An Open Letter to Someone Entering Church Discipline

Reposted, with permission, from bradhambrick.com. This post is a supplement to the “church discipline process” document/training posted earlier. The goal of this series is to equip churches to conduct church discipline with restorative excellence.

Dear Friend,

I appreciate you taking the time to read this letter. Frequently individuals in your situation have gotten to this point by one of two paths: (1) hidden sin has recently come to light, meaning you likely feel exposed and like everything is now moving very fast; or (2) pastoral care or small group care has stalled out, meaning you feel frustrated and are tempted to blame those around you for not being as effective as you believe they should have been to remedy your struggle.

Regardless of how you got here, this is a difficult and pivotal season for you. Difficult because of the significant emotions and relational strains involved. Pivotal because how you respond to the matters that prompted church discipline will significantly impact your spiritual, social, and familial (if married) life for years to come.

My reason for writing this letter is to help you engage the restorative care of your church in a manner that allows for the full redemptive effect that God intends. In the rest of this letter I want to address four common misunderstandings or complaints about church discipline that often distract the person under discipline.

  1. “I don’t think people understand how hard this is for me. Maybe I sinned, but this is still hard.”
  2. “This whole process has been a mess and I don’t think those who are leading it are doing a good job.”
  3. “I don’t see how this is ever going to work out well for me. It feels like I lose no matter what.”
  4. “What am I supposed to do? You guys seem to be making all the decisions and have all the power now.”

1. Possible Responses

It is likely you will experience a multitude of emotions on this journey. There is a false (but understandable) logic that says, “If this is for my good, then it should feel pleasant.” Church discipline is one of those good things for which the positive emotional outcomes often do not come until the latter parts of the process.

Below is an assortment of responses that are common during church discipline. They are listed to facilitate greater honesty between you and the church elder overseeing your disciplines process. You need to be able to be honest about what is hard without expecting the church to alter the discipline process.

Think of these conversations like talking to a trainer overseeing your exercise regimen or a doctor over seeing cancer treatment. You want these people to understand BOTH what is hard for you in the process AND remain committed to accomplishing the objective. You want your elder to understand BOTH what is making change hard AND remain committed to restoring a Christ-like character in your life.

  • Exposed – The restoration process involves many people in your life in meaningful ways. In time, if you cooperate, this will be seen as an act of love and support. Initially, it often feels like coming out of a dark movie theatre into the noonday sun.
  • Ashamed – It is easy to think that everyone on your restoration team believes “they have their life together” and view you as the “broken or dirty one.” This is not true, but it is tempting to believe. It is common to feel shame when your shortcomings become known. Be careful not to project that shame onto how you believe others view you.
  • Rejected – Christians side against immorality. Since your sin has you under discipline, it can feel like your Christian friends are rejecting you. However, in reality, church discipline is a rescue mission – which is the very opposite of rejection. There may be social awkwardness, from you and towards you, but this is true in any period of adjustment and should not be interpreted as rejection.
  • Lonely – The person coming out of addiction often has to break with “old friends.” The spouse who is unfaithful misses their adultery partner and experiences strain with couple friends. Various sins create unique forms of loneliness as they are exposed and forsaken. The transition away from a “false front” and/or “unhealthy friends” results in a transition that is usually marked by a season of loneliness. This is why the church has surrounded you with a restoration team; these people provide both accountability and wholesome friendships.
  • Angry – There are many things to be mad about: people whose sin isn’t public, consequences that you don’t agree with, the challenge of making changes in multiple areas of your life at the same time. This anger is understandable. But vet your anger with one simple question, “If I do what my anger compels me to do, will it drive me towards a more Christ-like character that results in a more flourishing life?” Don’t let “feeling justified” in your anger prompt you to make decisions that will create more pain for you and those who love you.
  • Hopeless – The season you are in now may be the darkest season because the early stages of church discipline are when old habits/patterns are strongest, new habits/patterns are weakest, uncertainty is at its highest, and healthy social support is just emerging. This is truly a “it is darkest just before the dawn” season. Be honest about how you feel, but trust the God who wrapped you in a church more than your feelings.
  • Other – This list isn’t exhaustive. It is meant to do two things: (1) provide an initial list of common experiences to prompt conversations about how you’re doing emotionally with your supervising elder, and (2) provide an example of how to talk about how you feel without sabotaging or dismissing the discipline process.

