Your Brother's Keeper (Matt 18:15-20)
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.” - Matt 18:15-20
We have spent the last number of weeks examining the calling and responsibilities of the church. We have been saying that the Bible assumes that to be united to Christ is to be united to His body, the church. The passports of the church, as we considered last week, are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are meant to symbolize and display what the gospel is and our response to that gospel in repentance and faith. That life of repentance and faith is then played out on the canvas of the local church. We saw in Hebrews 10 that active participation in the local church is one of God’s means to keep Christians from unbelief. We saw in 1 Corinthians 12 that the life within the local church is meant to be a life of mutual dependence and unity, the same way a body is comprised of many different members. And we saw in 2 Corinthians 4 that the engine that is fueling the growth of the church is not gimmicks and salesmen techniques, but simple and plain proclamations of the gospel.
Friends, do not be mistaken—God cares deeply about the church. The church is God’s program by which the Great Commission will be accomplished, by which disciples are made, individuals are baptized, Christians are matured, use their gifts, taught by gospel preachers, and are thus kept from false teaching and error. We are the salt of the world, a city on a hill, displaying our deeds of righteousness so that the watching world may glorify God (Matt 5:13-16).
But, brothers and sisters, what happens if that salt loses its saltiness? What happens when someone who has been baptized, receives the Lord’s Supper, a citizen of the Kingdom, begins to live like they are a citizen of the world? If you are not a Christian here today, perhaps you can think of someone in the church who claimed to be a follower of Jesus, but then hypocritically participated in some egregious sin—maybe, you have told yourself, that is why you aren’t a Christian. I’m sure many of you who are Christians here today can think of someone who has taken the name of Christ, and then acted in such way that brings shame and dishonor to the name of Christ. Just this week the leader of the largest Christian university in the world was fired after it came to light that apparently he and his wife participated in some scandalous sexual affair with another individual. So now, all over the news, we are hearing about a person who was supposed to be a model of Christian virtue now bring shame and dishonor to the name of Christ. There are few things more detrimental to testimony of church than people who take the name of the Lord in vain, living like they really are a child of the devil.
This brings us to our final consideration as we think about our responsibilities to one another within the church: the issue of church discipline. I am, in many ways, opening up a can of worms with a sermon like this. This is an issue that is very rarely talked about or taught on in the church, and is even more rarely practiced. But it is clearly taught in the Bible and assumed to be practiced in the local church. So I will provide an overview of what the Bible teaches about this, but will by no means answer every question. So if after hearing this sermon you are left with some serious questions, then please come up afterward and bring those to me. I’d be more than happy to talk through this more.
What is church discipline? Church discipline is where a congregation responds to a fellow church member who is walking in persistent, unrepentant sin, by formally removing that person from the membership roles as a way of showing that they can no longer affirm that individual’s profession of faith. It is a way of saying: We cannot understand how you can continue to walk in this sin and be genuinely filled with the Holy Spirit.
In our text we saw in Matthew 18 we see one example of what church discipline looks like. Matthew 18 describes the dilemma of interpersonal sin within the church. One person sins against another member in the church. When this happens, Jesus tells us: “go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” What a great model for us, church. How should you respond when someone sins against you? You go directly to that person—you don’t start talking to a bunch of people about it first, spreading salacious gossip about how this person has sinned against you. You lovingly confront them. “If he listens to you,” Jesus continues, “you have gained your brother.” This is how 99% of the conflicts in church should be handled.
But, if he refuses to listen to you, you are two bring two or three others with you. If he refuses to listen to them, then you are to “tell it to the church,” that is, the entire congregation. And if this brother refuses to listen even to the church, then you are to treat him as a “Gentile and tax collector.” All of Jesus’ immediate hearers would have known that Gentiles and tax collectors were not members of God’s covenant community. Why can the church do this? Because Jesus has given the keys of the Kingdom to the local church (18:18, see Matt 16:19): “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.” Here “binding” refers to the congregation receiving people into membership in the church, and “loosening” refers to dismissing people from membership.
