture.
Let the Bible shine its light upon the sin. This is to be done instead of simply communicating our preferences.
Most times when we are sinning we actually think what we are doing is right.
If someone else comes and talks to us about what they think is right, why listen?
But, if we come with the Bible and let God have the Word then we are serving each other with the authority of God.
This will glorify God and bless the speaker and hearer.
With this, we come to one another knowing that we will all stand before God on the last day to give account.
So even now we come to one another to speak words of loving rebuke, admonishment, and exhortation.
We view our lives together now in light of the end.
So we come to each other one on one. If there is repentance then the case is closed.
However, if the sin is outward, serious and unrepentant, then another is brought in as a witness.
If it continues the matter is then told to the church.
Finally, if the sin persists, then the church has no choice but to follow the fourth step and remove the one from the membership of the church through excommunication.
This is done in hopes that the one will be saved on the last day through this discipline.
As we close, I want to give you three implications of this truth. Jesus institutes discipline in his church in order to promote holiness and preserve the church’s witness.
Every one of us falls into one of three categories this morning, non-Christians, non-members of any church, and members of this church.
First, I want to say to my non-Christian friends here this morning, this may seem like something reserved for those who are committed to following Jesus and serving as part of a local church. But, I want you to see that it has something to say to you also.
This passage reminds you of three very important things.
The first is, what is required to be a Christian.
The second reminder is of what a Christian is supposed to look like.
One of the common objections I hear from non-Christians is that they don’t want to be a Christian because they are hypocrites.
Their lives don’t line up with their profession.
I hope you see from this passage that while Jesus acknowledges that we will continue to sin he does not tolerate or condone it.
He provides a means by which we are supposed to be both very gracious but also very intolerant of sin.
We are not supposed to allow one another to live hypocritical lives that persist in sin.
It’s always helpful to look at the words of Christ and get your bearings here.
The third is that it reminds you that there is a coming judgment.
Matthew 18 shows that sin needs to be repented of and forsaken.
These warnings come with the reminder that it is wrong and that God sees and will judge.
So you could look at this and say, “Well, this has nothing to do with me because I’m not a Christian.”
But, no, you are a person, made in the image of God.
This passage reminds you that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard.
Something has gone terribly wrong in the world and with us.
And, we are called to repent—to turn—from our sin before the final judgment.
This passage provides a gracious warning to you in the form of a pattern that will continue until the end.
Turn from sin now, while there is time, and trust in Jesus.
He will certainly forgive you.
To those of you who are non-members of any church this passage has something for you also.
Now I realize there could be a wide spectrum here.
With the transient community and culture we live in here it should not surprise us.
Whatever your situation may be, I want you to see something clearly this morning. It’s the importance of a relationship with responsibility.
When we become Christians we gain a new relationship with God through Jesus. Sometimes people describe this as a personal relationship with Christ.
This relationship provides a framework for our response to Jesus and his to us.
We pledge to obey him, serve him, love him and honor his Word.
He pledges to save us from our sins, love us, intercede for us, and among other things be with us and raise us up on the last day.
Similarly, church membership is a relationship with responsibility.
Because of the relationship, there is a responsibility on behalf of the church members to one another.
We are to care for one another, pray, serve, love, forgive, help, admonish, rebuke, teach, grieve, rejoice and lament with and for one another.
This is part of what it means to be a member of a church.
We are our brother (and sister’s) keeper.
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Hebrews 3:12-13
I believe the Bible emphasizes the framework of this relationship with responsibility.
And I don’t know how it can be consistently and faithfully carried out apart from meaningful membership in a local church.
I want to encourage this morning to consider what and how this passage would be applied in your life.
We would love for you to pursue membership at this church.
In fact, we have a membership class on Saturday, 8/18. This is a great opportunity for you to take the next steps in membership here.
If you have more questions about membership, please don’t hesitate to talk with me or another one of the elders. After service, I’ll be in the lobby or over in Spurgeon Hall.
Finally to the members of this church.
I hope you get a renewed sense of the importance of your commitment to one another.
You are the framework that the Lord has established for the ongoing care and sanctification of the each other.
It is incumbent upon us as a church not only to serve one another by helping to do things but also to serve by helping remove patterns of sin.
Not only must we use our time, talents and treasures to help one another grow, we must use them to help each other to stop patterns of sin.
We must make it a priority to grow in the area of gracious, loving, humble, thoughtful biblical admonishment and care.
We don’t want to be guilty of aiding and abetting one another’s patterns of sin.
We must prioritize what Jesus prioritizes. And this is often uncomfortable. But nevertheless, we must do it.
It’s likely there have been times you have witnessed sin or patterns of sin in another member.
And, instead of addressing it for their good, you simply swept it under the rug.
Perhaps this was out of comfort, fear, or something else.
But it can’t be the practice. In order to be faithful followers of Christ, we need to practice what Jesus preaches.
Perhaps you can also recall scenarios where you have lovingly confronted someone else’ sin or they have confronted yours.
And the result was repentance and faith. Wasn’t this a blessing from the Lord?
I know I have personally been deeply impacted by the loving admonishment from brothers and sisters over the years. And, I trust many of you have as well.
We must do what Christ tells us to do. He knows what’s best.
Jesus institutes church discipline for our good that we might grow together in holiness and preserve our testimony before the world.
Church discipline is one of the most important things a church does.
I hope that this morning you have a better idea of what the Bible says about this important aspect of the church’s life together.
Remember, Jesus institutes discipline in his church in order to promote their holiness and preserve their witness.