Should Congregations Vote to Discipline?

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.

Conclusion

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.”

[node:bio/ted-bigelow body]

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There are 113 Comments

MarkClements's picture

I can honestly say that this is the first time I've heard this perspective on matters of church discipline, but I'm a Baptist so that probably explains that. Ted, I'd be interested in your interaction with 1 Cor. 5 on this point. Since the epistle was written to the church (1 Cor. 1:2) the "you" in 5:1, 2, 4ff would be referring to the church family, not just the elders, etc. The church is being told "to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh...." I can see where it might not be a vote but rather an affirmation of the decision of the elders there but that would still require some form of affirmation, namely popular consent. According to Paul (and the above pastor) the issue of sinfulness is already crystal clear. The church's only recourse for the unrepentant was to send them out.

As I read the above story I wondered how the pastor had approached the matter before he brought it to the congregation. Please understand, I am not saying he did anything wrong. I'm just wondering if in addition to 2 or 3 had he then discussed this with the other pastors (if there were any), the deacons, etc. It sounds like the poor guy was standing alone against an erring "Diotrephes" who had a large support system. The weight of a group of deacons would certainly have helped if they were squarely behind the pastor(s).

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Ted, I have quite a few thoughts on this one but there are some aspects of your view that are not quite clear to me yet so...

1. The relationship between the "one or two" in Matt.18:16 and the "two or three witnesses" in the OT and later in v.16... Is it your view that the "one or two" are

  1. the equivalent of the "two or three witnesses" who would--in other settings--testify regarding the guilt of the accused, or
  2. two brothers who come with you to confront the sinning brother and add weight and seriousness to your confrontation, or
  3. some combination of the two?

    2. The role of the ekklesia... In your view, is the role of the ekklesia in the passage parallel to the role of the "one or two" and the individual believer who confronts the sinner or is it significantly different?

    3. In your understanding of the passage, who is deciding weather the "one or two" and the original accuser are correct? Since we know bearing false witness is a real possibility in these situations (Ex.20.16), who has the job of judging whether the testimony of witnesses (whether or not they are the same as the "one or two") is true?

    So I'll save my counterarguments for when I'm clearer on how you see these particulars.

dan's picture

Your article is based on the assumption that all the facts are exactly as the pastor relayed them to you. Do you know for a fact that the unrepentant man was in fact in the wrong?

Quote:
they judged wrongly.
Do you know this for a fact?

I've only seen two instances of church discipline in my life:

  1. Unrepentant adulterer. (congregational)[1 ]
  2. Someone disagreed with the pastor privately. The pastor and elders lied to the congregation about Matthew 18 confrontation that never took place, ordered the congregation to cut off all contact with the someone, then kicked that someone out of the church.(elder rule)[1 ]

I would never assume that a pastor I don't know is telling the truth, and there are some I do know that I would assume are lying if their lips are moving.

-----------------------------------------
1. Anecdotal evidence is not a basis for evaluating forms of church government.

"Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy."
G.K. Chesterton

RMSprung's picture

Okay, we live in an age of dot the "i" and cross the "t." In discipline cases within an incorporated church, guidelines are required and are expected to be the final solution to these issues (for they are Biblical.) For example, a letter of incorporation is the legal charter -- then a constitution is added to clarify objectives, statement of faith, and so on. Next, a covenant (template or customized) is a document that gives solidarity to the church's ultimate purpose and the members particularity. Then by-laws are adopted that specifies every contingency possible (including discipline). It must be clearly spelled out. Included would also be pastoral and other officers and workers duties, committees, meetings and rules, etc.

Now, why am I spending all this time on these (for the most part) unread materials? I Cor 14:40 - do everything decently and in order (I know the context but this is part of an orderly church). The Corinthians were calling upon Paul to settle matters that Timothy and Titus would later get more detailed instruction. If a church is congregational in its polity, they vote. My recent pastorate required 67% of present active members (also defined) to vote on a discipline matter. BUT ALL OF THIS IS WELL AFTER SUFFICIENT TIME HAS PASSED FOR THE LEADERSHIP TO EXERCISE GAL 6. In our culture, certified letters must be sent to the offender to give him/her every possible advantage to see the harm done to themselves, others, and the church in general.

Part of the by-laws must state reasons for termination (which would include an exclusion by action [interpret vote ] of the church. If the non-repentant is not voted out after a clear and fair presentation has been given, then the church is failing to fulfill its responsibilities. Use First Corinthians 5 - the incest horror. Read the last verse. Purge, do not give him comfort for we, the church of our Lord, are the caretakers of those WITHIN the Body. By not dismissing the one charged, we bring shame upon ourselves and the pastor is no longer in a place of leadership for the church does not fear God.