So, church discipline is the sad action a congregation must take when one of its members no longer has any credible grounds due to their unrepentant sin to bear the name of Christ. Of course, interpersonal sins as laid out here in Matthew are not the only reasons one may be put under discipline. In 1 Corinthians 5 we see an example of unrepentant sexual sin. In Titus 3:10-11 we see unrepentant divisiveness in the church as an example of church discipline. Gal 1:6-9 shows believing a false gospel warrants discipline. In 2 Thess 3:14 shows rejecting the authority of Scripture as an offense worthy of discipline. But, of course, these are not intended to be exhaustive lists of the only sins that warrant discipline. Church discipline, rather, is intended for any kind of outward, visible sin that is persistently unrepentant, even in the face of repeated pleas from the congregation to repent. It’s ramifications then are that the person is removed from the membership roles and is to no longer be treated as if they are a Christian, and, as we see in Paul’s example in 1 Corinthians 5, they are prohibited from partaking in the covenant meal of the covenant community, the Lord’s Supper.
Who is liable to this kind of accountability structure? Well, Paul makes this fairly clear in 1 Corinthians 5: “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.””
This means, at a bare minimum, that the accountability structure is reserved for “those who bear the name of brother,” that is, a Christian. We don’t expect non-Christians to live and act like Christians. But, again, we must remember what the Bible assumes is normal for a Christian life—the Bible assumes that anyone who is genuinely a Christian is someone who has meaningfully attached themselves into a local church. Paul’s language of “insiders” and “outsiders” nods in this direction. It is those “inside” the church who are accountable. But how do we know who those people are? Is it just the people who show up on Sunday? And the “outsiders” are people who don’t come to church? No, because later in 1 Corinthians 14, we see Paul use this language of “insiders” and “outsiders” again, and assumes that “outsiders” will be present at the worship gathering on Sunday (1 Cor 14:22-25). So the “insiders” are more than just people who are attending on Sunday morning, but have, in some way, made themselves known to the leadership of the church and the rest of the congregation, and consented to live their life in accountability to the rest of the church—to “associate,” or “fellowship,” or “formally partner”, to use Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 5:11, with the other members of the church. So, this accountability structure of church discipline is then reserved for those who have become members of the church—not just people who might show up (even regularly!) on a Sunday.
Further, if church discipline is removing someone from the membership roles, it becomes practically meaningless, if not impossible, to be carried out if that person is not even a member! And, friends, churches that do not practice church membership, when they get stuck in a nasty situation that requires church discipline, they are either left with a toothless warning, or they inappropriately use their authority and warp church discipline into something like intimidation by force by physically barring the person from entering the church. That is not what church discipline is.
What is the purpose of church discipline?
1. Church discipline protects the glory of God and the testimony of the church
a. When a man is repeatedly cheating on his wife, being dishonest in his business dealings, or is feeding an addiction to alcohol, all with a stony, unrepentant heart, and comes to church each week to receive the Lord’s Supper, God’s glory is being besmirched. We are telling the watching world: this is what God is like, this is what a life under the power of the Holy Spirit looks like. It robs God of His glory and sours our community’s perception of our church.
2. Church discipline preserves the gospel
a. A large stumbling block to practicing church discipline is the difficulty of how we can reconcile it with the gospel of free grace! God accepts us as we are and loves us unconditionally, right? Doesn’t church discipline make it seem like we are saying the opposite? That you have to be a morally good enough to be worthy of God? Doesn’t that twist the gospel? No, it actually does the exact opposite. It is true, we are saved by grace alone through faith alone—but it is never a faith that remains alone. The 1853 New Hampshire confession of faith explains that faith and repentance are “inseparable graces” both given by the Holy Spirit. To claim to have faith, but to evidence no repentance, is to present a different gospel than the one the Bible presents. James warns us that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). When we come to believe in the gospel, we are banking on what Jesus has accomplished on the cross and that alone to make us right with God. But God also gives a new heart with new dispositions that desires to obey God, to turn from sin, and to walk in holiness. When we as a church continue to affirm the spiritual state of fellow church members whose lives are not giving any fruit of repentance, we are actually proclaiming a perverted gospel.
