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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

On Church Discipline - and Restoration!

Matthew 18:15-35

Most Christians have, at one time or another, had a lesson on the formal process of church discipline. They know the steps. This lesson is much more about the heart of church discipline. To find that heart, we must begin in a place which does not appear to have too much to do with church discipline:

(Lev 6:2-7 NIV) "If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the LORD by deceiving his neighbor about something entrusted to him or left in his care or stolen, or if he cheats him, {3} or if he finds lost property and lies about it, or if he swears falsely, or if he commits any such sin that people may do-- {4} when he thus sins and becomes guilty, he must return what he has stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to him, or the lost property he found, {5} or whatever it was he swore falsely about. He must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day he presents his guilt offering. {6} And as a penalty he must bring to the priest, that is, to the LORD, his guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. {7} In this way the priest will make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any of these things he did that made him guilty."

This is the Old Testament method of restoring a thief (or whatever) to fellowship. There are two things I would point out:

·         First, it is not sufficient to say, “I’m sorry.” Repentance is required, and that is demonstrated by the legal requirement of “Plus 20%.”

·         It is also not sufficient to satisfy the human who was robbed. God, too, must have atonement. A guilt offering -- acknowledging before God that I am guilty -- must also be brought.

Keep those two points in mind. We will need them later on.

One on one

(Mat 18:15 NIV) "If your brother sins against you[1], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

If you want to get things done, there are four things I suggest you need to know:

·         Objective -- what is it that you’re trying to accomplish?

·         Method -- how do you propose to do it?

·         Pitfalls -- what is it that you shouldn’t do?

·         Next steps -- what are you going to do if your method doesn’t work?


The objective of all church discipline is simple: it is to “win your brother over.” Let us remember that. James put it this way:

(James 5:19-20 NIV) My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, {20} remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

There it is: we are to save him from death. But so often we are reluctant to do this; the excuses come out quickly. “Shouldn’t somebody else...?” “Isn’t this something for the elders?” The Old Testament gives us a reproach for this attitude:

(Lev 19:17 NIV) "'Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.

See the two points that Moses makes?

·         If you do not rebuke your brother, it is a form of hatred. Would you hate your Christian brother so much as to refuse to throw him a life preserver in a wild sea? Then why will you not rescue him from eternal death?

·         And by failing to act, you confirm him in his actions -- in effect, approving of them -- and thereby share his guilt.


The basic principle of restoration is given by Paul:

(Rom 12:21 NIV) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This is rather a difficult point. We are well practiced in doing unto others after they’ve done it to us. But see the extent to which the Scripture encourages us to go!

·         Paul would rather be cheated and wronged than go to court to get justice:

(1 Cor 6:6-8 NIV) But instead, one brother goes to law against another--and this in front of unbelievers! {7} The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? {8} Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.

You see the point? Rather than use evil to overcome evil, he would suffer instead. How many of us would do that?

·         Then there is the matter of “consistency” -- often phrased as “I have my principles. Have you ever considered how “unprincipled,” how “inconsistent” God is? Listen again to Paul

(1 Cor 9:19-23 NIV) Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. {20} To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. {21} To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. {22} To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. {23} I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

All things to all men -- total inconsistency -- so that some may be saved (which is total consistency).

·         There is one most common reason why we will not do this. We are afraid. But courage is still the fount of all virtues.

There is a warning about method: discretion. Going one on one takes more courage than in a group, but it is more discrete. Are you more likely to be defiant to a group of chickens or to one brave man? Taken alone, you are much more likely to agree with the Psalmist:

(Psa 141:5 NIV) Let a righteous man strike me--it is a kindness; let him rebuke me--it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it. Yet my prayer is ever against the deeds of evildoers;

We discipline our children because we love them. God disciplines his children, using his children to do it, because He loves them.


There are a couple of words of warning. The first is in what constitutes “sin.” The temptation is to see sin in every deviation from what we, personally, believe. The Scripture cautions us against this:

(Rom 14:1-4 NIV) Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. {2} One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. {3} The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. {4} Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

The next concerns the eldership. For those in lofty position, matters must be brought at the testimony of two or three witnesses. But note well: they are also to be rebuked publicly. Examples they are, like it or not.[2]

Next Steps

OK, suppose your scheme doesn’t work. The brother refuses to hear you out. Then what?

(Mat 18:16-17 NIV) But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' {17} If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

If you will look in the Old Testament you will see the reason for the two or three witnesses. It is to establish the truth.[3] Which brings us, then, to the “church” in “church discipline.

