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TEXT: Matthew 18:15-20
SUBJECT: Church Discipline #3: The Member's Duty
The last two Sunday afternoons have been spent looking at the vital but neglected duty of Church Discipline. The term itself has suffered a lot of abuse over the years, and some of it has been deserved. Church Discipline may be hasty, unjust, self-righteous and mean, and when it is, it is also blasphemy. Things done in the Name of Christ have to be done His way-and He does things with patience, fairness, humility, and kindness. We ought to go and do likewise.
What is Church Discipline? It is the art of making disciples. Are we in it alone? No we're not-thank God we're not! But the Church has a role to play in helping its members follow the Lord.
Most of that work is positive: we preach the Gospel, keep an eye on each other, set good examples, and pray. Though it usually goes by other names, this is Church Discipline, and by far the bigger part of it.
If most of the work is positive, some of it is not. Good parents teach their children to do right, but they don't leave it there: they also correct them when they go wrong. The same is true with the Church. Because we're all sinners, we all need a word of correction now and then; and because, at times, we are stubborn sinners, we need more than a word. If you see your toddler playing with an electrical outlet, the first thing you do is say, 'Son, get away from that'. If he does, you're done. But what if he doesn't? What if he keeps on trying to push a butter knife into the slot? What do you do then? Why do you do it? And, Do you really care if the little boy agrees with you or not?
This brings us to the passage for today's sermon-Matthew 18:15-20. Before we get to the verses, however, let's have a look see at what's around them, and what they have to do with Church Discipline.
As I read the chapter, four issues are addressed before or after vv.15-18.
The first is status in God's Kingdom, vv.1-5. The disciples were very worried about where they fit in the plans of our Lord for bringing God's Rule into the world. In other places, they jockeyed for position and even got their mom to put in a good word for them. I wish this were true of Judas only, but, in fact, they all felt this way, including James and John who were among the leaders.
Tired of their haggling for position, our Lord tells them who's number one, v.4-
Whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus wants His people to be humble. If the King is this way, how can His servants be otherwise? The first issue in the chapter, therefore, is humility.
The second is sensitivity to your sins and the harm they do others, vv.6-9--
Woe to the world because of offenses.if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
This teaching is in sharp contrast to how the Pharisee lived his life. He was very worried about sin-as long as it wasn't his own-and the harm it did-especially to him. What he wasn't so concerned about were his own sins and the damage they did to others-to people like publicans and harlots, who needed the love of God, but couldn't get it because the Pharisee kept it all for himself and his self-righteous cronies.
Our Lord wants us to be very different from the Pharisee; He wants us to hate our sins and the hurt they inflict on other people. This will lead us to be more careful and conscientious about how we live; it will make us quicker to apologize, and, when doable, more willing to make restitution. The second issue, therefore, is sensitivity to our own sin.
The third issue is a concern for those who have strayed from the flock of God, vv.10-14. If a shepherd owns a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what does he do? Give thanks for the 99 who are safe in the pen? Send the hounds to tear the lost sheep to pieces? Or, does he pen up the 99 and go out looking for the one lost sheep till he finds it?
Our Lord is like this shepherd. We ought to have the same concern as He does. Concern for the ones who have gone astray, that's the third issue.
The fourth issue is forgiveness, vv.21-35. If there is any part of the Bible I would like take out, this is it. In the form of a parable, our Lord says if we don't forgive the people who have wronged us, He will not forgive us. And, since our debt to Him is infinitely more than our worst enemy's debt to us, we're going to regret our choices forever.
Forgiveness is what our Lord is calling for here, and not a reluctant pardon doled out by the teaspoon, but an eager and generous one-like the one God gives us.
When it comes to Church Discipline, what are the usual objections? Here they are: (1) it is proud, (2) it is malicious, (3) it is unsympathetic, and (4) it is unforgiving. These are the very things addressed in the chapter on Church Discipline!
This means: A church can implement it in a proud, mean, uncaring, and harsh way, but Church Discipline itself is none of the above! For the Lord who tells us to be humble, and sensitive, sympathetic, and forgiving also tells us to apply Church Discipline when needed.
A few minutes ago I told you my text is Matthew 18:15-20. Let's go back and read it slowly, asking the Lord to open it up to us as only He can.
Moreover, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear you, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established'. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
Assuredly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.