2. An Imperfect Process

There is no neat way to address a messy situation. While this complaint is common, it usually is more of a product of the situation than those leading discipline. You cannot clean up on oil spill without getting grimy. Church leaders cannot work with hidden sin, partial honesty, incomplete stories, and broken relationships in a seamless fashion.

If you believe the process is not going well, the best things you can do are: (1) be completely honest, (2) cooperate fully and sincerely, and (3) share your concerns about gaps in your restoration plan in way that gives your church leaders the benefit of the doubt.

Your church leaders will make mistakes and the process will not be maximally efficient. But – even though this may be hard to hear – the situation into which they are entering is the mess of your making; they are entering your mess out of a motive of love and for the purpose of restoration. If your concern is more about the imperfect process than the problem that prompted the need for discipline (it will be from time to time on this journey), this should be a warning that your flesh is distracting you from addressing your sin.

3. Two Possible Outcomes

There are two possible outcomes to church discipline.

  1. You will repent of your sin, cooperate with restoration, and have your first love for Christ renewed (Rev. 2:4).
  2. You will not cooperate with church discipline, continue in your sin, and be removed from church membership.

How church discipline concludes will be based entirely on your choices. You will not choose option one or option two. You will choose to forsake your sin and embrace Christ or forsake Christ to embrace your sin.

What you choose will shape how you view your church.

  1. If you choose to forsake your sin, you will view your church as a loving family who refused to give up on you and did everything in their power to lovingly restore you to Christ.
  2. If you choose to continue embracing your sin, you will view your church as a bunch of legalistic idiots who just want to run other people’s lives and use the Bible to justify their actions.

Your choices about your sin will become the lenses through which you see your church. Again, your choices will determine the outcome of discipline and the trajectory for the rest of your life. My admonition to you in this letter is to not make these choices by passivity or happenstance. Soberly assess the choices you are making, what you believe honors God, and what cares best for those you love (Matt. 22:37-40); then choose accordingly.

4. Important Next Step

The previous point leads into this final point. I am going to assume that the choice you make in Point #3 was to honor Christ by forsaking your sin and cooperating with the restorative efforts of His church.

If that is your choice, I want to give you one piece of advice that is essential to bringing that good choice to fruition – be honest. No life of lies is worth living. Absolute honesty is the “one step plan of change.” Be honest with yourself, God, and others. Doubtless, lies took you into sin; only honesty will bring you out. You will never be more free from sin than you are honest about sin.

If I could give you one character quality to focus on as you seek to be honest, it would be stay humble. Sin does cloud the mind. Your interpretation of events (your own actions and the actions of others) is not to be trusted. This does not mean you are wrong about everything, but it does mean you need to be willing to be corrected about anything.

If you are honest and stay humble as you cooperate with the restorative efforts of your church, I genuinely believe you will look back and see this season as one of the best seasons of your life (not most enjoyable, but most beneficial). It will be hard, but it is also worth it. Love God and love those dear to you well by allowing God to do what He desires to do in your life in this season.

Brad Hambrick bio


Brad serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC. He also serves as Instructor of Biblical Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a council member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, and has authored several books including Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay Friends and God’s Attributes: Rest for Life’s Struggles.

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Bert Perry's picture

There are not two, but three possible outcomes, if I read Matthew 18 correctly.  The third is "it will be found that you did not indeed commit this sin, or that the 'sin' of which you are accused is not actually contrary to the Word of God."  Now I would concede that a huge portion of church discipline cases involve things for which the evidence is pretty clear, but that doesn't push out option #3 out the door.

Aaron Blumer's picture

I appreciate the thought that has gone into this series in what I've seen so far.

Matthew 18 actually assumes that the sin has indeed occurred. "If you brother trespass..."  But yes, it is also possible that the accusations will turn out to be false. In these cases, the response of the church is simple, so I think the process-development work in this series has been wise to focus on situations where the offense is real.