Now, this is assuming a lot; however, if all things are equal as stated in the original post, that church might look at Laodicea or Ephesus in Rev 2-3 for HE KNOWS. Peace to all.

Bob

gmetcalf73's picture

The answer is obvious to that question, based on at least two aspects. 1) There is no scriptural authority anywhere in the NT that a church votes on anything. The church is "ruled", administered, led, and directed by Godly Elders not the congregation. 2) Look at the disastrous result in "congregational rule." If this was truly a matter of discipline (I am not casting doubts) and the procedure was followed scripturally, then the Elders should have told the congregation this person was being put out and to treat him as a publican.

Making comments here is a little different than actually speaking to the congregation. I agree it must be done in love, humility, prayer, and by gentle shepherding. The NT is replete with directions for the Elders to Eld properly. God, rue the day congregation voting became the norm.

Gregg Metcalf
Colossians 1:28-29

JDitlev's picture

So this is my first post at SI, so please be gentle Smile I'll also add the disclaimer that I am a deacon at Grace Church in Hartford, where Ted is an elder and the pastor. So hopefully you can take what I have to say at face value and not assume that I am defending one of my elders Smile

Aaron, I may be able to help you with 2 of your questions, as I happened to be in attendence during one of the men's studies in which Ted led a discussion on this very topic. I'm not sure when Ted will be able to post a response to your questions, but hopefully this will provide you with some clarity as you formulate and state your counterarguments. I'll let Ted handle your first question, but I'll offer something to chew on for questions 2 and 3.

2. The role ekklesia in Matt. 18:17 is parallel to the individual and the one or two witnesses in confronting the individual about his or her sin. However, it is different in that the body wouldn't investigate the charges, as the charges have been confirmed by the one or two witnesses and brought before the elders, and therefore, don't need to be established any further (Matt. 18:19-20)
3. You'll find the answer to question 3 in the section on elders in Ted's post. Granted, all of us are sinful, and are therefore prone to error and bias, so it is important that the witnesses be reputable and able to form an unbiased judgement on the matter of the sin. There is also the additional protection of informing an elder or elders about the sin. The elders, because they are appointed to shepherded the flock, then must ensure that the sin is real and that the accusations being leveled are true. If everything checks out and the person is still unrepentent, the matter is then brought before the body .

Hope this helps as you formulate your ideas Smile

J

JDitlev's picture

dan wrote:
Your article is based on the assumption that all the facts are exactly as the pastor relayed them to you. Do you know for a fact that the unrepentant man was in fact in the wrong?
Quote:
they judged wrongly.
Do you know this for a fact?

I've only seen two instances of church discipline in my life:

  1. Unrepentant adulterer. (congregational)[1 ]
  2. Someone disagreed with the pastor privately. The pastor and elders lied to the congregation about Matthew 18 confrontation that never took place, ordered the congregation to cut off all contact with the someone, then kicked that someone out of the church.(elder rule)[1 ]

I would never assume that a pastor I don't know is telling the truth, and there are some I do know that I would assume are lying if their lips are moving.

-----------------------------------------
1. Anecdotal evidence is not a basis for evaluating forms of church government.

Hi Dan,
It seems that your post is based on the erroneous assumption that Ted is attempting to use anecdotal evidence to prove Elder Rule. Knowing Ted, he'd be the first to say (and has said) that using experience to understand the Bible is dangerous at best. The purpose of this post is to understand what Scripture says on the matter and apply it to a real-life situation, not the other way around...which happens to be the point that you are making in your post. Also, instead of questioning Ted's integrity in reporting an event in a church ("You know that for a fact?"), perhaps we'd be better served examining the event and applying biblical truths so that we can learn from it.

Jeff Brown's picture

Ted and JDtlev,

It appears to me that you have misunderstood Deuteronomy 19:15. Unless Jesus fully isolated Deut. 19:15 from its context, His use of it does not mean what you contend. Two or three witnesses were required in Mosaic jurisprudence in order for an accusation to be legitimate, NOT A JUDGMENT. Note the following verses: "One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established. "If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, then both men in the controversy shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you."

Following the Law of Moses, rabbinic teaching explained that both parties are to stand before the court and present their cases (in civil suit a court of three, in criminal suits, a court of 23). The two or three witnesses were to present the accusation of a wrong-doer. They were not the judges. See Abraham Cohen, Everyman's Talmud, 207-210.

Your viewpoint has completely neglected what the Bible takes pains to describe, and gives instances of, namely, false accusations leveled against another in the community (e.g. Christ Himself).

