Sin in the Church


Matthew 18:10-20

Text Comment

v.10     The “little ones” in this context are ordinary Christians, childlike in their own eyes because well aware of their own small stature as needy sinners.  In Daniel 10 and 12 we find angels representing nations; in Revelation as the representatives of churches.  Here, even individuals have their heavenly representatives who enjoy personal access to the King on their behalf.  Whether we should think of every Christian having a “guardian angel” is another question.  That is more than is said here though the idea is not inconsistent with what is said here.

You’ll notice that your NIV skips from v. 10 to v. 12.  Some manuscripts have here, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost,” a statement that seems to have been borrowed from Luke 19:10.  It is missing in many important and early manuscripts and its absence in those manuscripts is harder to explain than its presence in others.

v.14     In Luke, this little parable of the one lost sheep out of a hundred is used in a different context against the Lord’s enemies.  In its use in Luke the 99 are not the safe and secure but those who think they are safe and secure, the self-confident Jews who feel no need for a Redeemer who will die for their sins.  It makes the point the Lord often made that he did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.  Here, however, a similar  story of a single lost sheep is put to a different use.  The parable is addressed to the Lord’s disciples to remind them that God cares, personally and deeply, for every one of his children, even the wayward among them.  The shepherd does not think that because the 99 are safe and sound he needn’t bother himself finding the one who has gone astray.  On the contrary, he alters his entire routine to go looking for the one.  Indeed, leaving the 99 alone “on the hills” he even is willing to put them at some risk to find the one lost sheep.  And, for him, there is a particular delight in finding that one lost sheep.

v.15     The words “against you” are not found in some very important early manuscripts.  The editors of the standard Greek New Testament indicate that, the evidence being what it is, it is impossible to say with any certainty whether “against you” is original to Matthew’s text.  If those two words are not original, the sense changes somewhat:  not just sins “against you” are to be dealt with by you in this way, but any sins that you observe being committed by your brother or sister or that you come to know he or she has committed.  If “against you” is original, is what Matthew actually wrote, then the instructions here pertain particularly to offenses that are committed against you and the sins being spoken of are the sins of a violated Christian brotherhood.

The word the NIV translates “show him his fault”, [It is a single word in Matthew’s Greek.] is not easy to translate.  Other English translations of the Bible render it “take up the matter with him,” “reprove him,” or even “have it out with him.”

Interestingly, the verb translated here “won over” is used elsewhere in the NT for the conversion of an unbeliever. So there is a sense in which a Christian brother or sister being recovered from sin is like a person becoming a Christian in the first place or that person becoming a Christian all over again.

v.16     Clearly you are still attempting to “win over” your brother.  The function of the other brother or two is “to add force to the persuasion.”  [France, 274]  You are hoping that the matter might be confirmed in his mind by the additional weight of testimony.  The other brother or two may not have personal knowledge of the sin committed, but they will be witness to the conversation about it.

v.17     The opening “If he refuses…” makes clear that if he does listen the second time, when you take another brother or two with you, the matter ends there and nothing more need be done, just as would have been the case had he listened to you alone the first time.

If he will not repent when two or three brothers confront him, then you are to tell the church.  Even here the hope remains that this next measure of exposure will lead to his repentance and the conclusion of the matter.  Only if he will not listen even to the church, must discipline follow.  Pagans and tax collectors were proverbially people from whom good Jews kept their distance. Now Jesus certainly did not share his fellow-countrymen’s contempt for Gentiles and tax collectors. Matthew was a tax collector.  The Lord is using the phrase metaphorically to describe the way in which an unrepentant professing Christian would be ostracized. I imagine Matthew wrote that line with a wry smile.  In England they speak of “sending someone to Coventry” to describe his being ostracized.  It doesn’t mean that the user of the phrase has anything against the city of Coventry.  [France, 275]

Now there is a world of debate and Christian disagreement hidden in those words “tell it to the church.”  What is meant by “church” in that context?  Many have maintained that such announcements are to be made to the congregation as a whole and that the church discipline envisaged is to be the decision of the entire congregation.  Presbyterians and others have argued that here “church” refers to the leadership of the church, the elders, the church in its representative form.  Calvin, for example, paraphrases Matthew 18:17:  “…he is to be called to the tribunal of the church, that is, the assembly of the elders.”  [Inst. iv, xii, 2]  The arguments for this interpretation are straightforward and persuasive.  First, it was the practice in the Old Testament.  In fact, frequently terms like “all Israel” or “the assembly” are, in the context, found to refer only to the elders of the people.  That is explicitly true in texts having to do with judgment and discipline.  Second, it was the practice of the Jewish synagogue at the time the Lord uttered those words.  It was not the membership of the synagogue that executed discipline but the elders of the synagogue.  [Str.-B., iv, 297]  Third, as we will be reminded in the next verse, the power of the keys, the opening and shutting of the doors of the church, was just given in chapter 16 to the apostles and that authority would later be devolved upon the elders of the church. Note that in all of this chapter the Lord has been speaking to the twelve, as v.1 indicates.