Bert Perry's picture

If the matter is already known, as someone said, what is the need for two witnesses to establish every fact in verse 16?  No, read in context, the passage does NOT assume guilt. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

The objection you posed was that "it will be found that you did not indeed commit this sin." This would mean that the sin, independently of whether anyone knows or not, did not happen... and there is nothing to discipline.

Matthew 18 does indeed assume that the sin occurred. No, it does not assume universal knowledge of the sin. That's a different matter entirely.

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.

The first "if" in the verse sets up action conditioned on sin that actually occurred. Without that, there is nothing to do.

But even supposing that sin and knowledge of sin could somehow be the same thing, my point stands: The church can still only discipline what it knows about, and so the discipline process described in the article wisely focuses on sin that not only has actually occurred but also has become known.

About v. 16, here's what it actually says...

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. (ESV, Matthew 18:16)

Note that the problem that leads to escalation here is "he does not listen." In the context, this means he is unrepentant of the actual sin referred to in v.15. The two witnesses here are witnesses not to whether the original offense occurred, but witnesses to the continued lack of repentance.

Larry's picture

what is the need for two witnesses to establish every fact in verse 16?  No, read in context, the passage does NOT assume guilt.

"If he has sinned" assumes guilt. If he hasn't sinned, then the passage doesn't apply.

The 2 or 3 witnesses may serve to establish guilt (i.e., they know about it too), to establish lack of repentance (i.e., "the guy refused to repent"), to confirm that confrontation took place (i.e., "We saw the conversation and witnessed that it took place properly), or to add strength in confrontation (because of numbers; i.e., "We are adding our voice to encourage you to repent"). 

In any event, the brother in question has actually sinned in this passage.

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

Matt. 18 is intentionally sketchy. There is not a lot of detail, because it's laying down principles/a model that will have to be adapted to a wide variety of situations. 

It is entirely possible that the two witnesses also know about the sin, in some cases, so they serve the purpose not only of confirming the unrepentance but of backing the "findings of fact," so to speak, as the problem is escalated to the next level.

Rolland McCune's picture

I personally make a difference between private and public "sins" in the matter of discipline. Matt 18 concerns a private dispute and assumes nothing, in the beginning, of any guilt or redress. One "brother" is simply alleging/accusing another of a moral transgression against him. If the accused denies the charge, the accuser is then obligated to get two or three "witnesses" in corroboration. These witnesses are not there simply to hear the one accuse the other. That would still be one person accusing the other in their presence, which resolves  nothing (Deut 19:15). The witnesses have first-hand, corroborating proof, by one means or another, of the guilt of the accused. If the accused does not accept the proof of the witnesses, then the matter must come before the local assembly, thus making the dispute public in a proper venue. If the church adjudges the accused to be guilty as originally charged, he is to be disciplined out of the church's membership and considered an unsaved person. Since the issue has become public as far as the assembly is concerned, the verdict of guilt or acquittal also must be made as such to all the parties involved.

Rolland McCune

Aaron Blumer's picture

My own view overlaps on several points. I also distinguish between public and non-public sins, and I think Matt. 18 has non-public sins mainly in view. There is no reason for a one-to-one confrontation when a sin is public, because it's in the nature of public sin that it is never really only against one person. The church is sinned against as well and knows it.

So in those cases there isn't any "escalation path" that makes any sense. The matter should begin and end in the congregation.

I can see, too, how Matt. 18 can be understood to refer only to a non-public sin in which there are at least two corroborating witnesses. But if there are two witnesses who saw the offense, it's only barely "non-public." 

In any case, while it's possible to see the two witnesses in the passages as witnesses to the original offense, I don't see anything in the text that requires that interpretation. The connection to Deut. fits, whether the witnesses are establishing the original offense or are establishing the offense of non-repentance in the case of a known sin.