So the point of Jesus in Matthew 18 is to have the original offended take one or two with him, to make the point a serious one (usually church discipline ends here. Being confronted by more than one person in the church has a strong impact). If the person then refuses to repent, the offense is taken to the whole ekklesia. They are, indeed the final arbiter. They do not simply submit to the statements of two or three church members.

Jeff Brown

dan's picture

JDitlev wrote:
It seems that your post is based on the erroneous assumption that Ted is attempting to use anecdotal evidence to prove Elder Rule.

I was referring to my own anecdotes as not proving support for one form of church government over another.
JDitlev wrote:
Knowing Ted, he'd be the first to say (and has said) that using experience to understand the Bible is dangerous at best. The purpose of this post is to understand what Scripture says on the matter and apply it to a real-life situation, not the other way around...which happens to be the point that you are making in your post. Also, instead of questioning Ted's integrity in reporting an event in a church ("You know that for a fact?"), perhaps we'd be better served examining the event and applying biblical truths so that we can learn from it.
I did not question Ted's integrity. I asked if Ted knows that the facts are as the other pastor says they are.

Essentially, I asked whether Ted has knowledge of the integrity of the other pastor.

As for your suggestion that we should examine the event, that's exactly what I was trying to do.

"Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy."
G.K. Chesterton

Jeff Brown's picture

Hi Gregg,

Congregational voting stretches way back in church history (way back), as I have already pointed out in my articles on the subject. The idea that there should be no voting, or that voting is sinful came first through the growth of hierarchy. In the US, it is a new concept among evangelicals.

I wonder how much church discipline (with voting) people writing on this website have actually experienced?

In the last church I led, we had a lady who left her husband for another lover. She was confronted, and later disciplined out of the church (and invited to be present at the session). Her husband rejected her, but Christians loved and forgave her. For a time she went away from Christ completely, but later was restored. She now lives for the Lord. Witnesses brought the issue to the entire membership, where the matter was discussed for about 20 minutes, with appropriate questions asked, then the matter was voted upon. One young man abstained, then explained after the vote that he felt that as a sinner, he could not judge another. An older woman who had herself been disciplined the same way earlier in her life, spoke to him. She explained that discipline by the whole church gives an erring brother or sister the chance to think about what they are doing, and the hope that they can turn around and be different. It was a very, very special event, with the resultant growth of an immature Christian and the long term result of a sister restored to fellowship.

I am pleased to give this disasterous report.

Jeff Brown

JDitlev's picture

Jeff Brown wrote:

So the point of Jesus in Matthew 18 is to have the original offended take one or two with him, to make the point a serious one (usually church discipline ends here. Being confronted by more than one person in the church has a strong impact). If the person then refuses to repent, the offense is taken to the whole ekklesia. They are, indeed the final arbiter. They do not simply submit to the statements of two or three church members.

Hey Jeff, I'm just going to focus in on the last part of your statement - not disregarding the first part, I just need some time to study it. First off, I'm in total agreement on the impact of being confronted by two or three people at once.

However, based on this portion of your post, the first question I ask is how does this practically play out in a congregational church? Is the whole ekklesia supposed to investigate the matter, or rely on the testimony of two or three witnesses? And then at what point do they vote? Also if they are not simply submitting to the statement of two or three church members, how does that relate to v. 19 and 20? Wouldn't Christ have stated the whole church instead of just two or three gathered in His name? Don't v. 19 and 20 indicate that the final arbiter is God and not the church or the witnesses?

And finally, does a vote need to take place for the congregation to confront someone who is living in sin, or would it be possible for members of the congregation to confront the person living in sin after receiving word from the elders?

J

JDitlev's picture

Hey Dan,
I didn't intend to offend, just responding to how it reads from the outside, not knowing your line of thinking beyond what you wrote in the post.

dan wrote:

As for your suggestion that we should examine the event, that's exactly what I was trying to do.

I think you missed my point on this. While I agree you were examining the event, you wrote as if you were questioning Ted's integrity in posting this event. Your examination of it was in the details rather than the broader picture. If you were intent on profitably examining the event, rather than getting bogged down in meaningless details, you'd care little for Ted's knowledge of the event - whether the facts were 100% correct of not, as reported by a colleague of his - and instead ask yourself how it is that this reported event could have been avoided or how a biblical application of Matthew 18 was or was not followed by that church. Once again, I write this not knowing your thinking behind what you type, but practically speaking, this is how your post appeared to an outside reader.

So, moving on, based on the reported facts of the incident, what were the right and wrong things that happened in that church and how could these events have been prevented?