Now, at this point, none of the developed practices and procedures of church discipline seem to be in view, only general principles.  But, from them, the exercise of discipline is described and illustrated later in the New Testament.  Here, in this context, the burden of the Lord’s teaching is not the rules and practices of church discipline but the extended effort that is to be taken to recover a sinning brother.  Even the ostracizing of an unrepentant brother is in hopes of recovering him to godly living.

v.18     Apart from the “you” being plural, together with the verbs, the statement is virtually identical to that made to Peter in 16:19.  The assembly as a whole is regarded as wielding the authority bestowed by Christ upon his disciples.  The latter act for and represent the former.  Remember, the statement here in 18:17-18 was also made originally to the twelve.  The repetition of the same statement made to Peter and the apostles, the leaders of the church, here in regard to the judgment of the “church”, is a corrective to an overbearing and high-handed authoritarianism on the part of the church’s leadership.  They are to execute only those judgments that the right-minded in the entire congregation would also approve.  It is very interesting, indeed, that the matter being discussed does not even reach the councils of the church until all efforts that can be made by individual believers have been exhausted.  The Lord, as the Apostle Paul after him, sees the church functioning as a body, with everyone actively engaged in the instruction, the encouragement, the correction, and the sympathetic support of everyone else.

Remember, when we considered the statement in its use in chapter 16 we said that “binding and loosing” were Jewish ways of saying “forbidding and permitting.”  That fits the context here where the question is whether what a believer has done is permitted or forbidden.

Finally, we are reminded here that the judgments made by the church – assuming they are faithful to the Word of God and that the sin in question is genuinely a sin – will have been ratified in heaven.  The verbs, as in chapter 16, are future perfects.  Heaven is not subject to earth, but the church, if it abides by God’s will, can be confident that it will render those judgments that have already been made in heaven.  [Morris, 469]

v.20     In context, the two or three mentioned here are praying for the sinner whose situation has been described in the previous verses.  The promise, of course, extends to many more situations than that.  Rather the point is, if I am with you when you gather together in my name, that is, for my sake, I will be with you in particular when you gather for the sake of praying for an erring brother.  We are to appreciate the contrast.  Two or three seems such a small and insignificant group; but by faith in Christ they have the power of heaven at their disposal.

Matthew’s Gospel concludes, in 28:20, if you remember, with a similar promise of the Lord being present with his disciples.  It is virtually an assertion of deity on his part.  He can be with his disciples anywhere and everywhere.

Now it is very important that we keep the two paragraphs we have read firmly together in our thinking.  The little parable about the lost sheep and the instructions regarding the treatment of a sinning brother go together in the Lord’s teaching.  The first concerns the brother who offends, who goes missing.  The next is instruction for the brother who is offended or who notices that a brother has gone astray.  Verses 12-14 demonstrate the care and concern that God has for his children, even those who stray.  Verses 15-18 show us what implications God’s compassion and concern have for us; what God’s love for his little ones requires of us and how we are to imitate our heavenly Father in his concern for his wandering sheep.

We find very little problem maintaining our Christian relationships when other believers always do the right thing, always behave toward us and others as they should.  The problems come when we and they sin, sin against God and sin against one another.

But anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time knows that this simple and straightforward instruction that the Lord gave to his disciples proves to be more complicated than at first glance.  It does not answer all our questions.  What sins is the Lord talking about?  What sins are those which we ought to confront our brother or sister about?  After all, you and I are sinning all the time.  We are sinning by commission – doing what we should not – and sinning by omission – failing to do what we should.  There is a world of sinning in the Christian life and so in the Christian church that the New Testament teaches us patiently to endure and not to confront.  Paul tells us that there were sins of thought and life in his churches that he closed his eyes to and bore patiently with reflective attention.  There was a good bit of his own sinning that, so far as we know, was never made a matter of confrontation by other believers. When does a sin reach that threshold that requires a brotherly confrontation?  Jesus does not say here.  These are judgments that must be left to the Christian conscience, one hopes a conscience that is well instructed in the Word of God and tender toward both righteousness and love.

And then there is this question:  are all situations to be handled in this way?  Augustine confessed in one of his letters that he had difficulty knowing in some cases whether to follow Matthew 18:15 or 1 Tim. 5:20, where we read “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.”  Paul rebuked Peter publicly in Antioch, so far as we know not following the procedure outlined here in Matthew 18.  How strictly are we to take the Lord’s teaching here as outlining a process that absolutely must be followed?  If you were to read accounts of cases of church discipline as they are handled in church courts – read them as I have read them in Presbytery minutes and General Assembly minutes – you would find that over and over again the offender seeks to shift culpability from himself to others because – it is almost a mantra – “they did not follow Matthew 18.”  Matthew 18 is nowadays the Christian’s legal technicality, his loophole.  And many through the years have hoped to escape punishment and some have actually escaped it by appeal to a breach of the procedure outlined here. They got off on a technicality in the same way a criminal does to whom the police forgot to read his rights. They committed the sin, but the procedures of Matthew 18 were not followed.

