Summary: The missing component of the contemporary church may well be discipline. The message explores the purpose and implementation of discipline in the church.
“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.”
The opening words of the text read, “If your brother sins against you…” This is a third class conditional sentence; the first readers of this pericope would have understood that Jesus was presenting a probable situation that might confront a Christian at any time. The situation is not merely hypothetical, but rather, it is possible. It would be appropriate, therefore, to translate the words of Jesus with the English phrase, “Should your brother sin.” Keep this point in mind as the message progresses.
There is also a textual question that should be considered at the outset. Many manuscripts do not have the words “against you.” It is possible that these two words are an interpolation. If the words are genuine, then it indicates that sin against the Christian community is in view; and if the words should be excluded, then it is obvious that concern for the spiritual welfare of a fellow Christian is in view. In either case, the principle holds that as Christians we are each responsible to be aware of the spiritual condition of our fellow believers; we are each responsible for one another.
In speaking from this text, I am not seeking to review steps leading to congregational discipline; rather, I seek to clarify the basis for mutual responsibility to one another as a community of faith. My position is opposed to popular practise; I insist that we are responsible for one another and that our responsibility is so much more than mere words. We are responsible to be so concerned for one another that we cannot ignore self-destructive tendencies. To clarify my meaning, I direct you to focus on the text for the message—MATTHEW 18:15-20.
In order to understand the text, I suggest that we need to understand the context. What are the principles that should stand out whenever we read this text? What standards should we embrace if we truly understand this text? We do not wish to ignore the text, which is too often done by contemporary pulpit. Neither do we wish to become legalistic in application of the text, an action that seems to be selectively applied rather frequently whenever a believer becomes angry toward a fellow Christian.
Keep three emphases of this text in mind—responsibility, relationship and reconciliation. Each of these emphases reminds us of a principle that must be held in mind if the teaching is to have validity. Responsibility is more important than rights. Relationship is more important than religion. Reconciliation, not retaliation, is the goal.
RESPONSIBILITY OVERSHADOWS RIGHTS — The instructions provided in our text emphasises responsibility—individual and corporate. Church members witnessing sinful behaviour in the life of another church member are responsible to rescue that saint and to seek restoration. Those believers offending are responsible to respond in a godly fashion. The entire congregation bears responsibility to act wisely and righteously if the issue should be referred to the assembly. Unfortunately, responsibility seems to be in short supply among contemporary churches.
Modern social engineers have indoctrinated an entire generation to expect that individual “rights” are the summum bonum of life. In modern life, the rights of the individual must be protected at all costs. The rights of a child during the education process are of greater importance than are the responsibilities of the child to learn. Children’s rights in society trump all responsibilities until at last they are declared adults, at which time they are expected magically to become responsible citizens. Unfortunately, the rights of adults, while not extending to the right to keep what is produced through their own labours, seemingly extend into the home and into the church.
Since the text especially focuses on the responsibility of Christians to “live in peace” [cf. 2 CORINTHIANS 13:11], our responsibility as believers will be the focus of our consideration as well. Do we need to be reminded that Christians do not “join” a church? Language such as this is political, reflecting the efforts of the modern state to regulate the churches of our Lord. What we witness in the Word is that people are “added to the church” [see ACTS 2:41, 47; see also, ACTS 5:14; 11:24]. If we “join” the church, then we have no particular obligation to the Body. Instead, we have rights, because we “joined.”