Church Discipline

MATTHEW 18: 15-17
The church community needs to know how to deal with failure and sin. This necessitates a pattern for reconciliation. If action is taken the person “sinned against” is to initiate the action of restoration. The goal is to win and restore relationships.

A surface reading of the passage is much more legalistic than anything Jesus ever said. A background of the day and the spirit of Christ helps understanding what it actually teaches.

First, the church did not exist during Christ’s life time. The passage seems to represent a fully organized and functioning church such as today. This could not have been the reference.

The Greek word translated “church” in this passage is EKKLESIA. It was a common term for those called out, a congregation of any sort. In Acts 7:38 it is used to refer to the congregation of the children of Israel.

As EKKLESIA relates to the New Testament church it has a two fold application:

Matthew 18: 17 refers to “heathen and tax collectors.” It should be remembered Jesus was accused of being a friend of such people (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). He never spoke of them as hopeless outsiders. On occasion He even praised them: Matthew 9:10ff,11:19; 21:23; and Luke 18:10ff.

Notice the individual “sins against you” indicates it is a personal matter not a group affair. The issue is one to be settled between two people. The subject at hand is stated, “if your brother sins against you” (Vs. 15). This does not grant the right to legislate what is and what isn’t sin. The sin of reference in verse 15 is in context identified in verse 10 as despising a person and is not a reference to all wrong. In light of Peter’s question posed in verse 21, it has to do with a personal difference. This is one of the “little ones” (Vs. 10) who has gone “astray” (Vs. 12). The purpose is to get back the “straying” one (Vs. 12).


Go to the individual privately to avoid embarrassment and show honor for the offender. The norm often is to talk to everyone but the one considered to be an offended. It is between two people. 

The spirit of what Christ said was, “If anyone sins against you it is your responsibility to take the initiative and spare no effort to make things right between you.” This is to be a personal meeting between the two not an email or letter. It is not to be done with a censorious spirit but a sympathetic one. The purpose is to gain your brother (Vs. 15).

The passage does not limit the number of times the offended person is to go to the offended in order to be reconciled.

Peter’s question and Christ’s answer in Matthew 18:21 indicates how tolerant a person should be of an offender: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Christ’s answer, “seventy times seven” reveals the spirit of genuine forgiveness knows no limits. Forgiveness is a condition of the heart not a matter to be calculated. What Christ meant was forgive without ever stopping.


If that fails take a small group of responsible wise persons who are Spirit filled and mature in the Bible and go again. Deuteronomy 19: 15 is a background for this saying.

This step can be a check-off for the person who considers him or herself to be offended. It is at this point the seriousness of the matter becomes apparent. It may lead the one considered to be offended to realize the “offense” may not justify this serious step.

The purposes of the witnesses is not just to condemn the person. The witnesses might well help the one who considers self to be sinned against to see his fault in the matter and prevent demands for reconciliation that are excessive or improper. The witnesses must be objective and fair to both parties. The witnesses can help talk things over in a loving positive atmosphere. The witnesses are not simply to witness against the offender but to be sure the one offended is not unreasonable. They thus protect all parties including the alleged offender.


If that doesn’t resolve the issue then a larger responsible group of mature loving believers can become involved. Their judgements must not be legalistic but rather based on love. The EKKLESIA does not mandate the entire church body as constituted today. Again, such did not exist at the time of this statement. It can be a responsible group of mature, Spirit filled, loving individuals with a good understanding of scriptural standards. The text would allow this. No “Judicial Board” should be elected to serve this function. Different people can be utilized in different cases. However, if a local church insists on the entire congregation being involved that also is permissible.

At some point the act of the unrepentant must be told to the church (Vs. 17). If this dramatic action does not lead the person to realize the gravity of his or her action and “he refuses even to hear the church” (Vs. 17). There is then reason for discipline.

If this fails Jesus says the person is to be treated “like a heathen and tax collector” (Matthew 18: 17).

Many interpret this to mean the person is to be treated as hopeless. That is not how Jesus treated heathen and tax collectors. A study of Scripture reveals He treated them with kindness and compassion. Matthew and Zacchaeus, two tax collectors, were drawn to Christ as best friends. Christ even dined with Zacchaeus.

Whatever this passage teaches it does not teach a person should be abandoned. It is a challenge to love and win him for Christ.

The idea of a local church electing to “withdraw fellowship”is contrary to the intent of this passage. If it wants to cancel formal membership that is another thing. The teaching of the passage is that if the church undertakes to discipline a person it commits itself to continued efforts to restore such a one.

Matthew 18: 18 used the expression “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven….”

This does not mean we have the authority to or not to forgive sins and bar a person from heaven. It teaches earthly relationships are lasting. Therefore, we should get them right.

If a church congregation decides to bring a person before them and charge the person with specific sin caution must be exercised. In our culture a person can sue the church even if guilty as accused. If the body is going to conduct a hearing regarding a sinner a statement should be read before the proceeding begins that a matter of business is to be conducted by the church as an incorporated body and only members of the incorporation, the church, can be in attendance, all others are asked to excuse themselves. Once it is determined only members of the local church are present the proceeding can begin. Every conceivable effort should be made to avoid a matter coming to this end.