Several weeks ago a pastor called, heartbroken and wondering what to do next. The church he pastored (Southern Baptist) had voted down a church discipline matter. The facts were plain: a man in the church had been privately confronted multiple times in accordance to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, but had only become more rude and more arrogant toward those calling him to repentance. He interrupted the preaching, held secret meetings and slandered those in leadership. Yet, when the matter was brought to the congregation as instructed in Matthew 18:17, the majority of those present voted against calling on the man to repent.
The pastor, who had been at the church less than a year, resigned soon after the vote. The vote proved to him that the majority of church members distrusted the leaders and himself, and did not want to call the individual to repentance. In fact, the man who was exonerated by vote enjoyed a reputation in the church as a significant leader in his own right, thus explaining why they trusted him more than their new pastor. The pastor believed the majority did not want to follow him or the Bible, and now, along with a group of ex-members, has agreed to their request to plant a new church.
What went right
If the pastor was more politically-minded than shepherding-minded he might have encouraged others to simply ignore the rude behaviors and arrogance of the man than privately confront him. But the pastor knew that Jesus’ teaching requires private confrontation, and when a matter of sin is certain and an individual remains impenitent then the matter is to be brought to the church (Matthew 18:15-16). The facts of the situation show that he and others in the church were doing right by being faithful to the church member and the Lord.
What went wrong
When it came to their fellow member and the charge of sin, the members of the church were being asked to act as this man’s judge and jury. Their vote would reveal if they believed him guilty or innocent of the accusation of sin, and either result in an end of the discipline, or a continuation of it. As judges and juries are inclined to do in this world, they judged wrongly. They exonerated a sinning member while losing a pastor who was willing to take a confrontational stand on an issue of sin and righteousness.
Does Matthew 18 teach that the congregation has authority?
Those who believe that the congregation should vote in church discipline cases (a popular practice called congregationalism) insist the entire church is the final authority in judging cases of church discipline because the two phrases in Matthew 18:17, “tell it to the church” and “if he refuses to listen even to the church.”
From these words two conclusions are drawn. First, Matthew 18:15-17 shows an ascending authority from one-to-one confrontation (v. 15) to small group confrontation (v. 16) that ends with church confrontation (v. 17). Therefore, the congregation has the greatest authority. The second claim is that the unrepentant offender can be put out of the church only after the entire church has been involved. In other words, no one can be put out of the church by only a few in the church, such as the leaders. Therefore, the only rightful authority in excommunication is the entire church.
But a careful reading of Matthew 18:17 shows that the church is not called to a higher authority—that is, to judge the person’s guilt or innocence. Instead, the Lord calls the church to submit to the prior judgment of the two or three witnesses since they have “established the evidence” (v. 16). Nowhere in Matthew 18 does Jesus ask the congregation to approve or disapprove on the evidence of the witnesses and thereby on the guilt and innocence of the offender. Rather, He commands the church members to respond to the certain evidence of the witnesses by submissively confronting the unrepentant member.
The Lord Himself placed the determinative authority of church discipline in the judgment of the two or three. He tasks them, and not the church, with the responsibility to prove unrepentant sin in Matthew 18:16. In the passage, Jesus further explains that He and the Father determine the guilt or innocence in concert with the two or three witnesses before the congregation ever hears it:
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. (Matt. 18:19–20).
The “two or three” refer back to the agreement of the “two or three witnesses” of verse 16. God the Father and God the Son affirm and defend the work of the two or three witnesses in establishing the factuality of impenitence. Since the first two persons of the Godhead affirm the evidence of the witnesses, what need is there for a church to vote and rule on that which the first two persons of the Trinity have already ratified? Jesus did not say, “If the church agrees about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven,” but “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” Thus He exalts the judgment of the witnesses so that the church may hear the witnesses’ testimony as exactly reflecting His own. Jesus did not command the church to establish any facts or to rule or judge on the testimony of the witnesses. The Son of God gave this responsibility to the two or three witnesses alone.
Creating Further Sin
Sadly, men’s ways can get involved in these matters and really make a mess of things. For example, congregational voting in the case of an unrepentant member could create a serious breach of faith with Christ. What if a church decides to discipline out an impenitent member by vote, but some in the church vote not to remove him? Those who vote not to remove the unrepentant member have sinned against the Lord by establishing their own verdict of innocence that opposes what the Lord already ratified (Matt. 18:20). In such a case they have sinned against the Father’s established judgment (Matt. 18:18–19), Jesus’ established evidence (Matt. 18:20), their fellow church members (1 Cor. 1:10), and the two or three witnesses who went through the difficult labor of establishing the evidence (Matt. 18:16). Or, in the case referred to above, the majority of members simply vote contrary to the evidence and annul the discipline process. Based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18, they now need to be called to repentance for their sinful vote, not just privately, but before the whole church.
