Matthew 18:15-17. “Moreover if they brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee, thou has gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”
This passage is one we’re all familiar with, but very few of us put into actual practice. Indeed, our normal behavior in the church is to go over the offender’s head to a higher authority, omitting the first step entirely. We are so reluctant to face someone who has offended us. We’d rather let someone else deal with it so we don’t have to put ourselves in an uncomfortable position. The pastor or leader who allows this misstep is not helping his people. He is teaching them instead that they can go tattle on someone and not have to accept the responsibility of facing the offender themselves. Lots of heartache can follow such unbiblical behavior, when the problem could possibly have been resolved between the two who are involved, not having to bring anyone else into it.
We know this passage is intended for the church because of the word used in verse 17, ecclesia, or called out ones, assembly. Some want to apply this passage to other settings as well. I believe that the principle of facing the one who has offended us is valid, but if it’s someone who is not part of the church, then it would not be possible to bring him before the church. This passage is clearly about how to deal with offense within the church itself.
There are three steps to follow in applying church discipline.
1. Settle all personal differences by yourself (v. 15; 5:23-26; Luke `7:3-4; Lev. 19:17). We ouselves sin when we talk about the person who offended us, spreading ill will toward that person, but never going to the person with our grievance. If we would follow Jesus’ command here, the matter should never rise to the level of church discipline at all.
2. Confirm your personal efforts by two or three witnesses (v. 16; 2 Cor. 13:1; Deut. 17:6; 19:15). If the offender refuses to hear, refuses to acknowledge and repent, then take two or three godly believers with you and confront him again. This is a protection for both the offender and the offended. Truth is better preserved when there are witnesses.
3. Take a stubborn and unforgiving brother before the church and if he refuses all means of reconciliation, then let him be excommunicated (v. 17). If men will not forgive, neither will God forgive (Matt. 6:14-15; 18:21-35; Mark 11:25-26; Rom. 16:17). Notice here that the offender is the one who is unforgiving, not the one who is offended. This would seem to imply that the offender is angry and unrelenting and has no desire to reconcile. In that case, he is to be removed from the church.
I think we need to understand that the motivation here is not not judgment, but love. When this process is followed with humility and a sincere desire to restore fellowship, the offender who can resist it and remain entrenched in his sin and anger has really already been lost to the church. Every person involved in such a process needs to humble himself under the hand of God and make sure his own heart is free of malice and judgment toward the offender. We are called to reconciliation, not to judgment.
It’s not an easy thing to have to bring someone before the local church in this manner. I’ve seen it done, with both restoration and dismissal as end results. The restoration is sweet; the dismissal should be heartbreaking for all concerned.