Or what of this question:  what if there is no agreement between the two believers or the believer and the two or three, or even the believer and the church about his guilt or innocence.  J. Gresham Machen was suspended from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in 1935, he was treated as a tax-collector and sinner, because he had the temerity to protest the church’s support of missionaries who did not believe in the gospel of Christ.  My father was deposed from the ministry of the PCUSA, in effect for being a conservative in a liberal presbytery.  But even at the level of congregational life, it is sometimes not so simple.  Christians can have very different understandings of what a situation requires, the rights and wrongs of a course of behavior.  One man’s truth is another’s cruelty; one man’s betrayal is another man’s wisdom.  The Lord doesn’t address such complications here.  None of the passages in the NT that are related to this one address such complications.

The fact is, all of these questions and others like them can only be answered rightly by the person who understands what the Lord is really talking about here.  He is talking about helping his little ones.  He is talking about recovering one of his followers who has gone astray, like the one sheep in the flock of 100.  He is not a lawyer here, laying down procedures to ensure that everyone gets the same treatment.  He is certainly no martinet, enlisting his disciples to keep a close watch on each other’s behavior.  He is a shepherd making sure that his sheep learn to care for one another like he cares for them.  Sheep go astray; what is the best way to find them and bring them back to safety, that is his concern here.  And the best way is the gentlest way, the least embarrassing way, the way most considerate of a person’s feelings, of his reputation; the way that makes it easiest for a Christian who has stumbled to get back on his feet.

One first goes privately.  There is a world of sinning, sinning that is known to another, that no one else ever needs to know.  St. Patrick’s Day is next Thursday.  Remember, I told you about Patrick’s sin as a teenager, whatever it was.  It was serious enough that Patrick’s tortured conscience finally demanded that he confess it to a close Christian friend.  And that sin remained a secret until near the end of Patrick’s life it was disclosed by his erstwhile friend to the church authorities who were out to get the great Irish bishop.  That was a terrible thing that false friend did.  We read in Proverbs 19:11:

“A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.”

Publishing the sins of a repentant brother is a deeply unchristian act, the act of man who does not appreciate how many of his own sins Christ has covered.  Or, better, the act of a man who forgets how many of his own sins God might have chosen to expose to others.  As John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace once wrote in a letter:

“The Lord makes some of his children examples and warnings, as he pleases.  They who are spared and whose worst deviations are known only to the Lord and themselves, have great reason to be thankful.  I am sure I have:  the merciful Lord has not suffered me to make any considerable blot in my profession during the time I have been numbered amongst his people.  But I have nothing to boast of herein.  It has not been owing to my wisdom, watchfulness, or spirituality…. I hope to go softly all my days under the remembrance of many things, for which I have as great cause to be abased before him, as if I had been left to sin grievously in the sight of men.”  [“Grace in the Ear,” Cardiphonia, pb ed.]

In other words, Newton is admitting that he had done things that, had they become known to others, would have damaged his reputation and, perhaps changed his life.  If God had chosen to reveal to others some of his sins, people would have had a very different view of the pastor of Olney.  This is the humble admission of many a Christian.  And, when we add our omissions to the number of such sins – our failures to be and do what Christians should be and do; well, who are we to expose others to public humiliation?  We should never, unless, only unless our brother refuses to accept that he has done wrong and refuses to ask for forgiveness.

I tell you plainly that I consider it one of my greatest privileges as your pastor to have been told so many of your secrets, to have been entrusted with your hearts and lives in that way, and then to keep those secrets entirely to myself.  I have, through the years, heard so many confessions of sin.  So many acknowledgements of wrongs done, of ancient wrongs and recent wrongs.  Serious things that have burdened your consciences and troubled your sense of peace with God.  Words you spoke that you couldn’t take back; sexual sins; marital sins, sins against your children, in some cases even crimes that you committed.  And I haven’t heard a one of you tell me those things, I haven’t assured a one of you of your forgiveness in Christ, I haven’t urged a one of you to forget what is past and press on toward Christ, without thinking about my own sins and what might have come to pass had they been exposed to the light.  I never feel so close to you, never so much feel that I am sharing your life as when I hear your confessions of sins.

