From the Archives – Church Discipline: The Correction of a Believer or the Excommunication of an Unbeliever? (Part 1)


Harmonizing Matthew 18:15–17, 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15

From Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (DBSJ), Volume 20: 2015. Used with permission.


Within the larger discussion on church discipline, two questions that go to the heart of the issue continue to resist consensus. The first question concerns the spiritual status of those being disciplined. Are they to be viewed by the church as true believers caught up in some transgression and, thus, to be corrected and restored? Or, are they to be viewed as those who have made a profession of faith but who are, in fact, not saved and who need to be confronted and removed? Or, does the New Testament allow for either of these two options, depending on the nature of the disobedience?

The second question, related to the first, addresses the type of discipline meted out to the disobedient. Does church discipline invariably involve excommunication, that is, the removal of the disobedient from the membership of the local church with a loss of all rights and privileges? In other words, does the New Testament teach that excommunication is the only option when exercising church discipline of the unrepentant? Or, does the New Testament allow for a level of church discipline that stops short of that? And, if that be the case, what does this level look like?

The initial step in answering these questions is to provide a fresh reading of the New Testament texts that directly deal with church discipline. Specifically in view are Matthew 18:15–17, 1 Corinthians 5:1– 13, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15. These texts are selected because they provide a description of those who are to be disciplined and they reveal something of the nature and rationale for the discipline the church is to follow.1

After this, the information provided by a fresh reading of the key texts is applied to the above questions to arrive at a biblical paradigm for church discipline. In particular, the information from the key texts is used to determine: (1) the spiritual status of the disobedient, (2) the nature and purpose of church discipline, and (3) the number of steps involved.2

Key Texts

Matthew 18:15–17

15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 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.3

Literary Context

Matthew structures the body of his gospel around six of the Lord’s discourses, with a record of the Lord’s birth and an account of his death and resurrection serving respectively as the introduction and the apex/ conclusion to the gospel.4 Each of the six discourses is prefaced by a narrative sequence that sets the stage for the discourse that follows. The above passage is part of Matthew’s fourth discourse, 13:53–18:35, where the Lord instructs his followers on the nature and responsibilities of discipleship within the community. The narrative sequence preceding the fourth discourse extends from 13:53 to 17:27, with the discourse taking up all of chapter 18.5

The passage on church discipline, 18:15–17, follows the Lord’s warning about the consequences of causing one of his “little ones” or followers to sin (18:5–9) and the parable of the lost sheep (18:10–14). It precedes the Lord’s teaching on forgiveness (18:21–22) and the parable of the unmerciful servant (18:23–35). Starting at the beginning of the chapter, the sequence in the discourse appears straightforward.6 Prompted by the disciples’ question about greatness in the coming kingdom, the Lord begins by stressing the need for childlike humility and trust as the characteristics of a true disciple and as the gateway to greatness (18:1–4).

He then warns all of the seriousness of sin and, in particular, of any sin that would cause one of his “little ones” or followers to stumble and fall away (18:5–10).7 Next, the parable of the lost sheep reinforces how valuable each of the Lord’s followers is (18:12–14). His disciples must do nothing that would harm another follower and must do everything to see that none of these “little ones” is lost. Hand in hand with seeing that none of his “little ones” is lost is the responsibility his disciples have in helping to restore those who have fallen into sin (18:15a).

It is unclear whether the Lord has in mind any sin committed by a disciple or, specifically, a sin against a fellow disciple. A number of manuscripts include the phrase “against you” in 18:15, identifying the sin as against a fellow disciple. Some older manuscripts, however, omit the phrase, making the sin open-ended.8 Assuming for the moment that the sin in view is against a fellow disciple, the Lord’s directives are sufficiently generic that they can apply to any sin committed by one of his followers.9

After stating the responsibility a disciple has in seeking to restore a fellow disciple caught up in sin, the Lord spells out the procedure to be followed (18:15b–17) and highlights the authority of the congregation in disciplining its members (18:18–20).10 The Lord then concludes the discourse with the parable of the unmerciful servant (18:21–35). The parable emphasizes the importance of showing mercy in helping the errant and in forgiving those who repent. In all of these responsibilities, humility is essential and the pathway to greatness is made clear.11

Focusing on 18:15–17, part of the directives the Lord gives on restoring an errant disciple includes action taken by the congregation or “church.” In that this is one of only two passages in the Gospels where of the word “church” is used, there is a question over its meaning. Within its semantic range, the expression can refer generally to any gathering or assembly of the Lord’s disciples. Or it can refer more specifically to an assembly of his disciples as part of the new metaphorical or mystical body of Christ that began on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.12 The only other use of “church” in the Gospels is found in Matthew 16:18, where Matthew cites the Lord’s promise, “I will build my church.”13