What God Does Want the Church to Do
The difficult ministry in church discipline is not holding a church vote but rather ensuring that the evidence of hardened and unrepentant sin is “true and certain” (Deut. 17:5). That difficulty is followed by another – telling the congregation to fulfill its obligation to the erring member. That congregational obligation is enjoined upon the members to go and tell the impenitent member to repent of the sins they were told about – the sins announced to the congregation that were established as factual.
Like the individual of Mat. 18:15 and the witnesses of Mat. 18:16, the members of the congregation should go and speak to the member, asking him to repent. Jesus teaches the church that if he “will not listen” he is to be put out (v. 17). “Listen” in verse 17 means the same thing as it does in verses 15 and 16. It is the unrepentant man “personally hearing and turning” from his sin. The congregation is not called by Jesus to be the man’s judge and jury, but, as brothers and sisters in Christ, they are to go and try to reclaim a lost sheep (Matthew 18:12–14).
Most of Matthew 18:16 blends Deuteronomy 17:6 and Deuteronomy 19:15, showing that our Lord expects the two or three witnesses to understand their role in light of Old Testament teaching. In those texts, the Old Testament Israelite people were commanded to put to death anyone convicted by only two or three witnesses for sins such as idolatry or homicide. It was not the people’s responsibility to vote on whether the witnesses had performed due diligence and full discovery in establishing the factuality of the accusations. God Himself required the witnesses to do that hard work in submission to local judges (Deuteronomy 16:18), just as Christ tells New Testament witnesses in the New Testament church to “establish the evidence,” who then submit their evidence to the church’s elders.
Having a congregation vote on matters of sin and righteousness is a recipe for disaster. The complexities of people’s sins are intricate and thorny matters that defy public meetings. Church members simply don’t have the heart or time to investigate such matters thoroughly before rendering a judgment, nor do they often have the Christian maturity to do so. This is why witnesses must establish the facts of impenitence under the care of qualified leaders for they are acting to defend the holiness of Christ and His purifying power in the congregation. They establish the facts so we don’t have to.
You see, if we make voting decisions on intricate matters without the enormous amount of effort that Jesus expects of the two or three witnesses we end up practicing the sin of presumption on other people’s guilt and innocence. We also imply that the two or three witnesses were unfaithful to Christ because we, their fellow church members, must approve or disapprove their findings with our vote. In part that is why so few congregational churches practice church discipline—voting makes the process tangled, convoluted, and political.
The role of church leaders
Jesus doesn’t refer to church leadership in Matthew 18, but that doesn’t mean that church discipline should be decided on by just any two or three people in the church. Beginning in Matthew and finishing in Revelation, Jesus reveals the church in “progressive revelation.” What is only sketched out briefly in Matthew 18 is filled in by Acts and the New Testament letters. The apostolic letters always work within the framework of Jesus’ teaching, and their teaching on discipline is no different. Later New Testament passages fully rely upon Matthew 18 but add the details of elder involvement (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:19–22, Titus 1:5–16, 1 Thess. 5:12–14, 3 John 10). At the time of Jesus’ teaching on the church in Matthew 18 no one but Him even knew what a local church was. So He doesn’t give us the details of church leadership in His first teaching on it, but instead gives us the essentials of how to restore a wandering Christian, and how to put an unrepentant person out of His church. Jesus thought it best to leave to the epistles to explain the role of leaders in the process.
In the epistles the elders are called by Christ to oversee and shepherd the flock (1 Tim. 3:1, 1 Tim. 5:17, 1 Peter 5:1), so the witnesses must meet with one or more elders to inform them of the situation. Prior to telling the church of someone’s sin, the elders will look into the matter themselves according to the nature of the situation and the skill of the witnesses. Their role requires them to make certain of impartial evidence and proper confrontation as described by the Lord in Matthew 18 and other New Testament passages.
Jesus doesn’t ask for a vote in Matthew 18 because in matters of sin and righteousness voting is worthless. He doesn’t want you be your brother’s judge and jury but to be involved in the godly work of restoring him as a wandering sheep. Actually, Jesus is merciful to involve you in the restoration process by telling you to go and confront your errant brother. He doesn’t need or want your vote nor is Jesus concerned with the “voice of the congregation.” Instead, His voice tells us to call our wandering brother to repentance. It isn’t obedient to answer Him, “we’ll vote on it.”