March 8, 2020
Jason Meyer | Matthew 18:15-20
“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 18:15–20
Last Month/This Month
We are in the midst of a 20/20 Vision series. Last month we focused on what the leaders do as we unpacked key texts about eldership. This month we are highlighting what the people do as we examine key texts about the church and the three marks of a true church. We are asking, “What happens when a true church gathers?” Christians throughout church history have highlighted three marks of a true church gathering. A true church is a gathered assembly where at least three things happen: (1) the Word is rightly preached, (2) the ordinances are rightly administered, (3) discipline is rightly exercised. Today we are looking at “discipline truly exercised” and the key text is Matthew 18:15–20.
“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.”
This passage features two movements: the process of church discipline and the promise of church discipline. We will examine them one at a time.
I want to make seven observations about the process of church discipline.
The thing to notice first is the flow of the process: start small (one to one) and then expand (take one or two others), and then expand further (tell it to the gathered assembly).
The second thing to notice is that there is a confrontation concerning some sin and the process expands and escalates only if the person does not respond with repentance.
A. One to one: If he listens to you … (v. 15), But if he does not listen (v. 16)
B. Two or three witnesses: If he refuses to listen to them (v. 17)
C. Tell it to the church: And if he refuses to listen even to the church (v. 17)
In other words, the church discipline process puts the spotlight not merely on sin, but unrepentant sin (“refuses to listen”). The process only expands and escalates if the person refuses to listen to the call to repent of sin. The process stops when the person listens (takes the call to repent to heart, turns away from sin in confession and trust, and there is forgiveness and restoration).
This focus on being repentant or unrepentant explains the function of the witnesses. Why the mention of “take one or two others” so that it becomes “two or three witnesses”? To answer this question, we have to go back to the Old Testament guidelines for a valid judicial process. Any charge of unrepentant sin requires two or three witnesses to be established as valid before punishment ensues (Deuteronomy 19:15, quoted in Matthew 18:16 and 2 Corinthians 13:1). The charge someone brings in church discipline is not merely that someone has sinned, but that someone has not repented. Therefore, the witnesses do not function as those who witnessed the original act of sin, but the person’s response of repentance or lack of repentance. They add their voice to the process: “Yes, I can confirm that this person did repent or that person did not repent.”
“Tell it to the church” commissions the church to participate in the process of seeking someone’s response of repentance. In other words, the step of telling it to the church seeks to serve and empower the pursuit of repentance. The pursuit of repentance kicks into a higher gear as it expands and escalates. The whole church gets involved in praying for and pleading for repentance. We can infer this from 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.
In other words, the church is pleading for repentance and the person continues in a stubborn state of “refusing to listen.”
Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (v. 17).
If the person refuses to repent, then the church will conclude that they are regarding that person in a totally different way. There has been an act of transfer and now they see the person as outside the assembly of Jesus. If they no longer belong to the sphere of the church of Jesus and the kingdom of heaven, then they belong to the only other sphere there is: those outside the kingdom of God and the people of God. The terms Gentile and tax collector were short-hand terms that Jews used for those who did not belong to the people of God. Gentiles were not Jews and tax collectors were Jewish, but they worked for the hated Romans so they were traitors and basically were no longer regarded as true Jews. It is this mindset that Paul talks about in Ephesians 2:12: Gentiles were once strangers to the people of God and the promises of God and thus were “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
The other major New Testament text on church discipline reflects this same unified message about the sphere to which the person has been transferred.
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.—1 Corinthians 5:4–5
Notice that they deliver the person “to Satan.” What does that mean? The Bible says that Satan is the ruler of this fallen world (John 12:31) and that the whole world lies in the grip of the evil one (1 John 5:19). The person is cast out of the sacred assembly of Jesus (the citizens of heaven, children of God) and is now considered to be in a different sphere—he belongs to the world and the ruler of this world.
Here is another way to say it. The Bible pictures conversion as a transfer.
Giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.—Colossians 1:12–14
The act of church discipline conveys a de-conversion message: They have transferred from the kingdom of Christ and the saints in light back to the dominion of darkness.
We just stated that the members send a unified message in church discipline about being transferred back to the dominion of darkness. How do the members send that message? They are together agreeing to regard the person as outside the assembly, but how did they decide to do that? Second Corinthians 2 takes what is implicit in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 and makes it explicit.
Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you.—2 Corinthians 2:5
Paul pleads for them to see that this sin caused a blow of pain to the whole body—not just to him. Therefore, the sin of one member was against the whole body because this person was part of the body (v. 6).
For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough.
Paul here says that the decision to cast this person out was a “punishment by the majority” (2 Corinthians 2:6). This is the principle of plurality. The majority has to say it. It cannot be a decision for only the leaders. That authority could be abused if the keys of the Kingdom were only given to a select few in the church. It cannot be a personality clash in which some people just can’t get along anymore. It must be the majority of the congregation, and they must understand what they are saying. The congregation is saying, “We no longer feel able to affirm your profession of faith.”
For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.—2 Corinthians 2:6–8
Second Corinthians is also helpful because it shows that the goal of discipline is not punitive, but restorative. The decision to cast this person out was done with a certain heart and motive: We want them to repent and come back! And discipline had done its work in this text. The person had repented and so the church is to turn and forgive and comfort and reaffirm their love for him.
The same goal is stated explicitly in the church discipline text in 1 Corinthians 5:5. We do church discipline “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
This text raises a question about process. Did you notice that 1 Corinthians 5 does not seem to follow the same process as Matthew 18? Why does 1 Corinthians 5 follow a different order than the steps of church discipline laid out in Matthew 18?
The 2–3 witness requirement represents the normative principle for a judicial process. Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 are both based upon it, but it plays out in two different ways because of the two different situations found in the texts themselves. The process of Matthew 18 keeps the circle small and slowly expands it outward so that it establishes 2–3 witnesses before telling it to the whole church. In other words, the situation set forth in Matthew 18 is necessary in order to establish the 2–3 witnesses. Establishing the witnesses in 1 Corinthians 5 is not necessary because Paul says that everyone already knows about the sin in question (in fact, part of the problem is that they are tolerating it and boasting about it instead of mourning over it). Because of the public and scandalous nature of this offense, the matter can go directly to community action and removal without going back to work backward through the Matthew 18 process.
Now wisdom dictates a further comment. A person may apologize and claim to be repentant, but a church could proceed with discipline anyway when the church simply cannot automatically believe the person’s words. It may be habitual lying or deliberate (longstanding pattern of abuse or premeditated murder) or heinous (like rape or child abuse). Those things make any quick words of apology remain unbelievable—at least for a time.
“It’s not that such sins cannot be forgiven, it’s just that some time needs to pass and the fruit of repentance displayed before a church can responsibly pronounce forgiveness. (See the example in Acts 8:17–24.) On the other hand, when a church becomes convinced that a person is genuinely repentant, it should not proceed with formal discipline (and I cannot think of a single exception to this principle).
Transition: What Is Excommunication? A Mini-Stage Play of a Snapshot in Time
All we really do is enact a mini-stage play at a moment in time that represents our best attempt to represent what we believe the real Judge will say in the real Judgment on the last day. As Leeman says, “A church does not enact God’s judgment through discipline. Rather, it stages a small play that pictures the great judgment to come (1 Corinthians 5:5).”
But what if we get it wrong? What if the assembly acts on its own and it says something different than Jesus would say?! That is where the promise of the passage comes into its own.
