Mark My Words – Getting Church Discipline Right

The Bible is sufficient in guiding us through many different types of situations that may occur both in our personal lives as well as in the life of the church. In this January edition of Mark My Words, I would like to walk through the process given to us by our Lord for dealing with and resolving offenses when they occur within the church. This Biblical process of church discipline can be found in Matthew 18:15-20.

First let’s look at the context. Matthew 18:15-20 is sandwiched in between the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the unforgiving servant. We gather from this placement that anytime the church gets involved in church discipline, it should do so in a spirit of humility, love, mercy, and forgiveness with the ultimate goals being the restoration of those who have sinned and the reconciliation of relationships that have been negatively impacted. We as a church must be motivated by an overwhelming sense of care and concern for all parties that are involved in a conflict if we are going to be able to help in a redemptive way, following the model set forth for us by Christ Himself. Now that the background has been set, I will walk through the Biblical, 3 step process for resolving offenses in a productive, Christ-like fashion.

Step 1 (Matthew 18:15): “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

It is always best to handle offenses at the lowest level possible. This step in the process is one on one, between the offended and the offender. If things get resolved at this level, there is no need to proceed to Steps 2 or 3.  How might things get resolved at this level? The offender may offer a simple yet sincere apology for what was done. This apology provides the offended an open door to be able to extend forgiveness. The offended may get more background on why the offender acted as they did in the given situation.  This does not in any way excuse an offense, but instead helps the offended to gain a deeper understanding of the heart and motives of the offender. Sometimes they may find out that the offense was unintentional and that the offender may not even realize what they did. Through this Biblical process, it may be that both offender and offended see that there was some level of misunderstanding that occurred when the offense took place. If Step 1 works well, then relationships can be put back together stronger than they were before and both parties to the conflict can learn and grow in Christian maturity.

Step 2 (Matthew 18:16): “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses”

When things cannot be satisfactorily resolved one on one, between the offender and offended, then we move to Step 2, which involves witnesses. The offended can be one of the witnesses. To their testimony, we must add one or two additional witnesses to the actual offense. Witnesses are important in that they add credibility, validity, and weight to the offended person’s claim. They are also important because they protect the alleged offender from false or malicious charges being made against him or her by the offended. The key word here is “established”. Apart from witnesses, it is simply not possible to establish a charge as being credible. Why is this the case? When there is an offense between two parties, and there are no credible witnesses, it can be virtually impossible to tell who is telling the truth and who is not. What factors would tend to undermine the credibility of a witness? I would say if the witness has exhibited a pattern over time of not telling the truth, or if they have some pre-existing “bone to pick” with the offender, then they are probably not going to be a credible witness. This law of witnesses is well established in Scripture. (see also Deuteronomy 19:15 and 1 Timothy 5:19). Therefore, the church should be exceedingly careful when wading into the muddy waters of disputes between two parties in the absence of credible witnesses. The churches reputation could be tarnished from making decisions based on inadequate, unreliable, or biased information.

Step 3 (Matthew 18:17): “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”.

Step 3 should only be entered into as a matter of last resort, and only if Steps 1 and 2 have been attempted with no success in bringing resolution to the offense. Step 3 should never be pursued in the absence of the two to three credible witnesses as noted in Step 2. Provided that the charge against the offender has been established by two or three credible witnesses, the church body then calls the offender to repentance. If this call is not heeded by the offender, then the church can remove the offender from the fellowship of the church until which time true repentance is exhibited. Please keep in mind that even if someone has been removed from the fellowship of the church, they should still be objects of the church’s love, prayers, and outreach. Remember, the Gentiles and the tax collectors need Jesus. So also does an unrepentant brother or sister who refuses to address an offense and heed the admonition of the church.

In Conclusion (Matthew 18:18-20): “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Christ is honored when church discipline is conducted in a Biblical and honorable way. Relationships can be restored. Sin is dealt with properly. God has promised that His stamp of approval is upon this type of Biblical process that has as it’s ultimate goal the restoration of sinners and the reconciliation of God’s people one to another. In pursuing church discipline properly, the honor and integrity of the church is also upheld.

Happy New Year!