Matthew 18:15-20: Disciplining and discerning

Back in 1983, a man named Ben Patterson wrote, ‘I fear the church of Jesus Christ means to little to its members for it to discipline them.’

Church discipline is a dirty word in churches today. It makes us think of cults or fundamentalists. If it’s practiced at all, it’s applied to sexual sin or doctrinal error but not greed or gossip. The person doing the disciplining is usually the minister or the elder. Even churches that emphasise the priesthood of all believers don’t include disciplining as one of the roles of all believers.

What attitudes do we see toward discernment?

Individuals’ issues are left entirely up to the individual’s conscience. Church business and spiritual matters are largely decided by the leaders, perhaps with ratification from an annual meeting of the members.

Tonight I’m going to put forward the idea that discipline and discernment are two key parts of the church’s life. When we practice them as Jesus intended, we get closer to being the type of people he wanted us to be. The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century saw these two parts of church life as essential to their vision of Christianity, as important as pacifism.

The main part of my talk focuses on looking at what Jesus had to say about discipline and discernment in Matthew 18:15-20.

A. Matthew 18:15-20

‘If another member of the church sins, go and point out the fault when the
two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that
every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the
member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender
refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and
a tax collector.
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound
in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again,
truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will
be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in
my name, I am there among them.’

Matthew 18:15-20 has two logical parts to it.

In verses 15-17, Jesus tells us the procedure to follow when our brother or sister in the church sins. The first Anabaptists called the procedure in Matthew 18:15-17 the Rule of Christ.
In verses 18-20, Jesus broadens this authority to discipline to include the idea of the authority to decide what’s right and wrong – discernment.

Discipline presupposes that we have already been discerning things together as a church. And then in order for discernment to be carried through and acted on, it requires us to disciple each other. So the two parts may seem disconnected at first, but the connections will become clearer.

What sins need to be confronted?

The NIV, the NRSV and the Good News Bible translate Mt 18:15 ‘When your brother or sister sins against you’. But they all have a textual note which says ‘Some manuscripts do not have against you.’ These are some of the earliest manuscripts. The Jerusalem Bible translates ‘If your brother does something wrong’. The standard Greek text – the 21st edition of Eberhard Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece – does not have the words for ‘against you.’

In Luke 17:3, a parallel text, Jesus says, ‘If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him.’ The rebuke is not limited to personal offences. Neither is it restricted to personal offences in the writings of Paul. In Galatians 6:1 we read, ‘Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.’

It makes a difference. Do you we only have responsibility to talk to our brothers and sisters when we are the victims? Or do we also have a responsibility to help them whenever we see them doing something wrong? I suggest that the earliest manuscripts are probably correct and that ‘against you’ does not belong in Matthew 15:15.

If we have to confront even sins that aren’t against us, what sins does that include?

Anything that causes offence.

Anything that breaks fellowship.

Anything that is taking the brother or sister away from God.

Anything the community has agreed to hold each accountable for.

First step – Challenge one another

The first step, of going directly to your brother or sister, avoids shame and gossip. It goes against our culture. We don’t like to confront things. We don’t like to be honest. We would much rather complain about a person behind their back than face to face. Other people are more likely to agree with us about the person!

An Anabaptist house church pastor named Lois Barrett writes:

You may find that the other person feels you also were at fault. Perhaps mutual
confession is needed. Or perhaps the brother or sister did not realise that he
or she had offended you and is now willing to amend you. If so, the matter can
stop here. (90)

Don’t go while you’re angry; don’t go to vent your rage. But don’t wait too long before you say something. It will only get harder.

The second half of verse 15 tells us the goal of the Rule of Christ – ‘If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.’ The goal is not punishment but restoration. Many of the abuses and misuses of church discipline come about when church discipline is used to punish rather than restore, or when it jumps straight to excommunication in the name of keeping the church ‘clean.’ When our goal is reconciliation, we are going to be more gentle and more humble.
We get a great picture of regaining our brother when we remember the parable Jesus told earlier in the same chapter – the shepherd going all out to get back the sheep who strayed from the flock.