Our Lord makes two assumptions. Firstly, there is a community of disciples, a brotherhood of believers, whom He calls the church. How Peter and the others took this before The Day of Pentecost, is unclear to me, but that's fine because it doesn't matter how they took it at the time. For the Gospel of Matthew was written after Pentecost, and the people who first read the words knew very well what our Lord meant. He meant the local church.
The second thing He assumes is that brothers in the church sin against each other. No need to prove this one! I've sinned against you; you've sinned against me; There is none righteous, no not one-not even in the church!
SIN AND SIN
How does our Lord want us to handle known sin in the church? Before I get to that, I need to say something about sin: All sins are not created equal! If they were, there would not be enough hours in the day to correct each other.
In reading the Gospels, one of the most striking things you find is how seldom our Lord corrected the disciples. He did correct them, of course, and some of the corrections must have stung like a bumblebee. But there are pages and pages between His rebukes-even though the men were still far from what they should have been. What does this mean? It means a great many sins have to go uncorrected. This is just what the Bible teaches-Proverbs 19:11, I Peter 4:8-
The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger,
And it is to his glory to overlook a transgression.
And above all things, have fervent love for one another,
For love will cover the multitude of sins.
Church Discipline is not fault-finding; it's not nickpicking.
Let me illustrate. Tom and Jerry are members of the church and both in high stress jobs. To unwind at night, Tom sits down after dinner every night and gulps down a gallon of ice cream. Jerry has a similar routine, but instead of a gallon of cookies and cream, he downs a gallon of Jack Daniels. Both men are guilty of excess; both men are fretting their families; both men are shortening their lives even-but honestly, are the two things equal? Is it really as bad to eat a gallon of ice cream a night as it is to drink a gallon of whiskey?
They are not the same thing, and we all know they're not, even if we cannot quite explain why. This is not prejudice; people in Ireland and Russia and other places famous for heavy drinking know it as well as we do.
The sins our Lord has in mind here are serious sins. I cannot provide a list; but we all pretty much know what they are. They're the sins featured most prominently in the Bible; the sins that are most incompatible with being a disciple of Christ and inheriting the kingdom of heaven.
THE FIRST DUTY
What do you do when you see a brother guilty of a serious sin? You call him on it, v.15-
Moreover, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
[There is a question of whether the words, against you, belong in the text or not. If they do, the verse refers to personal offenses; if they don't it is more general. In light of the whole teaching of the New Testament, it makes little or no difference].
This first correction has got to be private; our Lord doesn't say 'tell the pastor' what he did, but you tell him. Why? Because reputation matters, and if you go broadcasting a man's faults without having to, you're going to hurt his reputation. Besides, doing that is gossiping.
What is your goal in confronting your brother? It is not to vent you spleen; in fact, it's not about you at all; it about him and his repentance-
If he hears you, you have gained your brother.
This is Church Discipline, and oddly enough, when the correction is made in private and responded to in the right way, the church is none the wiser for it. The matter is over and done with. No matter how serious is was. Church Discipline is not about punishment; it's about repentance.
THE SECOND DUTY
What if the sinner doesn't repent? What if he justifies his sin? It is right for me to beat my wife and you've got no right to tell me it isn't! What if he excuses it? It may be wrong, but if you were married to her, you'd do the same. What if he admits his fault but has no plans to change? I know wife-beating is wrong and I'm going to keep doing it. What if he covers it with theology? I know it's wrong but God will forgive me and I'm going to do it anyway.
Now, what do you do? Our Lord tells us, v.16-
But if he will not hear you, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established'.
If the matter is trifling, wisdom says to let it go. But if it's serious, you don't let it go. Good sense might tell you to give him some time to cool off, but your work is not done. You call the man on his sins in the presence of one or two others.
Why one or two? There are three reasons for the number: (1) You still want to protect the man's reputation, and the more people who know about his sin, the more likely they are to gossip-and the Lord doesn't want that; (2) the others can help you talk sense into the man; maybe he needs to hear it from somebody else, somebody with more credibility than you have; (3) in particular, you bring them with you to establish what's going on.
If I say, 'I saw John Smith checking into a hotel with Mary Jones'-and John says he didn't, you have right to think he did. That's not saying I'm lying about it, but that my words are not corroborated.
