Now that we have dealt with the issues of ignoring and abusing discipline, it is time to discuss the spirit and process of discipline as laid out by our Lord. Most discussions regarding discipline start at Matt.18:15 and end at Matt. 18:18. While that pericope focuses on the actual steps or process of discipline, I believe it leaves out some of the most important elements of the practice. Namely, it does not address the spirit in which we are to exercise discipline nor does it express the manner in which forgiveness is to be extended in cases of the repentant believer. In order to provide a much better context and framework for how discipline should be conducted, and what our attitude should be leading up to, during and after discipline, I believe it is necessary to look at the 18th chapter of Matthew in its entirety.
This is the fourth of five discourses recorded by Matthew. This one focuses on the childlike humility that should define every believer. This section begins with the disciples asking Jesus who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ answer is sobering. He says that unless we are converted and become like little children, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus spends considerable time talking about little children and offenses. Woe to the one who causes any one of these little ones to stumble! Jesus then talks about the desperation of a shepherd who has lost one of this sheep and how that shepherd leaves his other 99 sheep and goes after the one that is lost. It is significant that Jesus opens the parable of the lost sheep with the question, “what do you think?” He closes the discussion around little children with the instructions: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” This is an ominous warning to each and every one of us. How we treat one another as fellow-believers is high on Christ’s priorities. Whoever causes a person who believes in Christ to stumble, it would be better that a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. This is the value Christ places on his “little ones” who believe in Him.
As He concludes his frank discussion around the treatment of his little ones and the humility that should be present in these little ones, Jesus moves to a parable. So in the context of humility and placing the proper value on one another Christ inserts the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus continues to teach how valuable His little ones are to Him. They are like a defenseless, helpless sheep that wanders away. And when they do, the shepherd values the sheep so much that he leaves the other 99 and goes in pursuit of that one sheep. If the shepherd finds that one lost sheep, his joy is greater over the one lost sheep than over the 99 that did not stray. The shepherd loves and values his sheep. It is in this context of humility that Jesus provides for the steps of church discipline or what I like to call the paradigm for individual and corporate sanctification. It is no accidence that Jesus would emphasize humility and value before He provides the necessary steps for biblical correction. The question you should ask is “why does Jesus spend so much time talking about humility and the value of His little ones before instructing us on the steps of biblical correction?”
As we approach Matthew 18:15-18, we do so understanding two very fundamental truths just gleaned from Jesus’ own teaching. First, we recognize we are all little ones who believe in Christ. As such, we are to demonstrate love toward one another by placing high value on one another. Second, we understand that the shepherd of the sheep places high value on us and that we are to avoid at all cost, engaging in any behavior that would cause one of our fellow believers to stumble in any way. My behavior has to be such that it seeks to help my brother avoid offense. There is a variety of way s that correction may be carried out. But there is only one right way. And it is in the attempt to correct one another that the potential for offense is most likely at its highest. If you will recall some of the abuses around church discipline mentioned earlier, you understand what I am getting at. Some people correct in a way that is judgmental, hypocritical, unloving, hurtful, and without even a hint of desire to actually help someone overcome sin. The sad truth is that there is no humility, no love, and no true value placed on the person needing help. If anything, they are devalued because they are caught up in some fault. And now the temptation of the other believer is to view them as less valuable. The shepherd goes after that lost sheep in a spirit of desperation to find it. That sheep represents someone who has sinned. The parable does not indicate that this lost sheep is any less valuable to the shepherd than any of the other sheep. This kind of thinking reflects sinful arrogance and pride. It places one back in the category at the beginning of this chapter where the disciples were concerned with who would be the greatest in the kingdom. There is no greatest in the kingdom.
Humility and value are the two core principles that must guide the process of biblical correction. These are borne out of a love for God and a love for one another. It is utterly absurd to think that we are better than those whom we correct. To think that we are “different” in some way is probably a worse sin than the one we are correcting in the straying individual. It reflects such a fundamental flaw in a person’s theology that is very disturbing. And if that thinking exists in leadership, we are in deep trouble. I actually heard someone say that their sin is different from someone else’s sin and that they are a sinner but not like this other person. That statement was made by a pastor. I was speechless. It dawned on me at that time this pastor either had some real personal problems with this person or that his theology was in dire need to correction itself. It is because we are all sinners facing a holy God that humility and value must be the guiding principles for biblical correction. If they are not, abuse or abandonment will inevitably result.
