Digging Deeper into Scripture: Matthew 18:15–20

During nearly thirty years of professional church work, I have often wondered which sin is most damaging to the local congregation. In my experience, it is not disregard for worship and Bible study, arguments over money, lack of unity regarding mission and ministry, lack of forgiveness, theft, or even adultery. In my experience, the single sin which most damages congregations is mismanagement of conflict between brothers and sisters in the faith. There are numerous reasons. Foremost, this mismanagement destroys trust, which damages relationships. But it also breeds gossip and character assassination, which can lead to loss of good reputation and even loss of employment. Mismanagement of conflict blurs the facts and leaves the conflict unresolved. Such unresolved conflicts are infected wounds in the Body of Christ. Let’s look at what Jesus has to say.

Approach Your Brother

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.  (v. 15)

It is important to understand that when Jesus says “brother,” He is speaking of brothers and sisters in Christ—in other words, Christians. It is not as though Jesus doesn’t want Christians to seek reconciliation with unbelieving family, friends, and colleagues. But our Lord wants brothers and sisters in the faith to recognize that they share a unity that is more powerful and important even than blood relation. Christians have received forgiveness from God through Christ, and can (and should) extend this forgiveness to one another. Christians are  empowered by the Holy Spirit to forgive even the most heinous of offenses. The forgiveness which Christians offer to one another is built on the foundation of the forgiveness they have received in Christ.

Notice also that Jesus says, “sins against you,” not merely “annoys you” or “does something which you don’t like.” Before I accuse my brother or sister in Christ of sinning against me, I should be sure that what has been done is actually a sin against me and not simply behavior which makes life less pleasant for me. It’s essential to examine my motives before telling my brother his fault, and potentially, in a next step, even involving two or three others. 

Consider these questions. Is my concern truly for my brother’s salvation, because he has resisted repenting of his sin against me? Have I made it difficult for him to do that? Is this sin preventing peace and harmony in our relationship? Is my first goal to restore the relationship? If an apology is offered, am I ready to forgive when I receive it? Often, we fall into the temptation of showing our brother his fault for no other reason than to express anger, induce shame, seek revenge through harsh words, or, if involving others, to get our brother into trouble. Where we fall to this temptation, we are more likely to exacerbate the sin than to help lead the brother or sister to repentance. 

Gather Witnesses

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. (v. 16)

Including the evidence of two or three witnesses is mandated in other parts of the Old and New Testaments. Being witnesses, these people can establish the charge by verifying the facts of the plaintiff’s accusation. But what if the accused sinned against me in private and I am the only witness? If speaking to the brother or sister in private has not led to resolution, Jesus would have us seek out other Christians who are mature in the faith. By God’s grace they can serve in the following ways: First, they can help us process what has happened to be sure that what has taken place was indeed a sin. Second, they can also pray over the situation. Moreover, they can help us to see how we have contributed to the problem and coach us on how best to continue the conversation with the brother or sister in question.

Consult Church Authorities

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. (v. 17)

There are two common misunderstandings related to this verse. When Jesus says, “tell it to the church,” He is not giving me permission to share my brother’s sin with every member of the congregation. The right understanding is that we are to bring the issue to the spiritual heads of the congregation—the pastor and elders. God willing, these leaders can bring the two brothers or sisters together and restore peace. If not, the pastor and elders will know what other steps may need to be taken.

A second misunderstanding pertains to Jesus’ words “let him be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.” It’s tempting here to think that, since many Jews despised the Gentiles and tax collectors, I and the congregation should also despise the brother who sinned against me. This is not Jesus’ counsel. Certainly, there was distance between the Jews and Gentiles, and tax collectors worked for the tyrannical Romans. But Jesus asserted that the Gospel was for both the Jews and the Gentiles. Our Lord chose Matthew, a tax collector, to be His disciple and the writer of one of the Gospels. Jesus called Paul to serve as a missionary specifically to the Gentiles. Most important, Jesus shed His blood on the cross for Jews and Gentiles and tax collectors. Practically speaking, to treat the brother who sinned against me as a Gentile or tax collector in the same way that Jesus does may mean that there is now a breakdown in our relationship, and perhaps the same brokenness is between him and the congregation. But the goal remains reconciliation, not punishment or humiliation. Reconciliation through confession and forgiveness is Jesus’ goal, and so it should be ours.

Scripture: ESV®.

matthew-cc-11Continue your study with the second volume of Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs’s Concordia Commentary on Matthew.

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Phil Rigdon

The Rev. Dr. Philip Rigdon and his wife, Jamelyn, live in Kendallville, Indiana, with their two rabbits, Frankie and Buttons. He serves as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church and School in Kendallville. He enjoys writing, running, and playing guitar.

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