If the man who yelled at you a week ago, now agrees that what he's doing is wrong and means to change his evil ways, the matter is over and done with. Nobody is trying to embarrass anyone; we're trying to bring him to repentance. If we do, Church Discipline has met its goal-with only a few people knowing about it.
What if the man still doesn't give in? By this time, he is likely to have clouded the issue; he's saying You're all against me; you're all hypocrites; why are you judging me?
Never mind that. The third step, v.17, is to-
Tell it to the church.
Why do we do that? It's not to make the man look bad; it's not about humiliating him; it's about bringing him to repentance.
What does the church do? It tells him to repent. There's more to it than this, of course. In telling him to repent, the people are also offering to help him along, to pray for him, to encourage him, and to be patient with his baby steps toward obedience. We're not telling the wife-beating husband to become the perfect husband; we're telling him to quit beating his wife and to work through his anger issues with his brothers or with professionals or both.
When the man confesses his sin and takes the offered help, the matter is over and done with. He's not put on probation; his membership is not suspended. He's now what the rest of us are-a sinner who has confessed his sins and is trying to live a godly life.
What if, after all this, the man is as obstinate as ever? The church has no choice, v.17b-
Let him be to you like a heathen or a tax collector.
What does this mean? It doesn't mean to consign his soul to eternal damnation-only God has the power to do that. It doesn't mean to hate him or shun him or persecute him.
It means to assume he's an unsaved man.
Is he? It's too soon to tell. If he becomes more and more hardened in his sins, we have no choice but to think so. But only the Lord knows for sure. As my friend says, We're not judges; we're fruit inspectors.
BOUND IN HEAVEN AND EARTH
The Church is not infallible and we mustn't pretend we are. But if the sinner is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and if the sin is serious, and if the church has called him on his sins repeatedly with wisdom and patience, and he still refuses to hear the call to repentance, v.18-
Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,
And whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
In other words-and allowing for mistakes on our part-the church's judgment will be the same as God's.
I can think of no verse more solemn that this one. Our Lord calls us to pass God's judgment in the world; it is not His final judgment, but it is His judgment. The work was first given to the judges of Israel (of whom you can read in Deuteronomy 1), and now, to the church. What was said to them is said to us-only more so-
The judgment is the Lord's.
That's why it has to be fair and wise and, why it has to be.
If this strikes fear into our hearts-good, it ought to. And, also, to the ones who are being called to repentance, and turn a deaf ear to the call.
If this were the end of the passage, it would be a most discouraging one. But it isn't the end. The last two verses tell us to pray for the one who has fallen into grave sin, and to pray for him with hope-
Again, I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there, in the midst of them.
Both verses have been wrenched out of context and used to teach what they don't. The Lord doesn't promise to give us all Maseratis if we agree to pray for them two-by-two. The topic is Church Discipline, and what we're praying for is the repentance of our dear friends in Christ. God wants to hear that prayer-and to answer it.
Is that it? Is Church Discipline nothing more than a formula-'four steps for restoring a sinning brother'? No it isn't. Church Discipline only works because it is the Gospel. Gospel? Is this in our passage? Sure it is, and we can get to it without doing violence to its plain meaning.
How? By putting it in context. The Bible is divided into three parts: creation, ruination, and restoration. God made all things good and the best thing He made was man. When man ate the forbidden fruit, however, he ruined himself and everything else. From that day on, God has been working to restore His creation, and make it better than ever.
Had He wanted to, He could have 'zapped' everything right, that is done it all in an instant and without using any means. But He didn't want to do it this way.
His work unfolded over many years and most of it was done by means such as: the birth of Abel and Seth to carry the godly line; the flood to save the godly from the wicked all around them; the call of Abraham to father God's family in the world; the Exodus that made Israel a nation; the Law that organized it's life around God; the Judges who saved Israel from their enemies; the kings who brought the Rule of God to earth; the prophets who called the people back to their Savior, and then, of course, the Savior Himself, Jesus Christ.
His death and Resurrection were the climax of God's saving work-but not the end of it. He is still doing it, but now with Christ in heaven. Church Discipline is part of His Heavenly Ministry, and one of the means He employs to bring many sons to glory.
Church Discipline, therefore, is not about putting people out, but rather, of bringing people back.back to the fellowship of the saints, back to Christ, and back to God.
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