Most of us have read through the church discipline passages and probably have given them very little thought as to how they might be applied. Unfortunately as an elder of a local church we are forced to wrestle with them not just from a theological perspective but from a very practical sense.
As many readers likely know, Matthew 18:15-20 is the standard passage used to define the church discipline process. The process involves four successive steps:
- private meetings between the sinner and the offended party.
- discussions between the sinner and the offended party with witnesses to establish whether the alleged sin is occurring.
- bringing the matter to the attention of the church is typically when elders start to get involved and has its own set of steps.
- The elders, similar to step 2, will investigate the matter and determine whether sinful activity is occurring.
- If the sinful activity is verified the elders will often meet with the person who is sinning to discuss the situation and encourage them to repent.
- If the person refuses to repent the congregation is informed of the matter, with the goal of aiding in the process of reconciliation. The unrepentant, sinning person is given some additional time to change their actions.
- treating the sinner as a Gentile and a tax collector
- this final step is reserved for people who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their sin and continue in their sinful activity.
The goal at every step in this process is for there to be an end to the sinful activity and reconciliation between the sinner and offended party. The hope is that this can be done in as few steps as possible.
What did Jesus mean when He said treat them as Gentiles and Tax Collectors?
There are different views on what Jesus meant. Some look to Jesus’ ministry mission statement – He eats with sinners and tax collectors – as the key to interpreting this phrase (these posts are indicative of this approach – here and here). The idea is that the person who does not repent of their sinful activity even after numerous attempts at correction should remain as an accepted part of the community.
I think it means exactly the opposite. I think it means, “Love him! Accept him! Invite him! Eat with him! And keep on challenging him to be transformed into a faithful disciple of Jesus!”
Some translations even quote Jesus as saying – treat him as an unbeliever or pagan (instead of translating ετνικοσ as the more common “Gentile”). Which of course would lead someone to the conclusion we should continue to reach out and invite the person to be part of the community.
I think that these interpretations miss the progression in the steps that Jesus lays out. Each of the first 3 steps involve loving and reaching out to the person as you explain to them that their actions are wrong. The message at each of these steps is you are welcome to be a part of the community, but you must stop sinning. Jesus is teaching us that when a sinning member of the community does repent that we should welcome them back with open arms (Matt 18:21-35).
But what if they continually refuse correction? Is Jesus saying – accept the sinner and let them remain in the community even if they persist in their sin? If that is correct than Jesus is telling us that when that third step fails and the person does not listen just keep doing what you have been doing.
The people who heard Jesus speak these words would have understood them in a very different way. They would have heard Jesus say – no longer associate with someone who is stubbornly refusing to acknowledge and repent of their sin.
When Matt 18:17 tells us to treat someone as “a Gentile or tax collector” Jesus is not referring to how He treated repentant and responsive people who fit these descriptions. He is explaining the discipline process using imagery that the original readers would have been very familiar with. The Jewish people did not associate or eat with Gentiles or tax collectors (Acts 10:28, Acts 11:3, John 4:9, John 18:28, Gal 2:12).
The Jewish people treated Gentiles and tax collectors as unclean. They were people that had to be removed from the community because they were not willing to live in accordance with the community’s practices.
Notice the surprise of the Jewish people when they heard that Peter ate with Gentiles:
So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them.” – Acts 11:2-3 (NET)
Of course the early church of Jewish believers had to learn that no person should be excluded from the church because they were not Jewish. The promises of God were available to Gentiles as well as Jewish people. As unbelieving outsiders – Gentiles and tax collectors – should be invited into the community.
However, believers who continue to sin are not in the same category as an unbeliever who has not accepted Christ.
We see this clearly as Paul explains the final part of the Matthew 18 process in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. In this passage Paul identifies three distinct groups of people:
- outsiders or unbelievers with whom we are to love and associate with so that we can be a witness for Christ.
- insiders or believers with whom we are to love and share our lives with.
- an insider under discipline who is engaged in unrepentant sin with whom we are to love by refusing to associate with them and removing them from the community.
Paul tells us that we must no longer associate with or even share a meal with anyone in the church that continues in their sinful activity (1 Cor 5:11). When a person rejects all attempts at correction they are to be removed from the church and are no longer welcome. They have chosen to give up their position in the community.
From a practical point of view that means social gatherings that include this person (both in and out of the church) are to cease.
Although this form of discipline may seem harsh we must remember that the goal is to help the person see their error, repent, and be reconciled with the church.
Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. – Hebrews 12:11 (NET)
As an elder, I have found that several things need to be kept in balance as we work through this difficult process. We need to be
- tempering all of our actions with grace
- keeping a short account of our own sins
- protecting the local church community
- maintaining a heart focused ultimately on reconciliation and restoration