Carson might not be quite agreeing with me here, but pretty close:

It is not at first clear whether the function of the witnesses is to support the one who confronts his erring brother by bringing additional testimony about the sin committed (which would require at least three people to have observed the offense) or to provide witnesses to the confrontation if the case were to go before the whole church. The latter is a bit more likely, because Deuteronomy 19:15 deals with judicial condemnation (a step taken only by the entire assembly), not with attempts to convince a brother of his fault. By the united testimony of two or three witnesses, every matter “may be established” (stathē, lit., “may be made to stand”—though the rise of deponents in Hellenistic Greek, including the use of stathē, implies that “may stand” is a superior rendering; cf. Zerwick, par. 231; Turner, Syntax, p. 57).  

(Carson, D. A. “Matthew.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke.)

With the "brother sins" in the first "if" clause of the passage, again, I can see that it's possible to take "sins" in the sense of "from your point of view" or "in your opinion." But again, I don't see anything that requires that interpretation. 

Either way, if the sin is perceived and  genuine or only perceived, the two witnesses are either going to help clear up a misunderstanding or help move the matter into the genuine discipline category.

With reference to the article and Bert's objection: "discipline" is not really happening until there is a known sin. The pre-disciplinary investigating and such might, arguably, be "part of the process," but nobody has "been disciplined" until the church believes there is sin. The writer of the article is looking at the church's response to known sin.

Larry's picture

Here's a sampling of commentators:

"...in any case the one or two more are not witnesses of the offense; they can testify only that they have tried to help the offender." (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 468.)

"The assumption is clearly that the offence is something of which others can easily become aware. The supporting parties will need to be able to be independently aware of the problem. Otherwise the appeal to multiple witnesses would not make any sense. The addition of ‘one or two’ gives the ‘two or three’ stipulated by Dt. 19:15 (cf. 17:6).91 The presence of the supporting parties ensures that the initiative is not a confused one, based on a misunderstanding, but is also concerned to enhance in the eyes of the one being approached the seriousness of what is at stake." (John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005), 746–747).

",,, the next step is to secure peace by bringing in one or two others, evidently to underline the gravity of the problem and to add their wisdom to its solution." (David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), 240.)

"Why are the witnesses present? Since they are eyewitnesses of the conversation rather than of the accused brother’s sin, their purpose cannot be to testify later in the assembly of the church about his deed. Deuteronomy 19:15* is thus not introduced in the sense of the biblical text. The two witnesses are used differently, however, not only in the New Testament,31 but also in Judaism. In rabbinic texts an especially important task of the witnesses is to warn the offender about his deed and thus to make it as difficult as possible to condemn him, since only someone who has been warned by several witnesses can later be legally condemned.33 It is not clear whether they serve a similar purpose in our text or whether, as others have surmised, they are to strengthen the brother’s admonition, so that the ῥῆμα here meant not “content,” but quite literally the “word” of admonition." (Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary, ed. Helmut Koester, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), 452.)

" ... a church member who is of the opinion that he has a cause of complaint against his brother, reading these rules, and noticing that if he fails in his private attempt he must then ask one or two others to go with him, will probably ask himself, “Is my case really so serious that I can get one or two other persons of sound judgment to go with me; or am I, perhaps, making a mountain out of a mole-hill?” The main reason, though, necessitating taking along one or two others is stated in the words quoted from Deut. 19:15: in order that by the mouth of two witnesses or three every matter may be established. Cf. John 8:17; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 10:28.
Questions must be asked and answered. If it is agreed by the two or three—the person who claims to have been wronged plus the witness(es) whom he has with him—that a substantial wrong was really committed, firm but brotherly persuasion must again be used to convince the sinner of his error and to bring him to repentance and confession. It may be easier for two or three persons to succeed in this task than for one. It is implied, of course, that also in the present situation, if the effort of the visitors is crowned with success the sinner will have been won." (William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, vol. 9, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 699–700.)

dcbii's picture

If I understand what some of you are arguing about the assumption of guilt in this passage, and what the witnesses are for, if a brother brings an accusation which is denied by the accused, and any witnesses can only witness the confrontation, but not the supposed act, either the process can go no further, or Matthew 18 does not actually apply to this situation at all, correct?  In which case, the accused's standing in the church would be unaffected, even if the accuser firmly believes the offense occurred.