JDitlev's picture

Hey Jeff, sorry for the split response - I'm new at this game Smile So In response to Deuteronomy 19 relating to Matthew 18, would you argue that the disciples, who at the time had very little knowledge of the church, wouldn't have recognized the language of two or three witnesses? Or are you arguing that it wouldn't have mattered because Israel and the Church are different institutions and therefore are unrelated in that way. I'm just trying to understand what you are arguing for Smile

I think this discussion boils down to who are the judges (or is the judge) in the matter of church discipline. You'd argue that the ekklesia is the final arbiter where we'd argue that it is in fact God, based on v. 19-20 and that the witnesses are simply declaring what has already been declared. Am I correct on this? If not let me know.

I just wanted to post this before moving on other things Smile

Thanks for the interaction!

J

Jeff Brown's picture

JDitlev wrote:

However, based on this portion of your post, the first question I ask is how does this practically play out in a congregational church? Is the whole ekklesia supposed to investigate the matter, or rely on the testimony of two or three witnesses? And then at what point do they vote? Also if they are not simply submitting to the statement of two or three church members, how does that relate to v. 19 and 20?

I am kind of wondering what you are saying. A church decides after they have heard the witnesses. This is not very hard to understand. If the sinner is present, and wants to make a case for himself, that is where he may do so. That, however, is a very rare event.

Quote:

Wouldn't Christ have stated the whole church instead of just two or three gathered in His name? Don't v. 19 and 20 indicate that the final arbiter is God and not the church or the witnesses?

Fair question, but I wonder why He would need to reduce his authority to two or three. He said, Matthew 18:17-18 "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." Jesus was talking to all the disciples at that moment, not just two or three. He had just finished mentioning the church. The statement about 2 or 3 follows Jesus' statement about the loosing and binding power of the whole church. It is quite a bit of authority.

God as the final arbiter? He gave that authority to the judges (Deut 19:16-20). You are assuming that the witnesses mentioned in Matt. 18 are basically infallible, it appears to me. If I cannot question what they say, but only submit, they are basically infallible.

Quote:

And finally, does a vote need to take place for the congregation to confront someone who is living in sin, or would it be possible for members of the congregation to confront the person living in sin after receiving word from the elders?
J

First, it appears to me, that you take the witnesses to be elders. Do you have a basis for that?

Second, confront the person living in sin? That person has already been confronted before the matter is taken to the church. If they are at the meeting, they are confronted by the church through their questions and participation in the decision. But if, as you say, the only action of the congregation is to believe the witnesses/elders regardless, then go and confront the erring brother who has already been confronted multiple times, can this possibly work? Will the erring brother stand and listen for an hour while all the members of the church file by and admonish him? If he is not present, will he kindly open the door of his house as day after day each member calls on him to ask him to repent? I wonder really what you are talking about. Please tell me how this has worked in your church, how your church has listened to two or three witnesses, then every member of the church has gone to the sinner and talked to him.

Jeff Brown

dan's picture

JDitlev wrote:
While I agree you were examining the event, you wrote as if you were questioning Ted's integrity in posting this event.
I most certainly did not.

"Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy."
G.K. Chesterton

JDitlev's picture

Jeff Brown wrote:
JDitlev wrote:

However, based on this portion of your post, the first question I ask is how does this practically play out in a congregational church? Is the whole ekklesia supposed to investigate the matter, or rely on the testimony of two or three witnesses? And then at what point do they vote? Also if they are not simply submitting to the statement of two or three church members, how does that relate to v. 19 and 20?

I am kind of wondering what you are saying. A church decides after they have heard the witnesses. This is not very hard to understand. If the sinner is present, and wants to make a case for himself, that is where he may do so. That, however, is a very rare event.

Hey Jeff, sorry for the confusion. What I was asking is if the whole congregation would need to thoroughly investigation on top of th witness testimony as the judges do in Deut. 19. You answered the question for me...thanks!

Quote:

Wouldn't Christ have stated the whole church instead of just two or three gathered in His name? Don't v. 19 and 20 indicate that the final arbiter is God and not the church or the witnesses?
Fair question, but I wonder why He would need to reduce his authority to two or three. He said, Matthew 18:17-18 "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." Jesus was talking to all the disciples at that moment, not just two or three. He had just finished mentioning the church. The statement about 2 or 3 follows Jesus' statement about the loosing and binding power of the whole church. It is quite a bit of authority.

It is definitely quite a bit of authority, but it makes sense given the subject matter.