“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 18:18–20
Jesus is clearly continuing the conversation, but he does so by advancing the conversation. He laid out a situation (idea) and now moves to an explanation that is an exclamation and intensification (“Truly, I say to you”). What is he doing and where is this language of binding and loosing coming from? The place to begin is actually two chapters earlier, because Jesus is expanding on language he used there. Look at Matthew 16:18–19.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This text is so crucial to explaining the subtle shift we see between the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles. When one looks at the Gospel of Matthew, one notices that Jesus mentions the word “church” two times and “kingdom” 49 times. Paul’s letters, on the other hand, mention “church” 43 times and “kingdom” 14 times. Why this shift?
Matthew 16 and 18 provide the key. In Matthew 16, Peter makes a confession that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus goes on to declare who Peter is. He is the rock on whom Jesus will build his church. Now I do not go into complicated arguments that try to distance the rock from Peter. I simply acknowledge that the rock cannot be separated from Peter, and Peter cannot be separated from his confession or his role as spokesperson for the apostles. Notice the connection between “church” and “kingdom” expressed in spatial terms as earth and heaven. Jesus gives his assembly the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Here is the promise he gives for when his assembly uses these keys: Heaven and earth will align together. Look at the symmetry between “on earth” and “in heaven.” Whatever is bound or loosed on earth will also be bound or loosed in heaven (no exception).
But here is the question: How does this alignment happen? Is it sequential? We act and then heaven responds? That sounds like heaven just rubber stamps the decisions of earth. The key observation here that unlocks the answer is the verb tense. The verbs are past perfect (“shall be bound in heaven” or “shall be loosed in heaven”). Earth and heaven will align because what Peter binds and looses will already have been bound or loosed in heaven. Jesus, in other words, promises to so guide Peter and the apostles that what they bind and loose will accord with what Jesus wants.
Do you see the promise? The promise is that Jesus will guide their decisions to accord with his. They will not govern heaven’s decisions; he will guide and govern their decisions with his presence and power.
Then, once again in Matthew 18, this binding and loosing activity come up again. This time it is in the context of church discipline. Private attempts at correction have failed and so have corporate attempts from the church, and therefore the person is treated as being outside the covenant community—not part of Jesus’ assembly. Jesus again promises his presence will guide them into the right decisions on these occasions.
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 18:18–20
The promise is Jesus’ presence—and not only his presence alone—but that his presence will guide and thus govern their decision. This is exactly the same pointed promise that Paul gives the Corinthians in the other major New Testament text on church discipline: 1 Corinthians 5. The apostle Paul commands the assembly to do the act of casting out the person (not Paul). But the will of the assembly is not isolated and independent from heaven’s will. Paul will be there in spirit, but Jesus will be there in power. He wants them to know that they have the keys of the Kingdom to bind and loose, but what they do will have been done in heaven because Jesus will be there and his power will be present (1 Corinthians 5:4).
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.—1 Corinthians 5:4–5
This verse in 1 Corinthians (in my judgment) is one of the clearest texts on congregationalism in the Bible. He attempted to persuade this church that this work of discipline was their direct responsibility. The church used the keys of the Kingdom. The keys were not a special gift that only the apostles could use in the church of Jesus Christ.
Cumulative Point: Matthew 16, 18, 1 Corinthians 5 (on the church and church discipline): The church is a gathered assembly of Jesus that has the keys of Jesus’ kingdom, the promise of Jesus’ guidance, and the power of Jesus’ presence.
In application, let us work our way to a more practical job description when it comes to the calling of the congregation. What do we gather to do? What are the members pursuing with one another? It will become clearer if we get really practical on the interplay between (1) church membership, (2) church discipline, and (3) the calling of the congregation.
“Church membership is the church’s public affirmation of an individual Christian’s profession of faith in Jesus, and it’s the individual’s decision to submit to the oversight of the church.”
A Christian is someone who has a new name, a new nature, and a new family. Sometimes people forget that they have been adopted into a new family. Jesus has given local churches the authority to exercise the keys of the Kingdom through giving and withholding baptism and the Lord’s Supper, thereby doing the work of marking off God’s people from the world. The local church has heaven’s authority for declaring who is a Kingdom citizen and therefore who represents Jesus’ name on earth.