The great difference between Christians and non-Christians in this world is not that non-Christians sin against God and man and Christians do not.  There will be a difference between them morally, to be sure.  There must be.  The Christians’ knowledge of God and his love, their delight in God’s law, their concern to serve the Lord must result and does result in many changes in Christians’ lives.  They worship God in a way unbelievers do not care to do, they keep his commandments to a degree that is utterly uninteresting and unimportant to an unbeliever.  But Christians remain sinners.  The Bible is brutally frank about that fact.  What really distinguishes the believer from the unbeliever is not that one sins and the other does not, but that the Christian sorrows for his sins, for his sins and not simply for their consequences, for the dishonor paid to God, for the betrayal of Christ’s love, for the harm done to others.  His sins make him miserable and disgusted with himself. And not only is he genuinely sorry, he is quick to admit his fault and eager to repudiate it and to put on new obedience for Christ’s sake.

There is the difference and that is what the concerned Christian brother is looking for here:  not his pound of flesh, not some righteous concern that his fellow Christian be taught a lesson, not his balancing of scales.  He just wants to know that his brother is safe and sound.  He has sinned.  Alright; we all do that, far too often.  But in this case, I happen to know that he has sinned.  So I go to him and tell him that I know and I find him crestfallen.  He is already ashamed; he has usually already deeply regretted what he did before I ever showed up on his doorstep.  He has confessed his sin to God.  He has asked for forgiveness. And I no more than tell him that I know than out pours a river of penitent self-condemnation and self-loathing.

In my life and ministry this has happened to me more times than I can count.  It has happened in both ways, my going to another brother about his sin and he coming to me about mine.  And there is this wonderful thing that happens.  It has happened so many times.  The brother immediately admits his fault; I remind him that he has not confessed to anything and mourned for any fault that I have not had to confess and mourn myself; we pray for forgiveness, he and I, and we part.  And, strangely, I never feel so close to that brother, so much his brother, so much sharing the same life, as when we have shared that experience; when we have sorrowed together over sin – his or mine.  I feel then about my Christian brother as Augustine felt about his Christian friend Alepius.  He said if the two of them that they were washed in the same blood. And there it ends.  It is soon forgotten.  I don’t like to remember my sins; I find it very easy to forget them; and, by God’s grace I find that I don’t want to remember my brother’s any more than my own.

Only if I am greeted with a hard heart, a stubborn refusal to accept blame, an angry resentment of this interference in his personal affairs; only if that is the reception I receive – and it usually isn’t that at all; it is rarely that – do I go any further.

The point is to get the sheep back into the flock and to restore the flock as if nothing had happened.  And you know sheep.  They’re clueless.  The 99 never even noticed that the one was missing.  They probably didn’t even notice that the shepherd had gone to look for him.  It falls to the one who notices to recover the wandering sheep.

I have never forgotten a remark of Theodore Beza, Calvin’s younger colleague and successor.  Before becoming a Christian Beza, who was a literary man, had written and published some rather ribald poetry and his enemies, the enemies of the Reformation, later made a point of bringing up his old sins.  They used his sins against him, to damage his reputation, to weaken his influence, for he was a very influential figure on the side of the Reformation.  In one particular case, when an enemy had gone into print with a catalog of Beza’s youthful sins, Beza replied, “This man begrudges me the grace of Christ.”  That is, this man seems to wish that I had never found forgiveness for my sins.  This man seems to resent the fact that I am a sinner saved by grace.  This man wishes my sins were all that could be said about me, that I had never repented of those sins and that they had never been forgiven.

No, says the Lord Jesus here.  Sins don’t separate you from everyone else.  Everybody is a sinner.  It is Charles Colson’s characteristic method, in speaking to inmates in prisons, to introduce himself as one like them who was caught.  That, he says, is what distinguishes you in here from those out there:  you got caught!  And that is right.  There but for the grace of God go I.  It isn’t sin that makes the difference.  We are all sinners.  Sinners enough to damn us 100 times over.  It is repentance.  This man wants to keep paying attention to my sins.  And faith in Christ that makes the difference. Let there be repentance and all is well.  Go looking for the repentance.  Usually in the church of God you will find it very quickly.  Only rarely is it refused.

Here is the point; the Lord’s point.  He is talking about his little ones – you and I – wandering from the path and about how we are to recover them.  He is commending to us the compassion of our heavenly Father who cares for everyone of his flock and is willing to drop everything else to go find that wandering sheep.  And so the Lord is telling us that we are to have a like concern for one another.  And in regard to that, in regard to the offense, the going astray, the sin, he says that even such a sin as might cause someone to be cast out of the church if he will not admit it, confess it as wrong, and turn away from it – even such a sin as that – can be kept a secret and forgotten if only the brother is sorry and repents.  The Lord is not concerned about the sin itself.  He doesn’t care what sin it is.  He doesn’t insist it be named or cataloged.  He has taken care of the guilt of our sin forever.  He is only concerned about the disciple and making sure he is safe and sound back among the flock.