Quote:
God as the final arbiter? He gave that authority to the judges (Deut 19:16-20). You are assuming that the witnesses mentioned in Matt. 18 are basically infallible, it appears to me. If I cannot question what they say, but only submit, they are basically infallible.
And finally, does a vote need to take place for the congregation to confront someone who is living in sin, or would it be possible for members of the congregation to confront the person living in sin after receiving word from the elders?
J
First, it appears to me, that you take the witnesses to be elders. Do you have a basis for that?

I was making the binding and loosing argument. The unrepentence identified by the witnesses is confirmed by the Lord in heaven. The greek does a far better job of describing this event than the english, from what I remember. And no, this doesn't have to be the elders, as Jesus never mentioned them in this passage. But, like the witnesses in Israel, they'd need to be reputable, to say the least. I make mention on this in another post - to Aaron I believe.

Quote:

Second, confront the person living in sin? That person has already been confronted before the matter is taken to the church. If they are at the meeting, they are confronted by the church through their questions and participation in the decision. But if, as you say, the only action of the congregation is to believe the witnesses/elders regardless, then go and confront the erring brother who has already been confronted multiple times, can this possibly work? Will the erring brother stand and listen for an hour while all the members of the church file by and admonish him? If he is not present, will he kindly open the door of his house as day after day each member calls on him to ask him to repent? I wonder really what you are talking about. Please tell me how this has worked in your church, how your church has listened to two or three witnesses, then every member of the church has gone to the sinner and talked to him.

I think that you are misunderstanding the concept of addressing the unrepentent sin by the church. It isn't in a church meeting format. It would be every time a member of the church interacts with the person. In church settings - outside of church...anywhere. For example, let's say the person calls, seeking to borrow a cup of milk. You would respond first by asking him/her if they have repented. The next day you see run into them at the store, and repeat the question. Wouldn't you agree that this type of a repeat occurrence would have a much more profound effect on the person rather than a church vote? Eventually the person would either give up or repent. A vote doesn't need to occur for this to happen. If the person still doesn't repent following everyone in the church, they'd then be approached evangelistically.

J

JDitlev's picture

dan wrote:
JDitlev wrote:
While I agree you were examining the event, you wrote as if you were questioning Ted's integrity in posting this event.
I most certainly did not.

Great! Thanks for making that clear! Once again, you have proven that blog posts can be deceiving...moving on...

Ted Bigelow's picture

MarkClements wrote:
I can honestly say that this is the first time I've heard this perspective on matters of church discipline, but I'm a Baptist so that probably explains that. Ted, I'd be interested in your interaction with 1 Cor. 5 on this point. Since the epistle was written to the church (1 Cor. 1:2) the "you" in 5:1, 2, 4ff would be referring to the church family, not just the elders, etc. The church is being told "to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh...." I can see where it might not be a vote but rather an affirmation of the decision of the elders there but that would still require some form of affirmation, namely popular consent. According to Paul (and the above pastor) the issue of sinfulness is already crystal clear. The church's only recourse for the unrepentant was to send them out.

As I read the above story I wondered how the pastor had approached the matter before he brought it to the congregation. Please understand, I am not saying he did anything wrong. I'm just wondering if in addition to 2 or 3 had he then discussed this with the other pastors (if there were any), the deacons, etc. It sounds like the poor guy was standing alone against an erring "Diotrephes" who had a large support system. The weight of a group of deacons would certainly have helped if they were squarely behind the pastor(s).

Hi Mark,
I’ve written fairly extensively on 1 Cor. 5 – and you can probably find what I’ve said by going to Amazon.com and using their search feature once you get to the book I wrote, The Titus Mandate. Search for “1 Corinthians 5”. Or, you could always buy the book and help put my kids through college.

Quick answer: Paul would have been dishonored by popular consent, or dissent – his words are unequivocal and took away any authority in the congregation. Like you say, “The church's only recourse for the unrepentant was to send them out.” Can you imagine the Corinthians voting and deciding to keep the immoral man? Or if they did vote 75-25 against the immoral man, wouldn’t the 25% need to be confronted about their sin of voting to disobey Paul?

Obviously I don’t know all the specifics about the church discipline situation, and no doubt, it could have been handled better – but that is always the case when we sinners are involved. The other leaders in the church were certainly involved, but even their influence didn’t give the church members enough confidence to vote to continue the discipline process.

Jeff Brown's picture

JDitlev,

No, I did not mention or hint that the disciples lacked knowledge. I wondered if you and Ted lacked knowledge, because the use of Deut 19:15 by Jesus in Matt 18 does not render what you say: unless Jesus completely isolates the Deut. quote from its OT context. Though the disciples did not understand the full meaning of the NT church, they certainly understood the meaning of ekklesia very well. Jesus did not need to define it for them.

