Summary: Church discipline is about regaining the brother (15). When our prayer is, truly, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven - our desire will be in agreement with what God has already determined in heaven.
REGAINING THE STRAYING BROTHER
‘The Son of man is come to save that which was lost,’ declared Jesus (Matthew 18:11). The Lord illustrated this with a story of a man who left his ninety-nine sheep to seek out just one lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-13). Jesus affirmed, ‘Even so, it is not the will of your Father that one of these little ones should perish’ (Matthew 18:14).
It is in this immediate context that we find today’s reading. Church discipline, after all, is not so much about excommunication as about “regaining the brother” (Matthew 18:15). It is only after all else fails, that the straying brother is to be treated as “a heathen man and a publican” (Matthew 18:17).
What is it, anyway, to treat someone as “a heathen man and a publican” - or more colloquially, “a Gentile and a tax-collector”? Matthew had been one such tax-collector, and must have been ever thankful that Jesus Himself was not averse to sitting with tax-collectors and sinners. When folks complained about it, Jesus replied: ‘It is not the whole that need a physician, but the sick’ (Matthew 9:9-13).
Expulsion from the local church should only ever occur after all due process. Excommunication is a last resort, and treating the straying brother as an outsider does not exclude the hope of re-evangelising the offender at a later date. We must seek to evangelise all the ‘lost’ - whoever they are.
This brings us into the area of “binding and loosing” (Matthew 18:18). Jesus had already given the church universal the power of the keys, of binding and of loosing (Matthew 16:19). If the church is operating faithfully as church, we shall find that ‘whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven’ (New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition).
Later rabbis understood all such “binding and loosing” as being declarative. It either declared whether this or that law applied to this or that situation - or it pronounced a disciplinary decision, as in our text. After the resurrection, Jesus also spoke of the remission and retaining of sins (John 20:23).
We see this authority in operation in the local church in today’s reading (Matthew 18:18). In this context the “you” is plural. When our prayer is, truly, ‘Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10) - our desire will be in agreement not only with one another constituted as ‘church’ - but also with what God has already determined in heaven (Matthew 18:19).
It is interesting here, also, to notice that - in the Christian church - “two or three” constitutes a quorum (Matthew 18:20). Two or three is the number of witnesses required within the process of discipline (Matthew 18:16). “Two agreeing on earth” validates a prayer meeting (Matthew 18:19).
Not only this, but where two or three are gathered together in His name, Jesus has promised His presence in the midst of them. He is ‘Emmanuel, God with us’ (Matthew 1:23) just as much for the local church, however small, as He is for the church universal (cf. Matthew 28:20). I take great comfort in this.