Church (whole) in discipline

Is there any example to guide us in this? There is indeed. Paul had occasion to institute such discipline in the Corinthian church:

(1 Cor 5:1-5 NIV) It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife. {2} And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? {3} Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. {4} When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, {5} hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

This is indeed a serious matter. But the discipline worked; we have a record now of how the man was restored to fellowship:

(2 Cor 2:5-11 NIV) If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent--not to put it too severely. {6} The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. {7} Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. {8} I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. {9} The reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. {10} If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven--if there was anything to forgive--I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, {11} in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.

You see the point? As tough as the excommunication was, even greater is the love with which the sinner is restored. Restoration of the sinner -- that is the object of church discipline.

Of course, this process can be abused. There is a record of same in the writings of John the Apostle:

(3 John 1:9-10 NIV) I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. {10} So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

We have no record in Scripture of how this one turned out.

Principle of Separation

Do you recall that passage from Leviticus, which told us not to share in the sinner’s guilt? It is evidence of one other effect of church discipline -- an intended effect: separation. We are to be different from those in the world. It is deliberate:

(2 Cor 6:14-17 NIV) Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? {15} What harmony is there between Christ and Belial ? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? {16} What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." {17} "Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you."

To maintain this separation, the church may need to resort to this discipline. If we will not be separate, we will not remain long with Him.

Binding and Loosing

Christ now renders his authority to the church in this matter:

(Mat 18:18-20 NIV) "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. {19} "Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. {20} For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."

If you follow Christ’s methods, trying to do things as his Word prescribes, he will support your efforts. He will validate what you do -- even if you don’t see it at the time. So, if we discipline by his word, then the discipline will be valid in heaven as it is in earth.

This relates to forgiveness, as Christ will explain later to the disciples (after the Resurrection):

(John 20:23 NIV) If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

Here is an important point for the sinner. Remember Leviticus? The offended one had to be paid back , but God also needed his atonement.

·         How can our sinner know that God has forgiven him?

·         How can restoration be complete without this?

The answer is that God has given the church the authority to convey that forgiveness. The model in Leviticus is a complete one. We the church, the priesthood of believers, convey God’s forgiveness based upon the atonement of Jesus Christ - our guilt offering.

The Missing Link

I have unmercifully deceived you. Up to this point I have made no mention of an obvious fact: step one in the process, the one on one meeting, is most likely to be initiated not by some Sunday School teacher, but by the one who is offended. Peter saw this, and saw the flaw: suppose the discipline succeeds in step one? I have to forgive the one who offended me! Lord, we need to put some limits on this. Here’s the dialog:

(Mat 18:21-35 NIV) Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" {22} Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. {23} "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. {24} As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. {25} Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. {26} "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' {27} The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. {28} "But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. {29} "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' {30} "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. {31} When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. {32} "Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. {33} Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' {34} In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. {35} "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

You see the price of “personal” church discipline. The reason I went to my sinning brother is that I am the offended one. I am not a disinterested party, some counselor, but the one aggrieved. This carries two implications:

·         As the “offended one” our usual reaction (“I need to talk to someone about this”) is wrong. We need to do like my mother did: bring up the offense immediately, and in terms of the offender’s relationship to Jesus Christ. (I can still hear my mother’s voice, “If you consider yourself a Christian, ...”)

·         The cost may be very high: forgiveness. Worse yet, that forgiveness may involve my relationship with the church; I may have to call on them to help me forgive. Am I enjoying my anger so much that I will not forgive, but instead “turn him over to the church?” Or worse, “turn him over to the Lord?”

No wonder Peter wants to put a limit on this! Christ’s reply is in the form of a parable: that means he wants us to remember it well (it’s a teacher’s favorite technique). The ten thousand talents[4] represents our debt to God; the 100 denarii the debt others owe us. The proportion is about right; every sin I have ever committed is first against the one who is Righteousness. The message is clear: there is no forgiveness for me unless I forgive others.

(Mark 11:25 NIV) And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."

The apostles, in a parallel incident, saw the problem this causes. I know what to do; I just don’t think I can do it. Why not? It is because I do not yet trust him enough. So, like the disciples of that time, I ask my Lord for this:

(Luke 17:5 NIV) The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"

Church discipline begins with me, one on one. It ends with me, forgiving, and my brother restored to fellowship. Naked and alone, I cannot bear the burden. Lord, increase my faith!

[1] My emphasis; but really, it is there in the original, now isn’t it?

[2] 1 Timothy 5:19-20

[3] Deuteronomy 19:15

[4] In the Greek, the number “thousand” also means “myriad” -- it was the largest number for which they had a name.

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