You have concluded wrongly, that you believe God is the judge, whereas I believe it is the church that is judge. You have made it plain that God reveals His will in this case through two or three (elders?). The church is to submit to God's revealed will. I will try to understand that as your position and try to state it so.

I say, Jesus said plainly that He authorized the church to make decisions, which would be regarded as binding in heaven. Thus, they bind and loose for His sake and through His power. Jesus makes it plain in many places that He is in the church. He is, in fact, the head of the church. Does the Scripture say He is "head of two or three?" Please do not quote me as saying that the church is separate from God, or that the church, not God is judge.

Glad to interact. Now signing off.

Jeff Brown

Ted Bigelow's picture

Hi Aaron, thanks to you and the other SI staff for running this post. I am in your debt.

Aaron Blumer wrote:
1. The relationship between the "one or two" in Matt.18:16 and the "two or three witnesses" in the OT and later in v.16... Is it your view that the "one or two" are

  1. the equivalent of the "two or three witnesses" who would--in other settings--testify regarding the guilt of the accused, or
  2. two brothers who come with you to confront the sinning brother and add weight and seriousness to your confrontation, or
  3. some combination of the two?

Jesus says “"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”

Step 1 is a single person doing private confrontation. In step two our Lord requires that single person to take 1 or 2 more: that adds up to 2 or 3. Just keep in mind that “witness” need not mean “eyewitness” but someone who is trying to establish the factuality of a matter. Jesus doesn’t want the first person to bring in brothers who have already come with their minds made up about another person’s sins, but instead to investigate the matter fully “so that” they can come to a valid conclusion of either innocence or guilt (16b is a “hina clause”). (How do I get the Greek to show?)

Quote:
2. The role of the ekklesia... In your view, is the role of the ekklesia in the passage parallel to the role of the "one or two" and the individual believer who confronts the sinner or is it significantly different?

I think Jon answered this well – the one or two are to establish the evidence – the congregation is to respond the “evidence.” However, both do confront the errant brother – the 1 or 2 after establishing the evidence, but still in private.

Quote:
3. In your understanding of the passage, who is deciding weather the "one or two" and the original accuser are correct? Since we know bearing false witness is a real possibility in these situations (Ex.20.16), who has the job of judging whether the testimony of witnesses (whether or not they are the same as the "one or two") is true?

I think Jon’s answer is well-expressed.

Quote:
So I'll save my counterarguments for when I'm clearer on how you see these particulars.

Why do I feel like I’m being set up? :O
JDitlev's picture

Jeff Brown wrote:
JDitlev,

No, I did not mention or hint that the disciples lacked knowledge. I wondered if you and Ted lacked knowledge, because the use of Deut 19:15 by Jesus in Matt 18 does not render what you say: unless Jesus completely isolates the Deut. quote from its OT context. Though the disciples did not understand the full meaning of the NT church, they certainly understood the meaning of ekklesia very well. Jesus did not need to define it for them.

You have concluded wrongly, that you believe God is the judge, whereas I believe it is the church that is judge. You have made it plain that God reveals His will in this case through two or three (elders?). The church is to submit to God's revealed will. I will try to understand that as your position and try to state it so.

I say, Jesus said plainly that He authorized the church to make decisions, which would be regarded as binding in heaven. Thus, they bind and loose for His sake and through His power. Jesus makes it plain in many places that He is in the church. He is, in fact, the head of the church. Does the Scripture say He is "head of two or three?" Please do not quote me as saying that the church is separate from God, or that the church, not God is judge.

Glad to interact. Now signing off.

Hi Jeff,
I think that you may have misread what I said about the disciples. I wrote

Quote:
So In response to Deuteronomy 19 relating to Matthew 18, would you argue that the disciples, who at the time had very little knowledge of the church, wouldn't have recognized the language of two or three witnesses? Or are you arguing that it wouldn't have mattered because Israel and the Church are different institutions and therefore are unrelated in that way.

which in no way states your knowledge of the disciples...its a qualifier that i placed in there. And absolutely, they would have known what ekklesia was even though they knew little of the church.

I'll state my position so that you can use it in future posts, if you want - it'll clear up the muddiness that I see invading these posts. So church discipline, occurs like this: 1 person confronts unrepentent sin in another. If the person doesn't repent, the confronter brings one or two witnesses. If the person still doesn't repent, the witness (including the confronter) bring the matter to the elders. The elders ensure that this is a real occurrence - that the sin isn't being repented for - and if everything checks out. The matter is brought before the church. The church then confronts the person at every opportunity. If the person still doesn't repent, they are treated as a gentile and tax collector - objects of evangelism.