After establishing the parameters for the two critical components necessary to carry out biblical correction, Jesus then provides us with very specific steps for executing on the correction of a sinning brother or sister. Now, it should be said at the beginning that this process applies to every single believer. This means the person who simply is in the fellowship of believers, to the Sunday school teacher, to the musician, to the deacon, to the elder, to the sr. pastor. No one has the right to circumvent this process for any reason other than those very few exceptions mentioned later in Scripture. Step one is go and show. This is to be done in private. If privacy were not a big deal, Jesus would not have mentioned it. But Jesus did mention it. Therefore, it behooves us to give privacy its due attention and proper place when carrying out correction. Secondly, in this first step, Jesus said that we are to go and show our brother his sin. It may be necessary to demonstrate from Scripture how our brother has erred. It is suggested that you have your case ready before going to your brother in the first place. You are to be absolutely certain that the person actually did what you think they did. You should be witness to the sin in question. If this is hearsay or an accusation coming from someplace else, that person should be the one coming to this brother, not you. If for some reason you do have to chat with someone regarding some rumor, you do so delicately with the presumption of innocence. If the person denies that allegation, you are obligated to accept their word at face value. Love believes all things. But if you have witnessed your brother sin, you must show him his sin. The Greek word for show is elegcho and it means to bring to light, expose, to examine or scrutinize something carefully. It cannot be overemphasized that any accusation against your brother must be factual. So make sure the behavior is actual behavior, not interpreted behavior. For instance, you may have witnessed someone having lunch with another person even though they are married. Do not jump to the conclusion that this person is engaged in inappropriate behavior simply because you saw them having lunch with someone. Such a conclusion reflects your sinful interpretation of their behavior and not their actual behavior. Do not accuse someone of sin because you think they had an ungodly motive. You cannot prove motive because you cannot see their heart. Judge the behavior itself, not what you think their motive might have been. In judging someone’s motive, you may end up in sin yourself. In fact, such behavior is highly likely to lead to sin. To false accuse someone of sin when they have not sinned is slander and is itself malicious sin on your part. This is why Christ spent a great deal of time on humility and value. He wanted to keep us from hurting others, but he also wanted to keep us from hurting ourselves. Step one then is to go and show the Christian brother or sister their sin. If they listen to you, you have won them. Rejoice like the good shepherd rejoiced! Do not mention this incident to anyone, not even your spouse. No one needs to know about this. We have all kinds of reasons for why we want to tell other people’s sins and failures to others. But none of them are good. Love your brother by keeping it private. Love your Lord by obeying His word in this regard. You are bound by your Lord and Master not to mention this to anyone.
Step two is required when the sinning person refuses to hear you. Jesus said to take one or two witnesses with you. Now there is disagreement over these witnesses. Some contend that they are not actually witnesses to the sin, but simply two other believers who can help you confront the sin of this person. However, Jesus applied Deut. 19:15 to this situation when he said, “so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.” This principle is not insignificant. Deut. 19:15 says, “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” Jay Adams (whom I love and respect immensely) contends that these need not be witnesses to the sin otherwise the issue of privacy is moot. I respectfully disagree. In many, many cases, more than one person knows about the sin. That does not negate the privacy principle at all. One person is still to go to that person in private. And if he refuses to hear, then you can take one or two witnesses with you and confront the sinning person. It would seem to me that Jesus intends these witnesses to be people who are privy to the sin by quoting Deut. 19:15. Otherwise, this quote seems to make little sense. John MacArthur also agrees that these are people who witnessed the transgression. If your brother listens, there is no need to go further. You have won your brother. Again, rejoice and tell it to no one.
Step three is a much more difficult step. You have gone to your brother and he has not listened to you. You have taken one or two witnesses and he has not listened to them either. Now it is time to tell this to the church publicly. This is perhaps the most difficult part of biblical correction. And it is not made easier if you happen to live in a culture that is radically individualistic in its thinking. This individualism seeps into the church and people feel that they have the right to carry on their lives as individuals and that their relationship is between them and God and it is the business of no one else. This is why it is essential to create a culture of correction in your church prior to engaging in this practice. There is no formal ecclesiastical process laid out by Christ. An individual Christian has gone to another in sin. The person has refused to listen. Two or three others have approached the sinning person and still, the person has refused to heed the warnings. These witnesses now have an obligation to stand up in front of the church and disclose this to the church. It would be wise to inform the obstinate person that this is the next step and when that next step will take place. Of course, the leadership should be consulted so that they understand what is taking place and that time can be devoted to this task. In step three the entire church is informed that one of their members is in sin and has refused to repent of their sin. They are then instructed to go to that person and plead with them to repent. It would be wise to document who went to this person and when over the course of the next few weeks so that leadership can observe obedience to Christ’s command and also understand the nature of the sinning person’s contumacy.
Step four is the final step. I call this the stag of lamentation. The sinning person has refused to listen to the individual, the witnesses, and even the entire church to include visits from deacons, elders, and pastors. The church has humbly demonstrated extreme care and value for the sinning person. And yet the individual has remained contumacious in their actions and attitude. They simply won’t repent. In effect, they seem to have gone out from the Christian community, at least metaphorically. The church excommunicates the individual and treats them as a tax collector and a Gentile. In other words, they are to be treated as an unbeliever or object of evangelism. This does not mean that you cut them off and stop loving them. On the contrary, you continue to love them and befriend them and do all you can to bring them to repentance. You simply do not allow them to think that you actually think of them as a believer now. They have to understand that you now view them as someone who has rejected Christ’s word and as a result, they have rejected God. You treat them like you would any other unbeliever that you hope to win to Christ. But make no mistake about it, the entire church must undertake this attitude toward this person. If there are elements in the church where this person may be drawing moral and emotional support that serves to undermine the process and undercut the words of our Lord, this is a serious matter and must be addressed. Such elements must be dealt with seriously. In fact, individuals who refuse to honor the church in this regard are themselves subject to discipline and should be addressed in the same manner as the sinning person. Such behavior would fall into the category of factious behavior. The unity of the church must be persevered above friendships and whatever else might threaten to tear it apart.