Second step – Take a witness

Sometimes you can’t work it out between you. You can’t agree on whether the person is actually in sin. This might be because the church hasn’t discerned the issue enough – the binding and loosing hasn’t made clear what should be done – we’re going to cover that later. It might be that you need another perspective – and that is why, in the second step, we bring in one or two others – someone with more spiritual wisdom or experience, someone who can listen carefully to both sides.

We have an echo of Deut 19:15 here – ‘A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

Step three – Tell it to the church

If the conflict still can’t be resolved with the help of one or two others, the matter is made public before the church. But what sort of church does Jesus have in mind? I have to say, it’s not the type of church we commonly see.

Stuart Murray writes:

The kind of community envisaged by Jesus in his teaching on mutual admonition is
a church whose members are sufficiently involved in each other’s lives to
notice spiritual and moral problems, and where relationships are strong
enough to risk misunderstanding or offense. (203)

– Not a service where only a couple of
people speak. It is an open meeting where the word of God might come to anyone
and they can speak.

We need to remember the meaning of the Greek word we translate church – it is ekklesia, and its original sense is ‘a gathering’. The normal meaning of the word implied something like a public gathering to do community business. Art Gish writes:

The ekklesia is God’s people gathered to do business, to make decisions in the
light of Jesus Christ. The New Testament takes the common word and gives it a
new content, making Christ the centre of the decision making body. (95)

Step four – Treat the offender as an unbeliever

Paul writes to the church at Corinth to tell them that they must expel the immoral brother who is having sex with his stepmother. He gives us a picture of how the fourth step of the Rule of Christ would work:

When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in
spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan,
so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of
the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:4-5, NIV)

Paul’s concern is the offender’s reconciliation, that he might realise the seriousness of what he has done and repent.

So, even at the fourth stage, the purpose is still to win the brother or sister over. If the offender refuses to listen to even the church, we are to treat him or her as a tax collector or a pagan. The traditional ideas of excommunication don’t stack up to this direction. How did Jesus treat tax collectors and pagans? He ate at the table of tax collectors! He treated them as people in need of good news, in need of conversion.

The church is recognising what has already happened – the offender has broken with the fellowship and is no longer a member.

Step five – Restoration

Jesus doesn’t explicitly mention restoration as a separate step, but he says it’s the goal of the process. Sometimes restoration won’t happen. But it is your hope and prayer that it will.
Restoration should be as public as the discipline process was. It needs to come about as a result of obvious repentance. The church should then forgive the person and welcome them back into the church. Marlin Jeschke writes about the church that used the parable of the prodigal son as their model. When a man who left a congregation returned in genunine penitence five years later, they literally gave him a new sports coat, had a gold ring made for his finger and had a feast of veal with him.

Restoration should be full and final, with the person welcomed back into full church membership.

Binding and loosing

‘Bind’ and ‘loose’ were two words with special meaning for the Jews. They were used to describe the process of trying to work out how the Law applied to a particular situation. If a rabbi decided a law did apply to a particular situation, he was ‘binding’ it. Jews were obligated to apply it. If he decided it did not apply to a particular situation, he was ‘loosing’ this law. Jews were ‘loosed’ from the obligation to apply it.

In his essay, “Binding and Loosing – a paradigm for ethical discernment”, Mark Allan Powell writes:

For example, the question was raised whether one might be guilty o f stealing if
one finds something and keeps it without searching for the rightful owner. When
is such a search required, and how extensive must it be? The Talmud states, “If
a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote, it belongs to the
owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limits of fifty cubits, it
belongs to the person who finds it”

To use Matthew’s terminology, the decision was that the law (“Do not steal”) was bound when the bird was found in proximity to its likely owner; one who keeps the bird under such conditions has transgressed the law and is guilty of sin. But the law is loosed when the bird is found at a distance from any likely owner; the law against stealing does not forbid keeping the bird in that instance.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel, we have examples of Jesus binding and loosing. I’ve taken these examples from Powell’s article.