One more question. If the church is the final decision maker in v.17, as you contend, why did Christ specify two or three in v. 19-20 in this context?

J

R.G.Murray's picture

(Sorry this is a little long)
I have been involved in a number of church discipline cases. A few principles I have tried to use:
1. I think the sin needs to be sufficiently clear, open, and serious enough that the whole church needs to hear about it.
2. The facts should be sufficiently established that they can be brought clearly and concisely to the congregation. If the relevant sin(s) can't be summed up in 10 minutes with the major evidence presented by the 2-3 witnesses then do you really have a clear cut case? For instance - either they openly slandered the leadership and you can prove it or they didn't, they committed adultery and you have the facts or they didn't, they stole money from the church and you can prove it or they didn't. It should not be a two hour presentation to convince the congregation of some obscure fault.
3. Ultimately all church discipline ends up being rebellion to God, the church, and the relevant passages that point out their clear sin (you DO have relevant passages that point out their clear sin right?) By the end of step two the person should have a clear understanding that their major sin now is open rebellion to the clear Word of God. The ultimate sin brought to the congregation is willful rebellion to God's Word no matter what the original sin was.
4. In the public meeting we present the sin, the relevant passages, and we then give the person a public opportunity to repent before the whole church. (Repentance may happen like this, but I have yet to see it.)
5. We then open the floor to ask if there is anyone who would like to give a biblical presentation in defense of the person's actions? We have yet to have anyone take us up on this (and if we have done our homework no ever should. Let's face it, if you're worried to do this step then just how strong a biblical case do you have?) At this point we can look at the person and implore them one final time to repent because there is no one in the entire church willing to defend them.
6. Then we ask the congregation to vote on whether or not the person has shown repentance, NOT their guilt or innocence.

I had a situation where we met with a gentleman who had handed out material in the church foyer slanderous of the church leadership. We met with him privately several times and it was like talking to a brick wall. When it came time for the public meeting he called me and said, "What are you going to say, and how should I be prepared?" I said, "I'm going to tell people you acted in open rebellion to the established leadership of the church and you should be prepared to say that was wrong and ask everyone's forgiveness for spreading dissent and sedition." He showed up at the meeting, the facts were established (we had the papers he handed out) and then we just threw him rope. He tied nooses in it and stuck his neck in, over and over. People begged him to repent, he himmed and hawed and gave conditional apologies, "If what I said offended anyone I'm sorry." He cooked his own goose. By the time he was done the entire congregation realized who he was and with what spirit he operated.

But we never asked the congregation to vote on the guilt or innocence of his original actions. We presented why we believed they were unbiblical and asked the congregation basically, "Do you see something we are missing?", "Would anyone like to help us see how his actions were somehow Biblical in nature?", "Does anyone have a Biblical justification for his actions? Anyone?" If no one defends him then obviously his guilt is established.
So it was evaluated by the two or three witnesses and every word was established, and now the whole church has heard it, and no one is willing to defend him, so now the question is, will he listen to the whole church?
It is then up to the church to decide if he is listening or not. That is what the congregation votes on.
And that vote won't take place in the factual meeting. He will be given a few weeks after that meeting to repent and be restored. He will know there is no one willing to defend him. But we believe the condition of Matthew 18:17 "If he refuses to listen even to the church." Does require the church to give him the message. This (in my mind) calls for a vote. How can he "listen to the church" if the church isn't given an opportunity to say something? But they are voting on his repentance, not his guilt or innocence.

Ted Bigelow's picture

dan wrote:
Your article is based on the assumption that all the facts are exactly as the pastor relayed them to you. Do you know for a fact that the unrepentant man was in fact in the wrong?
Quote:
they judged wrongly.
Do you know this for a fact?

I've only seen two instances of church discipline in my life:

  1. Unrepentant adulterer. (congregational)[1 ]
  2. Someone disagreed with the pastor privately. The pastor and elders lied to the congregation about Matthew 18 confrontation that never took place, ordered the congregation to cut off all contact with the someone, then kicked that someone out of the church.(elder rule)[1 ]

I would never assume that a pastor I don't know is telling the truth, and there are some I do know that I would assume are lying if their lips are moving.
----------------------------------------
1. Anecdotal evidence is not a basis for evaluating forms of church government.

I agree with your statement concerning anecdotal evidence. It is well-advised. But the article is mostly an explanation of Mat. 18:15-17, esp. as it relates to the role of the congregation. The story, which occurred quite recently, was my hook to get you to read the rest. Wink

Quote:
Someone disagreed with the pastor privately. The pastor and elders lied to the congregation about Matthew 18 confrontation that never took place, ordered the congregation to cut off all contact with the someone, then kicked that someone out of the church.(elder rule)

That happened to me and my wife in an elder rule church back in the early 1990s. Very painful, but not determinative of the biblicality (is that even a word?) of the polity.