Outside of the two passages in Matthew, the word “church” is regularly found in Acts and the epistles, where it most often refers either collectively to the aggregate number of disciples representing this new universal community or body of Christ or, more frequently, to local congregations as visible expressions of Christ’s universal body.14 Based on the future tense of the Lord’s promise in Matthew 16:18 and on the meaning of “church” throughout Acts and the epistles, the expression “church” in 16:18 is best understood to refer collectively to those disciples forming this new community, with the emphasis on its universal aspect.15

In that Matthew 18:17 is the only other use of the word “church” in the Gospels, and since it follows the initial use in Matthew 16:18, the word is taken in a similar sense. In this case, the context in 18:17 has in view a group of the Lord’s disciples gathered together to hear and respond to charges against one of its members. As such, the expression in 18:17 refers to any congregation of the Lord’s disciples functioning as a local assembly of the body of Christ.16

The procedure his disciples are to follow in addressing a “brother” or fellow disciple caught up in sin involves several steps. The first step is for a disciple who observes the sin to go alone to the one sinning and reprove or “show” him his sin.17 Reproof, in this context, means the disciple is to confront the one sinning about his sin and seek to bring the errant to conviction and repentance.18 If that fails, the second step directs the individual to enlist two or three witness to assist him in restoring the sinning disciple.19

If this step fails, the third step directs the individual to bring the matter before the church. Finally, if the one sinning does not listen to the church, the church is to regard the errant as a Gentile and a tax collector. Implicit in each of these steps is the understanding that, were the errant to repent, he or she is to be forgiven and restored and the process terminated.20

The Spiritual Status of the Disobedient

In 18:15 Jesus uses the term brother to describe the one sinning. The expression can be found in the Gospels in a literal sense of one who shares a common parentage (Matt 4:18) or ancestry (Matt 5:22). It can also be found in a metaphorical sense of one who shares a common set of beliefs as a member of the Christian community, hence, a follower of Jesus who is part of God’s household or family (Matt 12:50).21 In the context of Matthew 18:15, the expression “brother” describes one who is a member of a local church or congregation.22 His spiritual status as a “brother” or fellow believer is assumed by virtue of his membership in the church.

The tension with the designation “brother” to describe the one sinning surfaces at the end of the final step in 18:17. Jesus states that, if the individual fails to heed the church, the church is to treat him as a “Gentile and a tax collector.” Like the term “brother,” the expression “Gentile” can have either a literal or a metaphorical sense. It is used twice in the Gospels, for example, in a literal sense to refer to the nations collectively, in contrast to Israel (Matt 5:47; 6:7). But it is also found in the New Testament in a metaphorical sense to describe those outside a specific community and, in particular, those outside the community of believers (3 John 7).23

In that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, all of whom are Jews, his directive that the unrepentant be treated as a Gentile means treating him as one who is outside the community of his disciples or fellow believers and, thus, to treat him as an unbeliever.24 The expression “tax collector” simply reinforces this designation. The term is used in the Gospels to refer to Jews who were employed by the Roman government to collect various imperial taxes from their fellow Jews.

In addition to their having regular contact with Gentiles, these often abused their office and, driven by greed, overtaxed their fellow countrymen for their own profit. Consequently, they were viewed by the Jewish community as conspicuous sinners to be shunned and avoided.25 The combined rubric “tax collectors and sinners” captures this sentiment. The combination is found throughout the Gospels to describe those who are despicable and who are ostracized from the Jewish community (e.g., Matt 11:19).26

So, what is the spiritual status of this individual? Is he a believer or an unbeliever? Assuming the perseverance and preservation of true believers in salvation, the best way to view this individual is as someone who has made a profession of faith and is a member of a local congregation. As such, it is assumed that he is a “brother” or true believer. However, his resistance to correction and his refusal to listen to the church and repent brings that assumption into question. His persistent disobedience and his failure to repent are the characteristics of an unbeliever, not a believer (1 John 1:8–10; 3:4‒10).27 Consequently, the church is to view him at this juncture as an unbeliever.28

Furthermore, to treat the unrepentant man as a Gentile and tax collector is tantamount to excommunication.29 As mentioned above, a “Gentile” refers metaphorically to an unbeliever, and a tax collector depicts one who is to be shunned and avoided. Although the “you” in the expression “let him be to you” in 18:17 is singular, the response of the one who has initiated the process must also be the response of the congregation.30 This is supported by the fact that the Lord transitions seamlessly from the singular “you” in 18:17 to the plural “you” in 18:18–20 in describing the authority of the local church in such matters.31 Thus, the unrepentant are to be treated by the congregation as an outsider and, therefore, excluded from all the rights and privileges of membership.


Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash.

1 Other texts in the New Testament that address church discipline are discussed to the extent they contribute to an understanding of the key texts.

2 This essay has been revised and updated from its earlier presentation at the 64th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Milwaukee, WI, 14 November 2012.

3 All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 edition, unless otherwise noted.

4 The consensus among interpreters is to see the body of Matthew’s gospel structured around five discourses, based on the statement “when Jesus had finished these words,” at the end of each discourse (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). See, for example, D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 134–39. Dividing the body of Matthew’s gospel into six discourses separates the Lord’s condemnation of the Pharisees in chapter 23 from his presentation of events surrounding the Second Advent in chapters 24–25, a division based principally on thematic grounds. See the discussion in W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 3 vols., International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988–97), 1:61, and esp. note 30.

5 Davies and Allison, Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 2:451.

6 On the structure and coherence of the fourth discourse, see David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 431–32.

7 The textual evidence suggests that 18:11 is not original and appears to have been borrowed from Luke 19:10 to provide a link between 18:10 and 18:12. See Barbara Aland, et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, 5th rev. ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2014), 66; the comments in Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Com­mentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1997), 36; and Roger L. Omanson, A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006), 29.

8 Aland, Greek New Testament, 67; Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 36; and Omanson, Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament, 29. In the parallel passage in Luke 17:3–4, the evidence tilts in favor of including the prepositional phrase “against you.” While the phrase is omitted in the Lord’s initial statement about forgiveness in Luke 17:3 (though found in a textual variant), it is included in the Lord’s expansion of his statement in 17:4.

9 According to Gal 6:1, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one,” the responsibility to restore an errant disciple extends to “any trespass” committed by “any” disciple. See J. Carl Laney, A Guide to Church Discipline (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1985), 49.

10 Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 180–81; Thomas R. Schreiner, “The Biblical Basis for Church Discipline,” in Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline, ed. John S. Hammett and Benjamin L. Merkle (Nashville: B&H, 2012), 109‒13.

11 Similarly, Larry Chouinard, Matthew, College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin: College Press, 1997), 321–22, “the character of the new community must be defined and shaped by the character of Jesus, who humbly and sacrificially gives himself up for the welfare of others” (322).

12 James D. G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (London: SCM, 1970), 38–54; Earl D. Radmacher, The Nature of the Church (Portland: Western Baptist Press, 1972), 193–220; Robert L. Saucy, The Church in God’s Program (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972), 57–68; Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 29–32, 61–64, 78– 82. As Dunn concludes, “We can therefore say that Pentecost is the beginning of the Church and the coming into existence of the Church as the Body of Christ” (Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 51). For further support and documentation, see R. Bruce Compton, “Water Baptism and the Forgiveness of Sins in Acts 2:38,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 4 (Fall 1999): 21–25.

13 See W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew, Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday, 1971), 195. Their oft-quoted dictum on the authenticity of this promise coming from the lips of Jesus bears repeating, “A Messiah without a Messianic Community would have been unthinkable to any Jew.” See also Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 252–53.

14 New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (hereafter NIDNTT), s.v. “Body,” by S. Wibbing, 1:236–38; s.v. “Church, Synagogue,” by L. Coenen, 1:291–307; New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (hereafter NIDNTTE), s.v. “~ekklesia,” 2:138–41; BDAG, 303–4. See also John S. Hammett, “Church Membership, Church Discipline, and the Nature of the Church,” in Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline, ed. John S. Hammett and Benjamin L. Merkle (Nashville: B&H, 2012), 11‒13.

15 Similarly, R. T. France, Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 622–624; Turner, Matthew, 404. On the force of the future tense, see NIDNTT, “Church,” 1:302–3. Coenen argues, “There is a good deal in favour of the view that the fut. [‘I will build my church’] refers to the period after Jesus’s death, and very little in favour of [the] idea of the foundation of a church before this. It is clearly impossible to interpret this saying in Matt. as meaning that Jesus spoke of a church coming into being at that moment…. For Luke the period of the church is a particular segment of salvation history between the resurrection and the Parousia. This follows directly from the use he makes of the word. While ekklēsia is completely absent from his gospel, he uses the term in Acts 16 times.” See also NIDNTTE, “ἐκκλησία” 2:142.

16 Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 468; France, Gospel of Matthew, 691; Turner, Matthew, 404; Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Com­mentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 686.