A church does not make someone a citizen of the Kingdom; it has responsibility for declaring who does and who does not belong to the Kingdom. An individual citizen does not have the authority to stamp his own passport; the embassy of your country is the one that renews your passport stamp. People can profess to be a Christian, but they cannot baptize themselves or give themselves the Lord’s Supper.
A local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances. By the way, did you see both “gospel preaching” and “gospel ordinances”? Those are the first two marks of a true church. Church discipline is the third. So what is excommunication in relation to church membership?
Church discipline is the act of removing an individual from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Table. It does not forbid them from attending the church’s public gatherings. We would still encourage that (except in criminal cases where their presence puts others in danger). It is a statement of the church that it can no longer affirm the person’s profession of faith by calling him or her a Christian. Paul refers to this as a punishment carried out by at least the majority of the congregation (2 Corinthians 2:6).
We should hasten to add that the sin in question should be outward (something seen with the eyes or heard with the ears; heart sins like greed and pride cannot be verified apart from external manifestations), serious (a sin you would not expect a Christian to commit and remain unrepentant), and unrepentant. Discipline should take place when “the sin crosses the line from expected to unexpected.”
One thing that Jonathan Leeman mentions in his excellent book on church discipline is what the difference is between two Christians at a coffee shop who are from two different churches, and two Christians at a coffee shop who are from the same church. The simplest answer is that the two Christians from the same church have a different relationship because they have different obligations to each other. Members of a church body say, “We recognize your profession of faith, baptism, and discipleship to Christ as valid. Therefore, we publicly affirm and acknowledge you as belonging to Christ and the oversight of our fellowship.” The individual, as a member, acknowledges something similar. They say, “Insofar as I recognize you as a faithful, gospel-declaring church, I submit my presence and my discipleship to your love and oversight.
He then gave an illustration. “Coyle and I receive the affirmation and oversight of one embassy, while Mike receives these things from another. It’s as though two of us get our passports authorized at the US Embassy in Brussels, while the other gets it done at the US Embassy in Paris”
Do you see what a church assembly is and what part you play? You as an assembly are covenanting together to oversee one another’s Christian confession and Kingdom passport. You are a Kingdom outpost or embassy that affirms or revokes someone’s passport as a Kingdom citizen.
Revoking someone’s passport is a big deal. A community says, “We can no longer vouch for you as a Christian. You are not part of the saints in light, you are walking in darkness. You are not walking in repentance and fighting the fight of faith—you have made peace with sin. You do not share the glorious future for which we are eagerly awaiting. You are not abiding in the vine as a branch. On the last day, we believe that Jesus will separate you from the rest of the sheep, and he will identify you as a goat. We are doing our best today to represent what we believe he will say on that day.
3. The Calling of the Congregation: Formative Discipline Before Corrective Discipline
A local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching, singing, praying together, and ordinances for the purpose of worship.
This is the calling of the congregation: We are affirming and overseeing one another’s membership in Christ Jesus and his kingdom. What about your role as a church—how does discipleship relate to discipline?
Discipleship is formative discipline. Church discipline is corrective discipline. You have to do formative discipline before you do corrective discipline. Or to use last week as an example: We need to make a lot of observations with one another before we make a major joint declaration together against someone. Another way to say it: You need to practice formative correction on a small scale before you do collective correction on a large scale. Someone needs to know what he is joining and what he is inviting. You don’t get a new member and then bring church discipline the first time that he gets angry or says something mean spirited. You have to have formative discipline before corrective discipline.
Let’s connect this point back to the first mark of the church: God’s word truly preached. The under shepherds are charged to preach the Word and be faithful in season and out of season. But that ministry of the Word should cultivate a context in which the members speak the Word to one another. Listen to Hebrews 3:12–14.