Ted Bigelow's picture

RMSprung wrote:
BUT ALL OF THIS IS WELL AFTER SUFFICIENT TIME HAS PASSED FOR THE LEADERSHIP TO EXERCISE GAL 6.

Thank you for mentioning this absolutely vital component. I was likewise reminded of that exact passage by a brother in the Lord this morning as well.

Quote:
If the non-repentant is not voted out after a clear and fair presentation has been given, then the church is failing to fulfill its responsibilities.

In a congregational church the challenge is to share enough information so the people are properly equipped to vote, but not so much as gossip or slander occurs. Of course, if the member has equal rights, shouldn't he/she be allowed equal time (or more) before the congregation to plead his/her side? Doesn't a vote necessarily imply the matter is not established, as the Lord commands in Mat. 18:16? After all, if the matter is established, what does a vote add from a standpoint of righteousness? And shouldn't the members be given open access to all available information before making an informed vote? After all, the believers in the congregation will have to stand before the Lord one day and give an account for that vote. If they have questions, shouldn't they be fully answered?

Peace.

Ted Bigelow's picture

gmetcalf73 wrote:
The NT is replete with directions for the Elders to Eld properly. God, rue the day congregation voting became the norm.

Yes, numerous God-inspired apostle-written paragraphs of teaching on how “eld.” Love it! Not a single verse on voting (except Acts 26:10).

Ted Bigelow's picture

Jeff Brown wrote:
Ted and JDtlev,
It appears to me that you have misunderstood Deuteronomy 19:15. Unless Jesus fully isolated Deut. 19:15 from its context, His use of it does not mean what you contend. Two or three witnesses were required in Mosaic jurisprudence in order for an accusation to be legitimate, NOT A JUDGMENT. Note the following verses:
Deut. 19:15 "One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.
v. 16 "If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing,
v. 17 “then both men in the controversy shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days.
v. 18 “And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother,
v. 19 “then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you."

Excellent distinction, Jeff. You would propose the congregation be the in the place of the judges. I would propose it is the elders, who are specifically tasked to be "elders" (c.f. Deut. 19:12) “overseers” and “shepherds” by the word of God.

Quote:
Your viewpoint has completely neglected what the Bible takes pains to describe, and gives instances of, namely, false accusations leveled against another in the community (e.g. Christ Himself).

Not sure I follow you here. My article equates the elders of the NT church to O.T. judges, which is why I referenced Deut. 16:18.
Quote:
So the point of Jesus in Matthew 18 is to have the original offended take one or two with him, to make the point a serious one (usually church discipline ends here. Being confronted by more than one person in the church has a strong impact). If the person then refuses to repent, the offense is taken to the whole ekklesia. They are, indeed the final arbiter. They do not simply submit to the statements of two or three church members.

Maybe I can help here. Jesus calls the people involved “witnesses.” You are viewing them as “accusers” only. Jesus wants witnesses - people who will do a thorough job of determining either sin or righteousness in the one being accused: “that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Mat. 18:16, ESV). He doesn’t place a sanctified premium on presumptuousness. Only when the charges are substantiated by godly investigation can the accused be justly confronted for his sin, for if the 1 or 2 witnesses call on the person to repent when in fact he is innocent they have sinned. Remember, the context is restoring wandering sheep, not ganging up on a brother.

Jeff, given the situation described in my post, would you still like to defend the congregation as “the final arbiter?” If so, what do we learn from that situation?

Shaynus's picture

And Jeff Brown is doing a great job at countering these arguments. If ironing is sharpening iron, then Jeff Brown's carbon count is a little higher in my view.

R.G.Murray's picture

Ted Bigelow wrote:
R.G.Murray wrote:
But they are voting on his repentance, not his guilt or innocence.

Hi R. G.,

Forgive me, I'm just going to ask you a question on your final line from your post. Is repentance not a matter of guilt or innocence?

Ted: in the context of the discussion I was referring to the congregation not voting on his original sin. Clearly his unrepentant spirit is a further sin, in fact the major sin for which he will experience the discipline. It was not my intention to imply his lack of repentance was less this sin. Sorry if it came across that way. (And for the record, it is always possible the congregation will refuse to vote against a popular person even if they are in open rebellion to the leadership. If that is the case, at least you will know the biblical heart of the sheep your are shepherding.)

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