Dave Barnhart

Aaron Blumer's picture

That is my understanding. It's possible to take step 1 (one to one confrontation) and step 2 (two witnesses) as a "might be guilty, might not, but the accuser is convinced of guilt" situation. But a problem with that view is that the next two stages don't make any sense unless the offender is actually guilty. (What would the church be able to do that the witnesses couldn't do, if the accused is/claims to be innocent? They could question him further/investigate, but that doesn't seem to be the point. And the final stage is expulsion.)

So to me, the whole thing flows better if the "sin" in v. 15 is an actual, not supposed, sin. There doesn't seem to be any "fact finding" activity in Matthew 18. That's not to say the church doesn't have duties in this area, but Jesus/Matthew doesn't tell us everything about discipline in this one passage (maybe Jesus talked on the topic for hours, but the Spirit guided Matthew to only give us this overview... who knows? We have what we were intended to have, though.) 

The point of this text, seems to me, is to provide an escalation path in the case of a brother who has definitely sinned, doesn't deny the act, but is unrepentant... and the sin is known to relatively few.

Larry's picture

Dave, the passage says, "If your brother sins..." Everything else is predicated on that. If he hasn't sinned, everything else in the passage doesn't apply. This passage only applies "if your brother sins."

If an accusation has been made and there is a need to establish guilt, that is prior to this passage it seems to me. And it may take two or three to establish it. Or more. Or different. And if there is no agreement that he has sinned, then yes, his standing in the church would be unaffected, at least theoretically. Though I am reminded of Ray Donovan's comment after his acquittal in the late 80s: "To which office do I go to get my reputation back?"

But it seems to me that "If he has sinned" is a casuistic type construction that only applies if the protasis is true. If the protasis isn't true, then we are in the wrong passage.

 

 

M. Osborne's picture

The "happy path" of church discipline seems to be stated in the first step alone, "If he listens, you have gained a brother." This "happy path" isn't repeated in the later steps, but seems to be implicit throughout.

The ultimate "sad path" is the repeated refusal to listen, with the last effort being the entire congregation working to persuade the offending party. and if he refuses to listen even to the church, then he's to be regarded as an outsider.

Given the two possible outcomes--restoring a brother versus regarding him as an outsider--it would seem that the purpose of adding witnesses and adding the congregation later is to add "clout" when you're trying to explain to the offender the gravity of his refusal to deal with his sin. Church discipline should be understood in light of its positive results--restoration--as much as it's understood in terms of its negative results--removal from fellowship.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Bert Perry's picture

Again, the "two witnesses" is a parallel to Deut. 19:15, in which two witnesses are necessary to determine guilt and administer punishment.  If it were not so, Matthew 18:15-17 is merely a three stage beat-down of the accused, and one where the New Testament gives little to no counsel about how one is to actually determine guilt.

And in that light, if one is to determine guilt via Torah methods, you have not only a problem of determining where the boundaries of the Old Testament law end and the methods of the church begin, but you are also going to necessarily make private matters public.  Hence I can't make any other conclusion but that Christ here is setting this up as not just the sentencing phase.

Or, put in terms that someone who works for the IACP ought to understand instinctively, if you issue the verdict and then actually figure out what the evidence means, you are asking for a TON of problems.  The one thing that I can concede here, though, is that Larry and Aaron's view is way too widespread in our circles, simply because if you mention Matthew 18 to a lot of people, the notion that it is a three stage beatdown is going to be the response.

Rolland McCune's picture

Bert's reasoning here makes more sense out of Deut 19:15 and the necessity of the "evidence" from the witnesses and the purpose of the process of Matt 18, although I probably wouldn't call the other view a "beatdown." Invoking Deut 19 was to counter a one-man verdict, or rush to judgment type of handling. Introducing rabbinic usage or reducing the point of witnesses to admonition, gravity, or some such post-assumption of guilt. Worse, saying Deut 19 is not being used in the OT text intention, especially the opening lines of its purpose against an I said/he said scenario. In the other NT appeals to Deut 19 the word "evidence' is always found seemingly for the purposes of determining guilt. Maybe "evidence" has a meaning  that is not apparent or appropriate. I'll let the linguists and biblical theologians wrangle here, perhaps over 1 Tim 5:19 in particular.