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. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
Don’t you see the danger? We could abandon our first love and fail to hold our original confidence in Christ firm to the end. Our love for Christ could grow cold. We could be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Sin is deceptive. It promises pleasures that only satisfy for a season (i.e., passing pleasures) and then kill you. They are like drinking saltwater when you are famished. It may taste wet and refreshing, but it will be worse for you.
So why would we do church discipline? We have not joined a club; we have entered a Kingdom. If we do not believe that a person has entered Jesus’ kingdom, then the most loving thing that we can do is tell him plainly that he has permanently left the path of joy. Such ones may be pursuing other things that they love and believe that it will bring them joy, but it will be only the passing pleasures of sin, not the permanent pleasures that are found in the presence of God.
Discipline tests how seriously we take the danger of the deceitfulness of sin. Engaging in unrepentant sin sensitizes the individual to sinning against Jesus in a way that says rebellion against Jesus and lack of love for Jesus is no big deal. That person becomes desensitized. If nothing is done about it, then the whole assembly becomes desensitized.
I was listening to a BBC radio show and they had a segment on business. They asked why people put up with jobs that they hate? They started talking about hostile workplace situations that become so familiar that people no longer are shocked by the dysfunction, injustice, and hostility.
The broadcaster gave an example: In a certain business, they would meet together and share ideas for how to grow the business. If employees shared an idea that the boss did not like, he would come over and tape their mouths shut. Can we agree that is dysfunctional? But it became so common that people thought it was normal.
She gave another example. One workplace situation was so hostile that people would regularly get into each other’s faces and even push each other. One time a person was in an argument with a coworker and the person bit the co-worker. Several people witnessed it, but then went back to their routine. What?! That is crazy!
The same is true of an assembly that begins to think that rebelling against Jesus is no big deal. Obviously, the sin or sin pattern must be outward, serious, and unrepentant. Outward in the sense that we are not in the domain of sins of the heart, like greed or pride. These are sins that can be seen with the eyes and heard with the ears. The sin must be serious—serious enough to say that we would not expect a Christian to commit such a sin or a pattern of such a sin. Finally, the person must be unrepentant. The person has been confronted with God’s commands in Scripture and how it appears they have left the path of joy in Jesus to pursue a love affair with sin. By all appearances, such people love their sin more than Jesus.
Discipline seeks to protect the body because sin will spread like leaven through a lump of dough or like cancer through the whole body. Consider 1 Corinthians 5:6–7.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.
What if the church took more seriously the spread of sin and vice then the spread of a virus? The coronavirus can make you sick or perhaps kill you, but sin will kill you forever. We do not want unrepentant rebellion against Jesus to become normal in the church. A lack of repentance sends the message that sin is not a big deal. We need to be re-sensitized to God’s great holiness and not allow the deceitfulness of sin to desensitize us and deceive us into thinking that sin is no big deal. There is a holiness without which no one will see the Lord. Let’s exhort one another every day to hold fast to our original confidence firm to the end and hold fast to our first love! Church discipline cleanses out the leaven of sin so that Jesus will not come along and remove the whole assembly (Revelation 2:5).
What should the church be like when we gather? I’m reminded of a regular rhythm of when our pets gather by my downstairs sliding door. When Kaiser (my dog) has to go out, my two cats (Calvin and Hobbes) also come running. They come not because they care about Kaiser going out, but because they know that when Kaiser comes back he gets a treat (chicken jerky). They know that I will give them a little bit as well. They happily gather because they are sold out for jerky. The church gathers in the Name of Jesus to get Jesus. Jesus is the one attraction for the church called by his Name. We are forever satisfied in him.
 Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership, p. 114
 Ibid, p. 110
 Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus, p. 128
 Ibid., p. 41
 Ibid., p. 54
 Ibid., p. 65
Main Point: The church is a gathered assembly of Jesus that has the keys of Jesus’ kingdom, the promise of Jesus’ guidance, and the power of Jesus’ presence.
Pray for a grace to watch over one another’s profession of faith in Christ Jesus.