15 “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. 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:15-20 ESV).
Jesus Christ himself has given the local church the authority to remove unrepentantly sinning members out of the church.
There are several passages of Scripture that help us build a correct theology of what is often called church discipline. They include this passage, Galatians 6:1-5, 1 Corinthians 5, and 2 Corinthians 2:5-11. I will make a forum post on each passage, and I hope we can have some edifying discussion on this often controversial and always difficult topic.
In 15a-b, Jesus describes the sin itself.
You need to be prepared with what you should do when you are sinned against because whoever you are, you are in a church filled with sinners. The question is not “Will another Christian sin against me?” but “How should I respond when another Christian sins against me?”
And the sin Jesus describes here is a believer who sins against you. (We won’t talk about the textual variant here, which opens the possibility that this passage describes not just a sin against an individual, but the committing of a serious sin in general. That goes beyond the scope of this post.)
In 15c-17d, Jesus prescribes the response to that sin.
The response is given in a Neg-Pos construction, composed of several Conditional relationships. If the brother listens, the problem is solved! But if not, there are three steps to follow, each of which brings the confrontation to an end if the brother listens.
Notice that our response to the sin is described in a Progression of widening concentric circles, regarding the number of people involved: first an individual approach, then taking one or two more, and finally getting the whole church involved.
If the church member refuses to repent when the whole church is forced to get involved, then the church is to treat that member “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” That is, they are to treat him as an unbeliever. He must be removed from membership, and treated like a lost person. Not with harshness or enmity, but with love and compassion! But not as we would speak to and fellowship with a Christian.
In 18-20, Jesus reveals the basis for his commands about sin.
Jesus has not completely changed topics here! Cf. Matthew 16:19 with v. 18 to see this.
There are two parts to this basis, both of which describe the breathtaking, heavenly authority of the church. Both regard an action of the corporate body of the church: Binding and loosing (18) and praying (19-20).
In the Jewish religion of Jesus’ day, binding and loosing had to do with declaring something permitted or forbidden. And our responsibility as the church is to declare from Scripture what church members are and are not permitted to do.
And when we compare this verse with Matthew 16:19, we can also see that the church has a God-given authority to admit or exclude people from Heaven! Not that you or I have the power to save people or not let them be saved; rather, God has given to the church His inspired Word, which He gave through the apostles as the foundation of the church. And the job is to look at what Scripture says about salvation, and based on that, to pronounce people as “saved” or “unsaved.”
This impacts church membership, doesn’t it? When a church votes on allowing someone to join or not, they are looking at their claim to be Christians, seeing if it matches with their life according to Scripture, and then putting their stamp of approval on them or not. That church is not making them Christians, any more than the government of the U.S. makes you an American when they give you an American passport! They are recognizing the pre-existing fact of your citizenship and declaring it. That’s exactly what the church does when it accepts members, and the opposite when it disciplines members.
So as far as church membership is concerned, the church must act when members live in ways that are disobedient to the apostolic writings, given to us by the Spirit of Jesus Himself. If a professing Christian who is a member of your church proves by the way that he or she lives that they prominently are characterized by the way unbelievers live, what must your church do? It must revoke their passport; it must remove them from membership. But this is not arrogant, for Jesus Himself gives us this authority!
Finally, verses 19-20 are astounding verses when we apply them in their context. The “two or three” refers to members of a church who are “gathered” to make a decision about binding and loosing.
So when the church stands up from their knees and says, “We can no longer affirm this member’s profession of faith, so we are going to exclude him from membership,” verse 20 says that Jesus fully endorses that decision! Hear this carefully: If a church seeks to follow Matthew 18 in removing someone from membership, following the steps Jesus gave and which I described earlier, but the sinning member refuses to repent, and if the church prays about it and seeks to obey Jesus’ words and they say, “We remove you from membership,” that is God’s voice saying, “I remove you from membership.” In such cases, the church speaks with the voice of God, and with God’s authority fully supporting that decision.