 

Rolland McCune

M. Osborne's picture

An initial concession: it is certainly possible that along the way in a Matthew 18 process, the additional parties brought in to work with the offending brother may tell the offended brother, "You're making a mountain of a molehill" or "You're mistaken" or something like that. It's certainly one of the benefits.

But I'm still wondering how you make sense of the "if he listens" / "if he refuses to listen" clauses. Why is the escalation predicated not on a verdict of guilt/innocence, but on whether or not the offending party is listening / not listening?

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Bert Perry's picture

Perhaps we might infer that if the person demonstrates that his accuser is mistaken, the accuser just might stop the process right there.  Moreover, if the accuser continues despite the accused having indicated that the accuser is mistaken, then the accuser is the person who refuses to listen.  The process can continue, just with a different color.

Really, I can't emphasize enough the folly of assuming that accusations are true.  Sometimes they are--sometimes the evidence are that clear--but all too often, they are at least disputable, and that will in fact make Matthew 18 into a three phase beat-down.

M. Osborne's picture

I don't think we ourselves assume that an accusation is true. That's commonsense. Your inference is valid. Why would you try to get an innocent party to "listen to you"? You'd have nothing further to say.

But I think Matthew 18 is written on the assumption that the accusation is true, and gives instructions for escalating. The problem in view isn't whether or not the offender is guilty, but how to deal with his recalcitrance. The project in view is restoring and forgiving an offending brother, not trying and retrying a case through various courts of appeals.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Rolland McCune's picture

M. Osborne:

If "we ourselves" aren't making an assumption of guilt, who is, apart from direct divine revelation? "Common sense" itself would not seem to want to frontload the whole scenario with a "guilty and recalcitrant" assessment of the accused. Deut 19:15 apparently does not prevent a basic one-sided approach by the accuser that declares he has been wronged by the accused, because his guilt has already been assumed. His refusal to "own up" to the one accusation of a lone accuser doesn't sound much like rebellion, but (if he is innocent) sounds almost perfectly normal. Even more so in the face of the "grave admonitions" of the witnesses from whom he might well have expected "evidence" against him. So its still one on one as far as he knows. And evidently no one can or  dare try and prove otherwise, so lets get on with what the accuser and the witnesses  demand as punishment so the accused can be "restored" with no hard feelings. 

Rolland McCune

M. Osborne's picture

No, pastors / church members don't front-load particular scenarios with an assumption of the accused's guilt. We're agreed on that.

But, if guilt is established, it's the offending party's response that determines whether or not the process continues. If he's repentant, the process is over, per Matthew 18. If he's recalcitrant, you proceed with the next steps. So no, we don't assume recalcitrance. We're trying to discover whether he's repentant or recalcitrant, which says more about his relationship with God than the original sin/situation.

@Bert, I'm curious why church discipline turns into a beat-down. Matthew 18 clearly says stop as soon as you get repentance from a guilty party. It doesn't say "Proceed to the next step when you know he's guilty." It says, "Proceed to the next step when he's unrepentant."

In three cases I've been close to recently...we've were working with guys re: sins against their marriage relationship / sexual sins, and we kept it as private one-on-one counseling until they started failing there, brought in others to add to the accountability, and only brought it to the church when they were bucking against even that accountability. The purpose of Matthew 18 is to keep it as private as possible for as long as possible. We knew from the get-go that they were guilty...we had a combo of digital evidence and their own admission. The original situation sins are grievous; but it's particularly grievous that as you start to apply the pressure and even bring in the congregation, the offending party is still lashing out / resisting. That's when you realize how precarious they are, spiritually.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Rolland McCune's picture

What/who establishes someone's incontrovertible "guilt" so that the Matt 18 stages can kick in? This is what seems to be frontloaded to the passage and its procedures. What I see here is an assumption of guilt that jump starts Matt 18 and informs/controls the rest of the scenario's notes of recalcitrance, the need for witnesses, the local church's involvement and its verdict. Or is the accused brother's sin not a private incident at all? But I'm not sure that two or three evidential witnesses give the matter a public context.

