What should we do if one of our number here sinned against us? Jesus just finished teaching his disciples the importance of recovering one lost soul who strays from the Lord in 18:10-14. Our ongoing relationships and Bible classes are ways that we help one another stay on the right course. But what do we do when some of our own number continue in their sin? What if they are rebellious and refuse to repent? There is nothing easy about handling these situations. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to be prepared to correct one another in a Biblical way. Jesus teaches us to address sin in three distinct steps. Before we look at this process of handling sin, let’s set the groundwork for when Matthew 18 applies and why we handle sin in this way.
The Situation: A Brother or Sister’s Sin
Jesus starts with, “If your brother sins against you…” This process is not for petty complaints or differences in opinion. This is not for rumors about a potential mistake. This process is for handling sin. Though Jesus specifically speaks here of when a brother or sister sins against us, Paul’s discussions in his epistles make it clear that we are to handle all unrepentant sin in the congregation in a similar way (cf. 1 Cor. 5; Titus 3:9-11). A brother may have stolen from us. A brother or sister may have slandered us. We may be aware of a brother or sister’s addiction to alcohol or pornography. We may be aware of someone’s sexual immorality. These situations are in the scope of what Jesus and Paul teach us to handle as loving brothers and sisters in Christ.
It is important to note that this process is only for handling sin in the church – not in the world. Jesus says this here and Paul emphasizes this in 1 Corinthians 5:9–13, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.” Paul goes on to remind the Corinthians that this process is for handling sin in the church.
Reasons for Handling Sin
Handling sin in a congregation is a touchy subject. We need to be very clear from the beginning about why we handle sin in this way. Why is this process so important? What are our motives?
- Because of Christ: First, Christ commands that we do this. Both the sinner and the one sinned against need to understand this. If someone privately approaches us, they are doing so because Christ has commanded them to do so. If we have a Christian brother or sister living in unrepentant sin, we must remember that Christ commands us to handle their sin.
- Because of the church: Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:6–7 when he commands the Corinthians to purge a sinner from the congregation, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump…” If we do not handle a brother or sister’s sin, we send the message to the congregation that sin is not serious. If we do not handle sin with one brother or sister, we may soon have an entire group of people disregarding a sanctified lifestyle. We do not want to be so harsh that we discourage the congregation, but we do not want a brother or sister’s sin to influence others.
- Because of the world: When showing the Corinthians the seriousness of their brother’s sin, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:1, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.” Paul was most concerned that the congregation was unwilling to handle this sin. Jesus tells us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. If the world sees people who talk like Christians but do not act like Christians, we are hypocrites in their sight. We can talk about purging sin all we want, but we are ineffective lights to the world if we do not handle sin. Our congregations carry a stain and reproach is brought on Christ’s name.
- Because of the sinner: As Christ says at the end of Matthew 18:15, our hope is to gain our brother or sister. This is the primary reason. Everything about how we handle this process should consider how to save the sinner’s soul. This is why we will approach with gentleness and humility. This is why we will not delay in speaking to them until they have become calloused to their sin. This is why we will approach every step of this process prayerfully. We readily seek their repentance. We are fully ready to offer forgiveness when they do repent.
- Not because of us: This is not about us getting back at anyone. Church discipline is not about seeking vindication. It is not an attempt to publicly shame someone. This is not a venue for us to prove someone wrong. If we handle someone’s sin with these motivations, everything about our approach and attitude will be wrong. Too often church discipline is approached with selfish motives and a slanderous mouth. Where is the love for the sinner? This is not for us. This is for the sinner.
The Process for Handling Sin (Matthew 18:15-17)
Now that we understand when to handle sin and why we are handling sin, let’s notice three steps Jesus tells us to take when we believe our brother or sister is living in sin.
1. The private step (15): Upon discovering another’s sin, our first step is to make our brother or sister aware of it. Many times this step is skipped altogether. This is where some of the biggest mistakes are made. Instead of first going to the one who has sinned, we slander the sinner. We tell everyone else about the sin instead of the sinner. We text everyone and post it on Facebook. How are we helping them by gossiping about their sin? The person may not even be aware they have committed a sin. They may not have sinned at all! If the sin doesn’t specifically pertain to us, it is possible they have repented of this sin and sought the forgiveness of those involved. We won’t know any of this if we first slander them. Either way, it is still gossip if it is true. We are still sinning. The spark will turn into a wildfire and their reputation will be destroyed because of our indiscretion. Our sin in this way has the opportunity to greatly discourage our brother or sister in Christ.
If we will go to our brother or sister first, Galatians 6:1 is a helpful scripture to bring into our discussion. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” When we tell them of their fault, it is important to approach them with gentleness. Our goal is to gain our brother back. Our goal is to restore their soul. If we come to them in a harsh tone with harsh accusations, we will fail. We aren’t going to be perfect in our approach. But, if our approach lacks gentleness, compassion, understanding, and mercy – we will be the guilty ones. When we come to self-righteously rub their sin in their face or win an argument, our attitude is wrong. Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” A careful approach can soften their heart towards repentance. A harsh approach can harden their heart towards rebellion. Just because another has sinned does not give us the right to sin against them.
2. The private/witness step (16): Our hope is for everything to be resolved in the first step. If they listen, then we have gained our brother. If they do not listen, the next step is to bring one or two others along with us to speak with the one who has sinned. This is not a time to gossip under the pretense of a prayer request. We need to keep our intentions pure – caring for the one who has sinned. There are two main reasons for this second step. Primarily, we still desire to restore their soul. People who have witnessed the sin or are close to the one who has sinned should be included in the one or two witnesses that come with us in the second approach. Don’t just pick anyone. Pick someone who has experience. Pick someone who knows them well. The more ability we have to influence the sinner, the more likely we are to restore them. Witnesses may also be able to help mediate so that the two parties can reconcile.