17 Μεταξὺ σοῦ καὶ αὐτοῦ μόνου (lit., “between you and him alone”); BDAG, 641.

18 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (hereafter TDNT), s.v. “ἐλέγχω,” by F. Büchsel, 2:473–76; NIDNTT, s.v. “ἐλέγχω,” by H.-G. Link, 2:141–42; NIDNTTE, s.v. “ἐλέγχω,” 2:166; BDAG, 315.

19 It is unclear whether the witnesses are other eyewitnesses to the sin or simply those who can support and document the effort to correct the one sinning. See the discussions in Donald A. Hagner, Matthew, 2 vols., Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1993–95), 2:531–32 (not eyewitnesses) and John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 746–47 (eyewitnesses). For biblical and extra-biblical parallels, see Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8–20, Hermenia, trans. James E. Crouch, ed. Helmut Koester (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 451–55; Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 2nd. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 453–54.

20 The subsequent steps are only to be implemented if the previous step has failed. Note the use of the expression “if he does not listen” in 18:16 and 18:17, qualifying the subsequent steps on the condition that the preceding step has not produced the appropriate response. To “listen” in this context means to respond properly to the correction, viz. to repent (cf. Luke 17:3); to “not listen” means to fail to respond properly. See TDNT, s.v. “ἀκούω,” by G. Kittel, 1:219–220, 223; NIDNTT, s.v. “Hear, Obey,” by W. Mundle, 2:175–78; NIDNTTE, s.v. “ἀκούω,” 1:209–12; BDAG, 38, 767.

21 TDNT, s.v. “ἀδελφός,” by H. F. von Sodon, 1:144–46; NIDNTT, s.v. “Brother, Neighbor, Friend,” by W. Günther, 1:256–58; NIDNTTE, s.v. “ἀδελφός,”1:149–52; BDAG, 18.

22 See the discussion in Benjamin L. Merkle, “The Biblical Basis for Church Membership,” in Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline, ed. John S. Hammett and Benjamin L. Merkle (Nashville: B&H, 2012), 40‒43.

23 The adjective ἐθνικός is used four times in the NT, always as a substantive (TDNT, s.v. “ἔθνος, ἐθνικός,” by K. L. Schmidt, 2:372; NIDNTT, s.v. “ἔθνος,” by H. Bietenhard, 2:795; NIDNTTE, s.v. “ἔθνος,” 2:91–92; BDAG, 276).

24 See, among others, Hagner, Matthew, 532; Osborne, Matthew, 687.

25 TDNT, s.v. “τελώνης,” by O. Michel, 8:88–105; NIDNTT, s.v. “Tax Collector,” by N. Hillyer, 3:751–59; Dictionary of New Testament Background, s.v. “Taxation, Jewish,” by T. E. Schmidt, 1163–66; NIDNTTE, s.v. “τελώνης,” 4:481– 84; BDAG, 999.

26 The expression “as a Gentile and tax collector” introduces a comparative clause describing the way in which the unrepentant sinner is to be treated (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 675; BDAG, 1106–7). The comparison can be one of similarity (Matt 24:27), treat him in a similar way as an unbeliever is treated. Or, the comparison can be one of identity (Matt 24:37), treat him in the same way an unbeliever is treated. In the present context, the comparison is one of identity. The response of the unrepentant man is consistent with that of an unbeliever and he is to be treated as such. See Blomberg, Matthew, 279.

27 R. Bruce Compton, “Can a Christian Sin unto Death? Perseverance and 1 John 5:16” (paper presented at the 62nd annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Atlanta, GA, 18 November 2010, 1–14).

28 One who professes faith in Christ but who does not follow the Lord’s commandments and refuses to repent over sin gives evidence of being a false brother (NIDNTT, s.v. “Brother,” 1:257; Morris, Gospel According to Matthew, 469; Nolland, Gospel of Matthew, 748).

29 Blomberg, Matthew, 279; Keener, Gospel of Matthew, 454; D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in vol. 9 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed., ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 456; Osborne, Matthew, 686–87. Contra, among others, France, Gospel of Matthew, 693–94, who, based on the singular “let him be to you,” limits the directive to the individual who initiated the process and restricts the action to personal ostracism rather than formal excommunication.

30 Davies and Allison, Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 2:785; Carson, “Mathew,” 456–57; Osborne, Matthew, 687.

31 Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 368.

Bruce Compton Bio

Dr. Bruce Compton is professor of Biblical Languages and Literature at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1984. He received his A.B. in political science from UCLA, his M.Div. and Th.M. from Denver Baptist Theological Seminary, and his Th.D. in Greek and New Testament with a minor in Hebrew and Old Testament from Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, IN.