  • 5:21-23: ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement.’
  • Jesus is binding the law prohibiting murder as applicable to anger and insults as well.
    5:27-28: ‘You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ Jesus is binding the law prohibiting adultery as applicable to lustful thoughts as well.
  • 5:31-32: ‘It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” Jesus binds the prohibition against adultery as applicable to divorce and remarriage, and does so by saying that the Scripture that allows for divorce was a concession granted in recognition of ‘hardnesss of hearts’ and that it never expressed the actual intent of God – quite an incredible thing to say about the Scriptures.
    But Jesus also looses his own prohibition of divorce for those instances involving infidelity, both here and in 19:9.
  • In 5:43-48, Jesus binds the commandment to ‘love your neighbour’ as applicable also to loving your enemies.
  • In 12:1-8, Jesus looses the ban on working on the sabbath to get food when you’re hungry. He says that the way Pharisees bind the law in the same situation ‘condemns the innocent’.
  • In 15:3-9, Jesus binds the command to “Honour your father and mother” as applicable to caring for your parents in old age.

We are given authority by Jesus to carry on this process in the church, to work out what the Scriptures call us to do in particular situation. Some of the questions we decide by binding and loosing will be personal ones; other questions will be practical and moral questions for the church.

When we do this, we are finally using the Bible as it was meant to be used – 2 Tim 3:16: ‘All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ Yoder comments:

One of the most enduring subjects of unfruitful controversy over the centuries
has been whether the words of Scripture, when looked at purely as words,
isolated from the context in which certain people read them at a certain time
and place, have both the clear meaning and the absolute authority of revelation.

To speak of the Bible apart from the people reading it and apart from the
specific questions that those people need to answer is to do violence to the
very purpose for which we have been given the Holy Scriptures… [The] most
complete framework in which to affirm the authority of Scripture is in the
context of its being read and applied by a believing people that uses its
guidance to respond to concrete issues in their witness and obedience. (353)

The complicated ways we define the Bible objectively begin to lose their importance as we try to apply it, as we work out whether it applies to a particular situation or not.

What is the link to the first part of the passage, the Rule of Christ?

1. In verse 17, Jesus uses the word ‘church’, which we just talked about as a gathering for business. If we remember that this is what the word ekklesia meant to the readers, then we can see the link. I can paraphrase verses 17 and 18 like this:
If the offender refuses to listen to them, tell it to the decision-making-gathering, so you can decide he is no longer part of the gathering. Whatever decisions your gathering makes, they reflect God’s will.

2. For Jews, ‘Bind and loose’ also suggested the power of letting someone be a part of the community or not – often in response to whether they obeyed the decisions of the rabbis. In Matthew 16:9, Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom and tells him that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven – a clear reference to the authority to decide who’s in or out of the church.

B. The meaning for the church today

Like the rest of the world, churches don’t usually follow Jesus’ command in Matthew 18. What are the immediate applications? How can we go home from this conference and start to put it into practice?

1. Going directly to our brother or sister when we’re offended. It sounds like a small thing, but it would actually make a huge difference to the life of churches. Too often, instead of telling the person who has offended us, we tell someone else and get this third person on our side. Gossip and bitterness replace honesty and love. In fact, the failure to follow Matthew 18 holds churches back from developing true Christian community.

In going directly to our brother or sister, we prevent conflict from escalating. We develop honesty between each other, and we begin to truly understand each other. For example, I might be getting angrier and angrier that each week a newcomer to our church argues passionately against theological points other people make during discussion. My first impulse is to complain to others in the church who would agree with me that he is argumentative and difficult. But instead, I decide to talk to him about it, just between the two of us. He tells me that he had no idea that was the way he came across; the only way he is used to talking about theology is in a debating style like he was taught when he studied at university. I tell him that our Sunday meetings are more aimed at encouraging each other to follow Jesus than at debating theology for its own sake. He says that in future he will be less argumentative and more focused on encouraging. I come away with a better understanding of why he is the way he is; he understands our church’s expectations better.

2. Bringing big decisions to the church. Too often we’re like the rest of the world, thinking that as Christians we’re morally independent of each other, and need to wrestle with our own conscience to come up with the answers to the questions in our lives. But what we do affects the others in our church, especially as we develop closer community. We have to work out how far we are willing to take this, but at the very least we should be taking big decisions to our church for prayer and discernment. The advice will not be binding, but it is likely to be helpful. Jesus says that it will reflect what God wants. The sort of decisions might include –

  • ‘My lease is running out. Where should I live?’ (When I asked this of my church, they suggested I move closer to the rest of them, rather than closer to work; I did so and it helped build up the life of our church.)
  • ‘I’m thinking of changing jobs.’ (Perhaps your church will ask you what effect the new job will have on your family life, the amount of time you have to serve God, your leisure time. Perhaps someone in the church will know about an even better job opportunity. Too often though, we assume that the job is more important than church. If a job takes us to the other side of the city and we have to leave the church, then that’s okay; we can find another church. We make the decision in private and turn up some week and announce it. It shouldn’t be like that. Church life should be more important in your life. Maybe you should find a job to suit the church where you are called to serve.)