Notice the specific reason Jesus gives for bringing witnesses. “…that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” This principle was established in Deuteronomy 19:15. “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” This step protects the one who supposedly sinned from unsubstantiated claims being made about their character or actions. We must have proof to substantiate our claims – no matter how convinced we are. Witnesses can both confirm the sin and the sinner’s refusal to repent.
3. The public/congregational step (17): Though this final step is difficult, the hope is for this to be a powerful statement by a congregation who cares deeply for this person’s soul. Those who have been trying to bring about reconciliation will bring the matter before the church. The sin will be made public so the entire congregation can encourage the sinner towards repentance. This is not, as many have treated it, a time to relax our efforts. Our efforts to win their souls should only increase. This is to be a congregational effort. This is not just a preacher and a handful of elders. Everyone must participate. Unfortunately, those who are closest to the unrepentant brother or sister often end up refusing to participate in this. Family members and best friends often justify the sin and refuse to cooperate in separating themselves. Nobody is saying this is easy. People often make statements like, “I still need to honor my parents,” or “They’re my children,” or “What good will it do?” show how difficult this is. Would we rather have a temporary relationship with our family and friends now, or care for their soul in hope of a relationship for eternity? This will not be effective if the entire congregation is not willing to join in this effort.
If the congregation’s efforts are unsuccessful, Jesus tells us to treat the sinner as a Gentile and a tax collector. Jews treated Gentiles and tax collectors as unclean outsiders. They refused to associate with them. Paul terms it in a similar way. 1 Corinthians 5:2, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” In 1 Corinthians 5:11 Paul continues to tell Christians not to associate with or even eat with this person. Titus 3:10, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.” The point of this is not vindictive. This is not a statement of hate. We will not pretend they are in a right relationship with us or with God. We will not act as if their sin and lack of repentance is permissible. This is a statement of our love for their soul. We hope so much for their repentance that we will not have a relationship with them without their repentance. Still, we should seek their humility and repentance. Though it is difficult, family needs to participate in this as well. Family must find a way to effectively communicate their concern and disapproval for their lifestyle.
While we do not want to point fingers hastily, we should not delay in carrying out this step. The longer we wait, the more desensitized they become. Too often this step does not take place until the one who has sinned has completely broken contact with everyone in the church. There is no longer a relationship. If the congregation does not have a relationship with the unrepentant brother or sister, this step will be ineffective. This further reminds us of the importance of close relationships within the congregation. Strong spiritual bonds increase the chance of repentance. They value our relationship and our opinion. The seriousness and significance of our withdrawal is emphasized in verses 18-20.
The Significance of Handling Sin (Matthew 18:18-20)
Though these statements seem unrelated, Jesus is referring to the significance of handling sin in the congregation. “Binding” and “loosing” are the difficulties. Most agree that this refers to whether a congregation holds a charge against a brother (binding) or dismisses a charge (loosing). Specifically, this probably refers back to verse 17 and whether or not we break fellowship with our brother or sister. This is not speaking of a causal relationship where the Father ends his relationship with the unrepentant sinner if we do or visa versa. Some translations say, “shall be bound” and the NASB reads, “shall have been bound.” I agree with the NASB on this one. What we do on earth represents what has already been done in heaven. Verse 20 also shows that this is something we have Christ’s authority in doing. He is with us in this difficult process. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 confirms this idea, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan…” A congregation’s agreement in this matter makes a serious judgment about the state of this person’s soul. We are declaring that this person is no longer a saved believer. They have rejected God and they no longer have fellowship with him. In a sense, a congregation is God’s mouthpiece in this matter. This is the important reminder to both the sinner and the congregation that our decisions in this matter should not be taken lightly. A congregation’s decision does not just represent man’s opinion on earth; it represents God’s decision in heaven. Let’s be careful to pray we do not take this authority lightly.
For the sinner: I hope this discussion tonight causes us to think more seriously about our sins. We must understand that some of us in this very room may be on the other side of this in the future. If someone comes to one of us, receive them so that it does not get to this congregational step. If a congregation uses these actions with any of us, we must have the humility to understand that this is a Christ commanded process for the good of our souls. Even now we should hope our lack of repentance in the future would be handled in this Biblical way. It is helpful to understand now that the people approaching us are not perfect and they are not eager to rebuke us. We are all on the same team. They painfully come to us out of love seeking the best for our souls. They are prayerfully hoping to not be rejected. The congregation is prayerfully seeking our repentance. The congregation is eager for reconciliation. Christ has given the congregation authority to take this action. We need to take their action seriously.
For the church: Hopefully we see the importance of this process in handling unrepentant sin. This is a tool we have to save lost souls. We all struggle with not wanting to handle sin. “If they have the heart to repent, they will repent on their own.” That may be our stance, but it is certainly not the Lord’s. We cannot force repentance, but the Lord desires that we to provide an opportunity for it. We need to seek out the one who has sinned. We must not be negligent. Most importantly, this is to be done out of love. If we do not love the sinner’s soul, we have no business approaching them. We are trying to save a soul. Harshness and belittlement will only push a struggling Christian further from the Lord. While we need to be firm about an unrepentant brother’s need to repent, we must also be humble and compassionate in our approach.