What would be result if the accused simply said to the accuser, "you are right, I sinned against you, I'm sorry and want forgiveness from God and you."  In his mind is a sigh of relief that he got the accuser and the whole incident off his back? Does everything stop there and everyone moves on with the accuser having "gained his brother." Or is some indelible proof somewhere that the accused is insincere if not lying?

There appears to be a vacuous basis for determining true moral guilt here and a questionable, uncertain moral outcome.

Rolland McCune

Aaron Blumer's picture

What would be result if the accused simply said to the accuser, "you are right, I sinned against you, I'm sorry and want forgiveness from God and you."  In his mind is a sigh of relief that he got the accuser and the whole incident off his back? Does everything stop there and everyone moves on with the accuser having "gained his brother."

It's clear to me that -- so far as this passage is concerned -- the answer is yes.

But this is one passage meant to convey mainly one feature of the discipline process: what to do about non-repentance. The confusion comes from trying to get Matt. 18 to be more comprehensive than it is. It doesn't address at all how guilt is determined.

The Deut. reference can fit either way, as I pointed out early on, referencing DA Carson, but everything else in the passage argues for a "guilt already established [by unspecified means], but repentance not obtained" scenario.

Larry's picture

I have great respect for Dr. McCune and differ with him only with great care and a certain amount of trepidation. I went back and reread his systematic on this passage. Yet I still have a hard time making sense of this passage with that rendering. I think his point, overall, is well-taken. We must not railroad people with a rush to judgment or a one man judge, jury, and executioner. But is that the point of this passage? This passage seems to me to be virtually identical to OT casuistic law.

For illustration, let's pick at random, Exod 22:1 —  "If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep."

What if the man didn't steal an ox or sheep and slaughter it or sell it? 

Then this passage doesn't apply at all. This passage only applies if a man steals an ox or sheep and slaughters or sells it. In such cases of theft, you do certain things that you don't do if the theft didn't take place. And this type of law from the Law could be repeated many times. The establishment of theft precedes the application of this text and that is what Deut 19:15 is for. 

In Matthew 18, the construction seems the same: "If your brother sins ..."

What if your brother didn't sin?

Then this passage doesn't apply at all. The actions after "sins" take place only if he has sinned. So in both Exod 22:1 and Mat 18:15, the apodosis is only enacted when the protasis is true. Thus, if the brother did not sin, Matthew 18 has no bearing on the situation.

Consider furthermore the steps in the passage. At each step (private, 2 or 3, church), the only two options are (1) listen and be restored (i.e., repentance) or (2) continue to the next step and ultimately be put out for not listening. This passage appears not to envision a situation in which the brother has not actually sinned. In practicality, it may be the case that the 2 or 3 determine there has been no sin worthy of public discipline. But again, that doesn't seem to be in this passage per se.

There is no invitation to self-defense here, nor to explain it away. The time for that has passed, in this passage at least. Otherwise, what is the church supposed to say? If "hearing" means "defending yourself," then the passage reads very differently. Why would the church put out a person for defending themselves and showing they haven't sinned? 

Raising 1 Tim 5:19 is a good comparison, IMO. There, an accusation is in view. And the truth of the accusation must be verified by two or three, or it must not be received. (Though elders seem to be given some sort of advanced standing here.) So, 1 Tim 5:19 seems to be the passage that precedes Matthew 18. Matthew 18 would be applicable only once the accusation has been verified by 2 or 3. 

What is the point of Deut 19 in Matt 18? It may be to verify the sin. But it may be to verify the confrontation--that the matter was not brought forth simply out of spite and attempts to embarrass without first dealing with it privately. I am not troubled hermeneutically here, since the NT frequently uses the OT in a proverbial type way, that is, to apply a general principle contained in a statement.

To me, the "if" clause is too strong and too clear for me to ignore.

Practically speaking, it may be that a person might defend themselves. And I would have no trouble with that. But that is not really the situation that Matt 19 is envisioning, it seems to me.

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