I think the biggest challenge is trying to make room for it in your church context. It requires other members of the body to give time, thought and prayer. So for a start, you have to convince the others in your body that it matters, that you need their input for your decisions. The handout suggests some study materials you could use to introduce people to the themes.
In a house church, the appropriate time for discernment is often in the sharing time of the worship meeting. But it’s hard even in a house church to make sure it gets the priority it should. It sometimes means throwing out your plans for a particular meeting and giving someone the time they need for discernment. It’s a challenge I would make to my own house church, Perth Anabaptist Fellowship, that we have to be more ready to move with the Spirit and spend time on a particular person’s problem or on binding and loosing an issue that comes up.

It’s even harder in a conventional church. Let’s be realistic and admit that a typical Sunday worship service is set up all wrong for it. If you’re going to stay in a conventional church, then the midweek small group is one place for discernment. But you might have to change the structure and assumptions of the small group. Are you there just to study the Bible in a smaller group, or is the group going to take on the full body life? Are you going to make time to get involved in each other’s lives and discern important issues?

Another options – you might call together a group of people from your church after a Sunday meeting and ask them to talk and pray with you about something.

3. Discerning Christian ethics as a church. We have to work out together as a church in what ways Jesus’ life and words and the example of the early church are ‘binding’ on a particular situation. We work out what following Jesus means so that we can then help each other when we sin by not living up it.

The sort of issues you will want to discuss together and come to consensus in the Holy Spirit will include things like the following questions (there is overlap with the previous point; often moral issues arise in the context of decisions) –

  • What should our attitude to money be? (‘I’d like to buy a house so I can stop renting, but the prospect is taking over my life!’)
  • I’m divorced and I want to remarry; are Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 binding?

4. The discipline of confession

Confession is a practice which pre-empts the Rule of Christ. Rather than waiting to find your brother or sister in sin, you seek each other out and confess whatever is on your mind. One benefit of this is that it encourages a relationship of honesty. If your brother ever does need to confront you, you will be more open to it, because you’re constantly talking about sin and forgiveness.

Find a discipleship partner. If you are committed to meeting every week or two to confess sins to each other, it’s much easier. You don’t have to seek someone out each time you find yourself committing a ‘big’ sin.

C. Relationship to other church practices

1. Baptism into a new humanity: brings the believer into the world where binding and loosing happens. Reconciling to each other through the Rule of Christ can be thought of as the glue which holds together the different people. Also, part of the baptismal commitment should be declaring that you are open to correction and committed to restoring your brother or sister who is caught in sin.

2. The fullness of Christ, which John Olley will be talking about on Saturday, is about the way every believer is gifted, every member of the body has a part to play. Like the fullness of Christ, binding and loosing recognises that every believer is a priest. Restoring the priesthood of all believers means practising the fullness of Christ and binding and loosing.

3. Happens before the Lord’s Supper. On Sunday Ian Packer will be talking about how the Lord’s Supper was an actual shared meal with economic and social meaning. The practice of the Anabaptists in the 16th century was to not eat together until they were right with each other, based on Jesus’ injunction in Matthew 5:23-24 to be reconciled to your brother or sister before offering anything at an altar.

4. The Rule of Paul – we don’t have a session on the Rule of Paul, but it overlaps a lot with the fullness of Christ and with binding and loosing. Yoder takes the title “The Rule of Paul” from 1 Cor 14. Paul tells the Corinthians that if anyone in the congregation gets a word from God, everyone else is to be quiet and listen.

So the Rule of Paul is an open meeting where the church recognises that God could speak through any of the people in the gathering. It is the basis on which you can have a meeting for discerning and discipline.

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3 thoughts on “Matthew 18:15-20: Disciplining and discerning

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