Dealing with Sin in the Church: Notes from Matthew 18

Sin and forgiveness. We deal with these things daily. Perhaps one of the most painful and difficult times is when we deal with sin and the need for forgiveness within the church. It seems that as followers of Christ we should understand these topics and live accordingly. Christianity is known as a faith marked by deep emphasis on sin and forgiveness. And yet, we seem to struggle with these realities in one another. It seems surprising.

But it isn’t surprising to Jesus. He expected that we would struggle with sin and forgiveness as His followers. He knew that working toward whole, reconciled relationships with one another would be a challenge. Because of His knowledge of these things, Jesus taught His followers about them. In Luke 17, we find powerful words about the necessity of complete forgiveness and our response when we are sinned against. It is in Matthew 18, however, that Jesus teaches on the process for dealing with sin in the church. What follows is a series of notes on the contours of Jesus’ teaching about dealing with sin.

One to One (vs 15)
It is important to note that Jesus calls us to discreetly and privately address the wrong done to us by speaking to the person one to one. Jesus says to ‘point out the fault’ which means we do not avoid talking about it nor do we rub the other’s face in it through guilt messages. We simply point it out. Also, we are not to trumpet the wrong to others or publicly humiliate another for their sin against us. Jewish teachers around Jesus’ time said that to publicly shame someone who had sinned against us would run the risk of exclusion from paradise. We must go to the person directly and neither hold it in – which gives birth to bitterness – nor talk behind that person’s back – which gives birth to division in the church. The goal, as mentioned in Luke 17, is to win the person over, or to restore relationship.

Two or Three to One (vs 16)
If the person does not respond to the individual conversation about the wrong, then we are to take one or two people with us to point it out. The intent here is not to gang up on the wrongdoer but actually to safeguard them from any false accusations. As in 1 Timothy 5:19-20, the extra witnesses come along in order to corroborate the facts; that is, to insure that a wrong actually has been committed. If you have been sinned against, you should not bring others with you in order to intimidate a wrongdoer. Bringing one or two others safeguards the conversation and helps to keep it firmly grounded in truth, without false accusations flying back and forth. The witnesses should be neutral. And in case we had forgotten, the goal is to win the person over, or to restore relationships within the people of God.

To the Church (vs 17a)
If the wrongdoer will not listen even with a couple of others in the room, then the situation has become very serious and must be addressed within the broader, local church community. Still, Jesus is clear that the utmost energy and care should be exerted to deal with this privately at first. It is only after this that Jesus says, “we should tell it to the church.” Why does He say this? Jesus is helping us to see that, if the relational tensions haven’t already become an issue that is noticeable to the whole church, this issue should come to the attention of all so that bitter divisions do not take root in the church. The focus is on pastoral concern for the entire body of Christ. The aim is still that the wrongdoer would listen, and the ultimate goal is still to win the person over, or to restore relationship between the wronged and the wrongdoer. In our day, some might wonder what the appropriate way to bring this to the church would be? Clearly not to start a rumor mill or to stand up in the services to yell out an accusation. Those two responses lack the pastoral concern that pervades Jesus’ teaching. I would propose that the appropriate route is to bring it to the pastoral staff, elders, or other church leadership for guidance and help. These leaders stand, as it were, with responsibility for the entire church and should be the easiest point of access within the church.

Treat Them Like an Outsider (v 17b)
If there is still no repentance, then we are to treat the wrongdoer like an outsider to the faith, “as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” While the goal has always been to restore and reconcile relationship, this is the end of the road. Some scholars debate whether Jesus is referring to a formal excommunication from the church resulting in spiritual death (as in 1 Corinthians 5:5 or 1 Timothy 1:20) or simply the manner in which we treat someone relationally. Regardless of which direction you take this, three things are clear: 1) the wrongdoer is apparently unwilling to listen to anything anyone has to say; 2) there is little option available other than treating them like an outsider; and 3) this is NOT the place we want to arrive at within the family of God called the church. Hope does linger in the background that, as with the Corinthian case, the cold shoulder of treating them like an outsider may help them come back around, but we never can tell. In a sense, we have come to a point where we finally admit that our best efforts to win them over and reconcile have failed, and only God can win them over and change the heart of another person.

All along, the goal has been to point out sin so that wrongs can be made right through forgiveness. The prayer of Jesus before the Cross was that the community of His followers would walk in unity so the world around us would know the love of the Father:

…that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me. (John 17:23)

May that be our aim in our relationships with other believers.

For further resources on dealing with conflict, I strongly recommend Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker, as well as the web-site for Peacemaker Ministries.

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