3. Church discipline protects the health of the church
a. A church without church discipline is like a body without an immune system. Paul warns the elders in Ephesus that wolves would arise in the church, looking to devour the other sheep. Church discipline can help identify those wolves and protect the rest of the sheep from being destroyed. Further, churches that permit unrepentant sin to run rampant in the life of its members are not loving the church. Paul warns the Corinthians in chapter 5: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (5:6). When church members know that member so-and-so has a gambling addiction and other member so-and-so is living with his girlfriend, and that other member so-and-so only attends Sunday worship once or twice a month, but they are still active members, serving, taking the Lord’s Supper, raising their hands during worship—they begin to think that maybe they don’t need to take their own sin that seriously. It breeds a posture of casualness towards sin, rather than the needed deadly seriousness. But, when church discipline is brought forward, it has a salutary, awakening affect on sleepy Christians
When I was in seminary, while attending a member’s meeting at my church, there was a case of church discipline brought before the church. There was a case of church discipline brought forward that woke me up. It was a member who was currently at the school I was attending, getting his PhD studying the life and theology of Jonathan Edwards—a personal hero of mine. However, it was revealed that this man had been in an extramarital affair for two years. His wife had been suspicious and had repeatedly asked him, even bringing in pastors from our church to discuss this matter with him, but he denied that anything wrong was going on, lying about the affair for two years. He only finally confessed his sin because he had gotten the other woman pregnant and couldn’t hide it any longer. His confession, however, lacked any signs of genuine repentance and still was marked by self-defense, deceptiveness, and an unwillingness to own up to his sin. So, he was being brought forward to be put under church discipline as his wife wept in the front pew. The pastor who was conducting the meeting eventually paused and looked at the congregation, “All of you seminary students out there: don’t think this couldn’t happen to you. This is exactly where your sin wants to take you, that little flirtation with lust is wanting to steer you to this place.” And I felt this intense, somber weight land on me then and there that I had never experienced before. And I knew: I never want this to happen to me. I saw the danger of sin in a way I never had before.
4. Ultimately, church discipline is done for salvation
a. Paul commands the Corinthian church to remove the brother caught in unrepentant sexual sin from their membership: “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord,” (1 Cor 5:5). What’s the end goal of taking a member out of the citizenship of the Kingdom and handing him over to the world? We want that person to be saved! Church discipline is the final, tragic, but necessary means by which God may shake a lukewarm Christian to wake up to the eternal peril their soul is in. Sometimes, someone who has been nibbling at the edges of forbidden fruit needs to just go out and fill their belly before they will realize how putrid and rotten it really is. The prodigal didn’t return to his father till he was eating pig slop. So, friends, as painful and heartbreaking as it is, we want to do the most loving thing we possibly can for someone in this state—we want their soul to be saved.
But this should inform how we go about this process.
i. Church discipline should be done slowly, following the procedures laid out in Matthew 18
ii. It should never be done solely on the account of one witness
iii. It should be done with mourning and weeping (1 Cor 5:1)
iv. It should be done in a “spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1), not regarding the person as an “enemy” 2 Thess 3:15
v. It should never be done out of a spirit of self-righteousness, but rather with the humility that admits that we are likewise just as susceptible to stumbling into sin (Gal 6:1).
vi. It should be done in such a manner that communicates both the severity of their sin and the real danger their souls are in, what repentance would look like, and the free gift of grace that is always available in Christ to any and all who will repent of their sins.
vii. It should never be done without the knowledge of the entire congregation. Elders should conduct the congregation through the manner, but should not hide the issue from the congregation and should never dismiss someone from membership without the congregations knowledge and approval.